In an age of standardized testing and statewide curriculum requirements, teachers are expected to cram as much information as possible into their students.
Imagine a school where students are given free rein do whatever interests them, whether that be studying, singing, playing video games or just hanging out.
Such is life at free schools, which don’t have compulsory curricula. Instead, students are in charge of their own learning, according to Chris Mercogliano, retired director and former teacher at Albany Free School.
"The model that traditional and conventional schools operate out of — the model that says that there’s some fixed body of knowledge that all children have to learn all at a certain point in time — that model is just wrong,” Mercogliano said. “That’s not how kids learn. That’s not how kids develop.”
At free schools, students decide which classes to take — or whether to take classes at all. “No one’s going to tell a free-school kid what he or she has to learn. There’s no curriculum. The student himself or herself is in charge of his own or her own learning,” said Mercogliano, who was at the school for 35 years.
Though free schools exist in many countries, the free-school movement hit its zenith in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, when more than 400 such schools were in operation. Today, they number more in the dozens rather than the hundreds, though it’s hard to tell because each operates independently and doesn’t report to any central organization.
However, they all share the vision that children have their own internal educational guidance systems, which causes them to seek out information that they need to know. In general, free school classes do not segregate students by age or skills and don’t generally test students unless they want to be tested.
Maya Landy, 15, attends the Brooklyn Free School, which was founded in 2004 and has 58 students ages 6 to 18. She describes her school as generally being noisy and hectic with students participating in classes, discussing issues among themselves, reading, eating and engaging in art, music, games of tag and poker.
Maya emphasizes the extreme flexibility that students have in their educations. “The classes are centered around what the students want to learn, so usually at the start of the year, or whenever the course starts, we come up with a kind of curriculum of what we want to cover and then take it from there,” she said.
In class, “some people take notes and a bunch of others just listen. There would only be tests and papers if a student wanted and it wouldn't be mandatory,” she added. “We don't get grades so it wouldn't be that kind of a test. Everything is because we want to learn and see what we can do, not to pass an exam.”
The Brooklyn school currently employs five teachers, said Moses Sukin, 18. People in the community also might come in to teach if students want specialized information. In some cases, students may teach as well.
Classes continue as long as there is interest in them.
Though the school is open the same hours and takes the same breaks as public schools in Brooklyn, there is no such thing as a typical day or week, though Friday is usually reserved for fieldtrips.
“My schedule changes in various extremes day-to-day, week-to-week, and I kind of like it that way. It keeps me on my toes,” said Moses.
Despite the lack of structure, there are a few rules. Students and staff get together once a week to discuss issues and concerns. If someone has a problem with something or someone, the group discusses it and hands down a decision.
For example, some students were spending too much time on electronic devices, so the group decided to ban video games until 12:30 p.m. each day, and to limit the use of “screens.”
“There’s no screens every other week, so no computers, no video games, no anything at all,” explained David Johnston, 15.
In general, rules are just common sense. “Everybody can do pretty much whatever they want as long as they're not hurting anybody or preventing somebody else from doing what they want,” Maya said.
Some students do very little when they first come to free school, but eventually, they get bored and get engaged.
“The first year that they're here, they tend to not attend many classes or virtually any, which I mean is understandable if you've been attending classes for six hours every day for your whole life,” said David. “It's almost like they need to make sure that they really can do whatever they want.”
David, Maya and Moses are enthusiastic about their school, calling it interesting and challenging.
“Free school is a lot more like university than public high schools or traditional schools,” said David, who noted that his friends are envious of him.
Such a free-form education does not seem to hurt a student’s college prospects either. “Everybody who’s applied to colleges, who’s graduated from this school, has gotten into their first college of choice,” he added.
Mercogliano said students interested in certain colleges are sure to fulfill the requirements they need to be accepted. And most graduates are happy with their professions. “Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing what they want to do. You know, their lives belong to them,” he said.
Though students are happy, free schools are difficult to sustain, Mercogliano said. Tuition is based on a sliding scale, which benefactors sometimes supplement, and money is always an issue.
Another big problem is that parents fear that there is too much freedom in free schools and that their students are behind peers at traditional schools.
“It's so radically different from the traditional model. It frightens parents, the idea that the child could just play all day, you know, never do any schoolwork, do what he feels like doing. It's kind of scary,” Mercogliano said. “They don’t want to take a chance.”
Another problem is that free schools do not tend to be diverse. “It’s very white. It’s based on very white cultural values, a bit on white privilege, you know, middle-class parents don’t have to worry as much,” Mercogliano said. “For non-white middle-class kids, you know, it’s a real survival issue.”
Still, he said that the basic beliefs of the free school movement apply to all children. “We are self-motivated. That’s how we're made. That's how nature made us.”
ASSISTANT EDITOR: Grace Moh, 17.
REPORTERS: Naomi Farahan, 13; Moira Corcoran, 13.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press