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Meet Cecily Wardell of Birches School in Lincoln

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cecily Wardell.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
In 2012, a friend and I were searching for a school for our sons, one a first grader and one a kindergartner. We were captivated by nature-based schooling in a project-based, interdisciplinary, and academically rigorous environment with a strong social emotional component. When we asked their preschool to consider adding some elementary years, the preschool instead offered us their lease (they were moving to a new space later that year) and suggested that we start our own elementary school.

After the initial shock wore off, we gathered a Board of Advisors and Board of Directors, and we hired brilliant teachers. We opened that fall with five founding students, adding students and one grade each year. We are currently in our sixth year with students in Kindergarten through 7th grade in multi-age classrooms. My current project is overseeing construction and renovation to convert a formerly residential home into our permanent school home where we will move the school in spring 2018.

Has it been a smooth road?
We have definitely had struggles along the way. I always remind myself to consider these challenges as opportunities for growth rather than obstacles. Early challenges for Birches were the same as for any start-up–securing funding, attracting excellent staff, and creating an outstanding product, namely, our curriculum, much of which we have written ourselves. Thanks to inspired teachers and curious students, we have succeeded in this first phase of our growth. We are now poised to expand our school in a beautiful new setting that can accommodate many more students as together we explore the world around us.

We purchased our new property in November of 2016 and I sprang into high gear as the Director of Operations. Daily challenges for me these days include managing gas leaks on the new property, placing boulders bigger than I am in the right places (with the aid of a bulldozer of course!), understanding local, state and educational code requirements for construction, handling plumbing leaks in unexpected places, managing groundwater and stormwater, and permitting a septic system to follow the contours of the land. Each day my children ask me for an exciting and funny story about what happened at the construction site that day. I almost always have a new one to delight them!

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Birches School story. Tell us more about the business.
We are proud of our many accomplishments at Birches School, but high on the list is our formal collaboration with the Lincoln Land Trust (Lincoln Land Conservation Trust/Rural Land Foundation). Lincoln is a wonderful place for a nature-based school because about 40% of the town is in conservation and Lincolnites’ passion for the land is almost palpable. The Land Trust (the oldest private land trust in the country) has a visionary staff and, in January of 2016, we signed an MOU with the Land Trust. Approved by the boards of both organizations, the MOU declared that we would collaborate on developing curricular materials and also that the Land Trust would help Birches find a property near conservation land where we could develop informal “outdoor classrooms.”

We believe that our formal collaboration with the Land Trust is the first of its kind in the country. In November of 2016, the Land Trust and Birches purchased a 16-acre property, 9 acres of which has gone into conservation. Our new school is housed on 4 acres, and the remaining 3 acres were purchased by the Town of Lincoln in March 2017 to build a badly needed athletic field. We are very grateful that these three Lincoln entities could realize individual goals in a remarkably collaborative way, conserving and making environmentally-sound use of precious land in the Greater Boston area.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
The recent rise in nature-based schools both across the country and internationally fascinates us. We have gotten calls from other teams looking to start their own nature-based school from places as far as rural India and Dubai and as close as New England. Conversations with these teams enrich all of us and make us excited for the future of nature-based education.

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