Children in Yoga Class


In the fall of 1970, a group of Williamsport parents organized a study group to discuss open classroom education. They wanted to provide a school for their children in which self-motivation and freedom of choice were emphasized, a school in which children would acquire skills at their own rates while being encouraged to work at their full capacity via methods best suited to their individual needs, a school in which parents would be actively involved in their children's education. The group evolved into the West Branch School Association.

In March 1971, eleven families met and pledged to purchase a total of nineteen $500 stock certificates. This capital was used as the down payment to purchase the former Newberry Assembly of God Church, located at the corner of Moore Avenue and Glynn Street. The building required extensive renovation. Much volunteer time and energy went into such projects as constructing an outdoor amphitheater, a playground fence, and equipment; moving walls; painting; and installing doors, windows, and lighting.

Advertisements placed in national publications brought responses from interested teachers. Two couples were originally hired for a total salary of $6,000. The school opened in September 1971, with 4 full-time staff members and 32 children, ranging from kindergarten through 5th grade age.

During its first year of operation, West Branch encountered many difficulties. Finding a balance between freedom of choice and authority, learning to work together as a parent-teacher-student community and helping students of different backgrounds adjust to the open classroom did not always happen easily.

During the 1972-73 school year, financial problems resulting from nonpayment of tuition necessitated a dramatic reduction in the numbers of students and teachers. After specific policies concerning tuition payments were instituted, only fourteen children remained in grades K-2 with two full-time teachers. Only the downstairs of the building was used in order to conserve utility and other expenses.

After that, the school grew gradually, adding a grade level each year. By 1976-77, the student body once again included kindergarten through 6th grade. The number of students began to remain fairly constant at about forty-five to fifty, with four to five full-time teachers or the equivalent made up of full and part-time teachers. A part-time school office manager was hired in 1979.

The first half of the 1980s saw a reexamination of the school's values. Study, analysis, and debate were focused on academics and the entire philosophy of learning. Through 1982-84, debate over the issue of teachers' pay resulted in a decision to begin raising salaries. Victor Montejo, a contemporary Guatemalan poet descended from a line of ancient Mayan storytellers and a political refugee from his own country, was hired as a teacher in 1985.

By the middle and late 1980s we enjoyed seeing the progress of our alumni in many fields of academics and the arts as well as in less conventional areas. We have continued to keep in touch with our graduates, and their feelings of closeness to the school brings them back to visit year after year. Because of this closeness, the entire WBS community experienced great sorrow when, in 1988 and 1989, three of our graduates, Chris Benstine, Tiffany Pricher and Laurens Kuhbier, were tragically killed in auto accidents. We experienced great sorrow again, in 1992, when graduate Jessie Galetti, lost her valiant fight against leukemia and the effects of its treatment. Memorial trees were planted on the east side of the school in honor of our sorely missed alumni.

In 1991, WBS hosted a gala mortgage-buring event attended by West Branch families from all the years. Many special speeches were given and toasts made. The party exuded a vibrant and warm sense of community and unity.

The summer of 1991 brought some planned and unplanned changes to the school building. The Downstairs population had expanded to twenty-seven students and the Upstairs was completely full. While populations at each level change depending upon the natural circumstances of graduation, incoming class size, families moving from the area, and the like, the 1991-1992 year would make us as full as we could be. It was decided that we should expand our Downstairs kitchen and eating area out into the amphitheater to give needed space to that level of the school.

Construction plans led to a comprehensive whole-building inspection by the Commonwealth. That inspection, as amicable as it was, led to the requirement that we add a complete new bathroom (today's Girls' Bathroom) among other things (like ceiling patchwork and new emergency lights). The newly complex building issues would cost much more than we had originally planned, but we were now committed to the process and borrowed money from ourselves in order to save on the interest. The construction was very important, but, unforeseen by us, the financial end of the deal would bring us difficulty later.

Over the years, because we have always been licensed through the 8th grade, West Branch School has offered one or two graduates a place for their middle school experience if all social, emotional, and academic pieces fit. In 1992-93, however, more middle school interest became evident, and a small group of parents tackled this problem. It was obvious that our building could not accommodate many middle schoolers, so a research/founding committee worked literally day and night at times to find and set up a site, write necessary documents, and fulfill all state requirements for establishing a separate school. The new site, in the Old Jail in downtown Williamsport, was ready to operate by the 1993-1994 school year, and a teacher was hired through a national search to oversee the program.

