Free At Last!
by Scott Gray
Shortly after we made the Internet available, one of the technicians ... told me, ''My God, what are you doing there? ... More data flows to and from your handful of computers than the whole Boston School district.''
Scott Gray, Sudbury alumnus and staff member
The Sudbury Valley School has been in operation for more than 30 years now. Several other schools both in and outside the United States have observed our success and are modeling their schools on ours.
The school accepts students ages four and up, and awards a high school diploma. It is a private school which relies upon tuition and does not engage in fundraising. Studies of our alumni show them to be ''successful'' by any criteria. Most have gone on to their first-choice career or college. Most have a comfortable income. And the best definition of success, in my mind most are happy people.
Sudbury's physical plant is a beautiful Victorian mansion on a ten-acre campus. It is furnished like a home, with couches and easy chairs. Books are everywhere not hidden in a library. The grounds, which include a great fishing pond, are excellent for sports and games. The school's indoor facilities include music rooms, an art room, a darkroom, a piano, a stereo, and several computers, with high-speed Internet connectivity.
Students are free to do as they wish during the day as long as they follow the rules (more on that later). The campus is ''open,'' and most students come and go as they please, without having to check with an office. No one is required to attend classes. And indeed, classes are rare and bear little resemblance to the usual notion of a ''class.'' There are no tests or grades of any kind. Students and teachers are equal in every regard. They refer to each other by first name, and the relationships between students and staff are much the same as relations between the students themselves.
The school is governed democratically by the weekly School Meeting, which follows Robert's Rules of Order and consists of both students and staff. The School Meeting elects administrative officers from among those in attendance, with students and staff being equally eligible for office. The Meeting decides upon the School Rules, allocates expenditures, submits an annual budget to the Assembly (see later) for approval, and does all hiring, firing and re-hiring of staff. Also, there is no tenure procedure. All staff are up for re-election or not each year.
The Assembly, made up of students, staff, and parents (since they are usually the ones paying the tuition fees, it is considered only reasonable that parents should have some voice in how their money is spent). The Assembly meets annually to approve the upcoming year's budget submitted by the School Meeting. Budgetary items include tuition rates and staff salaries. The Assembly also votes on whether or not to award diplomas to students who have requested them.
Within the school, the rules are enforced by a judicial system which has been re-defined by the School Meeting several times over the last 30 years. Its most current incarnation revolves around a Judicial Committee (JC) made up of two officers elected every two months (always students, ever since the positions first opened), plus five students selected randomly every month and a staff member chosen daily. The JC investigates complaints of school rules' being broken, and sometimes presses charges.
If the JC presses charges against someone and he or she pleads innocent, there is a trial. If a person pleads guilty or is found guilty by the trial, that person will be sentenced by the Judicial Committee. Verdicts and sentences deemed by the accused or others to be unfair may be brought before the School Meeting.
All School Meeting members are equal before the law. In fact, the first guilty verdict ever was against staff members. Typical sentences are things like ''can't go outside for two days,'' ''can't enter the upstairs for a week,'' etc.
As the revolution-torn democratic city-states of ancient Greece attest, democracy alone is not enough to create a stable, happy community. It is also important that personal freedoms and rights be respected, and in this spirit, Sudbury School grants to its students the same freedoms guaranteed to adults by the Bill of Rights. This alone, as you may recognize, is highly unusual. In traditional schools American children are not even allowed to leave their seats to go to the bathroom without permission from a teacher. Nor do American children normally have freedom of religion parents may force them into Sunday school or other religious practices.
But children come into this world with an amazing natural capacity for knowledge, and it makes little sense to assume that such a thing as the human brain could have evolved, or been created or whatever, if the means of using did not come also naturally. Let me list some of the more obvious ''natural'' mechanisms by which children and adults learn that are customarily suppressed by the lack of freedom in traditional schools:
- Curiosity. This is crushed in classrooms where children must study what others wish, rather than the subjects they are burning to know about.
- Role-modeling. This is not easy when the only person older than you is a teacher whom you probably dislike and who is almost certainly not practicing the profession you would have chosen for yourself.
- Spontaneous play. Play is right out the window in our traditional schools, where children are so restrained that even ''recess'' becomes a time for working off violent energy rather than exploring one's world.
People sometimes ask how Sudbury Valley students are ''exposed'' to different things. I find this a very odd question, for in reality, how can a person keep from being exposed to things? We are in an age of endless information. It takes the prison-like cells of our traditional schools to keep a curious person from finding out anything and everything he or she wants to know.
