My search for alternative high schools

Elliot Hallmark, a staff member at the Clearview Sudbury School, contributed this guest post on the scarcity of and need for alternative schools that serve teenagers. Welcome, Elliot!

Two years after graduating from university, I was considering my options. I had been accepted into the University of California at Merced to study nonimaging optics. It seemed like a great opportunity, but I felt a strong concern that the engineering companies I would inevitably end up working for were not worth my life energy. The revolutionaries I admired all spoke of an attitude toward science that would bring freedom to humanity. Unsure of my final path, I decided teaching high school science would allow me to explore this possibility. I went looking around for alternative high schools in Austin.

I had heard of Sudbury schools and free schools. Democracy and freedom, both core principles in these types of schools, stand out to me as values necessary for the dignity of humans, including high school students. The teenage years are a period when freedom of thought and action is of great importance. High school was the time in my life when my mind was reaching out most for ideals, trying to figure myself into the creation of a better world.

Over months of research it seemed that I must be searching poorly. I found numerous alternative schools for students under 13. I found college prep private schools. I found the public "alternative high school" attempts at places for kids who could not or would not fit into the standard model. I found that the more established alternative models sometimes, sometimes, sometimes find their way to the high school level. But I did not find the high school community of freedom, equality, and respect I was looking for.

It was nearly two years later that I did finally find a fledgling democratic school, for ages 5–19. It is just what I had hoped to find. At Clearview Sudbury School, where I now work, as students and staff we cultivate freedom through democracy and respect.

I have heard high school aged students at our school say that the younger students sometimes look up to them. They are a model that matters to more than themselves. These teenagers have skills that are useful and interests that are interesting. I have seen them take an equal part in some managerial aspects of the school. I have seen them use their time and energy to pursue online classes, college classes, and performance arts, as they felt suited them. They correct me sometimes, and they tell me about interesting things I didn’t know. I see that the freedom to learn that is the foundation of being an adult also prepares the young to be adults, and I wonder why institutions like this are so incredibly few.

The standard model has produced hundreds of millions of adults who are intelligent and reasonably successful. I myself survived to become a person I am quite happy to be. Yet most thoughtful people I know consider high school to have been largely a waste of their days, sprinkled only sparsely with deeply enriching encounters. (Not to mention, the standard model has churned out countless incompetent and dull examples as well.)

One tough issue that families interested in alternative education face is concern over the objective value of an alternative high school education. Students need to be accepted by colleges and offered jobs based on how they look on paper. But standard accreditation and state test scores interest neither employers nor most university admissions officers. It is the combination of emotional maturity, curiosity, life experience, and intelligence of the student that carries the day (and also SAT/ACT results, essays, interviews, portfolios, etc.).

Studies in this regard have been conducted on generations of students and graduates of the Sudbury Valley School. Sudbury Valley departs from the traditional high school model to the most extreme degree. Institutions requesting a transcript receive, instead, a letter saying, essentially, “It is not the place of our school or its staff to evaluate students.” Now, applying to a university without submitting SAT or ACT scores or without the required essays most likely would result in rejection. But generations of Sudbury Valley graduates have shown that the complete lack of any evaluation by this high school does not hurt. Something like 80 percent have gone on to higher education.

Alternative high schools of the type I envision are small and few in Austin, but they are growing and maturing. Though teenagers are still largely underrepresented in the struggle for a sane childhood, there are—and there deserve to be— real alternative high school options.

Elliot Hallmark