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A Shifting Paradigm: The First Year at Gillingham Charter School by Nicolle Hutchinson

On June 7th of 2011, a charter was approved by the Charter Appeals Board of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. On that momentous day, Gillingham Charter School was born in Pottsville, PA, and the paramount paradigm shift in the education of Schuylkill County’s families started to shake!

 On June 8th, the directors, planning board and countless volunteers got to work, walking door to door to advertise and setting up the school offices in the old convent house across the street from the old St. John the Baptist Catholic School building, which is Gillingham’s schoolhouse today.  From the very beginning, it was clear to all that this was going to be a different school. Why?  All that we did- the way we set up the offices and the way we treated those who walked in- was designed to create relationships and an atmosphere of respect, beauty, simplicity and order. Several of us brought in old wooden desks, wooden chairs, an armchair, flowers in vases, table clothes, oriental rugs, framed prints, baskets and lamps (as well as the necessities of paper, a copier, laptops, light bulbs, pens and toilet paper!).  Parents, grandparents, and guardians were greeted with a handshake and smile as they walked in to join the adventure.

Many who enrolled their children into Gillingham were leaving something behind and many were searching for something different. How little did they know just HOW different we would be! A relational education based on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is not typical. In the charter Gillingham listed 25 distinctions…25 ways that the school is different from surrounding public and private schools. The list includes small classes, narration, whole books that replace traditional textbooks, narrative report cards that replace grades, Spanish at all grade levels, Asian Math instructional approaches found in such programs as Right Start Math, no traditional homework, singing and acting for all, Shakespeare for all, instrument lessons k-12, weekly nature walks and high school internships. The list goes on.

We did our best to prepare the teachers, students and families for these differences. We listed them in brochures, we held information meetings, we displayed curriculum and student work, we sent newsletters. These attempts definitely assisted, but nothing can prepare anyone for the actual “shift.” Even though the airline stewards demonstrate how to put a mask on when the airplane faces trouble, no one is ready to experience the turbulence that makes your stomach queasy and makes your heart race. It’s a miracle that passengers remember just how to put on that yellow mask that swings down at your face, nearly punching them out!

I admire those teachers, parents and students who have stayed on the “Gillingham Ride” (the paradigm shift) which has been turbulent, tortuous, bumpy, exhilarating, heartbreaking, exciting, and all at the SAME time! So much has happened and they have experienced so much change in just 5 ½ months!

In our attempts to create beautiful classrooms, we have brought in beautiful (and inexpensive, yard sale) chairs, some of which BREAK. In our attempts to create short lessons for students, the middle and upper school students withstood 4+ schedule changes in 2 months! In our attempts to create a homelike Schoolhouse, we had to hold school in an old Catholic school building 3 miles away until we could move into our renovated Schoolhouse in November. In our attempt to keep everyone informed, we finally got a school calendar out to everyone in JANUARY. (That’s pretty late.) In our attempts to give our students the best books at their instructional level, we had to change the middle school’s literature book twice, midway through.

Now, add all those well-intentioned mishaps to the things we have done right. We follow the trimester schedule set by Mason while most schools are on a quarter term system. That means that our parents and students get fewer reports from teachers, and they are not used to that.  Since our students just read at night instead of completing hours of homework, parents and guardians do not see their children’s books and journals on a daily basis thus feeling a bit in the dark about what their kids are learning. And THEN, they look at a report card void of letters and numbers and instead read accounts of their children’s progress and how well they are at developing habits for learning and life.  This is VERY NEW to our parents and students, and so it feels very much like turbulence on an airplane ride.

During turbulence on a plane, you might hear throughout the cabin: “Oh my God!” or “Help!” or expletives and gut-wrenching screams. After such turbulence on a plane, you might hear, “I’m never flying with your airline again!”

During and after turbulence on Gillingham’s Ride (the paradigm shift), this is what we have heard on several occasions: “I’m not learning anything,” or “This is stupid! I’m going to go back to __________ school district, “ or “What exactly is my child learning?” or “What does ‘meet expectations’ really mean?” or “Are these class credits transferable to the other schools?” or “ If this doesn’t change, I’m going to find another school for my children!” or the gut-wrenching  “I’m withdrawing my child from Gillingham.”

The latter is often heard from those who do not attend our information meetings and monthly Evening Collaboratives. Some parents who bring students in midyear often stay for about a month and then leave because they do not talk to teachers nor wait out the turbulence. Some don’t want to be bothered with character development in their children. There are all kinds of reasons, but in the end, it’s the paradigm shift that is sifting out those who truly want a relational education and those who do not.

Those who do want a relational education decide to hold on tight, assist one another with the “yellow masks,” and encourage others through dialogue and testimonies. They seek answers and choose to trust.

It seems that their patience, resiliency and trust are finally being rewarded. This is what we are hearing now: “My child has never talked about history and books before!” and “My little one can recite an entire poem!” and “My son is so much more articulate. He’s not going back to his old school, “ and “The kids tried to get me to drive them to school when our district wasn’t open but Gillingham was!” and “My daughter loves the curriculum,” and “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that Gillingham makes it!” 

Thank God for this feedback because it’s not always easy being the “pilot” of the “Gillingham Ride” (the paradigm shift).  There are two quotes in addition to the ones above that keep me on board as the CEO of Gillingham. There’s the “I love school” comment that I heard a 5th grader say when asked what gets her up in the morning and a 1st grader say to his doubting grandmother. Then there is the comment from a veteran teacher who, thankfully, took a risk and joined our faculty. Once before a group of parents and another time before a team of administrators from a local school district, she shared this story.

 Once when training us [Gillingham’s teachers], Mrs. Hutchinson explained

 that though these methods may seem easy and thus ineffectual, they indeed

work. Mrs. Hutchinson simply said, ‘Trust me.’ I’m glad I did because this does

work! I’m amazed at the progress my students are making, at the connections

they find and at the enthusiasm they have for learning!


Charlotte Mason saw this relational way of learning work wonders in the lives of children. Over 400 schools since Mason’s time have experienced it. And now teachers, students and families of Schuylkill County, PA, are experiencing it. We just hope that they hang on through the shifts and bumps so that they can eventually enjoy the flight and then land at the final destination: the freedom and full life that each person has the right to have.

For the children’s sake,

Nicolle Hutchinson, M.S.Ed

CEO/Director of Education

Gillingham Charter School


© Nicolle Hutchinson 2012

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. I am cheering you on and praying for you! What an exciting time, and, hopefully, some of that “turbulence” will be ending soon. What a breath of fresh air Gillingham must be to its county.

  2. I love your analogy of the airplane and oxygen mask! Very helpful. And the specific incidents of mishaps (!) and comments from parents and children. We can all relate, and it’s reassuring to see we’re not alone. Blessings to you and Gillingham, Nicolle!

  3. Vicki says

    And all this in a government school? What a blessing for these families! Soon they will be learning along with their children. Please keep us posted as this is so inspiring. With God all things are possible.

  4. Fascinating to read. Thanks so much for sharing. I relate in small scale to my own hs and my inner battle of shifting paradigm myself. It also encourage me and I too wish you the best.

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