On a recent Friday afternoon in a sleepy suburb just west of Chicago, 5-year-old Zeke Banks faces several teenagers seated at a table.
Attentive but unperturbed, with big eyes and curly blonde hair, he peers up at them, answering questions about how and why his older brother, Ollie, 7, had knocked him off a ball he was sitting on several days ago.
The older students form the school’s Judicial Committee, or the “JC” as they call it here at the Tallgrass Sudbury School in Riverside, Illinois. There is one adult in the room, but she doesn’t speak at all. The JC’s job is to enforce the school rules and to keep peace in the community.
The ball incident had left Zeke sobbing, feeling small and violated, but he perked right up when someone reminded him he could “call Ollie up” before the JC later that week.
After listening to both sides, the committee issues a simple warning to Ollie. If it becomes a pattern, the committee will take a harder look. Zeke is satisfied. The JC committee has done its job.
Welcome to Tallgrass Sudbury, part of a radical experiment in American education unlike just about any other. Here, kids of all ages don’t just enforce the rules. They also make them. They vote on budgets and hire and fire staff. Each child and each of the two full-time and three part-time staff members gets one vote — regardless of age.
The 20 students here have a startling degree of autonomy. They choose what they do all day, including what and even if they study. The school doesn’t have teachers: it has “staff members” tasked with helping children develop their own interests, but not to pressure them.
Sudbury schools have been quietly doing their thing since 1968, but now they suddenly find themselves part of a broad push-back against what proponents see as one-size-fits-all factory education.
With the advent of Common Core and the ratcheting up of standardized exams aligned to it, American students are facing increased pressure to get into good colleges, which will hopefully lead to stable careers. But reaction has set in, and 2015 may go down as the year of testing backlash.
Anti-testing “opt out” movements are making headlines in Colorado, Florida and New York. Over 100,000 kids reportedly opted out of tests in New York this year. Meanwhile, homeschooling continues to grow. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that by 2013 1.8 million students were homeschooled, up from 850,000 in 1999.
In the midst of the furor for tighter standards, schools like Sudbury are part of the "democratic" or "free schools" movement. Along with their "unschooled" cousins, estimated at about 10 percent of homeschoolers, these alternative approaches to education are responding not with less testing or structure, but with none.
They propose that kids learn best when left to pursue their own interests, surrounded by stimulating peers of all ages and supportive adults. Sudbury is not a retreat to a quieter past: it’s a plunge into an improbable parallel universe.
They are few, but they are not alone. The Alternative Education Resource Organization lists 102 democratic schools in the United States. And at least two prominent psychologists, based at Boston College and New York University, are optimistic about the results. Could this extreme “opt out” option offer insights on how to cultivate, rather than manufacture, emerging adults?
A low hum
At Tallgrass, there is a pleasant, low hum through much of the day as kids wander around, mingling in groups, talking, playing computer games, or reading. A staff member plays tic tac toe with a younger student.
In the Sudbury model, staff members have valuable talents to share if kids want to avail themselves, but the staff demand nothing of them. No one is forced to do math or read, and many don’t read until they are eight years old or later.
The school occupies several rooms on the upper story of a graceful Methodist church built of grey stone. It’s situated five blocks from the picturesque Des Plaines River, across the bridge from acres of fields and forests surrounding the renowned Brookfield Zoo.
It's a cloudy, cold day and a 16-year-old girl wears bedroom slippers and carries a comforter around with her. At 11 a.m., she chairs the school meeting, where students discuss updating the cleaning assignments, whether to promote the school in a social media contest, and whether to invite a volunteer adult to come work at the school.
After lunch, a mixed-age group gets ready to go play at the park down the street while a staff member starts a weaving class, laying out yarn and plastic.
There is a momentary conflict, as some students want to both go to the park and attend the weaving class. “Would you rather do it another time?” staff member Helen Tornquist asks. A brief discussion ensues. The class proceeds, with some staying and some going.
Later, Tornquist conducts a Spanish class, with kids clustering around a laptop. A barefoot Ike Banks, 9, Ollie and Zeke’s older brother, observes the class from across the room. He’s perched on a windowsill, his legs draped over a couch.
How does a parent know if this alternate universe works? “You don’t,” says Heather Haskins, 43, who has two children attending Tallgrass, ages 7 and 9. "This is the leap of faith, the swan dive off the mountain into thin air. You don't."
But Haskins, who has a master’s degree in training and development from University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches at Sanford Brown College in Chicago, decided the experiment was worth the risk.
Before she came to Tallgrass, Haskin’s daughter, Chloe, was a first-grader and a fierce conscientious objector against public schools. If a teacher told her to pay attention, she would face the other way. If a teacher said “good work, Chloe, keep going,” she would put her pencil down.
A girl who built an intricate alternate universe with paper cutouts at home and learned German online for fun had simply checked out at school. The teacher called in her mom, Heather Haskins, and told her she could not get Chloe to engage. Haskins was incredulous.
“Don’t you want to shine at school?” her mother asked. “I do NOT want to shine at school,” Chloe answered. “I want to shine at HOME." By which, her mom says, she meant she wanted to do things her way, at her own pace, in a quiet environment.
“This is the point where if you want to keep your kids in public schools you have to say, ‘Chloe, stop the nonsense. You do this worksheet or else!'”
But Haskins felt this “get tough” approach could destroy her daughter, a quiet introvert with an intense need to make her own decisions.
“Chloe doesn't like to be told what to do. She wants to do it on her terms or not at all. She's the perfect kid for this environment,” Haskins said, gesturing to the Tallgrass commons room where students of all ages were clustered in groups, playing games and conversing.
And so, the girl who once built alternate universes now goes to school in one.
