School Choice & Charters

Free Rein

By Michelle Galley — May 12, 2004 13 min read
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At 'free' schools, children choose what they want to learn and when they want to learn it.

Imagine a school with no classrooms or desks. No textbooks or required reading. No tests. No academic standards. No benchmarks. No principal.

Now picture that same school housed in a large wooden lodge nestled on more than 12 acres of land surrounded by forest. It has fewer than 100 students, ranging in age from 5 to 19, all doing whatever they want, when they want.

That is the Fairhaven School, located in a still-bucolic area near Washington, which operates in a way that would baffle many educators, much less the public. Known as a “free school,” Fairhaven has offered students a radical alternative to the demands of traditional education since it was founded in 1998.

“We realized that the more freedom and choice we gave people, the more they learned,” says Mark McCaig, a full-time teacher at the school here and one of its founders. “Not necessarily academic stuff, but about being humans,” he says.

Modeled on the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., this 77-student school is part of a growing trend of small, private alternative—and controversial—schools that have rejected standards-based education and instead consider themselves learner-based environments.

“It’s the opposite approach of No Child Left Behind,” says McCaig, because the learning is “up to the kids.”

More than 300 free schools operate in the United States and abroad, and 31 of them specifically follow the Sudbury model.

The Sky’s the Limit: Sky Lawson crosses a tree bridge over a stream on the Fairhaven campus. Children from 4 to 19 years old attend the Maryland school.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Although students here have the freedom to direct their own learning, they also have a lot of responsibility. Fairhaven is run as a democracy. Students and teachers discuss and vote on matters at a weekly schoolwide meeting, where they take on such issues as whether to suspend or expel students who consistently violate school rules and whether to allow outsiders to visit.

The meetings follow strict parliamentary procedure, with a secretary taking minutes and a clerk overseeing the proceedings.

Three times a year, parents are invited to take part in a “school assembly,” during which the entire body votes on such vital matters as which teachers will have their contracts renewed for the next year, the school budget ($380,000 for the 2003-04 school year), and teacher salaries. As in most private schools, teachers here don’t need to be licensed.

Tuition—$5,500 for the current school year—is also set at the assembly meetings. Financial assistance is available.

Members of the school community decided to expand the school’s capacity at just such an assembly. The 5,400-square foot “new building” opened last spring and houses a large assembly room, music rooms, a library, a lounge, and the school’s office. Contained within the smaller “old building” are rooms for video games, television viewing, and art, along with a kitchen and a workshop.

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View the accompanying table, “Shared Traits.”

Most free schools operate under a democratic process, such as the one at Fairhaven, though not all are exactly alike. For instance, the R-rated movies and video games that are permitted at Fairhaven are banned at some other free schools, including some Sudbury schools.

One of the oldest and most celebrated free schools is Summerhill, a learner-based boarding school in Leiston, England. It first opened in 1921. But the concept goes back more than a century. According to Jerry Mintz, the director of the Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based Alternative Education Resource Organization, a school similar to the free school model was started in the late 1800s by Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of the author Louisa May Alcott.

Free schools have grown in popularity over the past decade—around the time that the latest standards-based movement gained momentum. Parents have become increasingly frustrated with the traditional public school model, which has led to the increase in free schools, according to Mintz. “How can public schools be right when they cut out recess and music and art and physical education?” he posits.

Free schools operate under “an entirely different paradigm” from that of traditional schools, Mintz says. “The difference is that you start with the assumption that kids are natural learners, as opposed to the idea that there is knowledge that we have to force into kids whether they like it or not,” he says.

Some free schools offer classes with a traditional look: A teacher leads students through lessons. Others use a far more unorthodox approach. But in every case, students decide for themselves if they want to participate.

What sets the Sudbury model apart is that students actually have to approach the teachers and ask to be taught.

That policy leaves some observers scratching their heads.

Morgan Angus and fellow students play video games in a room dedicated to the activity.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

“There are lots of decisions that we don’t let 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds make because they are not old enough,” says Michael Cohen, the president of the standards-advocacy group Achieve, based in Washington. “One of the purposes of school is to provide a core level of academic preparation in essential knowledge and skill,” he says. Not all of those subjects “are things that every student would identify on their own as being important to their learning,” says Cohen, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton.

