- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - For 40 years, Harmony School, a private school founded by Steve “Roc” and Barb Bonchek with a focus on democracy and social equity, has been making kids feel at home.

Marsha Washington, who was enrolled at Harmony from 1975 until she graduated in 1979, said the atmosphere at Harmony was much different from the schools in Indianapolis, where she lived before coming to Bloomington. Washington described events in Indianapolis as traumatizing for a young African-American student.

“They had started busing people from their high school across town to have a more diversified culture in another high school,” she told The Herald-Times (https://bit.ly/1pas2Tp ).

Coming to Bloomington and Harmony School was “a culture shock,” she said. “We went from a traumatizing state of racial tension to here are people saying ‘Hi’ to you on the streets and smiling. It was very different and very exciting.”

Washington said for a while she felt like she’d been dropped into a fishbowl.

“My life was turned upside down from the move from Indianapolis to going to a private school. Coming from a predominantly black school, it took a while to warm up,” Washington said.

Bonchek, along with the teachers, helped Washington and her family adjust.

“Roc and the staff were so open, and they understood that sometimes kids didn’t fit into the traditional public school,” she said. Because of the difficult situation Washington’s family had come from in Indianapolis, Bonchek allowed them to enroll in the private school for a fraction of the cost.

“It was very warm, accepting and unconventional,” she said. “There were different age ranges, and we were all taught together.”

Harmony opened as a school for students ages 12 to 18 in February 1974 with only four students. It wasn’t until 1977 that Harmony started its elementary school, and in 1985 all of the students were under one roof at the school’s current location in the historic Elm Heights school building. The building was sold to Harmony for $10, and at the time, there were 90 students enrolled. Each one pitched in a dime.

Even now, Harmony is a small school with about 200 students and 17 faculty, all of them entrusted with responsibility for the school. Through a democratic process, they vote on school decisions. Even though Harmony is a private school, the majority of students, about 80 percent, attend on partial or full scholarships, and about 40 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The small size of the school is part of what made Harmony special for Karl Ost, who attended from 1982 to 1984. While at Harmony, he said he was empowered after leaving public school, where he felt like one of thousands of students.

“I felt like I was being herded along toward graduation,” he said.

At Harmony, Ost became a part of the school and became engaged in the community.

“I was being empowered as a student by having a role to play in daily activities of the school,” he said. Ost participated in fundraising events to help the school and canvassed the neighborhoods and set up tables downtown.

Even though he only attended Harmony for a couple of years, his classmates felt like family. He recalls once when a newer student was absent and didn’t call to say she wasn’t going to attend.

Ost, along with his fellow students and teachers, held a “family meeting” to talk about the situation. They knew the student sometimes had trouble at home and were concerned for her safety. So, they chose to pile into a van and go to her house.

When the absent student answered the door, she was taken aback and touched by their concern, Ost said.

“She was at the school the next day, and she knew she had become one of the family,” he said.

Even though Darwish Al Qubaisi came to Harmony in 1983 from the United Arab Emirates as the school’s first international student, he also felt at home.

He went to Roswell, New Mexico, with Tom Hastings, his English teacher, to visit with his family over the holidays, and the trip was unforgettable.

“They were wonderful people with beautiful personalities who welcomed me in their family. I enjoyed every minute of my time I spent with them,” he said in an email.

Al Qubaisi said Harmony had a real impact on his life. “Attending Harmony made me a better person. It widened my views on life in general, on my social and professional relationships. It enabled me to exceed in my college life and gave me a boost of confidence,” he said.

Today, Al Qubaisi’s work requires him to interact with people with diverse nationalities and personalities, and he feels his time at Harmony helps him even now.

“The experience I had at Harmony genuinely shaped my outlook on life,” he said.

Washington said Harmony had a similar influence on her.

“If it hadn’t been for Harmony School, I doubt I would have graduated high school,” she said.

Ost, who has celebrated many of Harmony’s milestones, looks forward to celebrating many more beyond 40 years.

“I expect them to be here another 40 years,” he said. “I expect the school to still continue to graduate kids and responsible members of the community.”

After founding the school with only four students, Bonchek has seen many of his goals for Harmony accomplished.

“It has fulfilled the vision I had,” he said. “I wanted the school to be a genuine community that was diverse and have an impact on other schools in the area, across the country and the world.”

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Information from: Indiana Daily Student, https://www.idsnews.com


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