The Phoenix Rising School

Breaking New Ground
Interview with Phoenix Rising School Founder James Capezio
By Heidi Smith

By any standard, the Phoenix Rising School is having a remarkable year. Since opening its doors in September, 2010, the school has enrolled forty-seven students, implemented several signature programs, created a vision team, and moved full speed ahead in the development of a unique and autonomous school model. “I’ve been part of start-ups before,” says co-founder James Capezio, “but I’ve never been part of one that continually makes quantum leaps.”

Inspired by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, James and his wife Rebecca set out to create a place where children could develop intrinsic motivation and pursue their own passions rather than being led by external rewards and mandated lessons, while still maintaining rigor as a core value. As Pink points out, such an education develops children who are self-directed, self-confident and engaged in their own learning.  The C.R.E.A.T.E. program (see interview below), which allows the staff to integrate disciplines from Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment into the curriculum, is also a key component. “We’re truly a leading edge progressive school,” says Capezio.  “Take what science knows about human motivation, and here we are. On top of that, we’re a consciousness-based school, which is very rare but also in keeping with what scientists are saying about the benefits of meditation and focus.”  

 Led by the Capezios, ten board members and nine staff are currently developing the school model, creating and fulfilling organizational goals, and looking to the future. Capezio shared his perspective on the journey so far and the long-term vision for Phoenix Rising.

MC: What was it that so inspired you in the book Drive about the concept of autonomy?

JC: I started to realize that I was an extrinsically motivated person and I  began to understand to a large degree why. In part it was my education. I was always told what to do, and what we were going to learn. It was all about grades and I became very disengaged, bored and a bit on the rebellious side, so I never really applied myself, because I was doing everything for outside reasons. A lot of us do things for a pat on the back or a reward or to avoid punishment. The science of all that was explained in the book Drive. That was what pulled me about the book.

 Then Daniel Pink talked about the intrinsically motivated person, which is who we all are innately. The Ram has always said that we’re commonly divine, and as divine entities we’re compelled to create. I think over time in public school systems, that’s kind of taught out of us.

I don’t want my kids to be that way. I want them to love learning. I want them to be self-confident. I wasn’t self-confident because I was always told what to do, and I became a follower, and followers are innately insecure. I didn’t trust myself and my own dreams and ideas. I never asked myself, “What am I passionate about?” So I want exactly the opposite for my children. I want them to love learning, be passionate about what they’re learning, and have a school model built around that -- understanding the relative value of math, reading and writing but following their own passions and their own goals that they’ve set, so that they come out not motivated for the pat on the back but motivated because they want to master something and now it has a sense of purpose to it.  What Drive taught me is that if they have that upbringing they’re going to gain self-confidence because they’ll have feedback and want to master the goal until they achieve it.

MC: How big of a leap was it for you and Rebecca to move from “This is what I want for my kids” to “This is what I want for all of these kids”?

JC: It’s a small community of children, relatively speaking. We could have gone in a direction of homeschooling, but there was a greater sense of purpose because all of our neighbors and friends who have children were in the same boat. We saw the opportunity of doing it and we went through that door.

MC: This is a clearly a huge undertaking. What do you know now that you didn’t know when you first took this on?

JC: I’ve learned that it basically has to be run like a business organization, albeit a non-profit one. Its stability and ability to achieve are based on being run like a really good business. I was never in an autonomous business structure, and I only understood top down management, and that’s one thing that I knew we wouldn’t have moving forward. So it was a bit of the unknown.

 I saw the value in Drive of the many businesses that afforded everyone in the organization to have self-direction, and their own ideas were valued so that everyone was very passionate about where their organization was going because they were included. That was the theory, and the question became, how does that work in application? It’s still unfolding in terms of how it works.

MC: How is the development of the school model coming along?

JC: I think it’s coming along as well as it possibly could. All the staff are passionate about taking on the autonomous model and moving toward it. They’re visiting autonomous schools that have already proven to be successful, they’re researching and they’re getting coaching and training. All of them are mastering becoming the best they can be as an educator within an autonomous framework. It’s a process, like anything else. The application of it is incremental, taking two steps forward and one step back, getting feedback and then refining it. So we’re on the path of mastering it, but it’s a journey. We’re giving ourselves a lot of time and space to play in and refine ourselves. There’s going to be the speed bumps along the way. That’s what the unknown is, and that’s what adversity is. It’s about the journey. We’re all growing together. If you use the analogy of a business organization, we’re a start-up. But we’re the first start-up that I’ve ever been in that is moving as rapidly as this.

MC: What is the vision for how the students and the parents can affect the direction of the school?

JC: Our intent with the parents is to be very communicative with them, especially from the teachers while we’re teething, so to speak. There’s much more communication between the teachers and the parents than in your average school. The parents are going to be part of the community who elect our board once a year, and they’re also going to have one seat on the board at all times who is representative of them when issues come up to be voted on.  Also, potentially in the future parents will be able to come into the classroom and even participate in the day with their children. They’ll be welcome to come in informally.

MC: How do you see the long-term vision of the school?

JC: There’s already discussion about opening up to seventh grade for next year. That, with our thoughts about having less structured grades, multi-age classrooms, definitely seems like an easy transition we can make. Even though we’re an autonomous school that is child-centered, one thing that is not going to be lost is that when students leave our school they will be at least equal if not ahead of other students in terms of reading, writing and arithmetic. Not because “you must learn this” but because we’re very confident that when they’re setting their own goals that we have the ability as teachers to include things like reading and writing in ways that are relevant. So they’ll want to learn those things. It won’t be something they have to do without understanding why.

 The rigor will be there. We’re holding ourselves to making sure that the children don’t fall behind in the essential tools for life.

MC: How can the extended RSE community, both locally and throughout the world, support the Phoenix Rising School?

JC: Typically, when a business is a start-up, it’s looking for investors. It’s the same for schools that start up -- that’s their biggest challenge. How do we fund this? There are ways of doing this, but something that could be a foundation for us is if the community can help us in that way. What your investing in is not a product, so you’re not profit-driven, but you’re purpose-motivated to invest. The purpose is that we’ll be sending out geniuses into the world and it’s an investment that’s going to pay dividends and that’s going to make a genuine difference because our children will have a meaningful impact wherever they go in their futures.

We are a non-local community of like-minded people, and these are our children. Our school is unique because not only is it child-centered, but its also consciousness based. There’s only one other consciousness based school that I’ve found that call themselves consciousness-based because they do Transcendental Meditation in the morning to start the day and at the end, which is great, but we go  way beyond that in our C.R.E.A.T.E. program. We’re a unique school that is applying a model that is aligned with what behavioral and neurological science knows. We’re about the future, and these are our kids. The staff, the board,  the entire team is committed that we are going to make the international RSE community extremely proud.

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