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VUF Empowers City Garden School with $15,000 Grant for Middle School Expansion

Columbia, MO, Dec 18, 2023 — Veterans United Foundation (VUF) has generously awarded City Garden School a $15,000 grant to support the expansion of their middle school this academic year. The grant, provided by VUF, has been instrumental in enhancing the learning environment for students by enabling the acquisition of essential resources, including new tables, chairs, lockers, science materials, lab tables, chemistry materials, math materials, Spanish language materials, class sets of books, art supplies, and movement and games learning materials.

City Garden School, renowned for its commitment to fostering academic excellence and holistic development, expresses deep gratitude to Veterans United Foundation for its continuous support and investment in education. The substantial grant has significantly contributed to enriching educational resources available City Garden School students.

The funds have been strategically allocated to address various aspects of the learning experience, ensuring that students have access to a well-equipped and dynamic environment that stimulates their curiosity and passion for learning. From STEAM to language arts, the grant has touched upon diverse facets of education at City Garden School.

"We are immensely grateful to Veterans United Foundation for their unwavering commitment to education and their recognition of the importance of investing in the future of our students," said Jordan Johnson, Head of School at City Garden School. "This grant has allowed us to create an environment that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and a love for learning among our middle school students."

The grant has had a transformative impact on the school's ability to provide a well-rounded, holistic education to its students.

About Veterans United Foundation:

Veterans United Foundation is funded by the employees of Veterans United Home Loans and exists to enhance the lives of Veterans and military families and support diverse needs in our local communities and across the nation.

About City Garden School:

City Garden School is Columbia's premier Waldorf-inspired school dedicated to providing a nurturing and inclusive learning environment. Committed to academic excellence and holistic development, the school focuses on fostering creativity, critical thinking, and a love for learning among its students.

 Head of School, Jordan Johnson, says the mission is "to bring beauty and movement and tons of time out in nature to teach the kids the same universal (important) things

A Growing Community of Holistic Learners

Read the article here on page 48-49: COMO Magazine

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jordan Johnson.

Hi Jordan, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?

My story began like many stories, realized what I was doing wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. It wasn’t serving me, I didn’t feel fulfilled, and maybe most importantly, I didn’t believe in my work. What I was doing was teaching fourth grade in a public school. I loved teaching, and I looked forward to seeing my students and building connections within our content, but it was how I was being told to do that sparked a fire in me to change something. My goal was always to inspire a deep curiosity and a love of learning in my students. I could see that forcing students to sit quietly in a concrete room and absorb 7 hours of instruction with little movement or exposure to anything besides a screen- was not getting me closer to my goal. So, with my daughter approaching Kindergarten age, I decided to explore an educational route that I could be proud to be a part of and feel good about sending her to.

I enrolled in the Mizzou ELPA program (Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis) and committed myself to learn how to change things from the top down. During this time, I found an outdoor preschool named Blue Fox Farm, and I was sending my two young children there and learning SO much about all that outdoor education can offer a student and their family!! I was enamored and turned into that annoying person who gladly jumped onto my soapbox and rattled off about how important time in nature is, how it can change your body chemistry, how it reduces anxiety and depression, build social responsibility, etc. I chose to research and present every opportunity I got in my ELPA program about Outdoor Ed. I was a woman on a mission. I had accidentally found my passion. I finished my graduate degree and was left with the question, “now what?”

That was answered when I saw a posting for a director position at City Garden School—a small, private school in Columbia, MO- offering nature immersion and arts integration. I updated my resume, sent it off, and crossed my fingers that the stars would align.

Alright, let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what challenges have you had to overcome?

The road has been anything but smooth. I would call it a hike through the mountains more than a road! The year and a half it took me to complete my master’s was physically and mentally the most challenging year of my adult life. I look back and shudder at that year and a half. I’d just had a baby who had some medical complexities that made it hard for him (and so then me) to sleep. I was deep in the throes of postpartum anxiety. I was running two small businesses out of my home to contribute financially, and it was 2020-2021, so also navigating the pandemic.

