School councils and classroom circles allow everyone at the school to have a say in decision-making.

A network of determined parents in Turkey wants to do education differently, and schools throughout the country are showing how.

“You make the pavement, but how will the turtles cross the street?”

Leyla, who defended the rights of turtles against a construction worker building a road in front of her school, is just four years old. She attends Colorful Forest Kindergarten in Bornova, a district in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city. Some might consider her comment presumptuous, but others could argue that in the face of ecological threats such as the climate crisis, the world will be in safer hands with such children.

Yasin Sancak, one of the founders of Colorful Forest school, thinks so. Colorful Forest is part of a network in Turkey called “Another School is Possible” (BBOM), an umbrella association of seven cooperatives established by parents in several provinces, which, in turn, run five alternative schools.

Yasin Sancak and his friends founded Colorful Forest in Izmir in 2014, at first with only 12 parents joining forces.

Although the schools are relatively new, Sancak and his friends’ search for alternative education dates back over 15 years. An international education conference held in 2005 sparked this quest. Attending as a young teacher, he listened as speakers talked about various approaches to alternative education from all over the world and saw that schools could run on different principles than in Turkey. Together with a group of like-minded educators, he established the Alternative Education Association, initially a forum for talks on a theoretical level. After a few years the association evolved into Another School is Possible, and some members with preschool-aged children began planning to start a school. In 2013, the first school was founded in Bodrum, a port city in southwestern Turkey, but financial problems forced it to close after a few years. But they didn’t give up after this setback. Since then, schools have been opened in Izmir, Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere.

The Need for Alternatives

Driving these parents to start their own schools is a sense of deep disappointment with the current education system in Turkey. Here, as in many countries, schooling is based on enforcing standardized rules for all and does not see the child as an individual. This system, critics say, produces passive children who don’t enjoy learning and who don’t know how to think critically or ask questions. The main goal is academic success as assessed by exams, and the social development of children is not given adequate attention. Everyone involved in education in Turkey agrees that the system is flawed: teachers, parents, principals, and the Education Ministry, Sancak says. The determination to take a small step toward changing this situation guided BBOM from the outset.

With that goal in mind, Sancak and his friends – a group of well-educated parents including several teachers – founded the Colorful Forest Kindergarten in Izmir in 2014, first with only 12 parents joining forces. Two years later, they opened a primary school (grades one through four in the Turkish school system). Today, 67 kids attend the Colorful Forest preschool and kindergarten, and 107 study in the primary school.

The school is completely funded from fees paid by parents, who are also cooperative members, each holding an equal share. Some parents took out loans to get the school up and running; others used up their savings. At the outset, unsurprisingly, financial difficulties surfaced. But the most critical problem arose in an unexpected area – the organizational structure and the teaching methods.

“We knew very well what not to do, but we weren’t clear enough about what to do,” Sancak says. Amid this uncertainty, parents intervened too often into the education of their children and, on the other side, teachers lacked sufficient guidance on how to apply new methods in the classroom. This ambiguity wore down the staff and pitted parents against teachers. The school even came to the point of losing all its teachers at the end of the first year. 

It was time for a rethink. At first intending to use one of the well-known, widespread alternative education methods such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia, the association sat down and devised a system based around a unique cooperative structure and fully democratic decision-making.

The Building Blocks of BBOM

The BBOM method rests on four principles: An alternative educational approach, an ecological stance, a democratic administration, and a unique, participatory financial structure. 

Underpinning it all is the principle of child-centered education. As in similar child-centered models, this approach accepts that every child is unique, and respects and tries to develop that uniqueness. 

It acknowledges that children’s learning paces and styles are different and that schools need to create appropriate conditions to meet the individual needs of every child. 

Muhittin Sahin is an academic in the department of educational sciences at Ufuk University and author of an article on BBOM and other alternative schooling methods. He says that while the general education system tends to produce uniform and obedient individuals, the BBOM method prizes individuality, and this is to society’s benefit.

At BBOM schools, activities are organized in line with children’s interests, and the pupils themselves decide on extracurricular social activities.

While BBOM continues to refine its approach in this field based on its own experiences, the network also profits from exposure to international practices thanks to its membership in EUDEC (the European Democratic Education Community).

The second basic principle is the ecological approach. In Sancak’s view, only future generations will be able to repair the environmental destruction of centuries, and for this, the development of an ecological consciousness in children is extremely important. It is inadequate to teach ecology to children as just a lesson, he says, and stresses that an ecological stance should be the basis of all school activities. 

