South Whidbey gained one more option this year for parents looking to give their children a nontraditional school experience.
As a result of a collaboration between multiple residents, Peaceful Valley Learning Center was able to hold its first day of school Sept. 13.
Peaceful Valley founders Courtney Alampi and Rachel Phillips first had the idea for the learning center last year. Through her experiences with various South End schools, Alampi discovered she liked certain aspects of each one, but none of them exactly suited her family’s needs. Other parents she spoke with felt the same way.
Before the pandemic, however, forming her own learning center was never in her plans.
“If you’d asked me ever in my life that I was going to open a school of any kind, I would have laughed at you,” she said.
As her daughter and a few other students met in Alampi’s garage for school during COVID-19 shutdowns, however, she realized the small, home-based group had a nice rhythm to it.
Alampi, Phillips and the other parents created a vision for an integrated education that provides nature-based experiences, creative outlets, social and emotional learning opportunities and strong academics.
“We’re not going to be perfect for everybody, but we’re going to be perfect for the people we’re perfect for,” Alampi said.
Learning center students are enrolled at the public school through the South Whidbey Alternative Learning Experience program, similar to how typical home-schooled students operate. Instead of learning separately in their own homes, however, they learn together at Peaceful Valley.
The Peaceful Valley campus, which Alampi currently houses on her own property, is nontraditional, to say the least. Its primary classroom is a repurposed goat barn with a scenic view of the farm valley through its many windows. Chickens and goats live in pens right outside the classroom, and horses pasture a short walk away near the learning center’s massive garden.
In another building, a multi-level loft functions as the “nest.” Furnished with bookshelves and beanbags and filled with soft lighting, the nest provides a cozy space for reading and morning meetings.
Alampi said she enjoys having the kids on her property because when she hears them laughing, she knows the center is accomplishing its objective of teaching its students to love learning.
The daily schedule includes a lot of movement between indoor and outdoor spaces. Peaceful Valley instructor Jeana Dominguez said learning at the center is about integration and helping the students identify connections between different subjects and activities.
Dominguez came to the center with five years of previous education experience, including teaching a local knot of homebound students after COVID hit. She joined the Peaceful Valley team when a parent of one of her COVID students connected her with Alampi and Phillips.
“I came to one of their early meetings and met some of the families, and then from there, we’ve been working together and building and creating this thing that has morphed into something really amazing,” she said.
Peaceful Valley Learning Center currently has seven students — six second graders and one first grader — with room for three more. Dominguez and her classroom assistant, Barb Dupuis, are often joined by parent volunteers, allowing each student to receive frequent, personalized help and attention.
Alampi’s daughter, Maggie Mix, is one of the center’s students. The curly-haired second grader has enjoyed interacting with animals as part of the curriculum.
“I like that we get to raise baby chicks,” she said.
The next step for the learning center, Alampi said, is to find a permanent home. Their current location, though scenic and cozy, won’t accommodate the growth they’re hoping to see in the coming years.
Parents of a whole cohort of kindergarteners have already expressed interest in joining the center. Currently, the center only takes students in grades one through four, but Alampi said she envisions a time when Peaceful Valley can teach kindergarteners through sixth graders.
Even as leaders search for a new location, however, Alampi said they intend to stay local.
“There’s a need in the community for us, but we also want to give back to the community,” she said.