Mimsy Sadofsky, a staff member at the original Sudbury Valley School since its inception in 1968, acknowledges that different students are going to perceive different things as important. “They all identify being able to read and write and handle money as being important,” she says. “They’ve seen the world. They are not growing up in a vacuum.”

Fairhaven may be a “free school,” but chaos does not reign.The structure of the school revolves around its rules, of which there are many. A list of the more than 400 is kept in a “law book” that staff members and students constantly refer to.

The laws range from those respecting basic rights, such as “No one may knowingly or negligently infringe on anyone’s right to exist peaceably,” to the less weighty, “People may not open doors with their feet.”

Each rule was adopted at a school meeting and usually stemmed from a specific incident. For example, when students ruined some of the school’s pillows in a pillow fight, a law was passed at the next school meeting that only one’s personal pillows could be used for such a purpose.

If a student breaks a law, he or she can be “written up.” Then the alleged violator must show up at “JC,” short for Judicial Committee.

During that daily student-run meeting, the defendant is tried by a jury of his or her peers. If found guilty, the student can appeal to the school meeting.

“If we didn’t have JC, the school would be dead,” says 11-year old Zach Bennett. He was recently sentenced to run errands for JC for five days on a contempt charge for calling a jury member an “asshole.” Still, he says, he respects the process. Without it, “there would be no order.”

Because each Sudbury school community is different, some have more laws and some have fewer. “The way these things work is different at every school,” says Sadofsky, “because everything is voted on by the school body.”

Sudbury schools are located in urban, rural, and suburban areas. Some have students from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. In other schools, the student population is largely homogenous.

At Fairhaven, most students are white. But there is a high level of economic diversity among them, says McCaig.

Aside from the daily judicial committee meeting and the weekly school meeting, a typical day at Fairhaven is anything but. Students must spend at least five hours a day on campus. How they spend the time is up to them. Some devote considerable time to watching television, playing video games—some of which are graphically violent—or hanging out talking and listening to music in one of the school’s three soundproof rooms.

Others might wade barefoot in the fossil-rich stream that runs behind the school, looking for sharks’ teeth.

Still others play games in which they create the characters and story lines. Students also cook meals, work on art projects, or practice a musical instrument.

From left, Duncan Fitzgerald, 6, Jae Fish, 5, and Sasha Baker, 9, defend themselves before a jury of their peers at “JC” for running in a no-running zone.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

“All of the students here are good, responsible people,” says Cameron Lyons, a staff member at Fairhaven who graduated from a Sudbury school. “What this school offers [them] is time.”

Some classes take place at regularly scheduled times, though without classrooms the sessions can be hard to recognize. When students want to learn something, they simply go to one of the half-dozen or so adults on campus and ask to be taught.

Sarah Brewer, for instance, wanted to learn French. So she sought out Kim McCaig. Some days, the 16-year-old and her teacher can be spotted outside at a picnic table working on the language. Some classes involve many students; others take place one-on-one. It all depends on who is interested in learning what.

A large whiteboard in the school’s central hall displays the class schedule. Fitness, algebra, dance, American history, and vegetarian cooking are among the offerings.

Yellow sheets hang on a corkboard nearby, listing some of the activities students have requested. A reading class and a math class have been suggested, though only a handful of students have signed up to take them.

More popular are a class on making plaster-cast face masks, piano lessons, and an improvisational-acting workshop.

Early on this spring day, about a dozen children hike off campus to a nearby 4-H Club activity center. Five-year-old Jae Fish organized the field trip.

“We’re doing it again on Monday,” says Linda Jackson, who taught at Montessori preschools and elementary schools before joining the staff here.

The system takes a bit of getting used to for some parents, says Ron Ridgely, the father of 7-year-old Rebecca Chapin-Ridgely, who has never been to public school. “It’s hard to explain” to his extended family, says Ridgely, who had a traditional education.

Though Rebecca can read, Ridgely says he worries about her writing and spelling. “She’ll want to learn to be able to do that someday,” he says.

