Think of it as a one-room schoolhouse, but with a lot more rooms.
Family House Academy, two homey buildings on six wooded acres in Kelso, embodies 19th-century collaborative learning for children of different ages, driven by the vision and personality of a single teacher.
"What I love about Family House is that they spend time on building the social and character skills necessary for success," said Sally Bartlett of Longview, whose children Robbie, 11, and Katie, 9, attend the private school.
Founder and director Lisa Mustion "is a master at taking a lesson and accommodating all learning styles," Bartlett said. "She can ‘reach down' to the younger kids, and she can ‘reach up' to challenge the older kids."
"We have our traditional grades," said Mason Harding, who turns 12 today. "My grade would be six right now, but we can work up a little bit; I may read at 7th grade level."
A big benefit at the school is that "It's easy to get help from a teacher," Mason said. Students in turn "help the younger kids on math; we read with them."
"It's outdoors," said student Mckinnley Franklin, 9. "It's not in the city.
"All different ages can be here," the boy added. "We don't have to be separated. ... We get to go on field trips. We get to wrestle outside, and we don't get in trouble for it."
Family House "is somewhat of a hidden jewel," said Mike Bartlett, Sally's husband and Robbie's and Katie's dad.
"The kids are grounded by a sense of self-worth ... a sense of belonging," he said. "Based on that, they proceed with learning."
‘It's our whole life'
Mustion started Family House Academy 15 years ago with 12 students.
A 1979 graduate of Kelso High School, she got her degree from Portland State University and spent 10 years teaching special education at Progress Center and in Kelso, Castle Rock and Longview schools.
"I wanted to do something different for kids," Mustion said, something that would be "multi-age," "fully integrated" and "community-minded."
Fellow teachers couldn't believe what she was doing. "They said, ‘You want to leave a full-time job with full benefits?' "
She did. Husband Lonnie Mustion, who owns Fender Mender in Longview, backed her from the beginning. He's now the school janitor and landscaper and teaches guitar.
"It's our whole life," Lisa Mustion said.
At the outset, they purchased a Northwest-style home on rural property that included a "mother-in-law" ranch house. Classes would be held in the one-story ranch and the Mustions would live in the other house with their two children.
"We got state approval and passed all the building and health codes," Mustion said. When the school outgrew its quarters, the newer residence was outfitted for classrooms and the Mustions moved to a third dwelling.
The school is both cozy and open, with areas for group activities, smaller study spaces, a library, a kitchen for lunches and home ec, a sewing and art room, and big living room with a wall of windows, floor pillows, TV, piano and musical instruments.
Family House has its own campus, nestled in towering firs and moss-coated alder, with a paved parking lot, paths between buildings and a big, well-equipped playground.
Family House has three full-time teachers, four part-timers and one full-time paraprofessional. Those who draw a paycheck make "a fraction of what public school teachers make," said Mustion, who only drew a salary after a number of years of putting proceeds back into building the school.
A financial committee and board work with her on budget matters. Tuition is $430 a month for each child, with one-time fees for registration of $150 and $100 for field trips.
History teacher Joe Stewart enlisted students to help him clear a jogging path on site. Stewart has 31 years of experience in education, including teaching social studies at Coweeman Middle School and counseling coaching track at Kelso High.
Vanessa Horton, whose 14-year-old daughter Mariah is a student, runs the Accelerated Reading program and supervises the library, where kids choose books and take computer tests on them.
Debbie Anderson, grandmother of a student, is a former reading specialist for Kelso schools and now volunteers to teach reading at Family House.
Dan Jones, also a certified teacher, is the science guy two days a week and works one-on-one with some students.
Meschke teaches writing and poetry. The kids all learn to sew from Pam Stewart, a skill they apply to gifts and community service, sewing 3-foot stockings filled with gifts for the needy at Christmas time.
Parent Auna Larsen said students "are committed to community service and fund-raising. It's student driven." She's also happy that her children, 9-year-old Rainiah and Malachi, 8, "both know how to use a sewing machine."
How to think, not what to think
Part of the school's mission statement is to "incorporate Biblical principles," and one of the moms leads a weekly Bible study for the girls, Mustion said. "I wouldn't let just anybody teach a Bible study up here. It has to be someone who knows how to honor other faiths."
When parents inquire if the school is Christian, she said, "It's a loaded question," because the word Christian can mean so many different things.
"I live a Christ-centered life," she said. "But Family House is not about converting people. There's no hidden agenda."
In science classes, "we would say, ‘This is what the Bible says, and this is what evolution says. We don't teach kids what to think, but how to think."
