News & Politics

In Kids We Trust

A new movement is increasingly grabbing attention: democratic schools. What happens when children get a say in their own education?
While his peers at other schools were memorizing their multiplication tables, Ken Pruitt was lying on his back watching clouds, building tree forts with friends, or poking around in the woods. Pruitt was no juvenile delinquent. He was a student at the Sudbury Valley School near Boston, where children get to decide for themselves how they want to spend each day.

Come again? What does cloud watching or fort building have to do with learning? Everything, according to Sudbury Valley's founders. "Children don't know what they want to learn, they know what they want to do," says Mimsy Sadofsky, one of several original founders who still work at the school. What children typically want to do is play -- which cognitive scientists say is one of the main ways human beings learn.

 "Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned," says David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, and most recently author of The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Miseducation. "There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play."

Pruitt, who attended Sudbury Valley from ages six to seventeen, enjoyed a "Huck Finn childhood". "I spent hours by myself climbing trees, walking on the trails, sitting and observing," he says. He especially liked to perch on a tree leaning low over a swamp and peer into the tea-colored water, watching fish and insects, frogs and turtles go about their daily lives.

He recalls sitting perfectly still on a stone wall in the woods to watch for wildlife. A deer came so close he could almost touch it, and then a raccoon. Something stirred in him that never would have happened had he been sitting behind a desk. "Human beings, especially children before they're programmed by society, are open to seeing other living things in the world as equals instead of having the sense that we're their masters. That's what set me on the course to want to preserve wild nature. By the time I was fifteen, it was clear to me that I'd follow a career in wilderness protection." Today, at age thirty-five, Pruitt is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. In a state that loses forty acres a day to sprawl, his organization helps people in more than three hundred communities protect the kinds of wetlands he loved as a child.

A new survey of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School shows that such idyllic school experiences has not harmed or hampered them as adults. Eighty-two percent of graduates interviewed pursued further study such as college or trade school after Sudbury Valley. The others said they were ready to enter the fields they planned to pursue as adults. Alumni have become ballet dancers and farmers, physicians and circus performers, carpenters, teachers, lawyers, farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, clerks, you name it.

But the most important measures of success seldom have much to do with college admissions or job titles. And that's where Sudbury Valley graduates like Pruitt tend to excel. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said their lives reflect their values. That's what the founders had in mind when they started the school in 1968. Sadofsky and another founder, Daniel Greenberg, along with Jason Lempka, have just published a new book, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Of the past thirty-seven years they write, "We believe that the school provides an environment that trains each individual to think for themself, and to lead an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fun."

Sudbury Valley is the oldest existing democratic school in the U.S. and the most widely imitated. It has no tests or grades and is run by a "school meeting" patterned after New England town meetings in which all participants have an equal vote on important matters. At a time when debates rage about education standards and testing, these schools offer an intriguing and controversial alternative: putting children in charge of their own education.

Although each of the more than 160 democratic schools around the world evolved independently, they generally share the practices of allowing students to choose how to spend their days, vote on important school matters, and participate in a community of equals, regardless of age. These practices raise many eyebrows in education circles, but advocates say democratic schools can teach more traditional schools a thing or two about helping children grow into happy adults, learn to navigate a complex world -- and participate in a free society.

In mid-December, the Victorian mansion that houses the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, bustles with activity. Some students rehearse music and dance performances for an upcoming show at the school. Others make gingerbread houses, play video games, read, argue, sew, study, or just hang out. There's nothing here that even remotely resembles a classroom. Just lots of rooms filled with comfy chairs and books, plus music studios, an art room, a woodshop, performance space, a darkroom, and kitchen.

Learning flows from the daily life of the school, which includes 160 or so students and 10 staff members. Students know each staff person's areas of expertise, and ask for help when they need it. "Although kids may never be in a formal class," says Sadofsky, "the adults here are models for them."         

Classes are occasionally offered -- but only when students initiate them or ask for them. And older students often "teach" the younger ones. During his teenage years, Pruitt took a few optional classes given by staff. "The classes didn't feel like classes, they felt like entertainment, " says Pruitt, who especially enjoyed Daniel Greenberg's European history class. Instead of droning on with boring facts, Greenberg sometimes dramatized his lessons.

One strength of Sudbury Valley's approach is in some of the things these schools don't do says Alfie Kohn, one of America's leading authorities on alternative education. "The excessive control of children, the use of grades and tests and textbooks, and a factory-like curriculum are all wonderfully absent," says Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated. Kohn adds that learning at these schools "often takes place outside of what most adults think of as a structured classroom environment."

Indeed. Just ask Dayna Kimball, who was on the verge of quitting school a few years ago. "I was bored," Kimball says of her junior year at a public high school in suburban Denver, Colorado. "I didn't like the time constraints, and the assignments seemed tedious and redundant."

Luckily, her mother, Jane, discovered Alpine Valley School (AVS) in nearby Wheat Ridge. Modeled after Sudbury Valley, the Colorado school offered Dayna Kimball the freedom she craved -- no tests, grades, or constraints. So what did she do when she got there? "I went to school every day and slept on the couch," she says.

