Freedom to Choose What to Learn

Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., celebrates 25 years of alternative education

IT'S a typical day at Sudbury Valley School.

In one of the ``quiet rooms,'' three teenage girls - sprawled out on a couch like cats languishing in the sun - pours over a stack of comic books. A young boy plays the piano in the music room. Downstairs, 15 kids sit around a table playing cards, chess, or just talking. Steps away in the kitchen, four youngsters, about age 6, listen intently to Denise, a staff member who is showing them how to make gingerbread houses.

Sudbury Valley may sound like a summer camp for children and teens. Instead, it's a private school located on 10 bucolic acres in Framingham, Mass., a town 20 miles west of Boston.

Here, kids learn what they want when they want, make the rules, and decide how to spend their time. That might mean reading a magazine, making pottery, or playing outside all day. It could include algebra, fishing, or sitting in front of a computer for hours.

According to Daniel Greenberg, the school's director and one of its founders, Sudbury Valley revolves around a central philosophy: ``We adhere to the idea that the best and only significant learning takes place when you're self-motivated,'' Mr. Greenberg says. ``We're not interested in the learning that takes place when somebody else is forcing you to do it.''

Sudbury Valley opened its doors in 1968 when a group of parents, concerned that the existing educational system wouldn't serve their children, founded the school. It sprouted up during the time of the free-school movement, when a revolution was under way to remove structures traditionally imposed on students (see related story).

It is one of many democratically run schools, and the number is growing, says Jerry Mintz, head of the Alternative Education Resource Organization in Roslyn Heights, N.Y.

Here students are not only allowed to spend time doing what they want, but they also run the school.

At the weekly school meetings, students and staff determine the hiring and firing of staff, expenditures, and other rules. All students take turns serving on the judicial committee, which hands down disciplinary measures to peers.

Does learning take place here? And if so, what kind?

``The kind of learning that happens in life all the time as opposed to the artificial kind of set up in special institutions,'' Greenberg explains. ``These kids are talking all the time to each other, they're talking to adults ... there's total age-mixing. They're living, they're reading, they're listening to records, trading experiences with each other. They're doing what you and I do.''

Dave Carson, a teen who has spent most of his years in either Montessori or public schools, flips through a book of native-American beadwork. He explains why he's here.

``In Montessori school I got my head pumped full of a lot of information ... I didn't have the experience to base it on.... In public school you're told what you can and cannot do and that's it,'' he says, adding that he's interested in writing, history, and native Americans, and wants to study film. ``I want to choose what I need. If I need math I'll choose it.''

Not everyone approves of such an approach in schools. ``Adults have a responsibility to teach and guide children. I don't think children have the authority to make rules for themselves.'' says Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum in Alton, Ill.

Greenberg says people bombard him with questions such as: What if a kid just wants to fish? What if he never chooses to learn academic subjects such as English, math, and history? Or what if he only learns a minimal amount of these subjects?

``So what?'' he retorts. ``You pay a lot of money to a good fisherman to be a guide. If I want to have a fishing vacation, and somebody comes up to me and says, `you know, I have a really well-rounded education at such and such a high school and I know a lot of Shakespeare,' my question is, `do you know how to fish?' '' he says.

``What you want are people who love what they do and enjoy it and are good at it. That's what we get. The interesting thing is this is transferable. If you love what you do and then ... develop a new interest, then you'll love that too, because you're used to doing what you love. Maybe the guy will be a fishing guide for 10 years, then he's developed a love for the outdoors, and he'll become a forester.

``All this stuff about you have to have this and this to be a well-rounded citizen is garbage. It's very controlling, and it changes,'' he says, stressing that Greek and Latin used to be essential subjects for educated people to master in the late 1800s. Those subjects are all but obsolete now, he says.

When a child does want to learn algebra or chemistry or nearly any other subject, he or she arranges it with one of the 11 staff members. These adults, some of whom work full time while others work part time, offer academic instruction in math; languages; history; writing; physical, natural, and social sciences; and literature. A ``class'' may be large, small, or private. If a staff member doesn't have the training in a particular area, outside teachers are brought in. No grades, courses, or curriculum.

THE staff ranges from a karate instructor who has a background in journalism, to a retired stock broker who teaches music, to a woman who teaches photography, French, and runs the industrial-arts shop. Some have no teaching background; others have taught in conventional schools.

Veteran teacher Carol Draper spent two years in public schools and became disillusioned. ``Teachers in the classroom were authoritarian figures; it made me very uncomfortable,'' she says. ``I wanted to talk to kids, answer their questions,'' interact with them more, she says.

Although the 135 students enrolled at Sudbury Valley don't fit into a cookie-cutter mold, many are from middle-class homes. Some had a hard time fitting in to public schools; others have attended since they were four or five. Tuition is $3,600 per year for the first child in a family, $2,575 for a second, and $1,550 for additional siblings.

Until they hit their teens, most kids spend their days playing, Greenberg says. Once they realize they will be entering the real world, they start to develop interests. Between 50 and 75 percent elect to graduate. A student graduates after standing in front of staff, students, and parents and convincing them that he or she is ready to become a responsible member of society.

Graduates have become everything from photographers and morticians to professors and scientists. According to Greenberg, students who wish to attend college - about 50 percent - always get in, most to their first-choice schools, without transcripts, grades, reports, or written school recommendations.

Mary Anne Raywid, a professor of education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., has studied alternative schools. Although Sudbury Valley ``wouldn't be the school I would pick for my kid,'' she says. ``It reflects something I find tremendously important. We have abundant evidence that the same things don't work for all kids. There are some kids who need high structure or they won't be able to function well. There are other kids who are very frustrated by high structure.'' Having a diversity of schools helps accommodate both types, she says.

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