Thanks for sharing that. So, you could tell us a bit more about your business.

City Garden School places significance on each child as a whole being in all aspects. Our mission reads, “City Garden School educates children’s hands, hearts, and minds with an intellectually rich curriculum that inspires wonder, reverence, and creativity. We honor and nurture the development of each child, infuse art and storytelling into every subject, and use the natural world as our classroom so children may grow with a capacity for empathy and a will to improve the world.”

As educators, we strive to create balance for each child by nourishing the thinking, feeling, and being willing with truth, beauty, and goodness, a mind that is sharpened with a wise and thoughtful intellect in the head, a soft heart that recognizes the beauty of the world, and strong hands that revere the strength of humankind.

City Garden is known for how much time our kids spend outside. There is a misconception that we don’t formally teach, actually, haha! That could not be further from the truth. Our rigorous curriculum is also meant to inspire beauty, creativity, and free thinking. Our purpose is to help develop children who are mentally, physically, and spiritually strong and who will change the world. I see this mission fulfilled every day!

What do you think about happiness?

No shocker here, but being outside makes me happy. A solo hike is the best meditation and opportunity for prayer that I’ve ever encountered. I immediately feel the difference in myself when I make time for that! So, seeing kids get the same opportunity for wellness in their education is everything to me!

We are honored to be an integral part of our community! Pictures of our students at our Takimina campus are in this article in the Missourian.

City Garden School (CGS) in Columbia, MO announced today that the school has formed a Partner in Education relationship with City of Refuge.

Partners in Education is a cooperative agreement between a business or an organization with a school. The partnership is a two-way street, in which the community partner contributes to the welfare of the school, students and staff and the school provides recognition and other services to the partner. 

Both organizations look forward to a healthy and beneficial relationship that will add to the community of caring in mid-Missouri. As a community partner, City of Refuge plans to dedicate time and cultural exchange with the students of City Garden School. The CGS community volunteers time and gathers donations to assist City of Refuge with their mission to serve refugees and immigrants in the Columbia area.

Families with children in the Columbia area have few options when seeking alternative school experiences, and City Garden School is the only provider of outdoor education inspired by Waldorf methodology. CGS provides an arts-integrated curriculum in a healthy, joyful, screen-free environment for parents who want a balanced approach to educating their children –mind, body, and spirit.

Second grader Hazel Hawley didn’t cry when she learned her older classmates at City Garden School took down her fort of branches and brush. Instead, she got right back to work building another one.

Within moments, fifth grader Maddox Musick invited her to help make a new fort for the school’s latest guests — Cooper and Perry, two golden retrievers who wandered over from a neighboring home.

“Perry is the puppy of the two, which means a whole lot more energy,” Maddox said as students gathered large sticks to craft an entry into the fort for the pair. “But Cooper seems like the type who just wants to sit and lounge and cuddle.”

Next fall, City Garden, a Waldorf-inspired school in Columbia, will have a few more fort builders in its assembly.

Roughly a year after the school moved its home base from Calvary Episcopal Church downtown to Camp Takimina, a 33-acre camp north of Columbia, the school continues to grow. Next year, it will welcome kindergartners and sixth graders as part of a long-term plan for expansion. The school is also aiming to move to a permanent location within a few years.

“Right now, we are focused on having a robust kindergarten through middle school program and really putting a lot of effort this year into fundraising so we can meet that goal of having land with a beautiful building,” said Jordan Johnson, school director for the 2022-23 school year.

Johnson works part time alongside Interim Director Katy Shaffer and will take over as full-time director in May.

Waldorf education encourages students to focus on academics, build relationships with the environment and pick up useful physical and emotional skills. Day-to-day classes consist of more traditional topics such as math, English and social studies, but also include nature time and handworking activities such as knitting and crocheting. Classes occur almost exclusively outdoors, either in the open air or in little tent classrooms.

“I really like it here,” second grader Amelia Parker told Johnson during the school’s second of three recesses. “I don’t really have a favorite thing — all of it is my favorite thing.”

