This is school?

Outside Fairhaven School, half a dozen teenagers are whacking one another over the heads with plastic swords. An interactive antiterrorism computer game is raging in the video room, card games are being played in the lounge. And, in the silent room, two tired young bodies slump on couches, breathing softly as they sleep away the afternoon.

The three R's are of no interest to anyone here. Fairhaven, modeled after a system called the Sudbury Valley School, is a school, yes. But not as you might know it.

It is everything the ubiquitous "Leave No Child Behind" model of school, with its standardized testing and formulaic demands, is not.

This is a school with no set hours, no required classes, no grades, no parent-teacher meetings, and no rules except for the ones the people here make up and vote on themselves. It's a school where youngsters have a say on everything - from whether sipping soda should be allowed in the sound-proofed music room to which staff should be fired at the end of the year.

Students ages 5 to 19 mix freely here with each other and with the teachers (known as "doers"), and are encouraged to take their time figuring out what they want to learn - and then how, when, where, and from whom to learn it. Meanwhile, in their "spare time," they play. Or get bored. Both, according to the school's mission, are welcome activities.

Fairhaven is a so-called "free school." The philosophy behind the model is that humans are curious by nature - and so the most efficient and profound learning will take place when started and pursued by the learner. Freedom and democracy, continues the philosophy, will help develop personal responsibility and maturity.

But playing hairdresser all morning? Fishing for the whole day? Sculpting Play-Doh for a whole year? Skeptics raise their eyebrows and call the parents who send their children there irresponsible, arguing that adult guidance is needed to prepare youngsters for the rigors and demands of real life.

Yet, the popularity of the Sudbury model, like that of other alternative schools such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Progressive (all different from free schools but equally far removed from the content-oriented, test-driven approach shaping much of public school education today), seems to be growing.

The original Sudbury school opened in Framingham, Mass., in 1968, but to the surprise of its founders,the model failed to spawn others until almost 20 years later.

"It's such a wonderful model, we thought people would flock to it," says Lisa Lyons, who helped found a Sudbury school in Maine, before moving to Fairhaven. "Only now is it getting the deserved attention."

Today, there are more than 300 free schools throughout the world. One of the first - and perhaps still best known - is Summerhill in Leiston, England, launched in 1921.

There are also 31 schools based on the Sudbury model, including some in places as far-flung as Israel and Japan.

Fairhaven - conveniently located between Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis - is among the largest of the lot: With 73 students, it has grown almost threefold since it opened. Of the 10 students who finished Fairhaven (either by writing a 'personal senior statement/thesis' and graduating or simply by ending their time there at age 18) since it was started seven years ago, half have gone on to college, one is in midwifery school, and the others are working. One favorite son is a professional skateboarder.

The model's advocates see the increasing popularity of the schools, at least in part, as a reaction to the increased standardization of the education system in the US. "No Child Left Behind is a disaster," says Ms. Lyons. "Teachers are making time just to teach to the tests. Couple that with constant budget crises, and you get things like arts, music, and recess eliminated."

There are plenty of parents, argues Lyons, who are "eager for their children to have happy childhoods and be able to pursue their interests in a less regimented, formulaic environment. The more regimented the public school system is, the more inquiries we get."

Ted Sizer, a professor at Harvard's School of Education and the former headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., says the spike in interest in Sudbury is part of a larger trend. "Parents have been looking for alternatives for their children for years," he says. This is due to a desire not so much for a particular method of education but for more personal attention.

"Most Americans are more or less confident in the basic shape of the American public school," he says. "But what they are running away from - and have for years - is a school system which leaves their kids anonymous, where the kids are just shuffled around and not cared for."

The number of graduates is still too few to fully evaluate the success of this particular alternative, he says - but so far he believes Sudbury "is providing a well-thought-through option, and that is a virtue."

Katie Fitzdale is one of those kids who felt uncared for in public school. The daughter of a public school teacher, she never felt right there. She learned almost perfect French, yes, but she generally made bad grades, had few friends, and was altogether unhappy. At age 15 she switched to Fairhaven and thrived, graduating and going on to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is today a junior studying photography.

"Some people think Fairhaven is easy," she says. "But, in fact, you are responsible for your whole day and that can be hard to come to terms with. In my case, it pushed me to be curious and to work hard." The model is not perfect, she adds, "...but it's the best that's out there."

That the model works for some children is not surprising, argues Prof. Mike Timpane, former president of Colombia University's Teachers College, but that doesn't make it right for everyone.

"Among a reasonably self-selected group, a lot of approaches will work... somewhat," he argues, adding that most students at schools "on the fringe" are, almost by definition, open to engaging in something different. There are no grounds to shut these schools down, maintains Mr. Timpane, but he concludes, there is no reason to think "it could work for large numbers of kids."

Many Fairhaven parents would be the first to admit the school is not for everyone, and that enrolling a child in Fairhaven (which charges annual tuition of $6,300) can demand a huge leap of faith. "You will have doubts along the way, and say to yourself - why did we do this?" says Susan Stephen, whose son Thor is graduating this year. "But the whole process of raising children is a leap of faith."

Mrs. Stephen and her husband - both products of public schools in the Midwest - used to be "great believers in public school," she says. But her children's experiences - with bullying and low-level teaching - sent them scurrying to the Internet to research options. "We are no hippies or anything like that. But we realized that children are different and it's impossible to try to form them into a block. We wanted to give our kids an alternative way of growing up."

For Thor it worked. After not taking a math class in six years ("Yes, we were worried," laughs Stephen) he decided to study for the SAT - and scored 1400, well above average. And after long school years filled with perfecting his video-game maneuvers, he has a good idea of what he wants to study - video-game design, of course.

"I will stay at Fairhaven a year more before I apply," says the 18-year-old. "There is more I want to get out of this place before leaving."

Thor's younger sister, Anika, however, opted out of Fairhaven after only a year.

"It was hard for us to accept that she wanted to leave, because we are committed to the model," says Stephen, who now home-schools her daughter. "But she wanted more structure. She felt this was not appropriate for her, and knew what she needed."

Kids, concludes Stephen, often do.

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