What if education wasn’t just about learning facts and figures, but also about nurturing hearts, minds, imaginations, talents, and aspirations? Imagine every child being championed as an individual. “You can make a difference,” a daily mantra echoed by their parents, teachers and counselors.
For Marilyn Mosley Gordanier, this was a dream brought to life over the course of years marked by passion, innovation, and dedication. As the founder of Laurel Springs School and visionary behind its unique educational approach, Marilyn has helped transform the global learning landscape forever – proving that relentless belief in one’s passion and purpose can cause a wave of change across the entire world.
This is a story about Marilyn and Laurel Springs School – written for those curious about the remarkable journey of the two. Marilyn’s story is one of innovation, bravery, and compassion. And Laurel Springs, one characterized by adaptability, pioneering, and empowerment. Join us as we dive into the heart and soul of what now serves as one of America’s top online private schools for K-12 learners, and learn about how Marilyn’s dream blossomed into a thriving community of young individuals who believe in their potential to shape the future.
A Childhood Shaped by Community, Creativity, and Curiosity
Marilyn spent her early childhood in New York. Her father, hailing from Connecticut, was a man of many talents – an artist and a carpenter, embodying a creative spirit that would greatly influence Marilyn’s path. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom with a love of humanity, also carried an artistic and entrepreneurial spirit. This creative environment laid the groundwork for Marilyn’s own artistic and visionary pursuits.
The family settled in the projects of New York, coincidentally in the same neighborhood as ‘Howie’ Schultz, the Founder of Starbucks. Marilyn fondly remembers, “Me and Howie both had cool parents who believed in Civil Rights, helping people, and advocating for positive change.”
It was during these years that Marilyn’s passion for dance rooted itself. “My teacher saw a natural talent in me and told my mom, ‘She has to dance,’ and I just loved it,” she recalls. Ballet became an integral part of her life, and today, Marilyn still dances 2-3 times a week. “When you learn something as a child that you love, you keep doing it because now it’s a part of you – it’s in your body – it’s always there.”
This marked the beginning of Marilyn’s understanding of how early passion in children can evolve into life-changing endeavors – influencing not only an individual’s path, but also encouraging others to follow their dreams.
Queens to Ojai – The Start of Marilyn’s Educational Legacy
As a young adult, Marilyn’s worldview was also significantly shaped by her interest in international cultures and desire to help countries in need. “I knew I wanted to make a difference, and I knew I wanted to do something to help children.”
Her family moved to Queens, New York, which introduced a completely new chapter in Marilyn’s life. “All of a sudden, we were taking the train to school, life felt different – I missed my friends and community,” she shares. Perhaps this longing fueled her pursuit of creating environments where connections and community were central. Regardless, Marilyn’s desire to foster inclusive and supportive communities only continued to grow stronger. It became a cornerstone of her educational philosophy, emphasizing the importance of nurturing not only academic skills but also relationships and a sense of “you belong here.”
Marilyn attended Queens College, where she majored in Psychology and Dance – a combination that reflected her dual passions for understanding the human mind and expressing herself through art. “It was right for me,” she says, reflecting on her choice of study that helped expand her awareness of social responsibility and the complexities of the world around her. Later, she furthered her studies of Educational Leadership at Antioch, and the Graduate Theological Institute.
On a mission to make a difference in the lives of children, she took on a part-time role at the NYU Teaching and Learning Department, helping to conduct tests with preschoolers to explore how their educational opportunities were making an impact. “I wasn’t a very good tester,” she admits. “I didn’t want to be stoic and test them – I wanted to play with them!” The experience began her journey of understanding the diverse needs of children and the importance of adapting to their individual learning styles – knowledge that would be crucial for Marilyn to bring her dreams to life.
Seeking new experiences and a break from school, she moved to Baltimore and embraced the challenge of teaching preschool at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which improves the lives of children with special health challenges. Classrooms were not defined by chronological age at Kennedy Krieger, but by mental age instead. “We had 17 year olds in the same classroom as elementary students,” she shares. “It was an incredible experience to work with children who were uniquely challenged. Children have so many different ways of learning, and we can appreciate all types. Although I wasn’t prepared or trained to do what I was doing at the time, it was wonderful. It informed my life, and I loved the children so much even though the work was hard.”
Eventually, Marilyn’s path led her to Ojai, California, and it was here, amidst a community of like-minded individuals, dreamers, and educators, that she found the perfect setting to bring her developing visions to fruition.
Exploring Learning Beyond the Classroom
Marilyn had a very vibrant and passionate group of friends in Ojai – individuals who not only believed in the same things that she did, but also shared the same drive to make a difference in the lives of children. Together, in 1975, they founded Oak Meadow School, a homeschooling program rooted in the Waldorf philosophy of education intertwined with creativity and nature.