Expanding programs

Starting in August, kindergartners will be eligible to attend for full or half days, five days a week.

City Garden’s need for kindergarten came from a learning gap teachers saw between incoming first graders and the school’s practices. In Waldorf learning, early education is all about nurturing the child, Johnson said.

Often, Johnson said, students who attend kindergarten at a public school before coming to City Garden are on different educational paths than what the school practices. The Waldorf approach maintains that introducing academics to young students too early removes the opportunity to nurture them first.

“We welcome children to grow academically at that age, but we don’t push academics early,” first grade teacher Neeley Current said. “We don’t think it serves the children to over intellectualize at such a young age.”

The addition of a kindergarten class was already in the works but became more feasible with a $14,901 donation from Veterans United Foundation earlier this month. Jessi Musick, the fundraising chair for City Garden’s board, applied for the grant, which was approved in a matter of days.

A kindergarten teacher for next year was hired last week, Johnson said.

Sixth graders will also be eligible to attend in the fall, kickstarting the first phase of a middle school program. The plan is to introduce seventh graders in fall 2023 and eighth graders in fall 2024. Johnson said the middle school program was requested by parents who wanted to keep their children at City Garden.

This year, City Garden has four teachers who oversee grades one through five, with fourth and fifth grades combined. Classes are made up of about seven to 12 students each.

Finding a forever home

Next year, Karis Church will temporarily be the school’s primary home.

City Garden has largely operated out of Camp Takimina this school year, and Karis Church in north-central Columbia has been used during the harsher winter months and bad weather days.

The school pays for a lease at each location, Johnson said, so the shift toward Karis Church will help save money. Students will still have class at the camp every Friday, and it will be used for nature-intensive learning days a few times a year.

As a nonprofit, the school funds many of its projects through fundraising. City Garden often participates in fall and spring craft fairs and is hosting a spring gala Friday.

Although City Garden eventually hopes to move to a permanent location, ground hasn’t been broken yet.

The school is pursuing a prospective 11.5-acre site in northeast Columbia.

In the meantime, Musick, on behalf of the school’s board, is working with the city to get construction and zoning plans approved so development for a new facility can eventually begin. She said it seems the city is “in full support” of the preliminary plans and site layout.

The goal, Musick said, is to start at the new site in fall 2023, the same year seventh graders will be introduced to the school.

Daily learning at Camp Takimina takes place in white tent classrooms sprinkled around the grounds. On chilly mornings, like April 19, the day the dogs visited, children sit at their desks in their mittens and jackets and at times struggle to write as they acclimate to the temperature.

Although most students don’t mind the cold, the tents help keep them a bit warmer, Johnson said. Last year, the school fundraised for and purchased all-season yurts to serve as classrooms. The yurts were tent-like, stove-heated structures that would allow for more comfortable outside learning. Johnson said the yurts ultimately presented zoning issues with the city.

“We just kept hitting roadblock after roadblock with the city,” Johnson said. City Garden was able to sell the yurts, and that money will go toward future development of the school.

Teaching with love

Emily Harryman, who is in her first year as a class teacher at City Garden, said her favorite part of the day is teaching nature studies to her second grade class.

“Plant identification is a big passion of mine, so I love teaching the kids about all the amazing plants that we have in the woods and teaching them how to identify different plants and what things are edible,” Harryman said. “They have no idea they can make a whole salad out of the things they can find even in their yards.”

Harryman said City Garden’s smaller class sizes allow students and teachers to build closer relationships. “We’re definitely very heart-driven.”

Current, who was one of the school’s founders, said implementing love was central to teaching. From ages 0 to 7, students are encouraged to learn through imitation and play.

“They’re learning how to be little people through this example of a teacher,” Current said. “There’s a loving authority of the teacher.”

City Garden School Announces Receipt of $14,901 Donation, as well as New Kindergarten Program for 2022-2023 School Year

City Garden School (CGS) in Columbia, MO announced today that it received a donation of $14,901 from the Veterans United Foundation to support a new kindergarten program.