No drugs, please
Ike and Ollie Banks, the two older brothers of Zeke Banks, have a similar public school experience, says their mother, Jeni Banks.
A very quick learner, Ike was easily bored by the rigidity of public school. In first grade, they began getting signals from the school that Ike might need ADHD treatment, a notion they strongly resisted.
Ollie, also struggled, but differently. Very bright, rule conscious and introverted, Ollie was stifled by the rigidity of public school — but paradoxically overwhelmed by the chaos.
He would come home literally shaking, his mother said, upset by the chaos on the playground, classroom and lunchroom, where a well-meaning lunch lady would fiercely bellow at the crowd to control the chaos.
Ollie, who had taught himself to read at the age of 4, also chafed at petty rules that prevented him from checking books out of the library as a kindergartener, or reading the “older kid books” across the classroom.
Ollie, too, could well have ended up on ADHD or anxiety medication, Banks said. She visibly shudders at the thought.
Kids at Tallgrass don’t have to “focus,” because there is no homework and their school day is up to them. Throughout the day, kids of all ages mingle, with older ones serving as informal mentors.
Older students at Tallgrass seem genuinely interested in and concerned about their younger peers. The vibe among the students is more like a family — in the best sense — than it is like a schoolyard. Older kids look out for younger kids.
This mixing of ages is a key piece of the model. Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Greenberg once called this Sudbury’s “secret weapon.” Unlike most schools, where large numbers of students at or around the same age spend all their time together, Sudbury pools all children from 5-18 in the same spaces, and encourages them to mingle freely.
Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who has extensively studied Sudbury, found that age mixing helps younger students learn, even as it helps older students nurture. Bullying is rare at Sudbury schools, Gray says, because older kids won’t allow it.
Melissa Bradford, whose two kids graduated from the school and who is now a staff member at Tallgrass, also swears by the age mixing.
“Some older students can bring their own problems to the school if they are not accustomed to freedom at a Sudbury,” Bradford said, “but typically they provide great role models for problem-solving and compassion.”
Bradford is one of the key founders of Tallgrass, which launched in 2008. She was an eight-grade public school science teacher before her own children were born. She had begun researching alternatives, feeling constrained by conventional education.
“I had always dismissed Sudbury as a hippy school,” Bradford said. But on a whim, in 1996, while ordering other books, she picked up a copy of “Free at Last,” by Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Freeberg.
“I was just blown away,” Bradford said. “I knew immediately that I needed to do this for my kids. More importantly, I felt it just needed to exist — to show people that you don’t have to treat kids like things, and just deposit knowledge into their brain.”
The pillar of any democratic free school is that kids do better when they take an active role in shaping their own path and, with other kids, framing their own social environment.
And, in a data hungry world, there is some intriguing evidence that suggests it may be working.
This evidence first appeared in Peter Gray's 1986 American Journal of Education article. Gray, whose 2014 book “Free to Learn” expands on his earlier research, found a wide range of careers and educational paths among Sudbury graduates. One thing Gray did not find among the alumni was many middle managers. “Sudbury grads are doing what they want to do,” he said, “and many of them go into careers that for them are play.”
Gray found Sudbury graduates across all career types, including chiropractors and physical therapists, an oboe player for a symphony, a nurse, a silversmith, engineers, professors, waiters, bartenders, and a number of small business owners — both anecdotally and statistically pretty much the gamut of careers one would expect from an average high school.
Following on Gray’s study, Sudbury’s founder, Daniel Greenberg, the SVS founder, co-authored two detailed studies of Sudbury alumni, the most recent published in 2004. In the “The Pursuit of Happiness,” outside researchers surveyed and analyzed the responses of 119 alumni, finding results very similar to Gray’s.
Neither Gray nor Greenberg focuses much on traditional measures such as career earnings or college acceptance rates, though Gray did find that those who wanted to go on to college had no problem doing so, and that the range of post-secondary education and career choices reflected a normal distribution.
Most notably, Greenberg’s study found that students who spent seven or more years at Sudbury Valley School were, in their jobs, more likely to focus on fun, enjoy “hands on work” and enjoy relating to other people.
Even some strong advocates of rigorous education standards concede that, for some kids and some families, the Sudbury model might work. "I am certainly not a supporter of one-size-fits all," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a strong advocate of strict curriculum and testing standards.
"I do think if schools are publicly financed, the public has a right to demand accountability in terms of ensuring that graduates are well prepared for college, career, and citizenship," Petrilli said. "But there are many paths to that heaven. I think (this research) shows that if kids are getting what they need at home, they can do fine in almost any school environment."
Petrilli's reference to home environment echoes a concern raised by Gray in his 1986 study. "Nearly all of them came from middle-class homes," Gray and his co-author noted. "We have not provided empirical evidence that an SVS-like education would work for children coming from economically and culturally impoverished homes. Perhaps it can work only for children of the relatively well-to-do."
And yet everything we accept in popular dialogue tells us that all these children were victims of neglect or even child abuse, says Joshua Aronson, an applied psychology professor at New York University.
“You are withholding the fruits of a culture that has developed vast knowledge,” Aronson said, “knowledge that would help them push forward and be part of the team. And you are just not going to give it to them at all unless they happen to ask for it?”
Aronson was thus quite skeptical when he and several NYU graduate students first visited a small Sudbury school in New Jersey in 2011. But he quickly changed his mind.
"I left utterly open to the idea that we had gotten something wrong in how we educate children,” he said.
After studying Sudbury, Aronson said, he began to look more closely at “self-determination theory,” a therapeutic motivational framework that holds that a persistence and creativity emerge when a person enjoys competence, autonomy and connectedness to other people.
Eradicate autonomy at school, Aronson now concluded, and many kids will resist learning. "Nothing you really want kids to learn deeply should be rammed down their throats,” Aronson says.
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