Colorful Forest teachers Nazli Aykan (left) and Vildan Yucel.

Nazli Aykan, an English teacher at Colorful Forest, says her students followed activist Greta Thunberg’s high-profile actions calling attention to climate change. “We built all our lessons around [environmentalism]. We focused on topics such as recycling, reuse, and zero waste.” When learning words about clothes, she says, “we talked about how a garment is produced, that over-consumption harms natural resources, and that we can share and trade things that we no longer wear.”

She encouraged similar discussions while teaching the names of vegetables and fruits in English, and when the topic was the present tense, kids surveyed the teachers to find out how many cups of coffee they drank daily and whether they used plastic or paper cups.

The students also used English as a vehicle for discussing consumer waste, on a practical level as well: they learned to sort kitchen waste and do composting and, Aykan says, some taught their parents composting as well.

Aykan says her 10 years’ experience as an English teacher in other private schools before Colorful Forest lets her compare its method with traditional ways of teaching. Other private schools rely on books and homework-oriented learning methods, even though this encourages only short-term memorization and forces teachers to go back over the same material every year, she says, while at Colorful Forest, teaching based on the child’s interests and curiosity establishes a connection with their surroundings and is more lasting.

Colorful Forest kindergarten teacher Vildan Yucel agrees. At a different private kindergarten where she previously worked, the main idea was keeping the children entertained with brightly colored, factory-produced toys, while at Colorful Forest, class work addresses children’s innate curiosity. Children and teachers work together to make their own toys and educational materials. This requires more effort for the teacher than using a ready-made system and materials and is much more tiring, Yucel says, but at the same time is much more satisfying professionally and morally.

Colorful Forest kids develop a love for nature through frequent trips to the nearby woods, school founder Sancak says.

Colorful Forest’s location on the edge of a forest in a rural part of Izmir makes it that much easier to take an ecological approach. “The forest is the greatest teacher,” Sancak says. “A child who has spent four years at Colorful Forest preschool may have gone to the forest hundreds of times, observed the cycle of nature, and established a lively bond with nature.”

This deep connection with the natural world is much more effective than simply telling children about environmental problems and crises, he says. “The simplest example is that a child who listens to a tree with a stethoscope and experiences that it is a living being, does not break its branches again, and even warns anyone else from breaking them.”

The Colorful Forest cooperative literally built sustainability into the school, adopting the “permaculture” principle when they renovated the old school and built a new one.

Education for Democracy

The third fundamental principle of BBOM is democratic administration. Children who attend schools with a rigid hierarchical structure, Sancak says, are reluctant to express their opinions and do not learn respect for the rights and opinions of others – all problematic for developing civic and democratic personality traits. BBOM’s response was to introduce collective decision-making through daily “circles” in each classroom and school councils where the entire community takes part, including the children. At Colorful Forest, except for health and safety issues, all decisions are taken together in such gatherings, and they are applied even if it sometimes doesn’t seem reasonable to adults. If the decision doesn’t work, the students get together again and review what went wrong, in this way honing their capacity to find solutions and respect the opinions of others.

According to Muhittin Sahin, these democratic mechanisms are another unique feature of the BBOM schools, helping nurture individuals who can take responsibility for the results of their decisions. Children who are exposed to different views at an early age may learn to respect difference as adults, he believes.

The way the schools in the network got their names is a prime example of democratic decision-making. Children chose the names themselves, going for quirky ones such as Colorful Forest in Izmir, Running Turtle in Istanbul, Flying Bicycle in Eskisehir, and Curious Cat in Ankara.

Ayse Karatasli, a parent, touts the impact of this democratic approach on her son, Alp, now seven. He studied at the Colorful Forest preschool for a year, and after they moved far away, continued his education in a public school. Karatasli says that thanks to the classroom circles at Colorful Forest, Alp not only gained the ability to express his opinion, but also developed a respectful approach to the opinions of others. “When there are difficult conversations at home, Alp asks us to form a circle and even warns me when I interrupt his sister,” Karatasli adds.

Some parents worry about the academic success of their children, but BBOM’s individualized approach to teaching yields positive results, she says.

Parents built most of the school’s play equipment.

“Education in public schools takes place within four walls, appealing only to children’s senses of hearing and sight. In BBOM, on the other hand, it appeals to all senses of the child. In this way, although the learning process is slower, it becomes more permanent,” Karatasli says. At Colorful Forest preschool, Alp learned letters, numbers, reading, and simple math without even realizing it, she adds.

