Bali's Green School wants to change the way kids learn: "Our students will have a soul."
By Nathan Myers
My tour guide pauses and sighs. We're beside a large quartz crystal in a grassy ring. "I like to tell people that we're so much more than a hippie school in the jungle," he says. "But at the heart of it all, there beats a tiny hippie school in the jungle."
Ben Macrory, Green School's longest-tenured employee (and a three-time Jeopardy champion), has cracked this joke before. Despite accolades and attention, the 245-student school in the hills of Bali, Indonesia, still suffers a burden of perception. So let's just get it out in the open: No, Drum Circle is not a required course. It's an elective.
Critiques aside, Green School is beautiful. Bamboo cathedrals jut from the jungle canopy. Quiet trails meander through meticulous gardens. Open-air classrooms hint at some brave new educational future. And no one questions its eco-credentials. From kindergarten through high school, each year's class has its own farming project and supports a local nonprofit. Students do things like breed endangered birds. Wireless Internet access is powered by an on-site hydroelectric generator. Almost nothing goes to waste.
But since the school won't graduate its first senior class until 2013, its academic credibility—and college appeal—remains unproven. What will the Harvard admissions people think of a school that offers a pizza-gardening class?
"In some ways, this place is all still an experiment," one parent tells me. "And I'm just not sure if I'm willing to experiment with my child's education."
Whatever doubts exist, the school's founders, John and Cynthia Hardy, are steadfast. Former jewelry designers, they invested their fortune into the school, which includes an adjacent bamboo factory, whose output built the campus, and a nearby housing development for students' families.
Green School developed out of the Hardys' search for the ideal education for their two children, who are among the school's charter members. "After looking around, we figured, why not build it ourselves?" Cynthia says. "We'll make a school to make a world. Buy the land around it. Have people live here with alternative energy and no walls."
Bamboo, used in everything from buildings and furniture to pencils and nails, represents all that Green School aspires to be: fast growing, local, sustainable, sturdy, and flexible. Even its vulnerabilities are embraced. "You might see students waxing their desk," John says. "The desks you and I learned on were virtually indestructible—rainforest timber covered in bulletproof plastic. And that became our view of the world: Drill it. Mine it. Pollute it. Can't hurt it. But these students can hurt their desks. They've seen where they come from. They participate in caring for them. If only all kids could have that kind of relationship with the planet."
With more vision and enthusiasm than experience as educators, the Hardys have leaned heavily on the experience of their teachers. The academic program aims to attain the highest international standards in traditional subjects like English and math, while also requiring students to immerse themselves in the natural world. "The curriculum is a holistic approach for younger children, with lots of art, song, and dance," Cynthia explains, "evolving toward a more rigorous international education with a strong environmental focus, a strong sense of responsibility for the planet." John is more succinct: "Our students will have a soul."
While many college applications lack a "soul" box to check, Green School teachers feel confident that admissions officers will embrace their integrative approach. Courses like Global Perspectives, Environmental Management, and 21st Century Science imbue every academic endeavor with creative and experiential elements. Fifth-grade studies revolve around water—as it relates to math, literature, and science. There's even an aquaculture farm where students raise tilapia. Sixth-graders calculate the school's annual carbon footprint, then plant enough bamboo to offset it.
And just beyond every classroom, there is Indonesia—a vibrant country full of new learning experiences for the largely foreign student body.
Some parents abandon comfortable lives to move here so their kids can be educated (for $10,000 per year) in a tropical forest in Southeast Asia. Is such a radical leap of faith what's required to change the world? Green School students will be among the first to find out.
ON THE WEB Watch an array of short videos about Bali's Green school.