Written by Abby Kirchner
“It really began with this abstract idea that everyone learns best by doing, and everything grew from there,” Mike Simpson, the founder of The Stone Independent School in Lancaster recalls. But the origin story of this unique endeavor actually begins farther north, on a trip that would serve as the inspiration for a new kind of educational institution.
Mike Simpson had just returned from Vermont, after visiting the Putney School, an institute for “progressive education,” at which they value hands-on, individualized learning. While there, he met extraordinary high school students who worked the campus Dairy Farm at dawn, who never had taken an AP course, who worked with chainsaws to clear trails in the cold Vermont winter, who by-and-large designed their own coursework, who took real ownership over their education and still matriculated to Ivy League colleges.
He saw firsthand a school committed to true project-based learning, and his head was buzzing.
Back in Lancaster, he met with architect Richard Levengood and local artist Susan Gottlieb at Hunger-n-Thirst and told them he had an idea. “I needed a sounding board,” Simpson recalls. “I told them I might want to start a school like the one I had just visited. But thing is, I don’t even know where to begin.” Levengood chuckled and said: You just get to work… and then you figure the rest out.”
“That was June 8th, 2015,” Simpson said. “That’s the day we got to work on the Stone Independent School.”
It’s been two years since Simpson first pitched his idea to open The Stone Independent School in the heart of Downtown Lancaster. Since then, Simpson and Abby Kirchner, the Assistant Head of School, along with Gottlieb, Sam Schindler, Maribel Perez, AJ Lee, and Elyse Jergen have been working around the clock to bring a new kind of School to downtown Lancaster. But what defines them as extraordinary? Stone is a school that believes equally in project-based learning, service, entrepreneurship, and travel.
In the beginning, that abstract idea was all the Stone Independent School was. “We called ourselves ‘The TBA School’ for more than a year and we got made fun of a lot for it,” Simpson laughs. “But in a certain way, that was the perfect name for us at the time. We had this great idea, literally everything else was ‘To Be Announced.’”
In spite of that early abstraction, it didn’t take long for the school to take shape.
First, the school formed a Board of Trustees with experience opening and governing schools. Next, they searched for a home. “We looked a dozen properties all over the city, but it was the first one we looked at that stuck.”
43 N. Lime Street, a Frank Furness-designed building in the heart of the city, fit perfectly Stone’s nascent orientation. “Furness is kind of the ultimate Stone student. His father was a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist, his Godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He grew up a cantankerous American Romantic, he was pretty suspicious of inherited trends in architecture, and he was known for his real love of elemental materials — brick, iron, glass, and of course a whole lot of stone.”
Plus, it didn’t hurt that 43 N. Lime Street looked just a little… Hogwarts-y.
Stone Independent moved in last summer and set out to build the “content” of the school by seeing downtown Lancaster as a natural extension of Stone’s classrooms. “It’s important that our students get up, get out of their classrooms, and get into the world as often as is possible. I think we’ll know we’ve got it right when our students are off campus about as often as they are on campus.”
Thus, the school’s ethos: to partner and collaborate wherever possible. “We didn’t want to be a school that asks our students to drop any of their interests at the front door,” Simpson says, “And the only way for us to be that kind of school is to ask for a lot of help.”
And, that help has come in the form of partnerships formed across Lancaster — from disparate organizations like Penn Manor High School, and the Lancaster County Conservancy, and the Central PA LGBT Center, and the Sierra Club, the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster, The Alternatives to Violence Program — as well as the National Association of Independent Schools, the Independent Curriculum Group, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and the Global Education Benchmark Group (to name just a few).
“We want to be an outward facing school,” Simpson says. “We believe that great citizens are engaged citizens, we feel lucky to be a member of a community like Lancaster — a community that cares so deeply about learning, a community so supportive of one another. It’s a deeply inspiring place to work.”
But as education changes, there’s also a feeling that Stone Independent needs to continue to innovate in order to stay relevant.
“Schools are changing,” Simpson says. “As educators, we know more about brain science, we know more about the way students learn, we know more about when students learn, than ever before. We know that seven or eight 50 minute rapid-fire classes over a seven hour day doesn’t necessarily correlate to the way adolescents learn. For us to serve our mission, we need to be a dynamic 21st century school that puts our community and our students above all fixed ideas of what a school ‘has to be.’”
That’s a lot to ask of a small school that began as little more than an abstract idea two years ago, but Simpson is excited for the work ahead. “Mike Mersky, the former head of the Lancaster Country Day School, likes to remind me that as long as schools have great teachers, the rest will take care of itself. We have extraordinary teachers, and we’re all so grateful for the opportunity to serve.”