How Free is Your School? A Visit to the Portland Freeskool

CurfewImagine a school with no classrooms. Imagine a curriculum flexible enough to include organic chemistry, acrobatics and bike repair. The teachers are sometimes younger than the students, nobody gets paid, and the students can talk back as much as they want. No, this isn't an Internet school. This is the Portland Freeskool.

The Freeskool is in a building called the Liberation Collective, sandwiched in downtown Portland, Oregon. The Liberation Collective is ground zero for progressive politics and punk/anarchist youth culture in Portland, and it provides a fitting home the Freeskool. The windows are full of t-shirts with slogans like "Hate is not a family value" and "Free Mumia!" Inside, two ratty couches and an old rug furnish the main meeting area. Records by Portland indie and punk bands are for sale, along side rows of homemade, cut and paste-style zines. The walls are lined with books and pamphlets on everything from anarcho-syndicalist activities in Spain during its Civil War to political manifestos advocating for a vegan diet.

"K.I.D.S. was born out of a passion to change the way that youth are treated and to reclaim kid pride."
One of the groups that meets in the Liberation Collective every Friday is K.I.D.S., the founding body of the Freeskool. K.I.D.S. came together in 1998 as a group of youth organized to resist curfews in Portland. Their "manifesto" reads: "K.I.D.S. was born out of a passion to change the way that youth are treated and to reclaim kid pride."

Over the last three years, K.I.D.S. has orchestrated direct actions to protest a new daytime curfew, held workshops, and organized and participated in several "youth liberation conferences" that promote recognition of what they call "youth oppression." In early 2000, they formed the Freeskool.

Recently, I drove up to Portland in April to attend a K.I.D.S. meeting and learn about the Freeskool. When I walked into the Liberation Collective, there were 12 people sitting on the couches, talking and eating pizza. The meeting started with the warm-up question: What has inspired you in the last week? When my turn came, I told them about the article I was writing and asked them for help and information. I was hoping they could help me make connections between the Freeskool and alternative schools in general. I was curious about how they operated, what philosophy they operated under, and how they managed to pull it all off.

It turns out that there are a number of freeschools around the country. Most are different from the Portland Freeskool, but similar in design. During the late 60's and early 70's freeschools popped up around the country. Parents dissatisfied with the state of public education got together and founded private schools that were "small, innovative, anti-traditional...[and] that based their teachings around notions of children's freedom, self-governance, and social justice," according to Tate Hausman, a graduate of the Department of Education at Brown University. Through conferences and newsletters, the freeschoolers built a movement that, at its peak, gained national prominence.

"According to the Freeskool, curfews, anti-skateboarding laws, police treatment of youth and the inferior legal status of minors are the instruments of what the call 'youth oppression.'"
The freeschool movement reached its peak in the early 70's and has declined since then. This might have been because things grew more conservatism through in the 70's and 80's, and it was difficult to operate radical freeschools, without broader community support. Now, only a handful of freeschools remain intact 30 years after the movement began; most have closed their doors, changed their motivating philosophies or become home-schooling resource centers.

Portland Freeskool is ideologically similar to the earlier freeschools, but its founders are only vaguely aware that there was a national freeschool movement. They see the Portland Freeskool as an outgrowth of a recent resurgence in youth activism, as well as young people's increasing awareness and "skepticism of society." K.I.D.S. also expects the number of freeschools to grow again. Already they are organizing a Freeskool Convergence with other freeschools that operate up and down the West Coast in Seattle, Vancouver and Santa Cruz.

Like many of the freeschools of the early 70's, the Portland Freeskool is dedicated to what its organizers call "non-oppression, non-coercive learning and self-government." According to the Freeskool, curfews, anti-skateboarding laws, police treatment of youth and the inferior legal status of minors are the instruments of what they call "youth oppression." Tyler, one of the Freeskool's founders, taught a workshop that "goes over how young people are institutionally oppressed" through mandatory education, political disenfranchisement, and parental control, and "recognizes youth oppression is not just a 'necessary thing.'"

The founders of the Freeskool looked closely at the social landscape, of their own community (Portland) and made connections between the way youth are mistreated and marginalized, and the oppression of other groups, like the poor people and ethnic and sexual minorities. In reading any of their literature, their radical philosophy becomes apparent. Their website links to a number of punk and anarchist groups and they are currently working with a local radio station to put youth on the air. In conjunction with their work on the Freeskool, K.I.D.S. is also planning to put out a zine compiling many different experiences about education.