No one bothered her. No one told her to wake up or asked what she thought she was doing. "They accepted every minute of it," Kimball says. "The slang there for it is 'deschooling.'"

After about a year, though, Kimball got really bored -- and that's when she began to wake up. She started learning a little Japanese, a bit of history, and dabbled in metalsmithing. As part of her studies, she decided to try out a few jobs in the "real world," including a stint at a toy store and another as a bank teller.

Meanwhile, subtle changes were unfolding in the time Kimball spent at Alpine Valley. Her fellow students, especially the younger ones, touched something in her. "I was standoffish at first, but they opened me up because they wanted to get to know who I was," Kimball says. As she continued exploring at Alpine Valley, she tried out another job as a para-educator in a public school. And that's when Dayna Kimball discovered her passion: working with autistic children. She says she wouldn't have found it without the freedom and flexibility of Alpine Valley. "Without AVS, I would have dropped out of school," she says.

Today, Kimball works as an intervention support staff person with autistic children at Creative Perspectives, a therapeutic center outside Denver. She also is earning her bachelor's degree in speech and language pathology. "AVS has a philosophy of people first, not grades or accomplishments," says Kimball, who's now twenty-three. "I now look at my kids that way -- kids first. It's not about their disability or their ability to accomplish anything. It's about who they are."

While Sudbury Valley gives children plenty of freedom to play and develop as individuals, it also requires them to participate in the community through school meetings, in which everyone votes on all decisions made at the school. The weekly meeting, says graduate Anna Rossetti, shows that, "democracy can be painful. You've got to listen to a lot of different crap before you get to a consensus." Students and staff sometimes spend hours hashing out every single issue.

Yet Rossetti acknowledges that the experience has often come in handy. "Participating in democracy at Sudbury Valley instills in you an incredible sense of empowerment," says Rossetti, who now works at a Whole Foods Market in San Diego, California, while finishing her bachelor's degree in social sciences. "That's something I take with me all the time."

And perhaps that's one of the most important lessons from democratic schools like Sudbury Valley. "I think it's hard to learn democracy when we make children prisoners until they're nineteen years old," says Sadofsky.  

Freedom is all well and good, but even progressive educators say kids need more pushing and guidance than they typically get at schools like Sudbury Valley. These educators say children also need structure and sometimes more, rather than less, adult involvement.

"I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions."

One opportunity for decision-making comes in the school's judicial committee, in which all students participate on a rotating basis, along with staff. This committee makes and enforces school rules. All grievances are settled here, with students meting out the sentences. And that process can go awry, says Kohn, in an environment that practices what he calls "an extremely individualistic sensibility." Kohn says kids can misuse the well-intentioned judicial committee by threatening to "bring up" other kids who are annoying them. "It's striking, and frankly a little refreshing, that kids sit on this committee and have the power to make decisions," Kohn says. "What is equally striking to me is this ... there isn't a sense of a community solving problems together, rather there's punishment for aberrant individuals."

Academically, Kohn says progressive education should emphasize not only following children's interests, but also challenging them to consider topics and problems that may not have occurred to them.

"Leaving kids on their own tends to flatten the slope of their improvement," concurs schools reformer Ted Sizer, whose latest book, The Red Pencil, offers a powerful critique of American education. Sizer, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says educators need to "shove great questions in front of kids" that challenge them to learn.

On the far end of the educational spectrum from Sudbury Valley, there are growing legions of people, including the Bush Administration, who firmly argue that schools need standards -- and standardized testing -- to make sure all students learn at least the basics like reading and math. In the U.S., each state sets these standards based on recommendations from educators and lawmakers, along with public input. Advocates say standards are essential to allocating money to public schools and the students who need the most help. According to this argument, education standards enable equity.

Ross Wiener, Policy Director of The Education Trust in Washington D.C. sees a general public consensus around certain core skills children need to know in order to become successful adults and find secure jobs that pay a living wage. But he adds that setting standards to ensure that kids learn the basics is about more than just getting a job. "To participate in a democracy, you certainly need advanced reading skills, critical thinking, logic, and reason."

But Sudbury Valley graduates like Christian Cederlund would argue that these are the kinds of skills he acquired, plus many more -- without suffering through rigid standards, testing, or cookie-cutter curricula. Cederlund says one of the most important lessons from his years at Sudbury Valley was not covered in any textbook: adapting to change.

An athletic kid interested in science, Cederlund started Sudbury Valley in 1969 when he was six years old and graduated when he was seventeen. When he was a teenager, a staff person showed him pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and encouraged him to try ballet.

Cederlund went on to dance professionally with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. But eventually his knees started giving out and he found himself a college freshman at age twenty-seven. He completed a degree, and went on to teach dance and neuroanatomy at the University of Washington. When he burned out on teaching, Cederlund took time off to play golf and discovered his next career -- running a golf touring business in Seattle.

At forty-one, Cederlund now has a family to support, which is prompting another career change. He hopes to blend his love of helping people and his fascination with anatomy and science into creating a new job, perhaps selling medical equipment or becoming an MRI technician. He credits his creative ability to shift from one career to another as a continuation of the life-long learning adventure he started at Sudbury Valley. "I still feel like I'm playing in my life," he says.   

