the things you could have been learning.”
Winner fears that a free-school education can allow children to waste their most learn- ing-rich years on doing nothing. “We know, for instance, that learning a second language is far easier before pubert ,” she says. “We don’t know for sure whether that’s also true with other subjects, but it’s very likely that the early years, starting around age six, are when the brain soaks up education.”
Such fears make free schools a hard sell to many parents. Five years ago, the students and staff at the Red Cedar School, a Sudbury-type school in rural Vermont, for- mally voted to move to a more conventional, curriculum-based program. In this progres- sive but rural community, the school’s philosophy had become a turnoff for many families, and enrollment hovered at around 20 students. “We always felt like we were swimming upstream,” recalls Jacquie Werner-Gavrin, one of the school’s founders.
Some Red Cedar students complained that their education was simply moving too slowly. “There was always this struggle with the fact that their peers in other schools were doing things, and often learning things, that the Red Cedar students didn’t know yet,” Werner-Gavrin says. “There was this insecu- rity that they weren’t getting what they need- ed.” She believes most of the kids would, eventuall , have learned what they need to know—and at a much faster pace, she says, having come to that lesson out of curiosit , not obligation—but concludes that the Sudbury model wasn’t ever going to hold wide enough appeal.
Mixing It Up A hybrid model—part free, part convention- al—has found success in a handful of public schools. In Alameda, California, for exam- ple, the charter Alameda Community Learning Center sets aside up to half of each student’s day as project time, during which kids may choose to work on projects, read quietl , or hang out with friends. Students, who are in grades 6–12, make up a quarter of the legislative and executive bodies and more than three-fourths of the judicial panel that run the school. Development Director Paul Bentz says applications to the ACLC outnumber available slots four to one, and the Alameda Unified School District recent- ly renewed its charter for five years.
Like the ACLC, many public alternative schools do provide direct instruction in
certain subjects, particularly those likely to appear on state tests. An exception is the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, in Providence, Rhode Island, where students work twice a week in professional intern- ships and spend the rest of their time on entirely individualized project- based-learning plans. With help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Met model has been replicated at 28 other urban sites nationwide, and 20 more are planned. (See “High School’s New Face,” November/December 2004.)
However, Eric Premack, codirector of the Charter Schools Development Center, in Sacramento, California, says schools such as the Met remain rare because they’re “incred- ibly work intensive and require exceptional- ly capable staff.” More common, he says, is for schools to offer multiple options, such as traditional or constructivist math.
At the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a nonprofit organization in Roslyn Heights, New York, that promotes learner-centered education, founder and director Jerry Mintz says that though he knows of at least ten charter schools in the United States that incorporate democratic governance and some individual choice in curriculum, those models won’t be the main catalysts for broader change. If reform is to come, he believes, the staging ground is in home schooling and in the independent- study schools many school districts offer. Sudbury Valley School cofounder Daniel Greenberg goes even further, arguing that the Sudbury model cannot be “broken into discrete elements and adopted piecemeal in other settings.”
For those who stick it out in private mod- els, Greenberg says, free schools offer prepa- ration for the real world, where personal pas- sion is often the best career guide. “The jus- tification of the traditional system is that there is a limited number of things you have to know to make it in the world,” says Greenberg. “That’s gone down the drain. In this day and age, anything is possible. Pretty much any interest that is pursued effectively can lead to a challenging and interesting life. Why do Sudbury graduates do great? Because they’ve learned a whole bunch of things that teach them how to live—what their interests are and how to pursue the
things they’re interested in.” Many students, particu- larly those fresh from a public school education, may at first exploit the freedom of a free school by sitting around doing nothing, he adds, but eventually they all find some- thing to do—and what they pursue, they pursue with a zest. “One of the assumptions that’s made about children is that unless they’re prodded, they’re laz ,” Greenberg says. “And anyone who has dealt with infants knows that’s ridiculous. They’re dying to crawl; there is no boundary they won’t struggle to overcome. That persistence in what you’re passionate about carries through life if you don’t squelch it.”
No formal accounting of free-school graduates has been done, but a recent study of Sudbury graduates shows that most do continue on to college. Though some Sudbury schools offer students the option to build a traditional high school tran- script, most graduate the way Jamie Tyrrell did: with no Advanced Placement credits and no formal academic record. Apparently, it doesn’t stop them.
Last year, Greenberg, along with Sudbury Valley School cofounder Mimsy Sadofsk , published The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury alley Alumni, a follow-up to a 1992 book tracking the progress of 50 Sudbury graduates. In the recent book, the authors have the benefit of a larger sample size: the book tracks about 100 ex-students, 82 percent of whom have gone on to pursue a college degree and most of the rest profess- ing satisfaction in their career choices despite their lack of higher education.
That the sample size remains so small for a school that’s been around for thirty-eight years is significant, and probably illustrates what Winner and Hiner have observed: Some kids will thrive in free schools, and some won’t. Judging by the numbers, the kids who don’t thrive won’t make it to grad- uation. But if Jamie Tyrrell is any indication, those who do will graduate with an original and fulfilling school experience and the con- fidence to take their passions with them.e
Amy Standen, who wrote “Grounded” in our October 2005 issue, is author of Maggie Taylor’s Landscape of Dreams. Edutopia staff writer Grace Rubenstein contributed to this article.
OCTOBER 2006 EDUTOPIA 53