CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | From the outside, it is another day on the calendar – June 28.
For Dowd and Webb Simpson, along with the team at The Oaks in Charlotte that brought to life their vision of how school can be, June 28 will mark the completion of the first year of that enterprise.
To borrow a line, what may appear from the outside to be one small step is in fact part of a giant leap of faith.
It would have been easy enough for the Simpsons to find a suitable school for their five children in south Charlotte, where they live. A cluster of highly regarded public and private schools are within a short drive of their home at the Quail Hollow Club, where the Wells Fargo Championship will be played this week.
But Dowd wanted something more. Something different. Something that energized children about going to school.
With the support of her husband, a past U.S. Open and Players Championship winner, she and two friends embarked on creating The Oaks, a private faith-based school that reshapes the traditional model with a fresh focus on how children learn.
“I really wanted something different for my kids. I wanted more of an experiential learning environment where kids love to learn and they become lifetime learners,” said Dowd, who graduated from Wake Forest with a focus on acting and theater.
This is not a vanity project.
“One thing about Webb and Dowd: They are very intentional about everything they do,” said Paul Tesori, Simpson’s longtime caddie. “Dowd is really big into trying to help these girls who are caught in sex slave trafficking. When it comes to their kids, the intentionality goes up even more.
“They were seeing some major holes in the school system. They had (their son) James in one of the highest-rated schools in North Carolina and there was a lot of iPad time, a lot of technology. She started to gain a passion for it and thought about opening the school.”
Along with co-founders Erin Haneline and Heidi Tringali, Dowd set off on a journey that has been innovative, uplifting and inspirational. What began last fall with eight families enrolling their children will have grown by 400 percent when the second year begins.
It began with kindergarten through third grade and will grow gradually along with its students. The school currently operates out of a local church but there are plans for construction of its own buildings in the next couple of years as The Oaks expands.
“Dowd has told me before that she was a great student in high school and at Wake was a double major with a minor, but (she) felt like there is a competitiveness and a bad academic competitiveness,” Webb said. “You’re trying to memorize new material for a test and once you take the test, it almost seems like what’s my need for that information now? It’s almost gone.
“What if learning could be different, where you didn’t just have to memorize new material and take a test and move on to the next thing? It’s more something that you want to do every day. One thing leads to another thing and everything is connected.”
The Oaks is a year-round school with scheduled breaks every two months or so. It limits classroom size to eight students and rather than have one teacher handle every subject, teachers specialize in one subject. A science teacher, for example, will teach the same students for years, not months.
Additionally, there is a homeroom shepherd, another educator who focuses on how the students learn best.
“The shepherds know their children inside and out,” Dowd said. “They know how they’re challenged, how they’re encouraged, what their strengths and weaknesses are. It would be as if I could replicate myself as mom and be present advocating for my child.”
The Oaks is built around what are called pillars of distinction – areas that make it different from more traditional schools. One of those pillars is the availability of what are called readiness rooms – spaces filled with trampolines, swings and other things where children can go be kids for a few minutes. Certified occupational therapists are on site to be with the kids, the idea being that breaks in their learning allow them to approach classroom time more attentively.
“You’re not just sitting at a desk filling out a worksheet. You’re using your hands. You’re using your body. You’re hearing, you’re seeing, you’re tasting. You’re using all of your senses,” Dowd said.
As the school and its students grow, sports will become part of The Oaks with the readiness rooms remaining for the younger students.
“We’re meeting their intellectual needs, their spiritual needs, their social needs and their physical needs,” said Dan Sturdevent, the head of the school. “You’re seeing more and more of that in education. In some places, they’re starting to have sensory hallways or movement breaks in class. We’re just creating it as part of our actual schedule in the day.”
The school is screen-free to this point. Students don’t use iPads or computers and there is no homework for the elementary school students. Reading is encouraged.
Sturdevent said The Oaks is not a Montesorri-style school because it is teacher driven rather than student driven. While faith is a significant part of The Oaks’ foundation, there is not a separate Bible curriculum.
“We don’t want to just tag a Bible verse onto the end of a lesson. The idea there is you’re plugging Christianity in and therefore you can unplug Christianity. We really want to teach kids how to discover truth and find it for themselves,” Dowd said.
Fridays at The Oaks are designated service days where the school partners with local nonprofit organizations to serve the community. Students have interacted with Project 658 which serves refugees in the Charlotte area as well as with special needs cases among the elderly.
“The kids are so disarming. The kids just get in there. They’re not color conscious or socioeconomic conscious. They just see hearts. They play with each other and try to understand each other even with (a) language barrier,” Dowd said.
“My hope with that is families who join in on Fridays will find a heart for these nonprofits and start investing with their own families and their own communities and friends.”
Dowd does not run the school. She and her co-founding partners remain on the board but they have entrusted the day-to-day operation to others who bring their vision and inspiration to life.
As the first year nears completion, there is a satisfaction for having brought the idea to life, an excitement about growing and an appreciation for what the school has already accomplished.
“Our kids are excited to go. They’re disappointed when we don’t have school. They would rather be in school this week than have free rein at Quail Hollow,” Webb said.
“Picking them up in the afternoon, they’re energized. They don’t look tired and defeated. They are excited to tell us what they learned.
“The biggest encouragement has been some handwritten notes from parents who talk about their kids pre-Oaks versus now having spent time at the Oaks. Just how their kid is thriving. The Oaks isn’t just helping kids. It’s helping families.”
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