"Many public high school students feel stuck in a system doesn't encourage critical thinking."
As K.I.D.S. members would point out, many public high school students feel stuck in a system doesn't encourage critical thinking. Ashley Fulk, a K.I.D.S. member said of his experience at a public high school, "I felt like the teachers were teaching the same curriculum that was regimented and all about repetition and regurgitation ... I felt like I learned more outside of class doing extra-curricular things like drama ... and through taking a couple classes at a community college."

By recording and gathering young people's stories of disillusionment and frustration with mainstream education, as well as inspiring stories about how some have taken their education into their own hands -- through zines and in conference settings -- the group clearly hopes to stir things up. But they also have a lot left to learn.

The Freeskool hopes to make concrete an ideal that any public high school student would tell you is impossible. It is an environment designed to facilitate learning, not to satisfy political neccessities. K.I.D.S. knows that attending public school, or other alternative schools, too often means accepting indifferent or hostile administrators, learning from inexperienced teachers, and coexisting with a restless and dis-empowered student body that for the most part has lost the desire to learn. They created the Freeskool so they would have a school that is fun, useful, and self-controlled.

Ryen, who has taught Spanish, Basque history and knitting at the Freeskool, calls the it "an antidote to regular school. The learning is self-directed. [It] operates under the idea that everyone knows different things and those things are worth sharing." The Freeskool is designed to be a way for people with knowledge and skills to share them with their community and have fun in the process.

The Freeskool is also anti-authoritarian. Not that the teacher's don't have experience and expertise, but learning is done in a cooperative environment. There is no age segregation or tests to split the students into groups of "accelerated" or "slow."

Even the most radical alternative schools often operate with a traditional sense of budgeting and fund raising. The Portland Freeskool, on the other hand seems to operate as if money didn't exist. It's free to attend classes, and the teachers volunteer. The Freeskool's only major expense is rent, which is covered by the Liberation Collective through the sale of t-shirts, records, vegan boots and zines. K.I.D.S. has also received grants from local private and state organizations that cover some of the basic overhead.

How can the Freeskool be legitimate without a real budget? How can it resist the influence of government, corporations and people who are heavily invested in our controlled and authoritarian system of education? How can it circumvent mandatory standardized curricula, school districts and state government and expectations that school will prepare you for a career? These are all questions the group is still grappling with. In blending education and activism, groups like K.I.D.S. and the Portland Freeskool face the challenge of staying anti-authoritarian while maintaining enough structure to meet their goals.

But most of the members are very proud of what the school is NOT. The Freeskool does not create jobs, but they don't support the standardized testing industry, the textbook industries, or many of the commercial aspects of the college recruitment industry. What the Freeskool does is offer a forum for people to share knowledge with each other, for the sake of learning.

If a student were to attend a school like the Freeskool full time with the intention of getting into a four year college, they may have difficult time. Many alternative schools offer written evaluations that are accepted by most universities, but the people who run K.I.D.S. don't appear to place much value on formal education. While K.I.D.S. can be applauded for their ideals of non-oppression, they can also be criticized for the lack of actual diversity in their membership. Most of the members are in their late teens and early twenties, live in Portland's suburbs, are white, and identify as queer. They have been less than successful in recruiting and reaching out to people of color and others who they say are allies with.

Tyler, one of K.I.D.S. founding members who also attends college in the area, admits this by saying, "We're nowhere near as diverse as the community around us." Moreover, this dilemma is common to many progressive and activist groups (See Ain't Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around).

Rather than accepting this situation, K.I.D.S. has decided to put the Freeskool on hiatus, so that it can get a broader coalition of groups involved in the Freeskool. Tyler says, "It's been a year since [the Freeskool] was started, so it's a really good time to reassess whether it has been as successful as we wanted and whether it's everything it should be ... The more people we have working on it, the better it's going to be, and the more people will be able to take advantage of it."

Ryen told me about the new plans for the Freeskool. "Bigger and better!" he said. "We want more classes, more community involvement, more spaces to hold classes."

To contact K.I.D.S., or to hear more about the evolution of the Portland Freeskool write to them at kids@kidspdx.org.

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