Individual Education

Individual Education

The innovative MUSE School focuses on student-centered learning.

Grades

6 - 12+

Subjects

Experiential Learning

It doesn’t take long to realize that MUSE School, in Calabasas, California, isn’t your typical elementary and middle school.

Wandering between fanciful purple buildings, Assistant Head of School Joe Harper points to a hillside and explains how MUSE takes care of rodents on its rural, 22-acre campus in Malibu Canyon. In the distance is an owl box, where an owl provides a natural way to keep the rodent population down. MUSE also employs a resident groundskeeper, Javier Regis, who is a falconer. He keeps both a red-tailed hawk and a falcon, which also help control the rodent population.

We also pass a corral where two goats mingle with a flock of chickens, and several fruit and vegetable gardens. They are concrete examples of MUSE’s mission statement: “Inspiring and preparing young people to live consciously with themselves, one another, and the planet.”

Another hillside is decorated with multi-colored tubes used as play structures. They were once props in an Old Navy commercial and were going to be thrown out.

“To the unimaginative eye, scrap,” Harper says. “To the creative and enlightened mind, a gold mine.”

Individualized Learning Plan

Though MUSE’s commitment to sustainability is impressive, there’s another aspect of the school that truly distinguishes it from other educational institutions. MUSE’s students, who range from 2-year-olds to eighth-graders, get to help choose what they will study.

“What are you passionate about?” asks Jamie Estill, MUSE’s head of school. “What are you really, really interested in? When we know that, we build that into an individualized learning plan. So the plan is developed by the parent, the teacher, and the student.”

This unique approach to education is one of the primary reasons Suzy Amis Cameron, the wife of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron, decided to found the school in 2005. Suzy Amis Cameron was inspired to start MUSE after seeing her two older children bloom when placed in a school where their education was more individualized. It was important to her that her younger children had an empowering, student-focused school experience from the start.

Rebecca Amis, Suzy Amis Cameron's sister, is integral to the carrying out of Suzy's vision of the school. Amis, who has a master’s degree in child studies from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, says she and her sister were inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, a method of education developed in Italy after World War II.

“In Italy, what they do is they give a lot of respect to the children, and what happens is the teachers and children learn alongside each other,” Amis says. “The child isn’t talked down to. It isn’t teacher-directed. It’s very open and respectful of the child.”

Amis says this approach takes into account a student’s individuality.

“They are not lumped in with other children, and they are not all learning the same thing,” she says. “They are celebrated for who they are and what they bring to the table.”

Estill, the head of school, explains that educators can use a student’s individual interests and passions as a springboard to dive into other areas of study.

“As much as possible, we build curriculum around those expressed interests,” he says. “So when we get a group of students who are interested in a topic, we’ll build large group projects around that topic. We can build in literacy, numeracy, science. All the stuff that they need to be learning we can build around the topic.”

Estill offers an example. “A couple of years ago, we had a group in kindergarten who were interested in bees. At the beginning of the year, there were bees flying around. So the teachers started building the curriculum around bees, and they studied bees for six months. They studied everything that is possible to study about bees. They extended it to all sorts of different areas.”

When students learn about topics they are interested in, Estill says, they will be more willing to learn new subjects.

“If we are honoring that student by following that passion, occasionally we need to turn around and say, ‘OK, right now, we really need to learn some algebra,’ ” Estill says. “Well, how much more likely is it that he is going to be happy to do that and happy to work with us because we have been working with him?”

MUSE Around the World

MUSE has already expanded since its start as a preschool in 2006 with just 11 students. The school now goes up to eighth grade and expects close to 100 students to be enrolled in its 2012-13 school year.

Still, Amis is interested in more than just the growth of the Calabasas MUSE School.

“I had a vision of starting nine MUSE mother schools around the world,” she says. “We have our MUSE mothership here in Calabasas, and we want to start eight more of those around the world.”

In addition to primary MUSE schools, Amis hopes to have both MUSE-inspired schools and MUSE sister schools around the world. She says there already is a MUSE-inspired school called Good Morning School in Mae Sot, Thailand. Currently, she is looking into MUSE-inspired or MUSE sister schools in Tanzania and France.

Forging a connection between these international schools would be beneficial to students, Amis says.

“We might have a student at MUSE who has passions and strengths around wildlife in Africa, and what we might be able to do is connect a student at MUSE . . . to the school in Tanzania,” she says. “That child can develop passions or interests with real-life African animals through Skype-ing, connecting with other students, and, maybe even, by visiting.”

Before MUSE expands too far, school officials are focusing on developing their core beliefs in Calabasas.

“We really want to get the passion-based learning down,” Estill says. “And we want to get this combination of truly understanding each student for who he or she is, building education around that and his or her interest with a heavy dose of sustainability built in. That’s a two- or three-year project to get that really, really right.”

Once MUSE perfects that formula, Estill believes the world will notice.

“There’s not a real record yet of MUSE students in high school, in college, changing the world,” he says. “But that’s coming.”

Fast Fact

Connecting Across Continents
MUSE recently collaborated with the Parikrma School in Bangalore, India. Students at the schools worked together in the inquiry, design, and construction process to create working robots.

Fast Fact

Diverse Student Body
Head of School Jamie Estill describes the type of student who attends MUSE School.

We get a real range. We get families who are looking for something different either because of their own educational experience or because of the experience their child is currently having because they see something special and different in their child. So the students we get tend to be students who are highly creative, therefore regular programs dont work for them, dont excite them. Sometimes we get students with very, very particular interests, and a regular program doesnt flex enough to really meet their needs.

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Writer
Stuart Thornton,
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Society
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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Funder
Sloan Foundation

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