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Unconventional school focuses on students’ ‘inner being’

KPBS (San Diego): A group of enlightened San Diego youngsters are practicing ancient disciplines that most people don’t discover until later in life. They’re doing yoga and meditation at a private school in La Jolla. They study traditional subjects but they also focus on their “inner being.”

Fifteen precocious kids sit cross-legged. They’re in a circle inside a bare classroom. Some fidget. Others remain still. Teacher Wendy Cotton guides them through their group meditation.

“See yourself outside on a beautiful path,” Cotton said. “Take a look at this path. Is it dirt? Is it grass? Is it rocks? This is your special journey you get to create it however you’d like.”

This ritual begins each morning at the Integral School in La Jolla. The teachers at the school strive to help kids discover their life purpose by getting in-touch with themselves.

Carla Gerstein is a mother and the school’s co-founder. She didn’t like what traditional and charter schools had to offer.

“I was actually in this meditation and it kind of hit me,” Gerstein said. “I wanted something different for my kids, and I don’t see it out there. So it looks like I am going to have to do this.”

That’s when Gerstein partnered with Dr. Prapanna Smith to open the school.

“I don’t think there is any school that is anything like our school in this community,” Smith said.

Smith is a teacher who spent time in India studying Integral Education – the practice of educating the entire child including the mind, body, soul and spirit.

The Integral School in La Jolla attempts to do that by combining regular subjects with teachings of self-knowledge. Smith says parents are searching for a more meaningful learning experience for their children.

“(The United States) is wealthiest country in the world. We spend billions upon billions on the military. Why can’t we do the same for education for our kids? We could do this (model in public education). The problem is there is no political will and there is a lack of vision.”

Math, reading, history and science are still core subjects at school, and students are tested regularly. But Smith says meditation, yoga, character development and conflict resolution are also essential parts of the curriculum.

There are some people in the education world that believe standards, testing and career pathways are the only means to success. But Smith says his research shows students can make big gains if they’re given just enough academic freedom. He also says kids are more likely to succeed if there they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Only 25 students currently attend the Integral School. Tuition is about $11,000 a year. The money pays for classes like Awareness Through The Body. That class combines conscious-building exercises with physical activities. Best friends Natalie Marrewa and Kiera Fieghan-Patrizi say it’s a fun challenge.

“You have to do balance. It helps you focus your mind and senses,” Marrewa said.

“We get to sometimes do obstacle courses. Just yesterday we had to balance real eggs on spoons,” Fieghan-Patrizi added.

The Integral School has been operating peacefully for three years. Gerstein, who is the school’s vice principal, says the school is small, but more parents sign up every year. She thinks learning about personal growth is good at any age, and downplays the idea that self-awareness is an “adult issue.”

“These children can handle it,” Gerstein said. “Yes, it is at a different level. It is at their level. But my goodness, the difference it will make in their lives and their future.”

The school serves kindergarten through sixth grades. They hope to expand over the next few years to include junior and high school students. The kids already on campus say they plan to stay here. They say they couldn’t see themselves anywhere else.

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