Photo by Joanna Barnett

Harmony School is located at 909 E. Second St. in the former Elm Heights Elementary School building. To show support for the emerging school in 1985, the public schools system sold the building to Harmony for $10.

Sallyann Murphey did not plan on being a teacher. With a degree in politics and modern history, she started her career as a journalist and producer for the BBC. In 1991, she and her family moved to a farm in Brown County. Murphey enrolled her daughter in Harmony School, and her career changed direction.

She questioned her daughter's social studies curriculum and brought her concerns to the school. But instead of being brushed off, she was invited to teach her own class. Seven years later, she finds herself both teaching at Harmony School and working as an advocate on behalf of the school and its mission.

Murphey is passionate about Harmony School's practices. She believes in the school's mission and works to create other schools around the country that accept and support its ideas.

"(Bloomington has) this educational jewel in their midst, which is famous around the country and held in great esteem for the work it has done to create a safe learning environment where students can excel in whatever it is they want to do," Murphey says in an e-mail interview.

A special place

According to clinical associate professor in multicultural education at the IU School of Education Barbara Dennis Korth, Harmony is a special place because it fosters a democratic community in which teachers and students have a voice.

"Harmony notices how important it is to have a democratic process in the school environment," Korth says. "In public schools today, there is a strong sense of a need for control. Harmony lets go of that control and is open to letting students choose what it is they learn."

Murphey says the voice that students have in the school, well as the range and depth of classes offered, are why she loves Harmony.

She is also proud of the high school graduates.

"Colleges love Harmony graduates because they are such self-motivated learners and are not shy about approaching their professors," Murphey says.

Photo courtesy of Sallyann Murphey

Sallyann Murphey values her close relationships with students. Harmony's small size allows teachers to give all students individual attention.

A vocation, not a job

For Murphey, teaching is her life. "It's a vocation," she says of her job. In addition to teaching four high school social studies courses, she is the high school coordinator, the senior class adviser, a college counselor and a member of the school finance committee, technology committee, and the governance council of Harmony Education Center.

"We are a small faculty, and we are expected to be counselors and administrators, as well as teachers," Murphey says. "We don't work out of textbooks but write our own curriculum, so the teaching part alone keeps me on my toes."

The 15-to-1 teacher-student ratio at Harmony creates a different relationship between teachers and students than is often found in larger schools. For Murphey, "the close relationships with the students" is most gratifying.

These close relationships are evident in areas such as recommendation letters for college applications, Korth says.

"Teachers' letters of recommendation are strong due to the small school size," she says. "They know the kids really well, so when they write letters, those letters are powerful. They really give colleges a good sense of what the student is like."

Spreading across the country

Schools like Harmony are not limited to Bloomington. The Harmony Education Center is working to spread the school's ideals to other schools throughout the country. According to Korth, a sister school in Hawaii is forming that will reflect Harmony values , and students will travel to Hawaii to help with the organization and creation of the new school.

"I believe that there is also a public high school in Houston using Harmony as a model," Korth says. "But because the school in Houston is a large, public school, it causes some difficulties that Harmony doesn't have to deal with."

Those difficulties include the large number of students, as well as the need for them to perform on standardized tests. "It's hard to create alternative high schools in a political climate that uses standardized tests as the main means of evaluation," Korth says.

However, according to Korth, the future for schools like Harmony is bright.

"Public schools might be facing more challenges now than they will in 10 years," she says. "Right now, they have to be the best of both worlds -- they are expected to use transformative teaching methods as well as show standardized test achievement."

The Coalition of Essential Schools' (CES) Small Schools Project is working to create more schools like Harmony across the nation. According the CES Web site, the project plans to create 11 high schools over the next five years with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Like Korth, Murphey is hopeful. "The small-schools movement certainly seems to be gaining ground," she says. "We are a mentor school for the Coalition of Essential Schools' Small Schools Project, and I have seen the organization flourish over the past few years."

The critics

Murphey and Korth, both parents of former Harmony students, know that one of the biggest challenges for schools like Harmony are the critics.

Harmony is not an accredited school. If it was, it would have to follow more rules, and its methods would not work, Korth says.

"As a parent, I saw some problems with Harmony not being accredited, but neither of my children had a problem getting into the colleges of their choice," she says.

Murphey agrees. "Our classes mirror the Indiana Core-40 requirements, and our statistics for college admissions blow both the state and national figures off the map," she says. "We have many different success stories of many different stripes, and I wish the people of Bloomington took more pride in that."

Joanna Barnett can be reached at .