Our Old Jail program had five successful years, with the well-loved main teacher and various part-time math teachers (also part time in our Upstairs program). In the spring of 1998, we realized that our middle school population in the ebb and flow had gotten too low to keep the separate program financially afloat. Through a process of very tough meetings, we finally acknowledged that the Old Jail program had to come to an end. We returned to our former policy of allowing small numbers of middle-school age children to remain at the main West Branch building.

The '90s brought a mixture of milestones and awarenesses to the West Branch School population. On the one hand, we had refined the day-to-day and year-to-year program we offered the children. Generally, our alumni verified our program's success with their achievements, creative ventures, interesting choices, and continual feedback. Not only did we see our children becoming valedictorians, kings and queens, sports stars, actors, musicians, and the like, but, most importantly, we saw the great majority of them happy, well-adjusted, and goal oriented. Teachers, coaches, and others who worked with them commented consistently that West Branch School children were different in very positive ways. The children communicated with their authority figures, actively participated, asked great questions, followed through with assignments, and worked diligently to solve problems. On the other hand, in a local scene of more small, private schools and more attention to home school status on the scene, we started to struggle for numbers of new students. At the same time, families seemed to get busier and busier in a battle with time.

With more families having both parents working outside the home, we sought different ways to make it possible for adults to participate during the day at WBS if not quite as much, at least regularly. We required teacher coverage and tried to plan other involvements much more in advance. That helped. With families bound up in increasing daily time crunches, we sought to emphasize community events. We found, however, that people were having a difficult time conducting school business and including school leisure. It was harder for people to juggle their time. Clearly, we had to study ourselves on this end.

In 1997, we began to explore the idea of applying for regional charter school status. Perhaps this would make us a bigger, more well known, and valuable part of the Central Susquehanna Valley educational world, and perhaps it could be done without losing our autonomy. The application process, we felt at least, would be important for reasons of discovery, publicity, and research regardless of our actual acceptance. Therefore, we agreed to go through the application process. We would wait to educate ourselves before deciding whether we really wanted to become a charter school. We went into the process with our eyes wide open.

As it turned out, the process was time consuming but enlightening. We experienced first hand how, even though we were known in educational circles to turn out excellent students, school boards have a great deal of trouble accepting charter schools from the financial end of the spectrum. We were turned down. Our building became the focal point of criticism.

We had gotten money to make a video and do professional research during the application process. We had gotten some publicity, we had discovered that there was solid interest in a school like WBS, and incredibly enough, we had discovered that very few people in the area had even heard about us!

Our next move was to look even more deeply at ourselves. We decided to look for grant monies. We increased our efforts in advertising and exposure. We decided to apply for grant monies in another charter school application process. This way we were able to afford an objective professional analysis of our building and site. We wanted to assess problems with our physical plant in relationship to the school's future. We also set up a steering committee to come up with a vision statement and suggest more efficient governance and time structures to allow for more satisfying family participation in the school. We decided to reach out much more officially to our alumni and alumni parents. And here we are.

The school as it exists today is the result of the contributions of literally hundreds of people. The building and its fixtures are the products of the labor, love, and donations of parents and friends. The methods of teaching consist of traditions evolved over the years, along with innovations introduced by each new person who has been hired to teach. Likewise, the way in which business is conducted at meetings is shaped by tradition as well as by natural changes brought about each year as old families leave the school and new ones join.

By utilizing the process of consensus, the community has resolved many difficult issues and dealt successfully with crises that have arisen from time to time. We have worked out policies and methods over the years for dealing with the demands of fundraising and the orderly administration of the school's finances. We have established scholarship funds and financial aid policies in the attempt to ensure that truly interested families will not be deterred from participating in the school because of lack of economic resources. We have employed a system of tuition agreement options to give families more choice in their involvements from year to year. Maintenance of the school building, construction of new fixtures, maintenance of old ones, and compliance with building regulations are continual and major concerns. Presenting our vision to the greater community and becoming more involved with the greater community are also the work at hand as we strive to invite other families to know us.

The School community today consists of current students, parents and teachers, alumni families, former teachers, and many other individuals who have participated in the school or contributed to it in different ways.

The world has changed and so has the school. That the school continues to exist and to have so many people who really believe in it testifies to the fact that the basic ideas upon which the school was founded are still important. The basic philosophical threads that continue to drive our school are presented in the West Branch School Handbook.