If you’re a parent with an Instagram account, you may have recently caught wind of a series of posts offering to “take the hassle out of homeschooling” by enrolling your child in an “exclusive micro learning pod” based in the famously well-off Bel-Air neighborhood in Los Angeles. “Are you trying to write a Hollywood screenplay but can’t focus with the children learning from home?” reads one post from the account for Garden House Learning Pod, billed as a haven for “young creatives” thanks to hashtags like #LuxuryMicroPod, #LuxuryLearning and #BoutiqueEducation.
Unsurprisingly, the posts — the last of which went up on Aug. 30 — have raised countless eyebrows, with some seeing the prospect of an “arts-based curriculum” in a gated community to be irresistible or even aspirational; indeed there are now three pupils, including the founder’s 8-year-old daughter. But there are critics, too, who say the set-up reeks of privilege in a time when many students lack access to remote learning essentials like Wi-Fi or laptops.
To learn more about what a “boutique learning experience” looks like amid a back-to-school season when harried parents of all backgrounds are adjusting to homeschooling and forming pods with classmates, Yahoo Life turned to the mother behind Garden House Bel-Air. Using her first name only for privacy concerns, Kirsten, a professional textile artist and recent London transplant who is married to an arts editor for a spiritual magazine, shares in her own words her inspiration for the school, her response to criticism and what “luxury learning” really entails.
“We have always lived and worked between London and Los Angeles and as such our daughter attended a very sweet, private school in London up until March, when we moved over here permanently. We had been planning for her to transition [to a new school in L.A.] during the summer, but when the pandemic hit, we managed to catch the last British Airways flight out of London on March 15. We both work from home and were counting on our daughter starting school here in September. [The girl’s longtime nanny has remained in Europe since the pandemic hit, but is helping Kirsten “virtually to curate the learning pod’s ethos,” having once run her own boutique school in Switzerland.]
“I had been looking into schools out here since she was in kindergarten. It was a huge endeavor to even secure her a place at a local private school. Then a week or so before she was due to start, the news confirmed that no schools were going back in person in California, certainly not in Los Angeles. I knew our daughter would struggle with virtual online teaching. She had been having online tutoring over the summer and she was easily distracted. Then at the last minute, even though she'd been offered a place, the head of admissions called me to say that since the children would be learning virtually, I would need someone to sit with her throughout the day. Firstly, I didn't want her to sit in front of a screen all day and secondly since I'm not a professional teacher, I thought it was best to hire one.
“At first my daughter had said that she just wanted to be taught on her own, and as far as I was concerned that was the safest option. After a couple of days, though, she said that she would love to have a playmate and the teacher said it would be really valuable to have one or two other girls in the class. So, that’s when the idea of forming a micro-learning pod came to be.
“I'd been contemplating the notion since she was much younger and I was striving to find her a suitably creative school that offered more one-to-one attention — so when this evolved I knew it was meant to be ... I've always wanted to create a school that encompassed what I believe to be the best aspects of other schools I've researched. I would love to offer parents a more personalized, customizable education for their child, while always following the California Department of Education Common Core [State] Standards.
“Growing up in England, I went to a small prep school that had six girls (including me) in the class/year. It was in fact a house that had been converted into a school, run by a family. I understand my daughter's unique learning style and really wished there was something similar in Bel-Air, where she would have an arts-based education with lots of individual attention. Essentially, there wasn't one so I created one.
“Cottage schools have been around for years. I haven't seen anyone else create their own ‘upscale’ pod. To me, luxury learning means individual attention, and the teacher catering to the child's unique learning style rather than the other way around. At Garden House, we learn through projects and play, not by traditional repetition.”
“I place a high value on privacy and discretion. We are private and gated and I employ a security guard during school hours to ensure that only the children and their parents (or someone expressly nominated by the family) can collect the children from school.
“[My husband and I] both practice daily meditation and have regularly spent several months in India meeting with different spiritual teachers and experiencing a diverse range of lifestyles ... While we are not incorporating any religion into our curriculum, we do start the day with yoga stretches and mindfulness. We encourage gratitude and insist on the children following a kindness code inspired by Garden House School in London [an elite Chelsea kindergarten, pre-prep and prep school whose pupils have included the offspring of Winston Churchill; this pod has no affiliation with the Garden House schools in London or New York].
