School Choice & Charters Ask the Mentor

Chris Mercogliano on Alt Ed

November 10, 2006 7 min read
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Mercogliano (joined below by colleagues Caroline Sharkey, Bhawin Suchak, and Mike Berry) is codirector of the Albany Free School. The independent school was founded in New York state in 1969 and grants its 50-plus students (ages 3 to 14) and eight full-time teachers equal say in school policy and operations. Although it’s equipped with classrooms, computers, and learning materials, there are no grades, tests, or compulsory classes. Teachers serve as facilitators, helping students—privileged and underprivileged alike—pursue their interests. For more information, visit:

I’m a new library media specialist in a low- to middle-income middle school, and a lot of the kids I see operate at an elementary school level. Several are autistic, hence non-responsive and non-communicative. What can I do with them?

Chris Mercogliano: Try reading classic fairy tales aloud to them. Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist known especially for his work with autistic children, wrote in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales that fairy tales have a powerful healing potential because they carry messages to both the conscious and unconscious minds. They deal with the universal human problems that especially preoccupy children—separation anxiety, abusive/neglectful parents, sibling rivalry, facing the unknown, etc.—and they resonate with children’s magical way of thinking. Bettelheim found that his young patients on the psychiatric ward improved dramatically when he fed them a steady diet of Grimm’s.

How does your school assess the basic skills of new students and the skills they’ve developed before they move on to high school?

Caroline Sharkey: Incoming students are required to visit for two weeks, in order for us to get to know their interests, abilities, and their “story” (who they are). During that time, each teacher has his or her own way of assessing basic skills. As the reading teacher, I simply invite students in for a week or so of classes so I can listen to them read and watch them write, and observe the pace and style in which they learn best.

As high school looms in the near distance, our students sometimes feel a sudden urgency to strengthen skills that still need improvement. We can give them practice standardized tests and 9th grade textbooks so that they have a clear idea of what will be expected of them in high school. Year after year, our kids move on prepared, confident, and eager for the challenge.

What are students who’ve graduated from your school doing now?

Bhawin Suchak: Free School graduates are involved in a myriad of things. They are musicians, teachers, chefs, carpenters, political aides, small-business owners, electricians, and many other things. Most of our graduates end up going to college, and we have found that they typically pursue a career in which they are serving others.

I work in a traditional data-driven public school. How do I let kids follow their natural curiosity while doing what’s required of me?

Chris Mercogliano: From the outside looking in, it appears that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. I receive many e-mails from committed, idealistic teachers in conventional schools who are in despair because there is no longer a place for creative expression and interest-driven learning in their classrooms. Curiosity, exploration, discovery, and being excited about learning are all being left behind. So there’s a long-winded version of “I don’t know.”

I know people who attended a school like yours, never chose to take math, and arrived at high school with little or no math skills. Are your teachers trained to use the kids’ interests to teach basic skills?

Mike Berry: Yes, some of us are even trained to give advanced math skills to the students who are interested. Or if we do not have the higher-level math skills that a student might ask for, we will go out into the community to find someone who does. While it is true that some of our kids have a tendency to avoid math classes, we make a concerted effort to find out why they might be resisting math—fear or a negative experience in their previous school—and work with them to create a positive attitude.

Are there any guidelines a teacher needs to provide once a student in your school has chosen a particular interest? If not, how is it possible to supply students with what they need to pursue their interests?

Dave Harrison: Student interests are central to what happens at our school. While we as teachers certainly pay close attention to the basic skills, we place tremendous emphasis on each child’s unique interests and curiosities, as we find that this is where the most intense and meaningful learning takes place. Once a student has expressed an interest, the teachers at the school do everything they can to encourage, foster, and expand upon that area. The teacher’s role can be as simple as teaching classes on the subject, but we also do our best to find unique opportunities in the community at large, whether it is a one-on-one apprenticeship, going to an event, or finding another person who shares in their particular passion.

I’m in my mid-40s, just switched my career to teaching, and have elementary and Learning Disabled certification. But I can’t wrap my brain around traditional public schooling. What’s the best way to break into alternative education?

Chris Mercogliano: Spend a year volunteering/interning at an alternative school, many of which are running on shoestring budgets and can always use extra help. Several schools, including ours, have resident intern programs. Or consider starting your own school. That’s what Alan Berger did in Brooklyn, New York. Alan, who had been a disheartened public school administrator, assembled a group of families looking for a better option for their kids and together they founded the Brooklyn Free School. Now in its third year, the K-12 private school is thriving.

As a teacher at an alternative-ed high school, I’m interested in how the Albany Free School works, in terms of the no grades, etc. Also, what’s the percentage of low-income students there?

Chris Mercogliano: We know our individual students so well that there is no need for artificial instruments like grades and standardized tests to tell us how kids are doing. Besides, current research clearly shows that extrinsic forms of motivation such as grades, test scores, rewards, punishments—even praise—significantly inhibit real learning and creativity. Here kids learn because they want to, because they are intensely curious and want to know more about life and the world around them. Three-fourths of our students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Friends School of Atlanta works with preK to 8th graders. We don’t issue grades or use standardized tests. But in trying to report student progress to parents, we’ve begun to look at different ways of assessing student work and projects. How do you do all this?

Caroline Sharkey: The staff meets weekly for several hours to discuss how students are doing, and we keep in regular contact with parents regarding their children’s progress. If there are concerns on either end, we call for a conference to discuss in detail what we can do together to help kids be happier and more excited about learning. Additionally, at mid-year, we send home a comprehensive narrative report that addresses all areas of student growth—academic, emotional, and social—followed by an in-depth conference with all parents/guardians.

What would you do to get the attention of mainstream high school teachers, to try and shift their thinking about different ways to educate high school students?

Dave Harrison: The 7th and 8th grade class at the Free School recently held a photo exhibition at a local public library, documenting their class trip to New Orleans in the spring of this year. Three students and their teacher displayed their pictures of the devastation and rebuilding efforts. A teacher from a local public high school was in attendance, and expressed an interest in displaying the show at her school. We exchanged dates and ideas for how to do this, and now the photos will be on exhibit in January. This seems like a perfect example of the ways in which alternative and mainstream schools can collaborate and share ideas.

Do you have any suggestions for building and maintaining a strong connection between a school and students’ homes for young ESL students, in particular?

Chris Mercogliano: Here we hold a lot of multicultural celebrations and then invite parents in to cook their traditional dishes, teach their songs and dances and so on.

In an alternative setting that focuses on student interests, how do you align those interests with state standards?

Chris Mercogliano: Private schools in New York state aren’t bound to the same statewide curriculum that public schools must follow. So we have plenty of leeway to allow the students become competent readers, writers, and figurers by pursuing their own interests and goals. I might add that kids learn much faster when they are in charge of the process and the motivation comes from within.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as Chris Mercogliano on Alt Ed


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