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Free Radicals

In the country’s most alternative classrooms, there’s no such thing as a report card.

By Amy Standen

J amie Tyrrell was not your typical high school stu- dent. As other kids crammed for chemistry exams, Tyrrell spent her days painstakingly recon- structing the skeleton of a German shepherd she and some school friends had dug up. She and a few other students created the school’s drama department from scratch, and wrote, made costumes for, and performed a sendup of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

In addition to taking college classes and studying for the SAT, Tyrrell spent her soph- omore and junior years creating a three- dimensional computer model of a violin, mastering the techniques of parametric modeling and rendering along the wa , and as a senior, she served as the law clerk for the school’s judicial system and as an admissions clerk. And yet, for all these self-directed projects, she never received a grade or a report card, never attended a formal class, and never had a teacher tell her what to do or when to do it.

Tyrrell spent those years at the Circle School, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, found- ed in 1984 on the model of the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. Sudbury schools are only one variety of so-called free, or democratic,

schools, which eschew most conventions of traditional education in favor of a much more radical program. At most free schools, literally every decision, from those about staff hiring and firing to determinations con- cerning rules, facilities, and budget issues, is made by the entire school community in a one-person, one-vote process. There are no tests, no report cards, no requirements, and no classes—and no curriculum, other than what students set for themselves.

It is a philosophy that may strike the uninitiated as far-fetched, if not irresponsi- ble, but it seems to be working. At a time when mainstream public schools, under the No Child Left Behind Act, are growing ever more focused on standardized tests, state- mandated curricula, and accountabilit , free schools, which reject all such conventions,

are on the rise. Elements

of

the

student-centered

approach are even spilling over into a hand- ful of public schools across the countr , par- ticularly through charters, though the push toward standardized content and testing constrains them. Most commonl , public schools adopt the free-school features of democratic governance and at least some student choice in curriculum.

“There has been a very considerable and rapid interest in the Sudbury model,” says

Daniel Greenberg, who, with several others, founded the Sudbury Valley School in 1968. Over the last five or six years, he says, Sudbury programs have “grown in number dramatically. And more and more groups are forming all the time.” Worldwide, 176 schools identify themselves as democratic schools, according to the Alternative Education Resource Organization, includ- ing 71 in the United States. This list includes many but not all schools based on the Sudbury model, which has seen itself imitat- ed at more than 30 schools worldwide, including in Israel’s Golan Heights and in Belgium, Puerto Rico, and Japan. At the Circle School, says founder and staff mem- ber Jim Rietmulder, “we’re growing like crazy. We’ve tripled in size in five years.”

What feels like a revolution to free-school advocates, however, is just a blip on the edu- cational radar. Most free schools, which enroll students ages four to eighteen, have well under 200 (and some as few as a dozen) students. It’s a trace amount when you con- sider the 48 million elementary school and secondary school students nationwide. But the numbers are growing, part of a nation- wide increase in enrollment at nonsectarian private schools, as well as in home schooling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

OCTOBER 2006 EDUTOPIA 51

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