Oak Meadows was much more than a school – “it was a movement,” recalls Marilyn. With a curriculum that could be used independently and alongside teacher support, Oak Meadows was designed to cater to the unique talents, strengths, and needs of each child. “In those days, not many people believed in homeschooling – it was a daring move at the time. Ten courageous families joined us for the first year.”
Marilyn and her team also introduced a part-time day program for homeschoolers that was held in person at a church. It was an opportunity for families and children to meet, interact, share ideas, and participate in creative activities. “It was a wonderful community process that we did as a team,” Marilyn shares. “And the many families who participated in the program were destined to be the first families at Laurel Springs,” which you will later come to find, indeed were.
The “We Can Make a Difference” Project
In 1986, Marilyn made a push to support adolescents, specifically those aged 14-16, as there was a growing interest in homeschooling for older children. The twice-a week-program was the first to combine homeschooling with structured classes – a place where adolescents could come together, attend classes and share ideas, their work, talk about their experiences, and engage with one another. One class in particular, the Environmental Studies Course, was pivotal in the foundation and growth of Laurel Springs.
Marilyn started this class because she wanted to empower students to “pursue their convictions with confidence.” What began as a passionate conversation quickly became something much greater. Marilyn’s students felt a sense of hopelessness about the state of the planet – “Will our efforts really make a difference?” they asked. “What can we do?”
They decided to produce a video, writing their own script and committing to conducting their own interviews. “We Can Make a Difference” was the title; and together, the 26 students interviewed kids of all ages on the subject of their views about the environment. What those young innovators didn’t know at the time was how much of an impact their self-funded project would have on the global community.
We Can Make a Difference garnered attention worldwide and ultimately was presented at the United Nations Headquarters in Switzerland, United Nations Children’s Environmental Conference in New York City, and in Kenya to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The climax of the experience took place at the conference in Mexico City, where the students were awarded the United Nations Global 500 Award – an honor given to individuals and organizations who are recognized for outstanding achievement in the protection and improvement of the environment. “This was the beginning of feeling like, wow, there really is something to empowering students to find their voice,” Marilyn remembers. These Laurel Springs students were the first youth group in history to receive the Global 500 Environmental Award.
Laurel Springs School Brought to Life
The United Nations experience was a “springboard,” says Marilyn. “I wanted to take everything to another level. I wanted even more students to have a choice – and I wanted to give them the opportunity to learn in many different ways. I wanted to design an expansive curriculum to meet their needs, instead of vice versa.” This was the birth of the customized program so important to Laurel Springs School.
In the beginning, Marilyn and her team developed a creativity-based, textbook-based, and project -based curricula to experiment with various learning styles. However, the massive California earthquake in 1994 disrupted everything, closing schools and cutting off access to essential resources for students. Marilyn recalls, “We had a ‘try anything’ approach and started creating a very basic online learning method.” Although the initial foray into online education was rough, “We just kept working at it,” Marilyn shares.
Persistence paid off. By 1995, Laurel Springs had launched the first official delivery system of web-based curriculum, called “Aurora.” It quickly became known as the only school in the United States to successfully distribute an online curriculum – sparking a wildfire of recognition, notably from those at the Today Show.
“If you really are who you say you are, we want to do a show about you!” said Bryant Gumbel in an early call to Marilyn. With both excitement and anticipation about what the feature would look like, Marilyn and her team agreed and welcomed the Today Show crew to California for a day-in-the-life type spotlight of Laurel Springs. “It was so much fun, and the Today Show crew was so friendly and interested,” recalls Marilyn. “It was also sweet because some of the Laurel Springs students were really intrigued by the Today Show reporters and wanted to interview them themselves. I loved this because it was another example to me of how when students are empowered, they want to make a difference.”
When the show aired and Bryant Gumbel coined Laurel Springs as “the wave of the future,” things went crazy! “We were instantaneously known around the world, were receiving calls day and night with families interested in learning more, and we only had 35 people in the office at the time – so it was all hands on deck,” says Marilyn, remembering the moment with excitement.
Laurel Springs continued to grow in the spotlight when the Today Show asked to feature them on their newly launched msnbc.com. “It was overwhelming and exciting – they kept our feature on the front page of the site for months!” shares Marilyn. “It was a huge period of expansion and growth for us.”
Today, Laurel Springs School stands as a testament to the power of vision, innovation, personalized learning and resilience. “We’ve become so adept at meeting children where they are – with all different backgrounds and needs, no matter their purpose. Everyone feels loved and encompassed here,” Marilyn says with joy.
“We’ve evolved into an educational experience that offers so many more opportunities for connection and engagement, too – so many more clubs, a National Honor Society, student government, virtual and in-person field trips, and Year-End Celebrations where students come together from all over the world!” she continues. “We’re a community, and we’re creating an even larger community. This has always been my hope and vision – to cultivate a caring community that inspires a sense of ‘I am part of something much, much larger – an even greater opportunity.”