The generous contribution from the Veterans United Foundation is an integral part of plans to expand CGS to include kindergarten for the upcoming school year. Through this expansion CGS provides an alternative school experience, giving knowledge, a path for creativity, and expanding the imagination of children. 

Families with children in the Columbia area have few options when seeking alternative kindergarten experiences, and City Garden School is the only provider of outdoor education inspired by Waldorf methodology. CGS provides an arts-integrated curriculum in a healthy, joyful, screen-free environment for parents who want a balanced approach to educating their children –mind, body, and spirit.

City Garden School kindergarten is designed to open a child’s whole self to all of life's wonders. The overarching purpose is to inspire such a love of learning that students delve into open questions with genuine curiosity and reverence that persists in producing a rich and rewarding life. 

Parents and caregivers who are interested in enrollment, learning more about the school and the partnership with the Veterans United Foundation are encouraged to contact the school by calling 573-326-9268 or by emailing for more information.

Missouri Environmental Education Association Organization Award for 2021

City Garden School was recognized by the Missouri Environmental Education Association with the Organization award for 2021 for all the work our staff, families, and students have put in to make outdoor learning a success. This award goes to an organization or program that provides outstanding environmental learning opportunities in Missouri. 

Read full article in the Missourian

Neeley Current’s voice cracked as she considered City Garden School’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were able to take something that was so tragic for people all over the world and take the time to connect with nature and realize what matters,” said Current, who teaches first grade at the small, private school in Columbia. “What we are doing here, this school, it matters.”

City Garden School, for first through fifth graders, has taken the past year to rethink the role of the natural world in its instruction. Every Friday before the pandemic, students spent the day outdoors in a variety of nature parks around Columbia. For daily recess, students walked the few blocks from their classrooms at Calvary Episcopal Church to Peace Park, on MU’s north end.

In August, the school moved to Camp Takimina, a 33-acre nature camp about a 15-minute drive north of town off Creasy Springs Road. Students began spending their school days outdoors or, if need be, inside a lodge on the grounds.

The school, which returned to Calvary for January and February, plans to move to the camp permanently starting Monday and adopt full-time outdoor learning going forward.

“We have been able to move beyond and redefine what education is and can be,” Current said.

City Garden had been looking for an outdoor space for some time, said Tory Kassabaum, director of school affairs, but the pandemic “accelerated the timeline.”

Fusing learning experiences

In March 2020, the school went virtual and remained online for the rest of the semester. Summer programs were canceled as the City Garden team devised a plan for the fall. It is renting the camp space from the Friends of Camp Takimina group.

After resuming in-person instruction outdoors in August, the teachers noticed a change in students’ emotional state.

“The biggest difference we noticed was, while we were outside, how happy the kids are and how much they wanted to stay at school,” Kassabaum said after sharing an anecdote about a child not wanting to leave when her parent came to pick her up from school early.

Current said she thinks being outdoors has helped students’ mental health and social skills. “Being outside really brings out a sense of caring and compassion in these kids,” she said.

Monica Everett, who teaches second grade, said the kids don’t talk about the pandemic much.

“They are aware of keeping everyone safe, but out here, when they get to play and see their friends, they get to forget about it and be kids,” Everett said.

In addition to traditional academic instruction that occurs outside at the camp, students read and sing around a fire pit, go on hikes along a nearby creek and build forts out of limbs and shrubbery.

Instruction through lessons as well as recreation time focuses on age-appropriate learning activities, Current said.

“There is a trend toward accelerated learning that is not in line with kids’ developmental milestones,” she said. She believes being outdoors and incorporating play into academics allows “kids to be kids.”

Taking mask breaks and studying flowers

On Friday, as first grader Amelia Parker displayed her mud sculptures, she said she prefers to have school outside because there is room to “breathe better.”

“It is nice to be able to take mask breaks when I need it because keeping a mask on is hard sometimes,” Amelia said. Several other students nodded.

Neve Duggan, a second grader, said she and her classmates love being outside.

