Monday, January 17, 2011

Hey Teacher! Leave Us Kids Alone!!!- There’s A School for That!

Editor's note: This Martin Luther King Day, I write a post Dr. King would certainly stand behind, “Freedom as a way of learning.” Last year's Martin Luther King Day tribute was When "Free at Last," Means Escaping the Boring Prison of School.

I’ve become interested in unschooling lately prompted in part after reading blogs, stories, websites and discussion sites of unschoolers who in many cases share characteristics of being happy, passionate, joyful, successful, smart, enjoy learning and love the way they grew up. In short unschooling is the idea that to live is to learn and learning is driven by interest. In long visit the unschooled website, Unschooled 101 from Idzie Desmarais’s blog or read the Unschooled blog of Kate Fridkis who contributes here.

When you spend some time reading about unschooling, you’ll quickly realize that it does seem to take a great deal of involvement and dedication on the part of the child’s family. From what I understand thus far, there generally has to be an adult that doesn’t have a typical 9 - 5 job that would take them from the home, at least until the child is about 16 in many states. Many of my parent friends love the idea, but because of their current reality, this is not a practical option, even if they wanted to raise their child in such a way.

What can they do???

Though at first glance, the idea seems to contradict itself, I wondered if there was some sort of unschool school for parents who believe in this way of raising their children, but just don’t have the ability to do it.

What I found is...
Good news: There are many schools that incorporate unschooling principles but...
Bad news: It seems they are all private. (Unless I’m missing something)

Like most Americans I was raised believing what I read in the outdated, dull and biased textbooks I was forced to consume and then regurgitate. I thought we were the luckiest nation in the world because our citizens had a right to receive an education. What I didn’t realize was receiving an education isn’t a right. It is compulsory and as The Circle School’s Jim Rietmulder so eloquently explains, the reality of what we are doing in school goes against our nation’s principals of the pursuit of freedom, liberty, and happiness. Talk to most any teen in a traditional school setting. Those who haven’t been brainwashed or drugged into compliance, will remind you that, like me and many others, they want to escape the boring prison of school.

So what does a parent who can’t unschool do? They can send their children to unschool school. This does seem to require money, though I think if students aren’t taking up a seat in public school, those families should get tax breaks. But back to reality, the good news is many are less expensive than traditional private schools. In fact in the U.S.’s most well know such institution, tuition is as low as $7000. There is also financial aid in some cases. I’ve also heard of parents being able to have insurance chip in if they can convince these companies it’s a cure for ADD/ADHD - which it is!

The model is called democratic education. If like me, you’ve never hear of this, you might be thinking, wait! Isn’t that what we already have in America? We have a democracy that gives everyone an education, don’t we? Well, some would say our education system is not democratic at all. In fact to the contrary, some would say it is actually a War On Kids. Unlike our industrial model of schooling, a democratic education is one that as Jim Rietmulder explained enables children to enjoy the pursuit of freedom, liberty, and happiness. John Taylor Gatto explains it this way, “The secret of American schooling is not that it doesn't teach the way children learn. It's that it isn't supposed to teach about being a strong, self-directed man or woman.” Traditional education is indeed exactly the antithesis of the American ideals.

A democratic education on the other hand is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy. In a democratic school, there is typically shared decision-making among students and staff on matters concerning living, working, and learning together. At such schools students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through classes or a standard curriculum.Students are given complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by a direct democracy in which students and staff have an equal vote.(Wikipedia).

This type of education is said to have started with the Summerhill School in Suffolk, England founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921 . The belief at Summerhill is that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. Here in the United States the Summerhill School was the inspiration for the Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts. This school has been the inspiration for schools known as 'Sudbury schools.’ Here is a little background on each type of school.

Sudbury Valley School
Here is how the Sudbury Valley School website describes the experience. Students from preschool through high school age explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways. They learn to think for themselves, and learn to use Information Age tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical issues. Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.

Trust and respect are the keys to the school’s success. Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.

Summerhill School
The Summerhill School website asks you to imagine a school...
Where kids have freedom to be themselves...>
Where success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child's own definition of success...>
Where the whole school deals democratically with issues, with each individual having an equal right to be heard...>
Where you can play all day if you want to...>
And there is time and space to sit and dream...>
...could there be such a school?

Governance - A democratic community
The schools are governed on the model of a traditional New England Town Meeting. While there may variations from school to school, the description from the Sudbury website describes it this way.