When Family House students read "Three Cups of Tea," a non-fiction account of Greg Mortenson's work building schools in Afghanistan that describes Muslim faith and practice, Mustion said "one of the parents told me that other Christian schools would never present that book.
"I saw it as an opportunity to teach children about the world," she said. "The kids who go to church were challenged by reading about Muslims who pray. I see no reason to be threatened by that."
Stewart, the former Kelso teacher, said the biggest difference at Family House is parental involvement. Parent Hazar Eid said Mustion frequently texts her, calls her and sends home information on how Eid's son Faris is doing.
Said Sally Bartlett, "A couple of weeks ago, we had conferences with the staff about both of our kids. There were four staff members in attendance, and the children are included in the conference conversation."
Bartlett was thrilled, she said, to "share the news of our little school."
‘Move in, make a difference'
Each day starts promptly at 8, with the school gathered at tables and the director moving back and forth in front.
Small and swift, Mustion has brown eyes that beam out from a cloud of dark brown curls. Her wry delivery snags kids' attention and continuously re-focuses it back onto them.
Mike Bartlett said Mustion "has an incredible amount of energy and vision that really drives the school."
She uses humor and a distinctive vocabulary to reinforce Family House values — listening, sharing decisions, being aware of learning.
After going over the day's schedule, Mustion leads "Praise and Prayer," less a revival meeting than a lesson in being human. The praise part involves sharing things to celebrate.
One of the girls went to Great Wolf Lodge.
Nate got his baseball jersey.
Mrs. Anderson is excited about going to see the musical "Billy Elliott" in Portland.
Mrs. Horton signed up herself and two girls to climb Mount St. Helens this summer.
Whether it's new ballet shoes or softball practice, Mustion peppers the session with follow-up questions and little kudos.
The prayer portion repeats the routine, this time by recognizing those who need support.
"My dad is working a lot of overtime."
"My grandpa is having surgery."
Mustion reminds the children of ways to respond, such as sending a card or visiting. "When you know there's a need, move in and make a positive difference."
"My teeth hurt," a boy says.
"We need to keep that in mind, thank you," Mustion murmurs.
A girl talks about a relative in prison.
"These are real issues," Mustion says. "Recovery, mental illness. People walk them every day."
A boy worries about the tsunami in Japan.
"Good, good," says Mustion. "You're looking globally."
"I'm struggling with being a mom today," a teacher says quietly.
Mustion puts her fist against her heart. "Adults have stresses too," she tells the children. "How many of you think adults need support to be successful?"
Every hand goes up.
Praise and prayer ends with bowed heads and silent prayer, as well as some who pray aloud.
Mornings also accommodate school business. Last week the kids brainstormed ways to enlist friends and relatives at businesses that might buy ads in the brochure about the school's art auction in May.
Before students head out to group lessons, they have one final opportunity to bring up concerns, then stand for the flag salute.
How their brains work
One day last week, the morning held lessons on World War I, math problems, reading comprehension and contractions. Students learn in three groups of eight or 10, grouped with no apparent distinctions and named by the kids: Tall, Grande and Venti, after Mustion's love of Starbucks coffee.
The student body of 36 includes children from 6 to 15, several with diagnoses of autism or other learning disabilities. Mustion resists labels.
"I want them to have the space to be themselves, to be empowered as learners — with or without a diagnosis, " she said. "I look at the whole child. What about divorce issues, children who are struggling emotionally? That could be even more relevant than a diagnosis."
Mike Bartlett, whose daughter was born with Down Syndrome, said Mustion's philosophy is to assume that no child is limited. It's borne out daily at Family House.
Katie Bartlett recently named five of the seven continents and found four of them on a map; when Mustion gave her a prompt on the others, Katie quickly located them. "It was fantastic," Mustion said.
Two breaks during the school day send kids outdoors for running, swinging and huddling to talk. As they file out, Mustion calls out, "Remember: Run, hydrate, snack!"
It's cold but dry outside, and one of the younger boys flies around with no shirt on, chortling and leaping off a bank.
"He has sensory issues," Mustion says matter-of-factly. "He's heated up all the time."
Back in the building, the schedule adjusts to a spontaneous visit from an art teacher, Anne Marie Carr, whose thick Scottish accent tickles everybody.
Carr hands out blank post cards and stick-ons, decorative papers and pencils. The kids get busy, chatting about how to make the cards a surprise.
Evidence around the school points to projects on potato recipes, building sustainable housing and the life of Abraham Lincoln. April art lessons focus on Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
The kids watched the documentary film on public education called "Waiting for Superman," said student Mason Harding. They study Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Bloom's taxonomy of learning — college-level yardsticks for development — and talk about them all the time, he added.
Later, Mustion explained, "I want them to know how their brains work."