Intro to Free Schools

By Wes Hannah

Across the Northeast, radical free schools ("free skools") are on the rise. More and more cities are seeing their educational opportunities broadened through non-traditional programs involving the likes of young and old, Ph.D.-holder and high-school dropout alike. Their common goal is to replace, or at least fill the holes left by, the current education system.

According to David Easton, advisor at the Brooklyn Free School in New York, "The mission of our school is to help students get to know and understand themselves, and in that sense pursue the things that they're passionate about and interested in, [as] part of a community of people doing the same thing."

Mainstream schools and educational policies tend to implement rigid learning environments in which students are taught using formulaic methods, stressing discipline and indoctrination, while minimizing critical thinking and independent investigation. While society largely measures a student's intelligence and maturity by how many grade levels they have passed or how many diplomas they have accumulated, these alternative free schools are attempting to return focus to education for the sake of enrichment.

Some common attributes of free schools include an emphasis on peer education, self-motivation over artificial goals and incentives, and a non-hierarchical dynamic between students, teachers/facilitators and parents. Peer education means that all participants have something to share and to learn; teachers and textbooks don't have a monopoly on knowledge. And rather than a strict emphasis on tests, grades and attendance, students are encouraged to develop at their own rate and pursue what truly interests them.

In such environments, it is not the institution's role to dictate how and when students will be exposed to certain concepts. According to Easton, mainstream schools "focus is on external things, whether it's a canon of knowledge or certain outward expectations that come from politicians who decide that they are important for everybody. [The Brooklyn Free School's] goals are individually focused."

This non-hierarchical dynamic means that just as students themselves have something to contribute to the learning process, they also have a right to be a part of the direction-setting of the school itself: Some groups, such as the Ithaca Freeskool, operate with an open collective so that new people can get involved in the organizing, while others, such as the Brooklyn Free School have regular council meetings for students, teachers and parent-volunteers to set school rules and direction together.

The variety of free-school models is diverse and fills a range of niches -- some are small collectives that line up calendars of skill-shares and other workshops, while others more closely replicate traditional schools, albeit with less rigidity and, according to them, more success.

"I was public school teacher for 2 years," Easton said, "and I think it's pretty obvious pretty quickly without having any sort of instrument to measure by: Our students are happy; they know their strengths and their weaknesses and how they learn." Easton has been at the Brooklyn Free School for four years and says he's seen students grow and get to know themselves better every year.

The Ithaca Freeskool, on the other hand, is a different type of free school, which serves more as a system for organizing skill-shares. Founded three years ago, the first classes included fun-and-games in the park, an anarchist reading circle and bike repair, to name a few. Since then, the program has expanded -- this spring the group offered 31 classes, including the making of tortillas, tempeh and maple syrup; workshops on yoga and chi gong; and an introduction to woodworking. Programs such as these are relatively less complex to organize; the Ithaca collective, for example, solicits workshops, helps facilitators find meeting spaces, and prints and circulates the calendars.

Some more intensive alternative-education programs, such as the Albany Free School and the Brooklyn Free School, have their own campuses. The Albany Free School has, in fact, assembled an entire complex of school buildings, housing, a farm and a store to help fund the program -- and they strive to offer a comprehensive alternative to traditional schooling. Most have paid staff and offer a full day of learning, mimicking a traditional school calendar. They can also have large cooperative educational projects and offer resources such as farms, darkrooms, computer labs and more.

These are, of course, only two examples from the multitude of "free" learning models out there. Here in the Northeast, we have a diverse range of options, with more free schools forming and growing every year.

Although they are rising in popularity, free schools do face some challenges. Those that operate with a volunteer collective body require a large amount of energy, which risks burnt-out volunteers and collapsing programs. Such schools furthermore face a problem with mainstream legitimization. While government accreditation may not matter to some participants, parents and children may need to consider the long-term pros and cons to an alternative education, or may need to be sure of the level of accreditation of their chosen school.

Overall, these programs complement or offer practical alternatives to conventional schooling with high success rates. "Everyone who comes here, even if they don't stay here, experiences different levels of that success," Easton said. "They come here and leave knowing where they want to go and what they want to do. I would love for there to be an instrument that can measure that someday."

Additional reporting contributed by Hannah E. Dobbz

Some Free Schools in the Northeast:

North Star
Hadley, MA

Sudbury Valley School
Framingham, MA

WoGAN FreeSkool
Worcester, MA
All ages

Ashuelot River Free School
Winchester, NH
All ages

Ithaca FreeSkool
Ithaca, NY
All ages

Harriet Tubman Free School
Albany, NY

The Albany Free School
Albany, NY

The Brooklyn Free School
Brooklyn, NY
Ages 5 to 15

Teddy McArdle Free School
Little Falls, NJ
Ages 5 to 12

The New School
Newark, DE
Ages 6 to 19

The Circle School
Harrisburg, PA
Elementary and pre-teens

New London Freedom School
New London, CT
Ages 4 to 19

River Valley Sudbury School
Chester, CT
Ages 5 to 19

Mountain Laurel Sudbury School
New Britain, CT
Ages 5 to 19

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