The daily affairs of the school are managed by the weekly School Meeting, at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules of behavior, use of facilities, expenditures, staff hiring, and all the routines of running an institution are determined by debate and vote at the School Meeting. At Sudbury Valley, students share fully the responsibility for effective operation of the school and for the quality of life at school.

Infractions of the rules are dealt with through the School Meeting's judicial system, in which all members of the school community participate. The fair administration of justice is a key feature of Sudbury Valley and contributes much to the students' confidence in the school.

Parents participate in setting school policies. Legally, the school is a non-profit corporation, and every parent becomes a voting member of the Assembly, as the corporate membership is called. The Assembly also includes students, staff, and other elected members. It meets at least once a year to decide all questions of broad operational and fiscal policy.

You can see an interactive peak into the meeting from Summerhill school here.

Here’s what Alumni are saying:
Here’s what parents are saying:
Here is a list of Schools:
Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy—these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another. John Taylor Gatto - The Underground History of American Education. It’s unfortunate that in a country that espouses the principals of the pursuit of freedom, liberty, and happiness, that schools that follow this principal can not be supported publicly.


  1. There are some publicly funded "unschools" in Canada. I've listed them on my blog post about school schedules, I found out about them while participating in a podcast session with @stephenhurley.

    Great summary, people need to recognize that school choice shouldn't just be about a different place to prepare for the state exam, it's about providing choices to our students.

  2. Great post! I'm glad you mentioned that though most democratic schools are private, tuition is not necessarily astronomical--Tallgrass Sudbury School, for instance, is by far the least expensive private school in the Chicago area.

  3. Thank you for sharing David, and yes. We should be providing choice for students and families that may not agree with values purported by their state.

  4. @Elizabeth, thank you for the kudos. Even more to your point about the lower cost of such schools is that it seems those running them are extremely dedicated to keep the cost as affordable as possible for families providing financial aide if at all possible. I recently was thrilled to learn that there is a Manhattan Free School right in my neighborhood where students pay between $1500 and $15000 depending on ability. To help make this possible the head of school earns only $3000 a year! If I remember correctly at the Summerhill School the staff receives room and board but make only $15000 a year. The dedicated staff at these schools are clearly driven non by dollars but by providing children with extraordinary opportunities.

  5. Lisa - students in colorado have created a plan of disruption toward unschooled public school that could scale. we are in year 1.

    i would love you and Kate to check it out. see if it's legit. it's about choice for everyone. the homeless, the rebels, even the 4.0's that are currently invisible. it's based on everything you keep unearthing here.

  6. @Aaron Allbee, please do share a link, info, or contribute a guest post here. I'd love to take a look.

  7. Great post Lisa.
    This is an area that is very current for me personally.
    I work with 8 teenage students who had dropped out of mainstream school and getting approached each week by parents desperate for something other than mainstream school for their child. The problem is that my program is so personalised it does not work if the class gets too big.

    I am also working with friends who are in the process of finding a way for their kids to learn at home but they both work. I have been helping them with my personalised interest based approach and finding ways for their kids to learn with mentors in the community. They are many rules and regs in place to make this difficult.

    I am wrestling with a number of ideas on how to make a business out of this without setting up a school, which is a minefield (even private schools). Something like a learning coach + tutoring business that facilitates kids in small groups getting support in their community based learning.

    Maybe it would be worth setting up some type of wiki/Google Doc if ones are interested in fleshing out the way forward. I think it was you that flagged a Learning Co-op idea??

  8. @Scratchie, thanks for the kudos. It sounds like you are doing some great work. You are right indeed about me being the one to push the idea of learning co-ops. This would work quite well if parents were empowered with the dollars to fund such endeavors. If you set up a Google doc, I'd be happy to share it. I know folks who are doing and/or interested in doing such work.

    As far as the kids whose working parents want to find ways for them to learn at home, I'd reach out to Sandra Dodd and Laurie A. Couture.

  9. so glad your tweet today brought me to this post Lisa.
    just above... Lane Albee... is part of the innovation lab.
    here is our latest. and so legit. big thanks to both you and Kate.
    note post... the be you house.

  10. I don't know of any region of the United States where government schools have embraced this concept. But it is interesting to note that tuition costs at Sudbury schools tend to be considerably lower than per pupil costs at other schools, public or private. When Sudbury valley School was established in 1968, tuition was pegged at a level comparable to the "stated" per pupil costs in the neighboring public school jurisdictions. Today, Sudbury Valley School tuition is in the region of 30-40% of the "stated" per pupil costs in those same jurisdictions. Other Sudbury model schools make the same effort to keep their tuition costs low.