“Hi Lucy. How are you today?” The young girl looked up at me as I gave her a friendly wave.
“Hello,” she replied. “Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
“Awesome! How old will you be?”
It wasn’t exactly an extraordinary conversation, but it was big for Lucy. We had met a year earlier, when I began interning at the Jersey Shore Free School: A Sudbury School, in Little Silver, N.J. I had decided to found my own democratic school, South Jersey Sudbury School, and wanted to first get some hands-on experience and mentoring from the Jersey Shore school’s founder, Dr. Jeri Quirk.
Lucy was timid around me when I started my internship, so I was surprised that she was more talkative now. We chatted about movies, examined a map, and compared our favorite imaginary desserts. Lucy eventually confided that she and her father were caring for her mother, who is seriously ill.
Lucy’s ease at interacting with adults may seem remarkable in a child of her age, but that’s the norm at democratic schools like this one. Children who attend Sudbury schools choose how to spend their days, whether that’s practicing music, making videos, doing arts and crafts, or playing with their friends. There are no mandatory classes or exams, although students can ask for instruction in subjects like algebra or cooking.
But a Sudbury school day isn’t a free-for-all. Children take their play seriously. It is partially during this state of “serious” curiosity and self-criticism that Sudbury students learn their life lessons and find their element. Unlike in orthodox schools, everyone is allowed to go at their own pace. If a student wants to sit around and Snapchat all day, that’s her right. Nobody is going to stop her. I believe most children will grow bored of that sort of activity after a while. And who knows? What appears to be slacking off to us may actually be beneficial or therapeutic behavior to the child. Her home life may be stressful or she may be going through a difficult phase in her life. I don’t believe judging her or her activities is very respectful, unless she asks for my input.
During School Meeting sessions, students and staff jointly vote on new rules, hiring decisions, and how to spend tuition. All students are involved in the process, and are given as much time to speak as staff — teaching them critical life skills like communication and negotiation. School Meeting is often the stage for impassioned debate on deep-seated philosophical issues. For example, when deciding whether or not it’s okay to ban soda or reduce “screen time,” Sudbury students discuss the meaning of freedom and responsibility and form their own opinions regarding these timeless discussions.
All students eventually serve as members of the Judiciary Committee (JC for short), hearing arguments from alleged rule-breakers and deciding the appropriate consequences, if any. This teaches students to not only coherently defend their actions, but also how to handle difficult social situations in a peer-to-peer context.
Having witnessed the dynamics of the JC as an intern, I believe it’s a far more effective deterrent to disruptive behavior than detention or parent-teacher conferences. The democratic nature of Sudbury schools makes it so that students learn to resolve disputes among one another, since staff members hold no more authority than their own peers. From an early age, they’re learning to set and enforce personal boundaries and communicate effectively.
The current US educational system treats children like wildlings, or criminals, that need to be controlled, seen and not heard, lectured to but not listened to.
While working at an after-school program at a local YMCA, I saw children being marched single-file to the restrooms, ordered to “Sit down and read a book!” regardless of their preferences, and instructed to play games selected only by the adults. Is it any wonder children act out, whether with violence or passive-aggressive behavior?
Research into how children learn indicates that free play is key to child development and happiness. Instruction and “guided” experiences inhibit the natural learning processes of many children and introduce negative thought patterns. There is mounting evidence that non-intervention is extremely important in allowing children to learn, hence the importance of alternative learning environments.
How do graduates of this kind of program fare in the “real world”? Researchconducted by the original Sudbury Valley School of their alumni has shed some light. “A longitudinal study of graduates — now numbering over 800 — shows that Sudbury alumni take an increasing amount of time between high school and college. [...] But the students go on to lead deeply satisfying lives. Most are unusually resilient. Almost all feel that they are in control of their destiny. In disproportionately high numbers — 42 percent — Sudbury graduates become entrepreneurs. The alumni study shows that a “spectacularly high number” pursue careers in the arts — music, art, dance, writing, acting. Math, business and education are popular routes, too.”
But Sudbury schools are not for everyone. Occasionally a student comes along who can’t adjust to the freedom, perhaps because they’ve grown accustomed to an authoritarian environment. They might lash out for attention by inflicting violence or harassing their peers. Such students are repeatedly brought before the J.C., and if the community feels there is no foreseeable hope for improvement, the student is expelled. In the schools I’ve visited this is very rare but the safety of the community is paramount. Also, I am not aware of any Sudbury school that is currently equipped to handle the needs of students with severe developmental issues. The funding for this simply does not exist (yet).
Another unfortunate reality is that while Sudbury tuition tends to be much lower than at other private schools, it is still prohibitive for low-income families. That’s why my business partner and I incorporated the South Jersey Sudbury School as a non-profit. We plan to fundraise to create a scholarship fund for children in need. Poor kids are often subjected to the worst schools, limiting their opportunities and souring their view of the world.
I hope that schools everywhere will move away from their authoritarian roots and embrace more egalitarian and less structured programs. Traditional schools need to be reminded that children are people, too. And people thrive in freedom.