Sketching outside at Foote School

Outside the Box

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Corn and potatoes, mustard greens and arugula, strawberries and raspberries, lavender and tulips, sorrel and basil, cucumbers and squash, rhubarb and Swiss chard, chives and lemon balm, peppers and okra, zinnia and sunflowers, kale and cabbage, melons and tomatoes, beets and carrots, rosemary and sugar snap peas.

That’s just a taste of the crops that have grown in The Foote School’s teaching garden, communications director Andy Bromage says. But the most important crop the 101-year-old private school cultivates is the one that plants, studies and probably sometimes eats the stuff in the garden.

I’m talking, of course, about the kids. If they attend the whole way, Foote’s students—there are currently 478 total—start in kindergarten and finish after ninth grade. Most stay on through eighth grade, I’m told, with about half of each class leaving before ninth, opting instead to begin as freshmen in high school. The ones that stay do so for the “uniqueness of the program,” head of school Carol Maoz says. That program involves a full, class-wide theatrical production in the school’s own black box theater; advanced work ranging from scientific field work on the West River to creative literary deep-dives; and what she calls “the China experience,” in which the students—some having studied Chinese since early in their Foote educations—travel that country for two weeks.

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Getting out into the world is fundamental at Foote, ninth grader or not. Maoz says the campus’s decentralized layout, now spanning 18 acres, was devised in part to ensure that kids would have to go outside in order to get where they’re going. Two imagination-stoking playgrounds at opposite ends of the campus are bridged by the school’s “sacred woods,” where nature is the playground. Near a small composting area—no doubt a good stop during biology class—a series of “outdoor adventures” build mettle with wood. As physical education and athletics director Brad McGuire puts it, the adventures are “all about teamwork, communication and collaboration,” where “teachers take a step back kids take a step up.”

Picnic tables, sculptures and other sittable objects dot the campus, whose older buildings Maoz says were conceived in the middle of the 20th century to conjure “California in New England.” Under stylish roofs that slash toward the middle, big glassy sides not only keep them feeling modern but also, true to mission, let the outside in. Newer structures, including the gorgeous 2012-opened Jonathan Milikowsky Science and Technology Building, are clearly inspired by that earlier vision, albeit considerably updated. On Milikowsky’s second level, an indoor classroom opens out, garage door-style, onto an “outdoor classroom,” whose other end has a sitting area that climbs stepwise down to the earth like an Incan terrace farm.

Here I witness first graders, tasked by teacher Kim Yap with finding and drawing elements of campus that “help promote community,” staring intently back and forth between the objects they’ve chosen and their sketchbooks. Encouraging abstract thinking, she says one way to fulfill the task is to focus on community-building “systems” like, for example, the school nurse’s office.

This is also where a seventh-grade science class, led by teacher Tim Blauvelt, marches through the garage-like door carrying a curious object: a paper-thin black plastic tube several stories long and about as thick as a large sewer cover. Guided down a staircase into a neighboring field, the tube stays earthbound for a bit and then, in the mid-morning sun, begins to rise into the atmosphere. It’s a demonstration of the way the color black absorbs all light wavelengths, which causes the air inside to heat up, which in turn causes the tube to rise. The students, of course, are enthralled, running around to see it from different angles before hauling it back to class to discuss related concepts using one of the school’s many touch-sensitive digital whiteboards. Asked about a lanky geared contraption mirrored on other desks around the room, a student proudly identifies it as a small wind power generator he’s built.

In buildings around campus, other students are generating wind and power of their own. Young students in gym class are playing “chaos kickball” to pump-up jams like Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.” Fifth graders led by instructor Lely Evans are high-fiving each other after successful exchanges in Chinese. In music class, older middle school students are practicing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” on handbells, coached and conducted by their teacher Deadra Hart.

The eye of the whirlwind—the “center” of things, as both Maoz and Bromage call it—is the school’s Perrine Library. The wide and angular space, tall and airy towards the back where the stacks give way to tables, is filled with tens of thousands of items—“literature, reference materials, new fiction, classic selections and multimedia,” the school’s website says.

The scene during my library visit is calm, as the storm metaphor suggests, but not inactive. At one end, young students are enjoying a reading, the pages turned out to face them. Near the center of the center, seventh graders are sitting at computers, chatting as they work on an assignment. Beyond them, a wall of windows climbs out of sight, glowing with tree-dappled sunlight.

It’s another Foote-style reminder that while you can learn a lot from studying books, there are lessons that only experiencing the world can teach.

The Foote School
50 Loomis Pl, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-3464 |

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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