Founders of Century School view it as an alternative to public education -- not a replacement -- in the same way National Public Radio is an alternative to commercial radio.
Exterior perspectives of the big, old building on Kentucky Street betray little about activity inside.
The structure's paved parking lot off the back alley blends into the downtown commercial district. No catchy, neon signs offer clues to first-time visitors. Adults and children flow in and out a covered side entry to the three-story, brick-and-shingle edifice.
"Welcome," said Don Bushell, standing in a vestibule trimmed with quartersawn oak. "Welcome to our school."
Beyond him were 60 Century School students and a half-dozen teachers at the city's only year-round, nonparochial school devoted to individualized instruction and limited to an enrollment no greater than 75 students.
Today is the school's fifth anniversary. As with any fledgling enterprise, it's a minor miracle Century School survived.
On Feb. 14, 1994, a few teachers and 19 students began classes in the remodeled Craftsman-style home built in 1912 for a dentist. The school stands a half-decade later as a tribute to long-term bank loans, visionary teachers, resolute parents and inspired students.
"Beat the odds," said Bushell, a Kansas University professor of human development and family life who joined with his wife, Sherrill, to fulfill a dream of starting a nonprofit school from scratch.
The school's ambition:
- A family-oriented learning environment focusing on scholarship, citizenship and friendship. There are no grade levels and students of different ages and abilities are mixed together in class. Older kids tutor the younger, and all are on a first-name basis with teachers. Parents interact with teachers daily.
- Each student works at his or her own pace to complete individualized instruction programs monitored by an army of part-time teachers. Intense scrutiny is possible with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:10 -- a figure public schools can't afford to match.
- The school operates from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every school day, 12 months a year. No blank summer days for these students. There's a waiting list to get into the licensed preschool for 15 youngsters and state-registered elementary program for 60 children.
Don Bushell didn't hedge when asked whether there was a public school alternative in the city, state or nation comparable to Century.
"If there is one, I'd like to know about it."
From a child's eye
Of course, it all sounds like the text of a promotional brochure.
The critical analysis -- the bottom line -- must come from folks who occupy knee-high tables and chairs in the school's six classrooms, as well as the parents who pay their tuition.
During a visit, 5-year-old Natascha Spiridigliozzi of Lawrence received an ovation from the children and teacher seated around a communal table.
"What did you do?" asked tour guide Howard Wills, Century's principal teacher.
"I finished my multiplication lesson in three minutes and 30 seconds, with six seconds left, and I got them all right!" Natascha said.
It earned her a high-five from Wills.
Students have access to a mobile telephone to call parents with this kind of good news.
Wills said Lisa John, who enrolled her 11-year-old son, Harold, at Century, recently ran into the school and began to weep.
Harold had brought her breakfast in bed with the simple message: "Thanks for sending me to Century School."
Lawrence artist Craig Henry said his 6-year-old daughter, Anne, had blossomed in 18 months at the school.
"It's evident she buys into the program," he said. "The progress she's made academically has astounded us. The socialization she's picked up has been amazing."
He's content to pay $410 a month to keep her at Century. "It's not inexpensive, but it's our child."
Steve and Diane Goddard enrolled two children -- Emily, 11, and Caitlin, 5 -- at Century. A 13-year-old son attends Seabury Academy.
With Caitlin set to enter kindergarten, the Goddards were faced with shuttling three children among three different schools.
"It would have been a fiasco," said Steve Goddard, a KU professor. "When we learned about Century, the main term used was `strong academics.'"
Century creates tailor-made programs for children that reflect accelerated aptitude in some areas and deficient levels in other areas.
"The other thing that sold us was that they (Emily and Caitlin) clearly loved it," Goddard said. "They didn't want to come home at night and wanted to bring their work home. It was clear it was a very positive experience."
The dream takes root
In the 1960s, Sherrill and Don Bushell were at Webster College in St. Louis. They had a daughter of preschool age, and were in the market for an alternative to public school. They pickings were unsatisfactory.
"We opened a preschool program," Don Bushell said. "We thought that if we could design a program that was fun, they could learn a lot. And they did. We seem to seriously undersell kids."
For the next quarter century, Don Bushell worked to reform public schools from the outside. He toyed with the idea of launching a full-time private school. The Bushells bought an old house at 816 Ky., which at the time was chopped into several apartments, because it looked to be a prime school locale.
Years passed, but the dream's flame never flickered out.
At the urging of the parents of children in an experimental kindergarten program at KU, the Bushells decided in 1993 to take a stab at tearing down established educational practices. They poured $400,000 into remodeling the old house on Kentucky Street and opened a preschool and elementary school.
The downtown location has proven invaluable to the school's success, said Sherrill Bushell. The public library, arts center, aquatic center, senior center and Watson Park are in the neighborhood. The downtown is the campus.
"It's been a terrific experience," she said.
Don Bushell added: "The delight of trying not to reform anything -- learning how to do it well -- has been wonderful."
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.