One-room schoolhouses coming back to life in Bethesda, Georgetown

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The Mysa School in Georgetown is trying to resurrect the hyper-local, communitarian education characteristic of the one-room schools of the past. The Conduit Road Schoolhouse at 4954 MacArthur Boulevard was built in 1874 and was used as a school until 1928. It later served as the Palisades Public Library. (photo by Shawn McFarland/The Current)

Siri Fiske hopes the Mysa School in Georgetown lives up to its name.

“Mysa is a Swedish word that essentially translates to cozy, the coziest of the cozy,” said Fiske, whose grandparents were Swedish. “The word conjures up being in front of a warm fireplace with your dog and your favorite book and all the people you love.”

Whatever their merits, “cozy” is not an adjective that comes to mind when most people think of large, modern schools, public or private. However, when the enrollment is 14 students from kindergarten to fifth grade, and the school consciously sets out to emulate the one-room schoolhouses of the past, the spirit of the fireplace becomes possible.

That is what Fiske set out to do when she established Mysa School two years ago.

“What’s old is new again,” Fiske said. “I see our school as a modern-day one-room schoolhouse, based in the community, with a mixed-age setting. During the Industrial Revolution, schools changed to a factory model with all the sixth or seventh or eighth graders together. In a one-room school, you had all mixed ages and the students were from the same community.”

Fiske began her experiment in tradition with a middle and high school in Bethesda in the fall of 2016. The Bethesda campus now has 14 students, and already has many applicants for the fall.

The elementary school campus in Georgetown opened its doors in September.

“Some Georgetown parents approached me. Ones who wanted a small school in Georgetown that takes advantage of what Georgetown offers,” she said.

She said the children use the streets of D.C. as their classroom one day a week.

Having children of various ages and stages of development in one classroom requires a creative use of technology by teachers.

“To make it 2018, we do rely on technology,” Fiske said. “It takes a lot of time to prepare each lesson for different ages. A teacher can grab a lesson from the internet. So it’s a modern-day one-room school in that way.”

Each child gets a weekly “menu” every Monday morning, which Fiske described as an individualized learning plan for that week. She feels that Mysa’s method promotes self-reliance and independence in the students.

“American children are told to do everything, but if children are given responsibility they step up to the plate. They like the responsibility of being in charge of their education,” Fiske said.

Fiske says that not grouping children by age also helps them excel.

“When they don’t have to be in lockstep with their age peers, they soar,” she said. “They are not being held back by being in a class of 30 [who are the same age]. We have a second grader reading at an eighth grade level.”

Fiske is a Californian who has been associated with traditional private schools in Los Angeles along the lines of Sidwell Friends. When the youngest of her five children headed off to college three years ago, Fiske moved to Washington. Deciding that small is beautiful, she conceived the idea for Mysa.

The lower school is housed in the historic Fillmore School building, at 1801 35th St. NW, near the Georgetown Safeway.

Tuition at Mysa is $17,000 per year. Fiske said she wants to keep the cost per pupil the same as in D.C. public schools. Mysa teachers use the Common Core curriculum.

“We are teaching to D.C. standards,” she said. “Our goal is to have an impact on public education by clustering children, not according to ages, but by what they need to learn.”

Mysa School is not for profit and has 501(3)c status.

The late Jaynell Holmesley taught in one-room schools in rural Arkansas in the 1940s. She once described her classroom for a reporter.

“I remember holding little kids on my lap to read,” Holmesley said. “It was more like a family living together than an organized school. There might have been things that could have been improved, but I’m not sure kids didn’t come out with more basics than they do now.”

Fiske said she hopes the children at Mysa School will have an educational experience like Holmeley’s students.

“What Mrs. Holmesley says really resonates with me,” Fiske said. “Our little school is like a family.”

Mysa School will host an information session at 2 p.m. on March 3 at the Bethesda campus, 8011 Woodmont Avenue.

More information is available on the school’s website: mysaschool.org.