“Like most artists, we have a strong affinity with nature, so, when the weather is suitable we will be incorporating a weekly nature trail; of course all girls will wear masks and hats with facial protectors, lots of sunscreen and suitable footwear. The yoga, gardening and environmental studies are taught by our accredited teacher. We have someone else who cooks healthy, nutritious food who doesn't come into contact with the girls. We cater to all tastes and dietary requirements.
“I'm a huge supporter of female trailblazers and a strong advocate for empowering young girls and women in all walks of life. We have a game called Wonder Women where you take a card each day and learn about a woman who in some way, changed the world. ... I intend to promote building high self-esteem and self-advocacy in all the girls at Garden House Bel-Air.”
The COVID-19 factor
“The classroom is big enough that the children are well spaced apart. The teacher wears a mask and/or clear facial protection. Her temperature is taken every day and she has a weekly COVID test. The children are encouraged but not required to wear masks. Their temperature is taken every morning and it is understood that if anyone doesn't feel well, they would not come to the property.
“As a family, we have been in strict self-quarantine since March. The children are exposed to the fewest possible people — usually just each other and our teacher. The teacher and I are both well-versed in COVID compliance. Spaces are regularly sanitized every time the children go outside for a short break. The lunches are served in an outdoor dining area. The cook and cleaner have no contact with the children or teacher. Parents are shown the property during a tour, but since then, parents have dropped their child off without having any contact with anyone else. I don't even go into the classroom, I'm just facilitating everything. There is a certain trust between everyone. Of course, things will develop as and when a vaccine or other safety precautions become available.”
“I believe there is a place for a diverse range of schools, learning pods, homeschooling and its more radical cousin, unschooling. I'm aware of the negative criticism I've received and acknowledge that our learning pod is not designed to please everyone. My aim is to offer a specific, niche service. I know a lot of individuals who work from home, who have all complained to me at one time or another that they need some peace and quiet during the day to get their work done. I'm sure there are other parents, like me, who care deeply about how our children are being taught and want them to be educated privately, in a safe, COVID-smart environment without such a reliance on technology (our girls do not have laptops and do not depend upon Wi-Fi. There seems to be constant ‘technical hitches’ with virtual and remote learning, which are frustrating enough for adults, can you imagine how distracting they are for an 8-year-old?
“I'm extremely empathetic to other families who are in less fortunate positions. I'm not oblivious to the issues that we face as a society and from the bottom of my heart, I wish I had a better answer, I wish I could help everyone. I have no interest in flaunting anything. The best that I could hope for is that I make life easier for two or three other families and if people see one person stepping up and creating a pod, then they may feel inspired to find the courage and confidence to do the same. You don't have to be Dr. Maria Montessori to do this.
“I'm open to constructive criticism and I will endeavor to reflect on a deeper level about the nature of pods being too exclusive. However for the moment, I'm focused on the practicalities of helping where I can [by running the pod; tuition is subject to negotiation, and Kirsten is willing to offer a scholarship spot].
“It's such a shame that social media and [posting on] Instagram is so frowned upon. The reality is that we've only lived in the area for just over a year, my daughter wasn’t established at a school here, so I don’t happen to know any mothers in the immediate area ... I came up with an idea and wanted to ascertain if anyone local might be interested. I didn't have time to create a website, so I put together an Instagram page just so that the information could be accessed in one place and then I sent it out to parents in the immediate area. In the old days, you'd put a postcard in a store window.
“Instagram served its purpose of getting the message out and I received some lovely messages of encouragement which I deeply appreciate. In the current climate though, no good deed goes unpunished and as mentioned there were many negative comments.”
“This pod may have been created during the pandemic but I am committed to making it work long-term, expanding and providing the best possible service I can. Fifteen years ago, my best friend set up a sober living house in her home, for women in AA in West Hollywood. Women who were transitioning from coming out of rehab and re-establishing themselves back in the world. She wasn't able to offer a free service, but I know she put her heart and soul and all of her time into caring about every single girl who came through her facility. I want to do the same. If nothing else, I’d like to establish a nurturing environment for young creatives.
“We haven't filled every spot yet and I'm very relaxed about whether we do or not. I can afford to have a teacher just for my daughter; it is simply that I believe we have stumbled upon something wonderful, almost magical and I'd like others to share in that joy. My daughter is excited about ‘school.’ She starts every day by saying, ‘I love to learn’ — it's infectious.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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