Over the past few decades, Sudbury Valley has directly inspired the creation of thirty-nine similar but independent schools in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Israel, and Australia. Students come from many backgrounds -- rich, poor, liberal, conservative, black, white, you name it. Each school offers students an alternative that can help them discover paths they might not have otherwise found.

Among those students are Adu and Ben Sheppard, whose father, Derek, co-founded the Booroobin Sudbury Democratic Centre for Learning in the Australian state of Queensland in 1996. Both brothers say traditional schools didn't serve their learning or interests -- which have turned out to be quite divergent. But at Booroobin, located in the lush, rolling hills north of Brisbane, both brothers found freedom to discover and pursue their passions. While Ben set about rebuilding Land Rovers, raising chickens, and growing organic vegetables and flowers in the rich, volcanic soils surrounding the school, Adu spent much of his time indoors, happily playing computer games and learning simple computer graphics programs.

Since then, Ben has rebuilt two Land Rovers "from scratch," and he's starting on a third (a 1951 model). At age 18, he is also cultivating a reputation as an outstanding gardener. Adu taught himself computer animation and graphics programs and won a government scholarship to attend a games development course to study animation and graphics.

Today, Adu, who's 20, designs web site templates and computer animation graphics for businesses. He's also working on an independent computer game that he and his collaborators hope to publish worldwide. "My aim is to never end up in a repetitious, boring, and mindless day job, and I seem to be doing pretty well so far," he says. "Booroobin taught me that individuality and free-thinking aren't impediments. I've stuck to who I am and what I want to be in life, and I'm loving it!" One wonders, is there any better measure of a good education?

The Queensland government apparently thinks so. In 2003, the Queensland Minister for Education revoked Booroobin's accreditation because it did not meet state requirements. But Booroobin, which now calls itself a centre for learning, is still accepting students, and Derek Sheppard and others are determined to see it through, in spite of the challenges.

How can parents determine whether or not their children will thrive at schools like Sudbury Valley? "What makes a child a good fit is a desire to be in control of his or her time, and parents who can trust their child to behave with intelligence," Sadofsky says. "What makes some children a poor fit is an unwillingness, or inability, to control their behavior."

These schools don't work for children who need a lot of structure, or lack parental support. Beyond these basic issues, sometimes the school simply isn't a fit for a particular child. Both Rossetti and Cederlund have siblings who started at Sudbury Valley and later left.

Paying more than $5,000 a year to send a child to school to climb trees, nap, or wander in the woods demands a big leap of faith from parents. They can feel isolated, even ostracized. Ken Pruitt recalls family friends worrying that his parents were committing child abuse by sending him to a school with such an unstructured environment.

Mimsy Sadofsky acknowledges the challenges faced by Sudbury parents. "People are very worried that there will be some big gaps in their children's lives, which is the opposite of what happens here," she says. "It's a really hard thing when everybody in society is telling you that you have to measure your children all the time to say, 'I don't want to do that. I just want my kids to be free and have fun and grow up in their own way to be responsible.'"

Dayna Kimball's mother, Jane, is glad she took the chance. "Dayna had struggled for several years. I knew that she was wanting freedom more than anything and that she would resist anything less," Jane says. "I sensed that I had to let life be her teacher. Paying tuition for a place that required her to show up was much better than having her drop out of school. I am extremely grateful to AVS for Dayna's successes. I believe that the philosophy of these schools is in alignment with the way nature operates."   Even with their problems, Sudbury and schools like it are slowly catching on, and every year staff and students gather at the International Democratic Education Conference, which was held in India last December. Jerry Mintz, Director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, says each democratic school offers something valuable. He explains, "There is a spectrum of approaches within the idea of non-compulsory classes: some schools set a timetable, such as Summerhill School in England." Some, he notes offer classes every day, others only when students ask for them, as is the case at Sudbury Valley. "The bottom line is that these schools respect students' rights and the right to take control of their own education."

Ken Pruitt is now a father himself. He wants his two young children to have the same freedom he enjoyed as a boy. His daughter, Emma, starts school next year. The Pruitts would love to send her to Sudbury Valley, but it's a long drive. At a minimum, he says, the couple will keep a careful eye their children's education -- but not in the traditional sense "If we have them go through a traditional school system," Pruitt says, " we will observe whether or not their natural spark, curiosity, and desire to learn are being driven out of them. If that did start to happen, we'd take drastic measures and get them out.."

Human beings are born to learn. Democratic schools, which like every school have their flaws, raise provocative questions about the best way to allow our children to find their authentic paths, a sense of personal responsibility, and contribute to a free and thriving world.

The solutions might be simpler than we think: long afternoons of cloud watching. Days upon days to play with friends, dance or nap, read a book or muck around in a swamp. In a world where many kids' lives are overscheduled, micro-managed, and endlessly tested, perhaps more freedom is exactly what they need.  
Kim Ridley is co-editor of "Signs of Hope: In Praise of Ordinary Heroes." She writes about people creating positive social change for Ode Magazine.
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