My Red Oak Story: Reflections from the Director

Every family enrolled at Red Oak Community School has a story; a journey that brought them to us.

When I speak to parents about their interest in ROCS, they often get emotional. I hear about how their kids have been struggling and are starting to lose their love for learning. I also hear about how parents had horrible school experiences themselves and want something different for their kids. Whatever the story, it is deeply personal and important to each family.

Here is my Red Oak story.

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My oldest daughter is a social butterfly. She loves her friends passionately. She loves hosting parties. She also has a debilitating social anxiety disorder that means every social interaction she has sets off her fight or flight response. She hates being touched. She looks angry and turns away when people talk to her. 

Her preschool was amazing. The teachers had a gentle, supportive, loving approach with her and after the first year, she started communicating a little here and there. After two years, she was still only able to manage a word or two to teachers, every now and then. She had made a friend, but it was still a struggle for her to branch out.

I was absolutely panicked about sending her to grade school. 30 kids + 1 teacher. She would get lost. She won't tell anyone if she needs to use the restroom. She won't tell anyone if someone hit her. She won't tell anyone if she's sick or hurt. She won't learn. She won't thrive.

It turns out many mommas had their own reasons to panic about kindergarten. After a fellow preschool mom mentioned a Sudbury school that opened nearby, we began our own discussion about starting our a school. We called a meeting and about a dozen people showed up with passion and ideas. We left inspired, and with lots of work to do.

Over the next few weeks, we learned that most private schools were started by parents. Why not us? We called more community meetings to talk to more parents about what kind of school they wanted to help us build.

They told us they wanted the kids to be able to play.

They told us they wanted their kids to be respected.

They told us they wanted part-time options for more than just kindergarten.

They told us they couldn't afford typical private school tuition.

They also told us they were ready to join us and do this together with us.

That first coffee meeting was in July 2015. By October we had a name, a logo, a website, a school manager, a teacher, a Board of Directors and had incorporated with the state. Official 501(c)3 non-profit status soon followed. By December we had a location and in January we started taking applications.

That first year, we figured we'd get around 20 applications and enroll 10-20 students. Maybe. In the end, we got nearly 60 applications and enrolled almost 40 students for first year. I'm still astounded that so many parents paid deposits to a school that was only a concept at the time. Without them, Red Oak wouldn't be around today.

In the weeks before school started, my family traveled to Michigan for a week of intensive therapy camp for my daughter. They guided the kids through facing their anxieties head on and trained the parents on how to handle various daily situations and gave advice on navigating the 504/IEP process. I remember being so hopeful that we wouldn’t have to go through that.

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When the first day of school came I told my daughter, "If you can make one new friend the first week I'll buy you that pricey leotard you've had your eye on." (Therapists often recommend rewards to get kids over initial social hurdles.) She made three friends that day. We went straight from school to buy the leotard.

She made many new friends that year. She started letting her friends hug her. She's even shared her work in front of the class at times. She's made amazing progress.. Red Oak provides her with the space she needs to make progress. But still has a long way to go.

I heard from other first year families whose children struggled with social issues that their kids were making similar progress. ROCS can’t offer all kids everything they need to be successful at school. But our alternative approaches to leaching and learning and our attention to students social and emotional needs and development, are enough to make a difference for many kids, including my daughter.

As it turns out, my second child has the same anxiety issues as the first, so school is a struggle for her as well but she's doing okay. She's gonna be okay.

Cheryl Ryan is a founding member of ROCS and has served as its Director since its inception in 2016

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melissa frueh