A farewell to Upattinas

On Wednesday October 16th a group of 50+ current and former  students, parents, teachers, board members and even grandparents gathered to make the unanimous decision to close Upattinas School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

The mood was surprisingly upbeat. The board had already recommended that the community formally agree to close the school; the decision was not unexpected.  The last few years had included several failed attempts to increase enrollment, including diversifying advertisements, and a search for a potential new location. For those of us who had been involved in the struggle to keep the school alive for the past few years, there was a comfort in certainty, even if it wasn’t the future we’d hoped for. Still, I felt sad about the closing of a school which was instrumental in influencing some of the ideals that helped shape the person I am today.

photo 3I began going to Upattinas after a torturous 9th grade year at Friends Select, a Quaker prep school in center city Philadelphia. Memories from that year include:

  • Receiving detention for skipping Spanish class to participate in a protest against the impending Iraq war, and sitting afterward in an assembly where an administrator preached, fighting for what you believe in is important, but school must come first.
  • A teacher using Quakerism (my religion, not his) as a reason why we shouldn’t use swear words.
  • Watching the school struggle to accommodate one of my close friends who was grieving after his father had passed away, putting him first on academic, then behavioral probation and eventually asking him to leave the school.

My grades, self esteem, and relationship with my parents all suffered. Because my grades were poor, my mom wouldn’t let me go outside until my homework was finished. I felt that the homework was busywork, irrelevant and stupid, and I couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I felt imprisoned in my room, playing my hundredth game of solitaire, becoming increasingly stressed about the impending due dates, and resolute that it simply wasn’t worth giving a fuck

I elected to be “sick” rather than attending school so often that there was talk of holding me back a year due to the quantity of class time I’d missed. What started out as me choosing to be ill became me actually feeling sick to my stomach. I would lie in bed all day under the covers and debate whether it was better to go back to school the next day or to be sick for the rest of the week.

The final straw was chemistry class. I felt completely unable to connect with the teacher and uninspired by the topic. As I fell further behind, it became clear that I was in danger of failing the course. I would have been happy to accept a “fail”, but the school informed me that I would need to retake it if I didn’t earn a passing grade. This was baffling to me. I had already wasted a year in a class where I was learning nothing, and I’d be damned if I had to waste a second. If I crammed hard enough for the final exam, I would never have to take chemistry again. In the end I spent two hours with an outside tutor and aced the final. I finished the year feeling stifled, uninspired, pissed off, and stuck.

After this horrific year Upattinas seemed magical–in every way the antithesis of Friends Select. Classes and homework were optional; there were no tests or grades. They encouraged independent study, and valued students who were willing to pursue their passions and ideals. At about 100 students from Kindergarden through 12th grade, Upattinas was a tight-knit community of individuals in the rawest sense of the word.


At Select, I felt like I had been pushed into a box, whereas Upattinas allowed me to be free. I was part of a community of both students and teachers, who were enthusiastic about helping me to realize my passions and goals. Where the staff and teachers at Select felt rigid and callous, Upattinas ran meetings by consensus, allowing everyones voices to be heard.

Upattinas introduced me to the idea of self-directed learning. I was moved by Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, and my fellow students were proof that young people could and should be supported in making real decisions about their educational pursuits.

Field day 6When I think about Upattinas closing, there is a sense of losing a childhood home. I remember listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication while playing volleyball on a gorgeous fall day near the beginning of my first semester, with everyone outside, k-12th grade. At Upattinas, the perfect fall day trumped whatever chemistry lesson was scheduled. There was something profoundly satisfying about that logic.

I remember my first icebreaker trip–a three night stay at a state park with the entire school. During the second day several bears descended on the campground, invading the dumpsters and raiding the cabins for food. We all ended up sleeping in one of the larger buildings on the last night for safety, ice thoroughly broken.

Donald, one of my heroes

Donald, our basketball coach, resident outdoorsman, and edible bugs teacher, accounted for more than his fair share of the magic that was Upattinas. He could regularly be heard shouting cheese and rice (rather than Jesus Christ) or cooking bugs (there are two kinds of people in the world, those that know they eat bugs, and those that don’t know they eat bugs) and road kill with the help of students. Every spring he would bribe us with ice cream to pick dandelions so that he could make dandelion wine (Let me know if your parents want any and I’ll be sure to save them a bottle!).  He might sound eccentric, but he was also genuinely extremely knowledgable in the fields of outdoor education, first aid, survivalism, and by far the best basketball coach I’ve ever had.

