The Circle Way as container for transforming public Education

This month's tale is written by Kerry Barnett, trustee of Ridge and Valley Charter School (RVCS), a K-8 public school with the mission of ecological literacy and sustainability, “education for a hopeful sustainable future” (

Non-hierarchical circle-based collaboration was a foundational principle and is practiced throughout the school by children and adults. Ridge and Valley Charter School was among the organizations profiled our founders’ book, The Circle Way (2010).

The Circle Way as Container for Transforming Public Education

Circle practice works! Circle transforms relationships and the resulting collaborative, compassionate connections of trust and shared responsibility and leadership have demonstrated for us many times over that the whole created this way is much greater than the sum of its parts. At Ridge and Valley Charter School, children and families, guides (teachers), school leadership, and trustees all meet in circle; the practice has transformed traditional educational relationships and led to very practical shared responsibilities and united effort. By consciously invoking the power and presence of our ancestors and mentors when we work in circle, we are reminded of the great work of so many others that contributes to our evolving human story.

In 1999, a small group of parents, educators, and activists connected through the Ecological Learning Center and Community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, imagined a paradigm shift in public education. The ecological crises of our times – climate change, mass extinction, habitat loss, etc. – clearly indicate that the human status quo on our planet is unsustainable; fundamental change is inevitable. We wondered what tools children need to develop mutually enhancing relationships with other people, other species, and the earth itself. With much discussion and reflection, five fundamental principles emerged that the founders believe are critical to education for a hopeful sustainable future: non-hierarchical relationships; ecological literacy; experiential, integrated education; and learning from and in the natural world. Now in its 15th year, RVCS offers families an alternative public school education and draws on the inspirations of many visionaries and practitioners.

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We couldn’t have done it without circle practice. Starting an alternative public school was so complex and difficult, it would have been impossible without everyone offering what they could, and each person stepping into different leadership roles as they were able. An image we often used was a V of geese: when the leader at the point gets tired, she moves to the back and the next goose takes his turn. Learning the humility and collaboration of being in circle, sharing work, sharing accomplishments, sharing responsibility, has enriched the lives of the children and adults of Ridge and Valley Charter School.

When Sarah MacDougall of PeerSpirit, and board member of The Circle Way, joined the founding trustees for our first formal circle training in 2003, we had been following circle practice as outlined in Calling the Circle to the best of our ability for a few years while struggling to create a new model of public elementary education. We firmly believe that a cultural shift away from hierarchical domination and exploitation is required to transition to a hopeful sustainable future, and that such a future is possible. By guiding us to build our center and strengthen it through consciously recognizing and invoking the support of our mentors and ancestors, Sarah helped us see ourselves as part of an unfolding story of growth and change rather than overwhelmed volunteers struggling alone to create a different kind of institution.

Over the years, we continue to draw on inspiration from so many areas to create our unique expression of compassionate, committed, positive, mutually enhancing relationships, with other people and with other members of the earth community. Circle has been the container.

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Kerry Barnett is an assistant professor of writing and literature at Centenary University and a founding trustee of Ridge and Valley Charter School.