On September 14, 2016, a new independent school opened in the Dallas area with fresh ideas about education and an innovative woman at the helm. The Blackland Prairie Conservatory & Atelier (BPCA), led by executive director Tiffany Lipsett, Ph.D., focuses on outdoor programming with students spending at least 90 minutes outside each day.
The educational approach favored by BPCA is modeled on European forest and nature schools, and Waldorf-inspired curriculum which emphasizes the role of imagination and artistic development. The outdoor space has 32 garden plots and campfire storytelling stumps, and students will have the opportunity to design a wildlife habitat. The children will also seed, tend to, and observe an authentic blackland prairie.
“We want to establish a community that supports nature- and arts-based learning,” Dr. Lipsett explained. “We want to give families many opportunities to connect and learn about Waldorf-inspired curriculum, and give young children the space and time to play and explore the natural world.”
Children at BPCA are taught knitting, storytelling, gardening, woodworking, and performing and visual arts through the Waldorf-inspired curriculum. Students may garden, watch birds, or play in the mud one day and sculpt clay models, paint, dance, and bake the next.
Along with the European model, several other influences guide Dr. Lipsett’s work. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv was an influential book for me,” Dr. Lipsett said. “There are so many ways and opportunities to teach children, and the United States has not caught up with the rest of the world in some ways. We have problems with depression in children at younger ages, and in schools there is often an emphasis on memorization instead of processing and creation.”
Dr. Lipsett has been interested in educational change for some time. Before starting this school, she worked with an organization that helped homeless families transition into housing. She was hired to design art and science programming for the children in the evenings while their parents worked. She became frustrated because she wanted to do more to help.
“I learned an important lesson. I learned people need to be provided a foundation, not just items to help them. I learned I needed to bring education to their world, not bring my education to them,” Dr. Lipsett explained. Those experiences and others led her to take a bold step and bring a new school to the Dallas community.
“I decided to make a change and follow my own path, not the pre-determined path of others in education,” Dr. Lipsett continued. “I didn’t feel like I was doing what I should to help people, and that I wasn’t serving my community in the best way that I could.”
Dr. Lipsett is a seasoned scholar, with background and experience that overlaps the arts, natural science, and science education. She has designed and facilitated a variety of arts-based and science programs for institutions in the North Texas area for more than a decade. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction from Texas A&M University.
Over time she developed her six tenets which became the foundation for her school, BPCA. She describes the tenets as her dreams about education – encouraging children to live playfully, mindfully and artfully, while cultivating them to be global citizens, earth stewards and building community friendships.
“All actions are purposeful, with a meaning behind it. Sometimes you must be the change agent – if I have the skills and talents, if not me, then who?” she explained. “I believe in fostering the love of learning so children can succeed in life, and creating an environment to help children.”
So far, BPCA has gotten off to a strong start with 12 children enrolled in a mixed-age pre-K program. The school plans to have no more than twenty students in any class. If things continue to go well, Dr. Lipsett has even more plans for the future. In addition to growing the school grade by grade every year, she hopes to find ways to bring the unique opportunities for students at her school to low income students in the Dallas area or others who may not have access to what her school has to offer.
“I have decided to not take a salary until there are sustainable funds to help pay for financial aid for students who can’t afford to come here,” Dr. Lipsett said. “We are also working on a plan to develop professional development opportunities for teachers to come to the campus to learn the way we teach, and camps and programs for students to experience our school during the summer months.”
New Partnerships Will Extend the School into the Community
In an exclusive to Texas Diversity Magazine, Dr. Lipsett announced a new partnership with the Crow Collection of Asian Art, a museum in downtown Dallas dedicated to the arts and cultures of China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. The new partnership, called Lotus Learners, is an integrative program that uses engagements in the visual arts to develop empathy and cultural awareness. “With the new Crow Collection partnership, we want to eventually develop an open source curriculum that can be freely used, distributed and modified by other schools in the area,” she explained.
Based at both the school and the museum, the pilot program will include a qualitative research study to examine how exploring works of art from different times and places in Asia cultivates empathy and cultural awareness in young children.
Dr. Lipsett also is proud of her school’s efforts to develop a collaborative program for Burmese refugees. BPCA will work with two local organizations in the East Dallas area to allow the refugees to raise food on the school’s campus as part of a gardening program in a way similar to what they have done in their home country. “We are all unique, and equally important. My challenge has always been ‘how do you build a community with all these groups of people?’ Hopefully, we are helping to find a way,” Dr. Lipsett said.
“I also want to make the school a community process, and get everyone involved. We don’t want it to only be my vision, but a community vision. I want to always be open to what others have to say so our school can reflect shared visions, not mine alone.”
Dr. Lipsett has encouraging words for others who aspire to make a difference in education. “I’m proud to be a woman, and proud to be doing this – I hope I can show other teachers and moms you can do what is best for children. It never hurts to try!”
Enrollment for the fall semester in 2017 begins in November 2016. If you would like more information on Blackland Prairie Conservatory & Atelier, visit bpcaschool.org, email [email protected] or call (214) 631-9533.
James Stancil is a writer and educator with over two decades of teaching experience, working in every area from urban high schools to rural schools, public and private schools, middle and high school level. Through his career, Mr. Stancil has created or founded several innovative student groups, including Intelligent Men Achieving Goals of Excellence or IMAGE, W.E.B. Du Bois Honor Society, and Hawks Connection After-school Inclusion Program (ASIP) for students with disabilities.