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News / Clark County News

Mount Vista’s Gardner School of Arts & Sciences to acquire Hockinson day care

Both schools share vision of play-based learning

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 3, 2024, 6:03am
5 Photos
First-graders Arashi Buell, left, and Temour Pashigorev enjoy playtime at Gardner School of Arts &amp; Sciences in Mount Vista during recess on Monday afternoon. Gardner is a local nonprofit school based in experiential learning. School leaders announced Wednesday they are acquiring Country Friends Child Care Center in Hockinson, which will double their total enrollment.
First-graders Arashi Buell, left, and Temour Pashigorev enjoy playtime at Gardner School of Arts & Sciences in Mount Vista during recess on Monday afternoon. Gardner is a local nonprofit school based in experiential learning. School leaders announced Wednesday they are acquiring Country Friends Child Care Center in Hockinson, which will double their total enrollment. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

An elementary school recess on a sunny day is total euphoria, perhaps with a bit of chaos tossed in for good measure.

At the Gardner School of Arts & Sciences, recess time is as critical to the educational experience as any academic discipline.

On the blacktop, a small group of kids attempted to get basketballs of varying sizes stuck in the hoop above their heads. They quickly found success. On the other side of the school’s field, another handful of students explored a small grove of trees, likely creating a fictional world together.

“Recess is super important. It’s our conflict lab and space for conflict resolution. It’s a key learning space for children,” said Emily Davis, the school’s director. “This helps them get a break from other challenges and refresh themselves.”

ON THE WEB

The alternative, play-based learning school in the Mount Vista neighborhood north of Vancouver has about 90 students from kindergarten to sixth grade.

Davis revealed big news for the Gardner community this week: The school is acquiring the Country Friends Child Care Center in Hockinson in the coming months. The acquisition will attempt to retain all of Country Friends’ staff and students to expand the Gardner School’s mission of experience-based learning.

“For me, as the leader, it’s exciting to be able to continue the legacy that other people have built and a philosophy that I really believe in for children,” Davis said. “I think it’s the best future for both schools; it’s a really exciting moment.”

Both the Gardner School and Country Friends were founded in 1995 — meaning each will be celebrating their 30th anniversaries next year.

Davis said the relationship between the two schools is long-standing, and the acquisition comes as Country Friends’ owner and director are both looking to retire soon. Discussions about the acquisition began in January 2023, Davis said.

“The hope is that it’ll be pretty seamless. As far as teachers in classrooms and my position, everything will stay the same,” said Debi Mueller, who has served as Country Friends’ director for 17 years. “That was Gardner’s hope, as well; they know we do great work here.”

Davis said the acquisition of Country Friends will not lead to an immediate change in tuition costs at either school. (At Gardner School, the tuition rate for kindergarten through sixth grade for the 2024-2025 school year is $21,500, according to its website.)

Similar missions

To Davis, absorbing Country Friends’ parent community will do wonders for awareness of Gardner’s mission and values in Clark County.

“People move to Hockinson for their schools. It’s a great opportunity to expand our offerings to a community like that,” she said. “Our school is small. Theirs is small. There’s a level of scale (in this expansion) that’s doable.”

Located about 20 minutes from Gardner, Davis thinks Country Friends would serve as somewhat of a feeder school for Gardner. At ages 3, 4 and 5, children could learn Gardner’s values of cooperation and conflict resolution before coming onto campus, hopefully streamlining their experience in their early years at the school.

Gardner’s property and buildings aren’t old, but they convey a sense that they’re well lived in. Decades of student art line the walls, and classroom spaces feel more like laboratories for tiny minds. They’re colorful, chaotic and lively.

The space’s energy, Davis said, has been critically helpful for students’ social-emotional well-being — a factor that’s received increased attention since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Supporting (the social-emotional health) of both students and parents is such an important part of the job. Educating children is complex and expensive, and it takes a whole community to meet the needs of each child,” she said. “I think that can be done a lot better with small class sizes and a small community.”

And while the school’s older students learn how to use tablets and Chromebooks, there’s noticeably less technology compared with other larger schools in the region. Davis said there’s still a need to educate students in technological literacy as they age, but at younger ages, it’s important to prioritize face-to-face interaction.

“In times where it’s easy to be disconnected by technology, it’s important to give students a deep sense of belonging. I think that we all know that the pandemic has created lots of divisiveness,” Davis said. “Our school’s goal is to let kids be kids and experience the magic of childhood.”

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