Hudson Lab School Offers Project-Based Learning in a Private School Setting

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by Katherine Cain – 

In the fall of 2017, a new private school called the Hudson Lab School opened its doors in Hastings-on-Hudson. Founded by Cate Han and her husband Stacey Seltzer, the school began with a single, mixed-age classroom and is currently teaching children in kindergarten through fifth grade, with a focus on project-based learning – the core of the school’s philosophy. Seasonal projects direct the focus, and children are encouraged to explore and create at their own pace.

Classrooms are small, with two grades and a 14 to two ratio in each. “As we grow, we will continue to have multi-age classrooms. That’s very intentional,” Seltzer said. “It gives students the chance to be leaders and also followers. Last year’s kindergartners are this year’s first graders.” Han and Seltzer plan to grow the school with the current students, so that each year they will add the next grade level until the school serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The program is unlike a public school education and its philosophy is also unique among private schools. The ultimate goal is for its students to “build lives in which they can thrive, embrace all this messiness and take control of it and advocate for themselves and be creative, and basically be in charge of their own learning,” Seltzer said.

Currently, the Hudson Lab school has 27 kids enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade, with just as many applications for new students to join next year. It has attracted families from adjacent villages, including Irvington, where Han and Seltzer also live. The school’s unique offering is not necessarily for every child, but those who have chosen it are watching their children thrive.

The curriculum is co-designed by the students, who are encouraged to learn at their own pace and choose what they would like to focus on day-to-day. There are no grades, instead there are formal assessments which are then used to inform the teaching. The students have seasonal projects which they work on from inception to completion, inviting parents in for a showcase to present what they have learned. These projects often utilize the natural world around them, such as the Hudson River which is strikingly visible from the hilltop the school sits upon.

Staff chosen for the school all also believe deeply in the ethos Han and Seltzer have created. Kim Mishkin, the middle school educator teaching fifth and sixth grades, quickly saw the potential of the school’s ideals. “Kids need choice to really invest in their own learning,” Mishkin said. “Learning content is not the key to a successful future, learning how to learn is. We talk all the time about making our students into good humans, about how to help them face challenges, how to help them persevere and solve problems. I think this is the way education should be moving.”

The idea for the Hudson Lab School came to Han and Seltzer shortly after moving to the rivertowns following several years living abroad in London, where their two young daughters were enrolled in Montessori schools. They believed deeply in the Montessori method, which centers on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play, and felt that wasn’t being offered in any existing elementary schools.

“Our kids went into traditional programs at public school, and we realized how little had changed from our educational experiences as kids,” Seltzer said. “The biggest change we could identify was an increased focus on testing, which was leading to a whole lot of conformity of the kids.”

Both entrepreneurs, they felt equipped to take on the task, which included 18 months of speaking to educators and school founders across the country, creating their philosophy of learning, and navigating the regulatory process of paperwork involved in opening a school.

The school is located on the Andrus-on-Hudson nursing home campus, which is also home to Little Leaf, a nature preschool for children aged two to five. The sprawling 26 acres is utilized daily by the students of the Hudson Lab School, in rain, sleet, sunshine or snow. Students also interact frequently with the residents of the nursing home – the ‘grands’ as they call them. There is a shared library where the bottom shelves are stacked with kids’ books and the top shelves display novels for the grands, and at least once a week they have dedicated time together, whether it’s reading or show and tell.

Adam Ditsky was immediately drawn to the Hudson Lab School for his older son as he and his family planned their move to  Irvington from the city. “I reached out to the school and went in and met Cate and 30 seconds into the tour I thought, ‘not only do I want my kids to go here, but I want to attend this school,’” Ditsky said. “Seeing the work hanging up from a project, and the way they were thinking about things resonated with me immediately.”

Brooke Bridges’ twin 11-year-old boys have attended Hudson Lab School since it opened, and she is thrilled that the school caters to each of their very different ways and speeds of learning. “Hudson Lab School is about learning, and it’s about the joy of learning, which I think is really hard to find,” Bridges said. “The academics are there, and the topics are there but the speed and the way they guide themselves to learn those things is amazing. Kids are curious, and whatever it is that interests them, they’re supported in going deeper. They’re driving the experience themselves.”

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