The democratic spirit thrives at Sudbury Valley School

`I'M the executive officer of the Woodworking Corporation,'' says young Ray Bail, as proudly as if his corporation were listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, Ray is only 13 years old, and his not-for-profit corporation is familiar only to those who attend the Sudbury Valley School here. Ray was elected to his managerial post by the ``directors'' of the ``corporation'' (mostly fellow students). That's the whole idea behind the Sudbury Valley School - that children of all ages can act as responsible members of the democratic school community. It is a private day school where the 125 students are not only encouraged, but required, to take the initiative for their own education. There are no required courses and no grades. The school's government is based on a ``school meeting,'' in which the vote of any student carries the same weight as that of a staff member.

It sounds like an approach to education that faded from the scene along with peace marches and the Beatles. It could hardly be more contrary to the new ``back to basics'' fashion. Yet Sudbury Valley is part of a nationwide network of ``alternative'' schools that is growing and thriving.

So the old question remains: Can young students really learn in a school that makes so few formal demands upon them?

The fundamental assumption at Sudbury Valley and many other alternative schools is that all children have an innate urge to grow. ``Learning, thinking, actively using your mind - it's the essence of being human,'' Dan Greenberg, one of the school's founders, wrote not long ago. ``It's natural. Learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you.''

``No kid wants to just sit and do nothing,'' adds music teacher Sharon Kane.

The school is situated on a spacious suburban property set off from surrounding residences by fields and woods. The main building is a large white house that was part of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. There is also a barn with stereo room, woodshop, weightlifting area, and space for drama.

While there are no required courses, the staff does teach classes in a variety of subjects, from writing and painting to French and preparing for college entrance exams. Classes meet at regular times, and students have assignments. Many study independently or receive individual instruction. There are only seven full-time and seven part-time staff members, so the schedule of classes and tutorials is often heavy. The staff are all called by first name.

Students help carry the load. Keith Clark, for example, works with younger students like eight-year-old Alistair Bridgewater on computer programming, and he is helping another boy make a comic book. This is part of the plan: Older students learn patience, younger ones confidence in dealing with their elders, and everybody gains a sense of responsibility.

While many decide they want to read at age five or six, others wait until they are older, and this can be disturbing to parents. Dan Greenberg's own daughter didn't start reading until age nine. ``When kids are left to their own devices, they eventually see for themselves that in our world the written word is a magic key to knowledge,'' Greenberg says.

A more structured setting can be helpful to some students, staff member Mimsy Sadofsky concedes. ``But we feel that what we do offer outweighs those benefits,'' she says. Greenberg tells the story of a math class he taught in which students learned what would generally be six years' worth of material in less than one year. ``And every one of them, from 12-year-olds to nine-year-olds, knew the material cold.''

Many students come to Sudbury Valley to escape the social pressures of traditional schools. ``I was not accepted by 90 percent of the people at my high school,'' says Chris Norton, a husky fellow with a Billy Idol haircut. ``There are people here who don't accept me, but the difference is that here it's only 10 percent instead of 90 percent.''

Wendy Nutter found traditional schooling too restrictive: ``Everything was regulated,'' she says. ``They told you when you could eat, when you could go to the bathroom.''

Some come with problems such as drug use or depression. ``It is interesting to see what good our positive atmosphere does for some kids,'' says staff member Karen Paradies. ``It might take a while before they get engaged by something academic, but we've seen some drug problems resolved very quickly when students have entered Sudbury Valley.''

All important decisions, from budgetary matters to the hiring of new staff, are made at a weekly School Meeting, at which staff and students get one vote each. In addition, every student has to serve at least once on a judicial committee that tries cases of alleged infractions of the school's 28-page lawbook.

Students also participate in various ``corporations'' that govern activities from woodworking and camping to cooking and sports.

Students decide when they are ready to graduate, and prepare a ``thesis,'' which they deliver to anyone who wishes to attend. The ultimate decision is made at an annual spring assembly, at which parents participate along with students and staff. (While decisions have sometimes been difficult, only one would-be graduate has been turned down.)

Roughly half the school's graduates have chosen to attend college, and all have been accepted, usually by the student's first choice, school officials say. Since there are no grades or official report cards, students have to improvise at application time. ``It was hard at first,'' Wendy Nutter says of her freshman year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``I had never had any academic pressure. The first exam in college is tough for most Sudbury Valley graduates, I think, but I got used to it pretty quickly.''

Wendy Lament was chosen the ``outstanding graduate'' in her class at the University of Colorado at Denver. ``The most important thing Sudbury Valley taught me was self-discipline,'' she says.

Like numerous other alternative schools, Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968, is quietly thriving. A big issue these days is how to deal with growth. The school has managed to keep tuition low (currently $2,000 per year) in an effort to avoid becoming an enclave of the affluent white.

Bob Flaherty, principal of the South Framingham High School, thinks schools like Sudbury Valley make an important contribution. ``You need alternatives to public schools for students who, for whatever reason, don't feel successful in public schools,'' he says. ``Alternative schools help keep us [in public education] on our toes.''

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