People naturally learn to deal with the environment in which they find themselves. In a place with grades, where knowledge is spoonfed and there is never any reason to make use of it apart from passing tests, students will learn to get good grades whether that means learning to cheat or learning how to ''cram'' for a test.
When children are treated as prisoners, as in traditional schools, they learn only that they are not trusted and cannot trust themselves that they must wait for the instructions and orders of others. It is testimony to the strength of the human spirit that there are so few apathetic and helpless people coming out of the public school system.
In a place like Sudbury, where all people are treated as responsible human beings, they learn that they must live up to certain community standards. Sudbury Valley alumni often become quite politically active in later life, and often go into helping professions.
When young people are allowed to do what they want, they find the intrinsic value of knowledge and cooperation.
Interview with Scott Gray by Diane M. Cooper
Diane: Scott, in your article you mention the words ''democratic society.'' Please provide a further explanation as it applies to Sudbury School.
Scott: The thing that I think most defines what we are doing here is a respect for the concept of individual liberty and individual rights that the community itself can't touch a respect for political democracy in which all the citizens have the same rights to participate and a respect for the notion of equality before the law, in which the school is ''ruled by laws and not by men,'' to use an old term.
Children and adults tend to be involved in power relationships that are very lopsided. And when you have a school that calls itself a ''normal'' school, wherein there are no written rules and success depends on what the adults around you say is acceptable, what happens, in my opinion, is that any sense of equality is lost. Equality is protected better in an environment that has written codes of rules that can be debated and discussed by the entire community.
When you compare us to other schools that started in 1967-68, you will find that most of them were attracted to notions that relied on consensus and on gentle, guiding hands. We started a school that is run like a town meeting, wherein if it isn't a written rule, no one can say anything about it.
Diane: How old were you when you came to the school?
Scott: Twelve I think
Diane: What kind of educational system did you come from?
Scott: I had been in local traditional school until grade four.
Diane: How was it for you coming into a nontraditional environment?
Scott: It was a very interesting experience. I had read about the kinds of things Sudbury stood for, but frankly I was very suspicious. I had felt myself to have been lied to, cajoled, and misled by adults all though traditional school, and it took me a while to realize that this place actually did what it said it did.
I remember distinctly my first year at Sudbury. I read all the school law books and bylaws and so forth. I made it a point to attend the School Meetings. And after a year or two of seeing these ideas in practice of seeing that the adults in the community were not forming a voting block, and that they were looking at issues just like everyone else I realized that the School Meeting indeed had force of law here. As soon as I knew I could exercise a vote if I needed to, I didn't have the same partly paranoid sense that I needed to look out to make sure it was for real.
Diane: In reading the book Free at Last, by Daniel Greenberg, I have an understanding of what is being done at Sudbury. In fact, I wish I'd had the opportunity to attend there myself. But what about children of fourteen who are pretty much ''programmed,'' shall we say, by the other models of education and the traditional parent-child relationship? How easy is it for them to make the transition?
Scott: I do think that people who come here younger, with a minimum of experience in traditional schools or schools that have a curriculum, have an easier time of it. Many schools calling themselves alternative still have curriculums or sets of goals, things that they expect the child to ultimately do and if the child doesn't do these things, they start to be psychoanalyzed or cajoled in the accepted direction.
I would say that I've never seen a case of someone coming younger than age 13 that had so much baggage that it was an impossible transition but I also have to admit that we've had a couple of kids that came in at age 16 and 17 who just couldn't integrate. Basically they were ready to drop out of school, and their parents, in a last-ditch effort, said maybe they'd fit in at this school. But they could never break down their barriers.
There are a lot of alternative schools in the country who won't enroll anyone over the age of twelve for just this reason.
Diane: In looking back now from the perspective of an adult, what would you say was your most profound moment as a student?
Scott: Hmmm. You know, that questions catches me a little off guard.
Scott: I guess because I look at my time and education here as a whole, as a process, and that kind of question invites an answer about moments of epiphany or moments of real deliberate changes in thinking, and I guess I can't identify a moment like that in my education. The things that I can remember that were personally significant were the kinds of things that would be significant to most people in their lives like a friend moving away, or the meeting of someone who becomes a lifelong friend normal aspects of living are the ones that stand out in my memory. I guess they wouldn't seem spectacular to anyone but me.
