Dharma in the Classroom

Saraha Children’s School offers a peaceful approach to education

Daily Tibetan Language and Meditation practice by SCS teachers and students

The first thing a visitor notices about the Saraha Children’s School is the peace and quiet. Nestled in a dappled oak savannah in Eugene’s South Hills, the Tibetan Buddhist K-8 school currently serves just four children with two full-time teachers, although it has the capacity for someday accommodating 30 students. The atmosphere is downright relaxing.

Founded in August 2014, Saraha seeks to integrate Buddhist philosophy into its curriculum by focusing daily on Buddhist virtues, such as courage, dedication, effort and focus.

“We’re self-paced, flexible and adaptive,” says Susan Nakaba, Saraha’s principal and fifth through eighth grade teacher. Nakaba points to daily lesson plans that she scaffolds with kindergarten through fourth grade teacher Jennie Goodlett to meet the needs of children, currently ranging in age from 9 to 12.

Buddhist Lamas (or spiritual masters) Lama Sonam Tsering and Lama Tsering Gyaltsen oversee the school’s spiritual curriculum. And though the school is under the umbrella of the Saraha Nyingma Buddhist Institute, Saraha is not an intrinsically religious school. Buddhism takes a nontheistic approach, notes Nakaba. “Buddha is not a God,” she says.

At Saraha, children receive daily instruction in meditation practice, Tibetan language and Dharma, or “right way of living,” along with traditional Western disciplines like math, English, science and social studies. PE includes a weekly yoga class and creative dance. And for music, students can learn piano or cello.

Although Saraha’s curriculum is guided by Oregon State Standards, “We’re not slaves to them,” Nakaba says. The school offers a reprieve from the rigors of state testing, as well.

“We don’t give tests in the traditional sense,” Nakaba says. “Instead, teachers assess what the students know every day.”

In lieu of grades, students receive progress reports that demonstrate mastery from “1” to “4.” The school’s size, Nakaba notes, allows for instruction to follow students’ abilities and interests.

“I like that it’s at our own pace,” says Sage, 11. “And I like that we have a voice. Like, if there’s a change to our schedule, we’re involved.”

Isaac, 12, adds, “You have more time to finish things, and you get more personal attention.”

Saraha is a private nonprofit school. Tuition for the coming school year is $5,000, and $3,000 per additional sibling. Monthly payment plans are available, as is need-based financial aid.

Of the four children currently attending Saraha, only one has had experience in public school: Oceana, 10, attended public kindergarten and first grade. “But I like private school a lot better,” she says. “I know when I come here that I’ll get to be in nature, that I’ll see deer. And I like that I have a smaller class.”

Samaya, a 3rd grade student, working on art (Left). Teacher Jennie Goodlett and Oceana, a 4th grade student, writing a story

After lunch, which is taken family-style in a cozy kitchen off the luminous shrine room, the two tiny classes gather with their teachers for a conversation led by Nakaba about upcoming holidays, such as Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day. The children demonstrate their knowledge about the research and editing process and seem eager to tackle their own holiday posters and essays, which they’ll report back to the class at the end of the week.

“And should our illustrations be in color or black and white?” Nakaba asks.

The children agree: color.

Samaya, 9, waves her fist in the air when she’s given the green light to begin researching her holiday that very evening.

There’s an air of excitement about learning, and an earnest level of expectation among teachers and students alike.

“We don’t have behavioral referrals,” says Nakaba, a veteran teacher and administrator with more than 30 years of experience in public school systems. “However, we do teach that actions have consequences. For example, any child can call a school meeting at any time.”

Saraha’s non-sectarian, contemplative approach finds its way into many aspects of the school day, from story time to a daily student-led “mindfulness” walk to collecting “Buddha Beads” for demonstrating representative virtues.

“This is every teacher’s dream,” says Goodlett, who is a former public school teacher. “With smaller classes, you get to know the kids. And since you’re not spending all your time grading, you can spend more time creating curriculum just for them.”

Goodlett points to math story problems, written specifically for her two students, Oceana and Samaya.

“They really look forward to those,” Goodlett says.

Though the school has room for more students, Nakaba cautions, “We don’t want it to grow past 30. We’re filling a niche that’s right for some people.” ν

For more information about upcoming open houses, or to learn about the Saraha Children’s School program, visit sarahaschool.org.