“I kind of get annoyed with (the pandemic) sometimes, like when we couldn’t go swimming in the pool over the summer,” she said. Neve explained that being outside helps her cope with the effects of the pandemic because she can play with friends while staying safe.

Third grader Avi Kloeppel theorized that a flower he had learned about at the camp has the ability to boost your immune system. “It’s a really healthy flower,” Avi said, “so I was thinking that maybe it could help with COVID.”

Nearby, several masked students piled onto a log balanced on top of a boulder. They giggled and yelled for others to join them, squishing together on one side to see how many of them it would take to topple the log.

“See, they are making a fulcrum,” Current said. “They are learning physics.”

It’s an example of what Current called experiential learning. “They are learning science. We don’t call it that or use that language, but they are learning academic concepts through experience,” she said.

‘Being at school replenishes him’

City Garden, a nonprofit since 2014, employs a Waldorf-inspired curriculum that takes a holistic approach to a student’s emotional, physical and spiritual development.

Since moving outdoors last March, the school’s enrollment has almost doubled, from 19 to 36 students. “We gained a ton of students because of our COVID response,” Kassabaum said.

One such student is second grader Adrik Koji. After Adrik attended virtual school when Columbia Public Schools went online last March, his parents realized it would not work for him.

“(Outdoor instruction) is the reason we enrolled last August,” said Karina Koji, Adrik’s mother. “We thought this might be the answer to our concerns about in-person school.”

Koji has noticed a major shift in her son’s behavior since enrolling him at City Garden. Instead of coming home cranky and overstimulated, he’s relaxed and happy at the end of the day, she said.

“It is like being at school replenishes him,” Koji said. “Now, it isn’t something he has to recover from.”

Second grader Flynn Gamble’s father, Kevin Gamble, is also pleased with City Garden’s move outdoors. “It is wonderful,” he said. “It has increased everything already good about the school.”

Gamble said nature provides more opportunity for imaginative and creative play without the limitations of a traditional playground.

“Almost every day, (Flynn) comes home with a new story of something they did or found out there, whether it was a cool rock or a new type of animal,” Gamble said.

He said Flynn’s reading and math scores have improved this year and thinks it could be associated with the extended outdoor time.

... Read full article in the Missourian

Read the full article in the Missourian.

On Monday morning, Nicole Knapp-Weber sat on the floor with three first-graders at the City Garden School and told them the story of Tip and Tap, two gnomes who were planting a vegetable garden for the king and queen.

Tip grabbed six lettuce seeds and Tap grabbed four, she told the students before asking how many the gnomes had all together. Now, the gnomes planted two seeds — how many were left? If Tip and Tap want to plant the remaining seeds equally, how many should each plant?

The children listened to the story carefully, counting out glass stones that represented the seeds to solve each problem. As the school year starts, Knapp-Weber said, she typically has been telling the youngsters stories filled with problems to solve during math time.

"It doesn't become tedious," she said. "It's fun and done in a way that's meaningful to a child. Stories are meaningful to a child. Numbers are abstract."

City Garden School, which is housed in Calvary Episcopal Church and open to students in grades 1-3, is new in Columbia this year.

The school uses a curriculum inspired by Waldorf education, which aims to create a balanced child and says that just focusing on academics doesn't develop the other aspects of a child.

At City Garden School, students spend time singing, dancing, jumping rope, and telling and listening to stories. They are "constantly" working on art such as drawing and painting and learning traditional subjects such as math and literature.

"We want to create well-balanced children who are not just strong academic students … but are strong academic students and able to do all of these other things," Knapp-Weber said.

Students also do "hand work" — first-graders learn to knit, second-graders learn to crochet and third-graders learn to sew. Knapp-Weber said that is good for using both the left and right sides of the brain.

Another major aspect of the school is a heavy focus on nature. Students walk to Peace Park each day to enjoy an outdoor snack, and every Friday is an "outdoor day," where students go to locations such as Rock Bridge State Park.

City Garden School grew out of the Garden Gate School, which is still in operation and open to kids ages 3-6. The elementary portion started as a home-school cooperation last school year, Knapp-Weber said.