The impact of BBOM on the all-round development of children has been shown in test results, Sancak says. In 2019, for instance, Colorful Forest preschoolers scored the highest points among 120 children given the Torrance creativity test, part of research for a master’s thesis on the creativity of preschool children. This result was not accidental, he says, pointing out that the other two schools with very high scores, like the BBOM schools, also believe in exposing children to the natural environment as much as possible and stress the development of creativity.

For most parents, however, their children’s academic success is more important, and Sancak also cites encouraging results in more traditional tests. Colorful Forest has participated in several assessments to monitor the development of children and to determine their learning needs accurately. They achieved results well above the school’s expectations and the national average, according to Sancak. In a nationwide aptitude test of 1,155 students in June 2021, BBOM third- and fourth-graders scored above the average in all sections except religion. Their achievements in math were particularly striking, scoring more than twice the average. This year will see the first fourth-graders “graduate” from Colorful Forest Primary School and the success of these children in their further education will provide BBOM with important data to measure the effectiveness of their program.

The Teachers’ Village

Making alternative education work requires the commitment of teachers who have adopted this approach and taken it to heart. That was one of the challenges the first BBOM schools faced, Sancak says. They had difficulties in reaching the few teachers who knew and applied alternative education models, among the many teachers who were educated and shaped within the traditional education system. 

In response, BBOM began a teacher-training program in 2015, with funding from Turkish and international donor organizations, to train teachers and to develop and distribute a toolkit that can be used for alternative education. This program evolved into the “Teachers’ Village” in Bodrum. During two-week sessions in Bodrum and also online, teachers are trained in such subjects as children’s perceptions and rights, nonviolent communication, participatory teaching, outdoor education, and democratic learning.

Through this program, Sancak says, BBOM not only trains the teachers they need for its affiliated schools, but also tries to instill alternative education approaches within the existing system, with the participation of educators from public and private schools. So far, more than 200 teachers have attended the training programs at Teachers’ Village.

The Sustainability of It All

Any private school needs not only to engage its students but to finance its activities as well. That relates to the fourth cornerstone of the BBOM schools: their financial structure based on non-profit cooperatives. Unique in Turkey, if not the world, this participatory setup reflects the BBOM founders’ belief that a well-grounded education should be a public right and not left to the private sector. 

At each BBOM school, parents unite under the roof of a cooperative and share the expenses. The cooperatives have a democratic structure by definition and each member has equal voting rights regardless of their share. The budget is fully transparent. Each school sets its own tuition fees, because the number of students and cooperative members differs from school to school, as do expenses for items such as rent.  

Colorful Forest, although it operates under this financial model, has the status of a private institution in the eyes of the state and cannot benefit from public resources. This year, tuition for the preschool is 26,800 liras (around $2,000), including food and school supplies, and the primary school fee is 30,000 liras. These fees are not very high when compared to private schools having similar standards and are roughly equivalent to the average private school tuition. Demand runs high and the quota for next year is already full. 

Considering that the minimum wage in Turkey is 2,800 liras per month, Colorful Forest still appeals more to the middle and upper classes. To make BBOM schools more accessible, the leaders want to reduce tuition by diversifying their income sources. Alper Akbulut, a BBOM member and parent, as well as a cooperative expert by profession, is working on ways to accomplish this. Besides helping set up a local food community and a coop to purchase some school supplies, Colorful Forest school is starting to organize educational and cultural trips for the general public. The additional income generated will create more opportunities for less well-off children, Akbulut says.

In Turkey, private schools are obliged by law to give scholarships to 3% of the student body. They generally offer scholarships solely based on academic performance, regardless of need, and then use the success of those students to promote their schools’ accomplishments. BBOM schools, on the other hand, give need-based scholarships to at least 10% of their students and aim to raise the figure to 25%.

Parents participate in BBOM not only by paying school fees, but also with their time and creative skills. Besides making toys along with their children, parents have also contributed by helping to design, build, paint, and clean school buildings. 

Overcoming financial and other challenges, Colorful Forest continues its alternative education journey that started with 12 children, and now reaches more than 150 every year. Still, they are just at the beginning of the road, Yasin Sancak believes.

“Our main concern is not to establish a private school for our own children. We are critics of the education system and we have an alternative that works, so this makes us responsible for making a difference that will change the entire system. So we need to reach more children and more teachers,” he says.

Baha Okar started his career in publishing and also worked as an editor at several media outlets in Istanbul. He then moved to Izmir, where he now publishes a culture and ecology magazine, Seferi Keci.