Becoming established

Caitlin Macklin, 9th Street Schoolhouse mentor and founder, recently visited the famed Free School in Albany, New York. In this guest post she shares some images and insights she gained there about building a democratic school community and culture over time.

“Wow. I’m really here. The place of my inspiration.”

This summer I made a pilgrimage to Albany, New York, to visit the Free School. This decades-old institution has long been a guiding light for me. It was my first introduction to the concepts of non-mandatory classes, democratic participation by students in conflict resolution and school governance, and putting children truly at the center of education.

As a new teacher (of four years) and a new school (into our third here at 9th Street), the thing that sank in most for me is the sense of being established that the Free School exudes. The feeling of rootedness settled in as I climbed up narrow stairways and stood on wood floors with lived-in scuff marks—I mean, even the disaster area of the summertime kitchen made my heart ache to have a SPACE to CREATE.

I currently teach out of my home on East 9th Street. This year, Laura Ruiz joined the Schoolhouse, and collaborating feels great! We intend to grow slowly but surely into a larger community of families more the size of the Free School, about sixty kids with a staff of five or six. During the visit to Albany, I was just soaking it in—in awe of what people have built together, just “making it up as [they] go along,” doing what makes sense, not what a bureaucrat tells them to do. Working with families, giving kids opportunities and mentoring, so they may discover and grow while staying whole, messy, in touch with their inner selves.

YouthFX program participants rehearse scenes for their summer narrative film project in the great room at the Albany Free School.

I have put so much thought into how to implement in my teaching and in the Schoolhouse structure the lessons AFS has learned that to see it and know it as a place with a particular community and history helped me understand their context and refocus my efforts in recognizing and building on what our community’s strengths are. Getting to ask Bhawin, a longtime teacher, some of my burning questions about the how of their lives together, talking with him about their process of becoming the school they are now, gave me an infusion of patience with our process.

Bhawin stepped out of the frame as we discussed the community-created Rules on the wall behind us.

I left feeling encouraged to give time to developing the particularities of our program, staying true to who we are as teachers, youth, parents—as people—and to respond from those real relationships to create better and better opportunities for living and learning together. Part of that is my commitment to making democratic, learner-centered education accessible to people in Austin who might not be able to afford it. In addition to an affordable tuition and part-trade options, I’ve also been working with the Education Transformation Alliance to collaborate on creating a scholarship fund.

Making meaningful education available to more folks in Austin is what our work with the ETA is guided by. And I think finding meaning is what this shift in education in Austin is all about: this is a growing movement of people who want more than cookie-cutter experiences for their kids and their lives. People in Austin are more than ever feeling acutely that the current system is just not fulfilling their dreams for their kids. We all want our youth to live lives that are prosperous and flourishing, and I want the young people in my program to identify and define that success for themselves within a strong web of community, where they are known and where they know what resources are available to them.

We are seeking meaning in our learning and in our relationships, and we are creating institutions that respond, that put down roots, that take time to get established, that work together. I invite you to find out more about the many alternatives available across the city on the ETA School Tour this Saturday, Oct. 20!

For further reading on the Albany Free School, pick up any of Chris Mercogliano’s works, watch Free to Learn by Bhawin Suchak and Jeff Root, and check out the school’s website or this blog post from an intern.

Caitlin Macklin

A school of one’s own

Bruce atop the swing set at Alpine Valley School in Colorado last MayBruce L. Smith has worked in education for more than twenty years and with Sudbury schools since 1997. He recently moved to Austin, where he writes about education, creativity, and mindfulness, serves on the staff of the Clearview Sudbury School, and steers a nonprofit organization that he cofounded, the Center for the Advancement of Sudbury Education (CASE). Bruce kindly adapted this guest post for Alt•Ed Austin from a recent piece on his own blog, Write Learning.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve been promoting a model of alternative education that’s about as individualized and child-centered as they come. In a nutshell, places like Austin’s Clearview Sudbury School feature self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities.

Yet “child-centered” isn’t good enough for some. As long as there have been schools, people have been using them to impose various adult agendas on students—often noble or well-intentioned, but still external, still imposed. For example, educators regularly hear things like, “Yes, what you’re doing is wonderful, but how are your students making the world a better place?” The best response to this that I’ve ever seen comes from the late author, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Sometimes I describe the Sudbury model as “agenda-free learning.” This approach not only steers clear of such conventional elements as compulsory academics, rigid schedules, and adult control; we also refrain from nudging students in any particular direction, however progressive or worthy. And this leads to some very lovely results indeed. In Thurman’s words, students at schools like Clearview “come alive” in myriad ways. Empowered and trusted to decide for themselves what’s worth their time and effort, these young people shine. Their passions emerge and their talents thrive even as they tackle their weaknesses. Life for these students is a matter of authentic work and rewarding play.

In other words, Clearview Sudbury gives young people a school of their own, a place where they learn from everyday life in a community of equals. Clearview students direct the course of their days and help manage the school’s business, from drafting and enforcing rules to making budgetary and personnel decisions. Through open-ended play, exploration, conversation, and meetings, our students learn how to find their way in the world; how to obtain the help they need; how to realize their goals while respecting the rights of others; and how to coexist with people of various opinions and personalities. To the extent that Sudbury schools have an agenda, I’d say it’s one of self-actualization within community, balancing freedom and responsibility.

It could be argued that one doesn’t need a school to learn such things—or even that school interferes with this sort of learning, placing an unnecessary layer between the student and the outside world. While I respect this view, in my years with Sudbury schools I’ve found that there is one thing they offer students that they’re unlikely to find elsewhere: a place to freely practice authentic, responsible, effective living.

How common is it for children and young adults to learn in settings where they’re treated as equals—where they are, in a real sense, peers with people of all ages? How often do we allow young people to make substantive, meaningful decisions and then live with the consequences? How free are they elsewhere to experiment with different ways of being in the world, practicing the independence they’ll know as adults while growing up in a safe, respectful community?
After even a short time, Sudbury students begin exhibiting superlative self-awareness, integrity, and interpersonal aptitude. Given freedom—and expected to handle it responsibly—hundreds of students at dozens of schools have become more playful and mature, more articulate and thoughtful, more enthusiastic and determined. Schools like Clearview Sudbury show what we get when we set our expectations this high: strong, lively individuals and capable community members in love with life.

Once I was asked by a graduate’s parent what I thought she’d gained from going to the school where we’d known each other. After a moment I replied, “a head start on her adult life.” She knew more about herself and how to pursue her dreams at age eighteen than many do well into their twenties or thirties. She had much less to unlearn and overcome than people whose education was directed by others.

In the end, agenda-free learning is far more empowering than any external curriculum. All the qualities that foster success in the twenty-first century—things like initiative, persistence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and responsibility—are nurtured to an amazing degree at Clearview Sudbury School, where students have a place of their own to come into their own. And as Thurman says, this is what the world needs.

Bruce L. Smith

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