The Heights

Forget report cards and endless testing. The Sycamore School's students learn outside and at play.

As Sarah Gong’s firstborn moved closer to his fifth birthday, she did not like his options for school. She started dreaming of alternatives with friends Kristin Thompson and Danielle Shelley, who also had children ready to begin kindergarten.

They realized they had a shared vision and decided to create what they did not see. In 2016, the three friends co-founded The Sycamore School in The Heights.

The school is far from tradition.

All of the students are registered as homeschoolers with Shelby County schools or independent homeschool organizations. 

Sycamore acts as a hub for those students and parents to come together with licensed teachers. They share the joys and responsibilities of home-based education, which can often be isolating for students and difficult for parents to manage alone. 

“This is for people who want to take a very large responsibility for their children’s education but want to do it in community with other families. Relationship is a really huge part of it,” said Gong.

In the first year, Gong co-taught the first kindergarten class of the founders’ three children. She continues to serve as school director and co-teacher for second and third grade. 

Sycamore currently has 17 students from kindergarten to third and plans to add a new grade each coming year.

Licensed teachers lead class three days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Teachers create lessons in math, reading, and spelling for the two home-based days. Parents are also encouraged to observe and teach in-school lessons.

Class are held outdoors for a significant part of the day to facilitate learning through exploring the natural world and play. Inside and outside, students participate in group learning, individualized instruction, and independent learning through a variety of free choice activities. 

“Part of our goal is to help them to develop an attitude of self-education,” said Gong.

Students learn about science through outdoor nature study led by a parent volunteer. (Sarah Gong)

Parents to the front

Sycamore's parents are deeply involved in their children’s education.

“Everything that is has been developed by the families that are here. If you really want to be here with us, that means having an equal voice, bringing your ideas, taking responsibilities, and becoming a part of things so that you shape things too,” added Gong.

Andrea Morgan's family has been a part of Sycamore for three years. 

"We intended to have Ellery attend for her kindergarten year and then attend public school after that," said Morgan. "But we really fell in love with the approach to learning and community that Sycamore offers."

Morgan's younger daughter, Evie, now attends Sycamore School with her sister.

Sycamore parents are encouraged to volunteer in whatever capacity they're able. Shelley's led Mandarin lessons for years. Other parents guide lessons on nature, arrange class parties, and serve on the school’s board.  

“[My children] have been in a relationship with the other Sycamore families for four years," said Thompson. "We’re all in it together. That’s been really sweet. I feel like we’ve got a village."
 

CULTURE & philosophy

Sycamore School lists Christian beliefs as part of its identity but leaves religious instruction to families. Gong said many of the school’s choices—emphasizing outdoor experience, relationships, and experiential learning—reflect the Charlotte Mason educational philosophy.

Children spend time outside each day where they study science through nature, recite poetry, eat snacks, explore, and play.

“Being outside is good for your emotional health," said Gong. "If it’s 40 degrees, we go outside. We go outside if it's a little misty. You know, they don’t care, they love it."

At school, group lessons focus on foreign languages, history, singing, and science. Individual instruction centers on math and reading. For the two days spent at home each week, teachers provide assignments in math, reading, and spelling.

Because teachers complete daily individual instruction, they are highly aware of each child's learning style and can target skills to make sure each is progressing appropriately.

“There are lots of advantages [at Sycamore]. There is time for them to just be a kid, get to play, and more time with their families,” said Thompson, who is co-teaching second and third grade. 

By utilizing homeschool registration, Sycamore is not required to participate in standardized tests or issue formal report cards, which don't account for unique learning styles or assess holistic growth, including social-emotional progress.

“When there’s no one standing over your head with a stick saying you have to cover this amount of stuff in this amount of time ... you can do whatever you need to do for each person where they’re at," said Gong. "You can treat them like children and not like students."

“The best part [of Sycamore] is having a relationship with the kids and feeling like a good teacher because I have a relationship with the kids. It's just fun,” she continued.

The original Sycamore School kindergarten class, who are now 3rd graders, engage in an outdoor science lesson using compasses to observe wind patterns (Sarah Gong).

cost & Community

Half of Sycamore's students live in The Heights. The remainder come from neighboring Binghampton and High Point Terrace. The areas have a range of incomes, but a significant portion of residents are low- to moderate-income. 

Sycamore families pay a $250 monthly tuition with a sibling discount. Gong said they've worked with families to ensure tuition was not a barrier but are still growing their capacities to assist.

Still, Sycamore's price structure is affordable compared to other area private schools. 

Veritas Classical School offers tutoring for homeschoolers and has a similar tuition structure at $225 per month for two days of on-site instruction. Families purchase curriculum separately.

Tuition at traditional Memphis-area private schools are considerably higher and vary drastically. St. Ann Catholic School, for example, costs $6,945 per year while others like Lausanne Collegiate School and Presbyterian Day School run $17,000 or more. 
 

ORIGINS & LOGISTICS

Gong taught in private and public elementary schools in The Heights and North Memphis from 2007-2011. In 2011, she and her husband moved to The Heights.

As their kids aged, Gong read up on childhood development and various educational philosophies. Gong saw local schools emphasizing “very high rigor and extended days” and didn’t see the more balanced, holistic approach to social-emotional learning she'd read about.

“Their emotional health is just as important as their academic health, and time for them to be at rest or play or to be outside is just as valuable, even to their academic [progress],” said Gong.

After forming their plan to start their own school, Gong, Shelley, and Thompson's next step was to find a location.

In 2016, they approached Leawood Baptist Church for an indoor and outdoor space.

The church provides those spaces for free. Gong noted Leawood also shares their space with other groups including two other churches, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and the Morning Center, a free prenatal care provider.

Next, the three partners researched options to bring the unique Sycamore model in line with state and federal educational regulations. The answer was homeschooling.

Each Sycamore family registers their child individually as a homeschooler.

In Tennessee, families have three homeschool registration options and must submit documentation of their participation to the local school district.

In Memphis, students can register as a independent homeschooler by submitting a letter of intent and documentation of attendance and vaccinations to Shelby County Schools. Families can also register with a church-affiliated school homeschool or accredited online program.

“There was something empowering about realizing what we wanted for our [families] then making it happen,” said Thompson, who added that Gong was the driving force in seeing their dream become reality.


Author Leigh Tatum is a High Ground News Community Correspondent.. Correspondents complete a six-week training and mentorship program to become neighborhood-based reporters. Correspondents live in underserved communities and hope to correct negative neighborhood narratives by diving into the nuances underlying big challenges and successful solutions.

Read more articles by Leigh Tatum.

Leigh Tatum grew up in the Memphis area and has called The Heights home for six year after stints in Ethiopia and East TN. Leigh works as a Behavioral Health Consultant in integrated primary care and has a Master’s of Science in Social Work from the University of Tennessee. Leigh enjoys all things outdoors, exploring, open-ended questions, and her dog, Sam. Tatum is a graduate of the first High Ground News Community Corespondents program, a training course to turn average Memphians from under-served communities into neighborhood reporters who can create expert narratives from within.
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