Brightwood resident imagines college that will teach practical, academic skills


Tim Cook plans to open a new college called The Saxifrage School in 2014. Currently the school is using a vacant bar on Federal Street as headquarters. (Photo/Jeanette Lee)

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in literature, Brightwood resident Timothy Cook realized that he lacked basic skills in self-sufficiency such as growing and building.

That realization inspired him to start his own version of a four year college, called The Saxifrage School, in a vacant pub on Federal Street.

The pub, formerly Firewaters and now called The General Will, is an appropriate temporary headquarters and classroom for The Saxifrage School, which won’t have its own campus but intends to hold classes in vacant or underutilized spaces in one of three areas: the lower Northside, East End or Millvale.

The Saxifrage School plans to open in 2014 with at least 500 enrolled students. Between then and now, Cook and his team will need to raise $2 million, choose an appropriate permanent location for their headquarters, hire faculty and pursue accreditation. 

The Saxifrage School gets its name from “A Sort of A Song” by William Carlos Williams, the last lines of which read: (No ideas / but in things) Invent! / Saxifrage is my flower that splits / the rocks.

Unlike traditional four year colleges, The Saxifrage School will require its students to pursue both a technical and academic major and learn Spanish, which is “the most practical, and perhaps the simplest” language to learn.

“The thing that’s special about the model is that it tries to offer this balance between more vocational technical skills and traditional liberal arts academic-type programs. So every student at The Saxifrage School will study both of those things. They’ll graduate with two majors,” Cook said.

“We’re really excited about the possibility of having someone study and work in computer science [for example] but also have this humanities background. A poet-computer programmer, if you will.”

Tuition is only $5,000 per year with an additional $1,500 per year administrative fee, which is well below the average cost of traditional higher education. According to College Board, the average tuition for a four-year public college is $7,605, while the average private college tuition is $27,293.

The Saxifrage School can offer lower rates to students because it won’t be operating its own cafeteria, bookstore or dorms but will use resources within the chosen neighborhood.

“A lot of our hope for this model is not only that it will be a good collegiate institution but that it will also encourage economic development and spur growth for small businesses,” said Cook.

Cook and his team are exploring their options for either independent or umbrella accreditation with a pre-existing university in the area. According to Cook, they plan to organize a curriculum well in advance to meet accreditation requirements.

In terms of admissions, the team will focus less on SAT scores and GPAs, and more on the student’s “independent initiative.”

“It would have to be someone who has a drive. They don’t have to know exactly what they want to do with themselves, but they need to know they want to do something,” Cook said.

Though Cook said that the specific program offerings are still up for debate, the school currently plans to offer technical majors in organic agriculture, building construction and design and computer science. On the academic side, it will offer majors in world literature and writing, philosophy and religion and policy and economy. 

The General Will serves not only as the headquarters of The Saxifrage School, but also as a month-long exhibit for artist Glenn Loughran. Saxifrage partnered with the Mattress Factory to exhibit Loughran’s work.

The exhibit and the lease on the building will end in a little more than a week, at which point they will move to another temporary location in Millvale.

In the near future, Cook and his team hope to consecutively establish three more temporary headquarters in each of the neighborhoods that they are considering for a permanent location. They are actively pursuing a new temporary headquarters in the Northside for next spring.

Jeanette Lee is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Professional Writing and Investigative Journalism.

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