Northfield School of the Liberal Arts settling into new homes near Friends

03/01/2014 9:44 AM

05/27/2014 9:28 AM

Students at the Northfield School of the Liberal Arts are going back to the basics, literally, in school houses.

Inside two sprawling three-story houses two blocks east of Friends University, it’s not uncommon to see parlors that have been converted into classrooms and a kitchen being used for a dissection lab.

The school, which had previously leased classroom space from Love Box Co., will complete its first academic year in the houses come May, and it has begun to assimilate into the community, developing a reputation as a rigorous academic institution, said Becky Elder, Northfield’s head administrator.

The school currently has 78 pupils from grades 6 through 12 and 14 faculty members.

“We’re not just hidey-holing here — we’re working at it, and we’re drawing the kind of student that has a scholastic aptitude,” Elder said. “We’re drawing on what’s around us to educate our children.”

For the school’s first 21 years, classes were taught in the old Love Box plant near 37th Street North and Broadway.

Elder said the school would take whatever spare desks and equipment it could find, slowly amassing a ragtag collection of classroom equipment. Then the school was notified it would be evicted from the 30,000-square-foot facility.

Elder began looking for a permanent home for Northfield and came upon the historic Wight-Stanley House, 1813 W. University. It and the neighboring house to the west, the “Hull House,” were the perfect fit for Northfield, Elder said, though combined the houses are only about 4,200 square feet.

“We had to shrink down,” Elder said. “We skinnied down and got in and got operative.

“Of our 55 families, we didn’t lose but one family, and that was a tribute to the school’s ability to create a strong community.”

Though the Wight-Stanley House is nearly 130 years old, the school has had to do little to renovate it, Elder said. Its four previous owners redid its plumbing, electric, flooring and interior.

The houses were already located in a neighborhood zoned for educational buildings, which was one less obstacle for Northfield, Elder said. The only substantial renovations they needed were indoor sprinkler systems in case of fire, she said.

Though its neighbors initially worried about teens dragging the neighborhood in their “red sports cars,” Elder said, the school is developing a reputation of community service in the neighborhood.

Every Wednesday is “Work Wednesday” at Northfield. No classes are held; instead, students go out into the community and work with the 37 charities Northfield has connections with, like Habitat for Humanity, and learn in a more physical way, Elder said.

“That’s been a hallmark at the Northfield,” Elder said. “We maintain that tradition of intellectual pursuit and work, which is attempting to address their humanity.”

Elder said Northfield prides itself specifically on one thing: it has not changed its $5,000 tuition rate since it was founded. It offers scholarship help to those who need it, and Elder said a large number of students at Northfield are from low-income, single-parent, or large family home-school situations.

“We have positioned ourselves as not to be exclusive and inaccessible, but to be part of the neighborhood,” Elder said. “Our teachers carry out most of the administrative duties, and that keeps overhead way down. Five thousand dollars is the best deal in town.”

Its faculty is not too shabby, either, Elder said. All of the teachers in its high school program have master’s degrees and are well-respected locally, she said.

Northfield’s high school juniors and seniors participate in an “early college” program with Friends University, in which Northfield students can take classes at Friends, in addition to receiving college credit for their classes at Northfield.

“It has just kind of doubled our opportunities, with them being right next door,” Elder said.

Though the school does not offer traditional high school diversions like homecoming dances or Friday night football games, she said students bond through five annual school-wide outings, in addition to daily classes.

“In a family context, a lot of socialization takes places in a class,” Elder said. “We’re different in that respect. It’s less institutional.”

The school does field basketball and volleyball teams, which compete against other similarly-sized schools and home-schoolers, Elder said.

In its current graduating class, Northfield has two of Kansas State University’s Putnam scholars. In the past, Northfield graduates have gone to elite institutions, such as the University of Oxford in England and Tufts University in the Boston area.

When students come to Northfield from their previous schools, it can be a bit of a culture shock, said Ken Spurgeon, U.S. government and history professor at Northfield.

“To be a good student at Northfield, the best thing to have is humility,” Spurgeon said.

“A student who wants to listen and learn is going to do great. A student who’s defiant of any kind is going to have a hard time.”

He said Northfield is the first place he has taught where the faculty has been consistently helpful and relational with students, he said.

“Education is not rocket science,” Spurgeon said. “We make too much of it. In the end, education is a teacher and student – the teacher being willing to give it everything they’ve got and the student being willing to listen.

“The result will always be the same. It will always be success.”

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