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Unconventional School Focuses On Students’ ‘Inner Being’


Aired 2/9/10

A group of enlightened San Diego youngsters are practicing ancient disciplines that most people don’t discover until later in life. They’re doing yoga and meditation at a private school in La Jolla. They study traditional subjects but they also focus on their "inner being."

— A group of enlightened San Diego youngsters are practicing ancient disciplines that most people don’t discover until later in life. They’re doing yoga and meditation at a private school in La Jolla. They study traditional subjects but they also focus on their "inner being."

Students at the Integral School practice mediation and yoga during the regula...
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Above: Students at the Integral School practice mediation and yoga during the regular school day.

Integral School offers art, music and drama in addition to teachings of self-...
Enlarge this image

Above: Integral School offers art, music and drama in addition to teachings of self-knowledge.

Fifteen precocious kids sit cross-legged. They’re in a circle inside a bare classroom. Some fidget. Others remain still. Teacher Wendy Cotton guides them through their group meditation.

“See yourself outside on a beautiful path,” Cotton said. “Take a look at this path. Is it dirt? Is it grass? Is it rocks? This is your special journey you get to create it however you'd like.”

This ritual begins each morning at the Integral School in La Jolla. The teachers at the school strive to help kids discover their life purpose by getting in-touch with themselves.

Carla Gerstein is a mother and the school's co-founder. She didn't like what traditional and charter schools had to offer.

“I was actually in this meditation and it kind of hit me,” Gerstein said. “I wanted something different for my kids, and I don't see it out there. So it looks like I am going to have to do this.”

That's when Gerstein partnered with Dr. Prapanna Smith to open the school.

“I don't think there is any school that is anything like our school in this community,” Smith said.

Smith is a teacher who spent time in India studying Integral Education – the practice of educating the entire child including the mind, body, soul and spirit.

The Integral School in La Jolla attempts to do that by combining regular subjects with teachings of self-knowledge. Smith says parents are searching for a more meaningful learning experience for their children.

“(The United States) is wealthiest country in the world. We spend billions upon billions on the military. Why can't we do the same for education for our kids? We could do this (model in public education). The problem is there is no political will and there is a lack of vision.”

Math, reading, history and science are still core subjects at school, and students are tested regularly. But Smith says meditation, yoga, character development and conflict resolution are also essential parts of the curriculum.

There are some people in the education world that believe standards, testing and career pathways are the only means to success. But Smith says his research shows students can make big gains if they're given just enough academic freedom. He also says kids are more likely to succeed if there they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Only 25 students currently attend the Integral School. Tuition is about $11,000 a year. The money pays for classes like Awareness Through The Body. That class combines conscious-building exercises with physical activities. Best friends Natalie Marrewa and Kiera Fieghan-Patrizi say it's a fun challenge.

“You have to do balance. It helps you focus your mind and senses,” Marrewa said.

“We get to sometimes do obstacle courses. Just yesterday we had to balance real eggs on spoons,” Fieghan-Patrizi added.

The Integral School has been operating peacefully for three years. Gerstein, who is the school’s vice principal, says the school is small, but more parents sign up every year. She thinks learning about personal growth is good at any age, and downplays the idea that self-awareness is an "adult issue."

“These children can handle it,” Gerstein said. “Yes, it is at a different level. It is at their level. But my goodness, the difference it will make in their lives and their future.”

The school serves kindergarten through sixth grades. They hope to expand over the next few years to include junior and high school students. The kids already on campus say they plan to stay here. They say they couldn’t see themselves anywhere else.

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Avatar for user 'amhdestiny'

amhdestiny | February 9, 2010 at 4:55 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

My daughter is in Kindergarten this year and she goes to IES. We LOVE it. She adjusted very quickly, within the first few days at the begining of the school year, to her new full 5 days/wk schedule. My daughter loves her teacher and school.

I remember my grandmother being a little wary about starting every day with a meditation. She said, "That doesn't sound like any school I ever heard of!". I understood her concern, thinking of my daughter who was always considered a hyper-active kid in her earlier pre-schools. I've had had warning discussions with previous pre-school teachers to watch for developing signs of ADD.

Now I know IES was the best decision for my daughter. The meditations have been simple and appropriate for their age level; where they are encouraged to close their eyes, but reminded to be quiet and respectful to others during this time. After, each child is given an opportunity to share something about their experience. This appears to give them a growing sense of self-confidence.

Most amazingly, my daughter has learned to calm her mind and body during Yoga. I am still working to translate this behavior into meal time, but I am encouraged by the progress my daughter has made- academically, socially, creatively, and in physical education. I can see the changes in her as her understanding of life & awareness of her body-mind-spirit grows.

I am grateful to the support she is receiving through the team of professional teachers and innovated programs at IES! Thank you IES!

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Avatar for user 'CarlaG'

CarlaG | February 9, 2010 at 6:59 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

Check out our website -

or give us a call if you have any questions or would like a tour...


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Avatar for user 'rpcoach'

rpcoach | February 9, 2010 at 10:21 p.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

My son is in kindergarten at IES this year and we are so grateful to have found this amazing school!

Every time I read a research article about education today (and I read a lot), I see that IES is right in line with best practices.They teach the children all the standards they need to know but they also make learning fun and meaningful. This is not a place where they are sitting and doing worksheets all day! They are taught how to think for themselves, question what they see, and problem solve. They also work on inter-personal issues and think about what kind of person they want to become. This is not just touchy-feely stuff. I believe the focus on growing the whole child is critical to early development. It is not just the cognitive but also the social and emotional intelligences that will the foundation of our kids' professional and personal success in the future.

I was concerned when I first heard of the school that in order to get this level of self-awareness training we would have to sacrifice a top-notch "world awareness" education. Not so! Integral has extraordinary teachers who go above and beyond to stretch each of the children to reach their potential.

I hear so many neighbors and friends bemoaning how education is "these days" thinking they have no choice. We drive over 30 minutes every day to go to IES and we wouldn't have our son anywhere else.

Thank you, IES!

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Avatar for user 'CarlaG'

CarlaG | February 10, 2010 at 11:35 a.m. ― 7 years, 1 month ago

Thanks Amber and Rachel for you great comments! This is why we do what we do at the school - for the kids!

By the way, the story did not mention this, but I wanted to point out to everyone reading this, our low student-teacher ratios of about 12 to 1, or better! We provide a very individualized learning program that is developmentally appropriate for each student, which can only be done with low ratios.

Please call if you have any questions. 858-450-4321

Carla Gerstein, Vice Prinicipal
Integral Elementary School

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