Still, he says he chose to enroll his daughter at Fairhaven School because she “likes to talk and likes to walk, and in public school, it would have been, ‘Sit down and shut up, Rebecca,’ ” Ridgely says.

Students here say they enjoy the freedom to choose what they want to learn. “The major flaw with public school is [the premise] that everyone needs to know the same thing,” says Thor Jensen, who has attended Fairhaven for five years.

He’s also the janitor, which means he spends about an hour each day mopping and vacuuming floors. He gets $15 a day for his labor.

Much of 18-year-old Jensen’s time is spent playing video games, organizing a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy game with the other students, or reading. He also serves on the JC as a court clerk.

Bon Appetit: Kim McCaig, right, teaches French to Sarah Brewer, 16, at a picnic bench outside the school, while Jae Fish, standing, and McCaig’s daughter Colleen observe.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

It’s the power and accountability that come with the free school model that resonates with Jensen. “In public school, you are being well-educated if you pass the test,” he says. “You aren’t graded on how well you are performing in life.”

Before he started at Fairhaven, he attended a public middle school in Baltimore. “I was extremely unhappy,” he recalls, adding that he was often harassed by other students. “I have vivid memories of having a soda can thrown at my head,” he says. Nothing was ever done to the perpetrators, he adds.

“Here,” Jensen says, “if someone threw a soda can at me, I would write them up.”

Jensen says he plans to stay at Fairhaven for another year, and then go on to college. He recently took the SAT, and says he was not particularly pleased with his math results. Though he scored in the 99th percentile on the verbal portion of the test, he ranked only in the 68th percentile for mathematics.

“I hadn’t done math in five years,” he says. Because of those results, he decided to seek help from one of the teachers. Together, the two arranged to meet twice a week to determine what Jensen needed help with and to work on math problems.

To graduate from Fairhaven, a student must write a thesis on how he or she has become an effective adult in society. A committee that is selected through a school meeting reviews the student’s rough draft of the thesis. Finally, the student is required to defend the thesis in front of the entire school assembly.

Fairhaven is not accredited, but the state of Maryland recognizes its diplomas.

Even though 90 percent of students who graduate from Sudbury schools go on to postsecondary education, Sudbury’s Sadofsky says the model’s success is based on “if they are reasonably happy with their lives as adults.”

Staff members don’t ask their alumni about their salaries, or if they live in big houses, she says. “We don’t talk to them about material success,” says Sadofsky. “We judge maturity by how comfortable you are in your own skin.”

Maxwell Neely-Cohen, a gregarious 18-year-old who commutes 45 minutes each way from his home in Washington to get to Fairhaven, is headed to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., in the fall.

Because he didn’t have a transcript or any grades, admissions officers had to look at him more carefully, Neely-Cohen says. “You get to have a dialogue with them,” he says, adding that his interview at the small liberal arts college near New York City lasted well over an hour.

“R” Choices: During showings of R-rated movies at Fairhaven, students post a warning sign. No one, regardless of age, is barred by the school from viewing such films or playing “Mature"-rated video games.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

In highlighting all the responsibilities Neely-Cohen has had at Fairhaven—including balancing the school’s budget one year and running the school meetings—he says he was able to “give them something palpable” that set him apart from other students.

Still, if parents are considering the free school model, Achieve’s Cohen says they should be less concerned with the grades and transcripts and more concerned about whether students “are learning the things they will need after they leave school in order to be successful in postsecondary education, in the workplace, and in the broader community.”

The college graduation rate was unavailable.

Subjects such as math, science, and technology and the skills of complex reasoning and problem-solving are all increasingly important, Cohen says. “I would want to make sure the school I sent my children to was making a deliberate effort to develop that knowledge and those skills, rather than leaving it up the kids,” he says.

Katie Fizdale is 23 and attends the Art Institute of Chicago. The 2000 graduate of Fairhaven says the experience prepared her for real life in ways public school couldn’t.

“At Fairhaven, I learned that there were options,” she says. “That I could live life the way I wanted to.” The experience prepared her to manage her time and take responsibility for her actions, she says.

Now, she is working toward a double degree in photography and visual and critical studies. “I love studying and being a student,” she says. “That is what makes sense to me right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Free Rein


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