206699_17241857224_5955_nUpattinas could often feel like a summer camp, with mostly out-of-class learning (epitomized by a giant Trebuchet that a group of particularly ingenious students built from scratch), however, I also have fond memories of logic classes with Anna, math with Alden, and literature with Sandy. In theatre class, we put on Little Shop of Horrors several months after a potential drama teacher elected not to teach us, claiming that we didn’t have enough motivation to put on a musical.

Upattinas gave me three years of great memories. More than that, it gave me the ability to pursue my own educational path, which meant concentrating on activism, and thinking about the world of education. Almost everything I’ve done since high school has been influenced by my time at Upattinas. I’m so thankful to have been a part of the Upattinas community, and am grateful to those who worked tirelessly to create and run the school for over 40 years.

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22 Responses to A farewell to Upattinas

  1. Sandra Hurst says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Matt. It is a terrific testimonial and good stories, too! Sandy

  2. Nancy says:

    Matt, your remembrances are such Upattinas classics; thanks for capturing our spirit is your stories!

  3. Wow. Fabulous article Matt.

  4. Amber Timlin says:

    Matt, your experience at Upattinas was similar to mine, as was the road that lead you there. After 5 years in the public school system, I felt like I was drowning. I skipped school more days than went and I can remember nearly every teacher I had during those years telling me “Amber you should be getting straight A’s! Your the smartest kid in my class, you should be in honors. If you would just do your homework.” With similar feelings about homework as you expressed I opted not to do it—as it was a waste of time which could be spent more productively—and received C’s through most of my classes.

    Upattinas saved me.

    I’m so sad to hear that the magic place that shaped so many of our lives and allowed us to grow into the people we are today will no longer be able to change the lives of others. Everywhere I have gone I’ve spoken of the beauty and acceptance of the Upattinas community—how it still feels like home.

    May the spirit of this place live on in it’s community, and may we see new dreams like it emerge to give freedom of thought to new generations.

  5. Kani Brams says:

    Matt, this was a very good tribute to the school. I was glad to see you again serving as the Chair of the school board in recent years. You contributed so much in service to Upattinas. Thanks!

  6. Anna says:

    Well done, Matt, well done.

  7. Kim (Gutekunst) Piotrowski says:

    I agree – Upattinas saved me. My problems in public school stemmed from abuse issues at home – Upattinas was the first place where I felt safe being “just me.” In fact they encouraged it – I remember Rena and Nancy telling me that I didn’t have to be someone else to be accepted… The whole community was like a family that took me in and accepted me with no questions asked – I doubt I would be here today if it wasn’t for Upattinas and all the wonderful people there.

  8. Jason Rose says:

    A favorite memory – teacher Carolee bringing my attention to nature while on walks through the woods.

  9. Linda Sullivan says:

    I am proud to call my wonderful daughter a graduate of Uppatinas. After graduation, she was accepted at Emmersonn college in Boston, and has been going strong ever since. Not sure if she would have made it if she would have stayed in her “normal” school with all of the. bullying. Thank you Uppatinas.

  10. karen libman says:

    Upattinas taught me what it was to be a community member and a teacher, I am so sad to hear of this.

  11. i also writing book about my experience at Upattinas and the Way of Elephant Thai Trip and my Teacher Education Program there..so much learning and liberating in education from there. Thanks you for the really meaningful experience memoir.