Marilyn sees Laurel Springs impacting “many, many thousands of students and families across the world” in its lifetime. She hopes that, one day, when people think about children learning, they think about Laurel Springs; and learning as an ever-expanding gift. “We started as a movement, and we are still a movement. We’re an education that touches the lives of beautiful beings and impacts the world in a way that allows it to further flourish.”
What was initially an experimental day program blossomed into a global online learning pathway founded on a mission to “protect the beingness of children and allow them to discover who they really are,” all within the nurturing environment of a premium, private education.
Raising Empowered, Confident Children
Marilyn Mosley Gordanier’s approach to parenting and educating her own children is deeply reflective of her educational philosophy – emphasizing the importance of effective communication and active listening. “I worked on communication skills with my children. We did workshops so we could learn how to communicate effectively and listen to one another,” she shares. This emphasis on communication wasn’t just about fostering a harmonious family environment; it was also about empowering her children to express themselves and understand others.
Central to her parenting style was the respect for her children’s autonomy and choices, especially when it came to school. “Where do you want to go to school this year?” she would ask each of her children throughout their childhood years. “I gave them the choice to decide halfway through the year as well. If they wanted to make a change mid-year, they could. A full year is a really long time when you’re little!” This approach encouraged her children to make decisions that resonated with their unique selves and desires. “You can choose who you want to be and what you want to do,” she said. “As long as you feel empowered.”
Today, Marilyn’s children have carved out their own successful paths – with her son, who was an esteemed Major in the Air Force and now thrives as a Visual Effects Artist in Ojai, California, and her daughter excelling as a TV Director, splitting her time between Ojai and Vermont. Marilyn’s parenting approach extends to her role as a grandmother, as she continues to cherish and nurture the individuality of her four grandchildren. “The way I raised my kids is how I show up with my grandchildren today. Everyone has their own unique path, I believe, and everyone has a purpose,” she states.
Her hope for all families is to embrace effective communication, striving to understand and support the diverse ways in which each child learns and grows. She believes in identifying whether a child is a thinker, creator, inventor, or producer, allowing parents to truly appreciate and nurture their child’s learning style and passions.
“Children are magnificent,” Marilyn says with conviction. “They can think for themselves, if we let them. They have so much passion. What if we gave all of them the opportunity to learn without asking them to color inside of the lines?” This perspective echoes the ethos of Laurel Springs School, envisioned as an incredible force and pioneer in the realm of personalized education. Just as a single ripple in a vast body of water can lead to larger waves and a powerful momentum, Laurel Springs strives to initiate significant changes and evolution in the learning landscape.
“We now offer top-tier, rigorous educational programming that parents can not only feel safe and secure about – they can celebrate the fact that their child is also supported in their talents and goals. They are a treasure at Laurel Springs, and they are reminded daily that they are remarkably capable.”
A Collective Call to Action
As we reflect on Marilyn’s journey, we are reminded that the true essence of education lies in its ability to touch lives, ignite dreams, and foster a global community of learners and leaders.
In a world where education is often boxed within standardizations and metrics, Marilyn asks us to reimagine its possibilities. What if every educator, every parent, every policy maker took a leaf out of her book? How can we, in our own capacities, contribute to an educational revolution that honors the unique spirit of every child, just as Marilyn has? Her story challenges us to see education differently, serves as inspiration, and is a call to action. Every child is a universe of potential waiting to be discovered and cherished. Can we all commit to championing this precious truth?
Marilyn Mosley Gordanier has established a far-reaching and ever-growing legacy in education. Her commitment to integrating environmental awareness into education is evident in her numerous prestigious roles. She currently serves as the President of the United Nations Global 500 Environmental Forum and plays a vital part in various initiatives, including the Clinton Global Initiative – America, STEM Education Team. Additionally, as the Chair of Secure Beginnings for the Captain Planet Foundation, she continues to make significant contributions to this field. Her efforts have been recognized on an international level, exemplified by her nomination for the Nobel Earth Prize.
Marilyn’s passion for making a difference extends to global issues, particularly in advocating for girls’ education and championed individuality. She co-founded Educate Girls Now, an initiative that works to ensure girls in Afghanistan receive an education and are not forced into early marriages, which is particularly crucial after the Taliban’s takeover. “We’re now figuring out how to help them learn from their homes,” Marilyn shares. “We’re getting them into colleges outside of Afghanistan. It’s extremely hard with all of the current politics, but I won’t let my passion go. Every child deserves an education.”
Marilyn has also co-authored significant works, including “Towards Corporate Environmental Excellence” and “A Parent’s Guide to Distance Learning.” She is a mother and a grandmother, while also serving as Laurel Springs’ eternal visionary and guiding force. Through her leadership, advocacy, and compassionate approach to education, Marilyn has truly changed the landscape of learning, making an indelible mark on the lives of thousands of students around the globe, just as she’d hoped.