But I will say that I felt very moved on a number of occasions by particular experiences that had to do with the structure of the school. After years of a traditional school in which I felt powerless, one of the moments that really stands out for me here was at a School Meeting. Another student and myself started a conversation about a staff member we were calling into question. That conversation actually resulted, ultimately, in the staff member's not being offered a contract for the coming year. Our conversation was taken seriously. Our age or situation didn't color the way in which we were being listened to. That for me was very powerful, and I know that a number of other students find this power to be a real wake-up call. The vote on staff members here is a serious thing, and my experience wasn't the first or the last time a staff member lost an annual election and was denied a contract.
I also think that the experience of arguing a case and losing is a very powerful experience. What was conveyed to me, as I recall, was a sense that okay I've got my ideas and the community has its ideas, I am a member of the community. I care about the community, but we are not synonymous. We are a group of citizens with private opinions, and we can belong to the community while still disagreeing with decisions made by the whole. That thought was very liberating. It is the very basis of what we call pluralism in society at large the notion that the society can make a choice for itself without having to insist that all of its member go along with it.
Diane: I've been talking to friends about the Sudbury concept, and I've had some very interesting responses. When talking about the idea of ''no set curriculum'' and open campus, many adults have asked how children can know what is good for them. What would you say to this?
Scott: I tend to come at these kinds of questions from a civil-libertarian viewpoint. I would say, ''Who else can know?'' What capacity does anyone have to step inside someone's else's mind and say what's needed. And how would you defend your ability to do that? I don't think it's appropriate for any person or group of people to say for this other group of people what's good for them.
Diane: Doesn't our society do that somewhat in the sense that it says you've got to know certain things in order to be considered successful, employable, and go on to higher education? How does the school address this?
Scott: These are very real things that people need to deal with. The fact is, the reason some students learn to read is that they find things they want to do. And in order to do them, they find there are things that they need to know. That's a natural process the discovery of what one needs gives one's aim.
Why should a school have to sell something in a curriculum by cajoling children to do things. It seems to me that anything which is worth doing is worth doing on its own. And if it's worth doing, people will come to it. If it's not worth doing, then people will stay away from it. If it turns out that for one person reading wasn't necessary, why should anyone else care?
Diane: What about the requirements some states have for annual testing?
Scott: There is a test called the MCCAS Massachusetts Circular Assessment Test but that test is only a requirement for public schools, or schools in Massachusetts that receive public funding. This is one reason we remain totally out of that system and take no government grants or other aid, because we don't want to be obligated to instill curricula on demand.
In the United States, each state handles its own educational system independently. In Massachusetts, the state licenses the town and tells the town that it is responsible to license local private schools in the area. That was done for us back in 1967, and we've had repeated success with this system over the past 30 years. No one has ever approached us about reversing that decision, and it won't happen.
But in some states it is practically impossible to start a school like this, because of the nature of mandatory testing there.
Diane: M.I.T. has now said that a majority of education will take place on the Internet. How is the Internet handled at Sudbury?
Scott: We handle it very casually. About four years ago, we were going through the budget, and decided to fund a major library program wherein we connected a handful of computers to the Internet with a T1 line. Right now there are six computers available for regular students or staff, and they may be used however people want to use them.
We see a lot of web exploration. Some use it for composing writings or computer art. You see people who watch movies on computers, or communicate with others through email and session groups just about any sort of activity that you find online.
Something interesting is that shortly after we made the Internet available, one of the Mermac Education Center technicians (Mermac is a nonprofit company that gets Internet access at cost for nonprofit organizations and schools) told me, ''My God, what are you doing there? You guys are on a T1 and more data flows to and from your handful of computers than the whole Boston School district.''
Frankly, I'm not surprised. When people are only able to go to sites that are listed in advance, you could put all that on a CD why do you need a multimillion dollar budget. When you have a portal that is open to the world why close it? So we just leave it open, and people do what they want.
Diane: How many students do you have?
Scott: We are in the unfortunate situation of having a waiting list. We have 200 students at any given moment. There is some talk about adding a building in the future.
Diane: What would you say to parent who were considering enrolling their child in this type of program.
Scott: To be honest, my tendency is not to try to sell the school. My tendency is to try to speak honestly about it, because the fact is, some families are not prepared to deal with a place that has this philosophy. And neither the school nor their child is going to be well off if they make a mismatch. So I would tell them what it makes sense to tell them based on their questions and concerns.
Diane: Thank you Scott for sharing your experiences with us.
For more information on democratic schools, or to obtain a School Planning Kit which covers the nitty-gritty details of starting and maintaining a school, write to Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA, 01701, Fax: 508-788-0674; or visit www.sudval.org
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Scott Gray, The Sudbury Valley School, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701 (508)877-3030. Email: email@example.com
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