  12. Upattinas name came from Up At Tina. It was found when during Home school Time just bloomed and The small group of parent found the Home school group Up Hill at TIna House, That ‘s what my memory how the school started. It was time for deciding to close the school this year. I had the experience & memoir teaching and learning there in Alternative Education there for decade.The best thing i learnt from there how to liberate the curriculum!! and taking my Americans youngster students to Thailand. It was such a life experience for all of us. I am just writing book about the Experience there as well will publish soon.โรงเรียนทางเลือกที่ชื่อว่า อัพพาติน่า กำเนิดมาจากครอบครัวโฮมสคลูรวมกลุ่มกันไปเรียนที่บ้านที่อยู่บนเนินเขา ของนางทิน่า ต่อมาเติบโตเป็นชุมชนโรงเรียนทางเลือก ตัวเองได้มีโอกาสได้ทุนไปเรียนและสอนที่นั่นอยู่สามปี สิ่งที่ได้เรียนและจดจำไม่เคยลืม คือ การทำหลักสูตรให้เป็นอิสระกับผู้เรียนและผู้สอน ผลออกมา เราพานักเรียนออกนอกห้องเรียนกันตลอดเวลา และหนำซ้ำยังพาเด็กนักเรียนอเมริกันของฉันเดินทางมาถึงประเทศไทย ในวิชาวัฒนธรรมเปรียบเทียบ ถ้าจะเรียนเรื่องปรเะเทศไทย แล้วไม่มากินน้ำพริก ส้มตำ มาป่า มาเมืองไทย จะเรียนจริงๆได้ไง https://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F61379825&h=1AQHRcvzW

  13. Ellen Reynolds says:

    As soon as I heard heard that Upattinas was really closing I re-released two videos made around 1999/2000, one with Guest teacher Nao Saowonee Sangkara. The links to the two videos are here, if anyone would like to see them. Where does this model, this dialogue, continue now and into the future is an important question for me. Share with Alternative Education interest parties in general, Upattinas peeps in particular, of course. Thanks for your tribute!
    Video 1: https://vimeo.com/77815007 Video 2: https://vimeo.com/61379825
    Ellen Reynolds

  14. Janet M Mester says:

    There are also mixed emotions when it comes time to say go bye to a place that was so special. I was there, I guess you can say, in the beginning. I believe it might had been around 1972 1973 or 1974. If there are any pictures around please let me know. I would love to piece together my childhood. The class mates today now have video, so do yourself a favor, hold on to that as long as you can. Never loose yourself. Always do what you love and it will never be work. Best wishes to everyone involved with the school. Janet M Mester totaleffect@msn.com

    • Michael Krohn says:

      Hello Janet,I called you a couple years back,I`m sorry you don`t remember.You lived with us for a while,and then my parents caught us playing slap and tickle.Upattinas will always be special for me,it was the best part of my life,be well,Love Michael

  15. John McGeorge says:

    Great stories Matt. I will always be grateful for my time at Upattinas. Just last year, I had a vacation day and decided to visit. Even though I didn’t know any of the students, they were very welcoming. It was great to visit with Kim, Nancy, and Jeremy; and being there felt like being a kid again.

    • Jamie B. Reeves says:

      I had the pleasure of spending a year at Upattinas from 1981-1982… I also had the pleasure of spending it with you John… As a native Scandinavian it was obviously something completely different from what I was used to… Well maybe not… My school back in Denmark was pretty alternative too 😉
      I’m sorry to see such an important part of my childhood becoming “nothing but” a memory… But I take comfort in knowing it was and always will be a happy one.
      – Jamie B. Reeves

  16. elizabeth winter says:

    I too, was given the gift of Upattinas. I was struggling through 9th grade at OJR[I had been a good student [ k-8th]]. I was offered the opportunity to attend Upattinas ’75=’76. It was a wonderful experience! The school, at that time was located on Valley Forge Mountain[the old nuke site]! I was embraced for my strengths and encouraged to explore my talents. Ed Hess was the kind of teacher that every teacher should strive to be.He made learning and understanding fun! He never judged,and always encouraged! I am sorry to hear that this wonderful school is closing!

  17. Thank you for posting this! I had no idea the school was closing. I am writing a post on love this month and would like to reference this post in it if you are ok with that. Upattinas taught me to embrace learning, even though they could never trump my disconnect with Chemistry – no matter how hard they tried.

  18. Michael Krohn says:

    I will alwaus love and miss my memories of Upattinas,but so very happy to still have my Upattinas friends,Love all pof you,Michael

  19. Stacy Winther says:

    “I’m OK your OK”!!!!! I’ll never forget those words Nancy. Such great memories and unbelievable stories about my time spent at Upattinas. I would love to hear from anyone who was their during my years 1986-1989 (i think). Carl,JR,Corey,Mike,Chris,Crystal,Ethan,Evan,Jeff,Ed,Meg,Stephanie,Tom.

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