Schools can succeed, and children flourish in them, in very unlikely ways, and a setting that would spell disaster for most children may be ideal for a few.

One of those unlikely models is Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, which for nearly 30 years has operated with the philosophy that children are the best judges of what they need to learn and should take responsibility for learning it.There are 17 schools nationwide that follow the Sudbury model, and the first one in Colorado is Alpine Valley School in Golden.

Alpine Valley had an open house recently in honor of a visit by Mimsy Sadofsky, a founder of the original Sudbury school, and - it's important to notice how this is phrased - someone who "has been elected by the students to teach at this school 30 years in a row."

The schools are run democratically. Each staff member and each student has one vote in the School Meeting, which, among other responsibilities of governance, votes on whom to hire.

A Sudbury school, Sadofsky said, "teaches the most important commonalities we need, freedom and democracy. Other schools have neither."

Children observe that adults need to read all day, every day, Sadofsky said, and they learn to read when they're ready. There's no typical school day because children choose to do whatever they want.

If it's playing Dungeons and Dragons for months, no one will question it or make any value judgments about what's important.

This is not so naive in practice as it sounds in theory. Sadofsky noted that parents have a great deal of influence.

"Parents who model intellectual habits will have children who do the same," she said. "It's why we have adults in the school."

A Sudbury school wouldn't have been for me, not that my parents would have entertained the idea for a moment. I was the sort of boring, dutiful child who thrived in a traditional school setting.

A Sudbury school wouldn't have suited my son, Peter, either. He was unboring and undutiful and spent most of his early school years doing as little as possible.

I would never have taken the risk, and that is key. Parents who choose a school like Alpine Valley have to believe strongly in its principles, as well as trusting that their children will make good use of the freedom and democracy on offer. Their expectations are part of the child's success.

Older Sudbury schools report that about 75 percent of their graduates go on to college and that an unusually large number, about 40 percent, become entrepreneurs.

"Few adults need more math than they learn in the eighth grade," Sadofsky said. "No algebra. No geometry. And none of that other stuff."

Such as logic and statistics? We part company there. I think pervasive public ignorance about mathematics and science contributes to the incoherence of our national debate. But then, few graduates of traditional public high schools know anything about math and science either, as demonstrated yet again this week with the release of the 12th-grade results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The United States came in third from last, ahead of Cyprus and South Africa. Sudbury schools could hardly do worse.

Sadofsky also said how wonderful it was that students interested in medicine wouldn't be limited; they may grow up to be herbalists, or do Reiki, or naturopathy. Yikes.

But if all that sounds just fine to you, and you spent your childhood yearning to breathe free, maybe you should take a closer look. Alpine Valley's Web site is http://users.aol.com/alpineval/avs.htm.