Muse school is actress’ brainchild


Suzy Amis Cameron sits cross-legged on a floor cushion in the sunny community room at Muse Elementary, the Topanga Canyon school she founded in 2006. There are no 10-foot tall blue people in sight nor war craft threatening the bucolic campus. But just the same, she has created a utopia in Muse School as much as her husband, James Cameron, did with Pandora, his cinematic paradise.

At Muse, children are free to design and direct their own plays, gather in a kind of tribal counsel to celebrate birthdays and roam the bucolic acreage studying puddle water, collecting bees and rock hunting -- all in the name of education.

Slender, with nearly waist-length hair, Amis Cameron, the mother of four, wears cords, clogs and a green stone medallion on a leather string. Her husband bought the simple necklace in New Zealand while filming his eco epic “Avatar.”

The green river stone is precious to the Maori, Amis Cameron says. “The native people honor the natural state of the stone, so they shape it according to what it ‘says’ to the artisan.”

Touching the medallion, Amis Cameron shivers. “I get goose bumps. It’s a perfect symbol of what we were doing at Muse School. We empower children to shape themselves.” In November 2005, James Cameron made the final decision to begin filming “Avatar” after decades of technical development. Coincidently, Amis Cameron decided to start what would become Muse after years of observing her older children’s educational processes.

“When we home schooled my oldest, Jasper [her son with first husband Sam Robards], in eighth grade, I saw how empowering it is for a child to learn in their own way. That rebooted my thinking about education.”

Now studying in Paris, Jasper later went to New Roads, a private high school in Santa Monica, where he thrived. But by 2005, the couple were again facing the parental conundrum -- kindergarten. Claire, then 4, was coming home from school parties with a green tongue and red dye running down her shirt. But the M&Ms were the final straw. At preschool, Claire learned to count with the candies and then ate them. Amis Cameron, who’s been eating organically since she was pregnant with Jasper, was appalled.

The couple visited schools where the budget for science and arts classes had been cut and test results were paramount. “We are such a science-driven family and committed to creativity,” Amis Cameron says. “Nothing felt right.”

She called on her sister Rebecca Amis, who’d started a school in their hometown of Oklahoma City, to become a co-founder. They consulted experts all over the country. After months of research, the women commissioned an early childhood curriculum based on the principles of Reggio Emilia, which advocates a mutual respect between teacher and student and a curriculum accommodating the interests of each child. Healthy living, responsibility for the Earth and others was part of the mission as well as rigorous academics.

Muse opened in the fall of 2006 with 10 children in preschool and kindergarten and two teachers. They now have 45 students and 15 full- and part-time teachers for preschool through fourth grade.

“In the last five years,” says Amis Cameron, “Jim went off to create a world -- this huge utopian world of Pandora. And I was creating a smaller world at the same time. There is connectivity between Pandora and Muse in that way -- building a world to your specifications and values.”

Despite the common themes running through their work, Cameron and Amis Cameron say that there wasn’t any master plan. “Avatar” didn’t have a direct influence on Muse or vice versa, according to the director. But neither is it a wild coincidence.

“Both come from a common font of belief,” Cameron says. “Muse teaches children to be responsible citizens for the 21st century, to celebrate diversity and to live with respect for each other and the Earth. ‘Avatar’ reflects the same philosophy.”

Big ideas may direct their work, but at home it’s all about the family. “We live and breathe these ideas,” says Amis Cameron, a former model and actress who met her husband while working on “Titanic.” “But when we’re home, it’s Mom and Dad and the kids. We have all the domestic details everyone has to think about. And in the middle of all this, we had Elizabeth Rose, who’s 3 now.”

All three of the youngest Cameron children attend Muse, where every class begins with “an intention,” which can be anything from finishing writing their journal entry to being kind to others or walking with quiet feet inside. Even the littlest kids pick up the intention stone, say their desire for that class and put the stone into a jar of water. Why the jar of water? “It’s fun to hear that stone go plop,” says Elena Perez, a first- and second-grade teacher.

With her students, Perez is working on a play based on a book they’re reading titled “Where Peace Lives.” The students decided they wanted to put on a play, so Perez is helping them organize the costumes and dialogue. “At Muse, it’s not top down. The teacher is working and learning along with the kids,” Amis Cameron says.

If the kids express an interest in something, the teachers build the academics around those questions. Last year, students had a discussion about bees that were swarming around them during snack time. That curiosity turned into a full-blown course of study throughout all grades. “We went from, ‘What is a bee?’ to ‘Why is the bee hive shaped that way?,’ which led to architecture and geometry, Amis Cameron says. “In other schools, they would be told to wait years for the scheduled geometry or biology classes.”

Tuition is $21,000 a year; between 30% and 40% of the student body receive financial aid. Even though Muse shares a campus with a summer camp and has very little in janitorial services (students clean classrooms and lunch dishes), it’s still an expensive operation. Field trips, visiting experts in ecology and American Indian traditions, an organic garden and a chef who cooks organic lunches and snacks, all add up. The staff does a lot of grant writing, fundraising and asking parents who can afford it to help the nonprofit. As part of that effort, Amis Cameron launched a contest to design an eco-sensitive gown; she plans to wear the winning silk entry to the Oscars.

Muse students Skype with their sister schools in New Zealand and Thailand. Erin Terzieff, who works with the entire student body, started the school’s global initiative. She introduced Muse to the Good Morning School in Burma and developed the program with Mana Tamariki School in New Zealand.

“If you understand from an early age that you belong to a larger global community,” Terzieff says, “you will have the knowledge and courage to stand up for those who are different than you. You will naturally have an interest in learning wisdom from other cultures.”

That is what Muse is all about. “I want our students to be so accustomed to children of other cultures that the words ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ won’t be in their vocabulary,” Amis Cameron says. “They won’t need them -- they’ll live it.”