"Lots of people were interested, and we recognized that we needed to start a school," Knapp-Weber said.

The school is starting small, with nine children this year. Parents are already pleased with the model.

"I love it," said parent Shannon Hensley, who has a daughter in third grade and a son in kindergarten at Garden Gate.

Hensley said she likes the focus on nature and that kids have time to play and learn together. She also said she likes the focus on teamwork. Parent Charity Clark agreed.

"Everyone in the nation has to learn to work together," Clark said.

In years to come, the school hopes to expand, and Knapp-Weber said she likes the possibility of adding a fourth grade and additional teacher next year — right now she is the only teacher. In the way distant future, she said the group hopes to become a K-8 school.

This article was published in the Monday, August 26, 2013 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline "Growing balanced children: Students focus on more thank book work. 

Full Article in the Missourian

At the City Garden School near downtown Columbia, a lesson on multiplication is demonstrated with carrots that magically reproduce.

A classroom garden becomes a wonderland of seeds that sprout, then bloom and continue to grow.

This type of imaginative storytelling is part of the Waldorf-based school that Nicole Knapp-Weber helped establish in Columbia last year.

Waldorf schooling was championed by Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, and focuses on developing children through a combination of hands-on play, environment exposure and artistic expression.

Today, there are more than 1,000 independent Waldorf schools in 60 countries. The City Garden School in Calvary Episcopal Church on Ninth Street is modeled on the Waldorf philosophy, although it has not yet been certified.

"We aren't sure if we want to certify it yet, because we enjoy the freedom of curriculum right now," Knapp-Weber said.

The private school has around two dozen children enrolled in first through third grades. Next year it will expand to fourth grade, with Maeve Pickus, Knapp-Weber's assistant as the school's future third and fourth grade teacher.

Knapp-Weber will teach first and second grade and hand over ownership of the school to a board when the school becomes a non-profit organization by summer.

How children learn

A typical day starts with circle time, a warm-up for the brain and body through physical exercise, singing, juggling and other creative play.

Knapp-Weber teaches first and second graders a lesson block — math, language arts or science — while third graders finish their work from the previous day. After snack and recess in Peace Park in mid-morning, the roles switch.

"Before they start learning all the scientific facts, they need to love being outside," Knapp-Weber said. "Just letting them play instills that love."

Being close to nature is one of the tenets of the Waldorf philosophy, along with other experiential and sensory-based learning.

So, the group heads outside every Friday, weather permitting, to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Three Creeks Conservation Area, Mark Twain National Park or other natural or rural areas.

The school partners with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to give children an opportunity to experience an urban farm where they study plants and animals.

City Garden School also teams up with the MU Confucius Institute for Chinese lessons and the Columbia Art League for art classes.

"We're trying to create a balanced child, one that is as intellectual as artistic," Knapp-Weber said. "Something reminiscent of  the Renaissance man and woman."

Starting the school

In 2005, Knapp-Weber and her husband came to Columbia to start a family. After her daughter Opal was born, she attended Columbia College at night to pursue a master's degree in teaching.

She enrolled Opal in Garden Gate School, a Waldorf-style preschool off South Garth Avenue started by Deborah Kallman. When Opal was ready for first grade, she joined Kallman's homeschooling co-op and Knapp-Weber became a first- and second-grade teacher.

City Garden School was started when the co-op parents needed a larger space to continue teaching. Kallman's leadership, Waldorf principles and Knapp-Weber's background laid the foundation for the new school.

Each child spends much of the year creating a large, personal workbook and records of the lessons, conversations and adventures they have had. The books might include drawings, collections, reflections, math homework and data from science experiments.

"It gives them an opportunity to discover who they are," Knapp-Weber said.

She said wants the books to be a beautiful array of visual stories that capture what the children have learned.

She hopes the Waldorf emphasis on nature, balance, stories, music and play will draw people to this alternative education.

"We live in a fast-paced world and children learn slowly — you can't rush a child," Knapp-Weber said. "That has drawn me to this because once you explore the curriculum you realize how intentional it is."