Sunday, September 7, 2014

Clearview Sudbury School

In reading some articles about "unschooling," I came across blog posts on Psychology Today's website written by Peter Gray. Through those, I came upon a list of "alternative" schools in the Austin area, and was specifically drawn to the Clearview Sudbury School, a democratic school just a few miles away.

I checked out Dr. Gray's book "Free to Learn" from the library, and James read some of it before I had to turn it back in. By the time I was finished, I was sold on the Sudbury School model, and James was extremely interested. For this reason, even though my 12-year-old (almost 13) is not interested in going to school, James and I attended an open house/information session at the school a couple of weekends ago.

Alternative Education in Action from Clearview Sudbury on Vimeo.

We really liked the campus, and absolutely adore the learning model. The way I see it, it is everything we remember loving about school (recess, lunch, hanging out with friends) and none of the bull.

For instance: When I was in high school, the last semester of my senior year, it was compulsory for me to take physical education. Well, it was 1990 and my hair (especially the bangs) took at least an hour to dry and fix after a shower, so I wasn't about get icky enough to need to clean up because I had about 12 minutes to change and get to my next class when we were finished. Instead, I'd either stand on the volleyball court and do nothing or I'd just sit on the bleachers. At some point, it hit me that I was wasting my time, and I asked the coach permission to go to the lab and work on my computer science project. She told me that if I didn't stay for class, I'd get an incomplete grade. So my choices were: Show up, don't participate, waste an hour, and get an A; or do something productive that I wanted to do and end up with a C as a final PE grade (and who gets a C in PE? Answer: I did).

The Sudbury model is based on the idea that given the time and resources and left to their own devices, students (in this case, particularly, kids) will learn what they need to know. Yes, including how to read and how to math and all of those things that are necessary to live a functional life in our society.

There is a lot of information to be gleaned on the Sudbury Valley School's YouTube channel, including interviews with graduates and some insight into what goes on in the school on a daily basis. The channel is for the original Sudbury school, but the methods are pretty uniform across the board.

The schools are democratic, meaning that every attendee and staff member gets exactly one vote on items concerning the school, such as which rules to implement, and how to spend money, and which staff to keep on board for the next school year (that's right; each staff is hired for one year and has to be approved by a majority of votes to be kept on).

There are no compulsory studies, though staff will facilitate and/or arrange for classes based on student request and interest. What is mandatory, however, is participation in the daily (as needed, which is typically every day) Judicial Committee meeting. This is where complaints and issues are addressed and consequences are decided upon by the entirety of the school. If an older student wanted to use the kitchen but a younger student hadn't cleaned up his/her mess and did not respond to the older student's request to clean it, then they both show up to present their sides of the matter and the committee hands down a decision.

There is also a weekly school meeting which can be attended by all students and staff that decides things like what insurance to buy, where to appropriate funds, and more intense matters referred by the Judicial Committee (like whether or not to suspend a student).

The students are not separated by age. They're not separated at all, except as they choose. Unless requested by the student, they're never formally evaluated. In other words, there's no comparison to what is considered normative for, say, all 12-year-olds. They're not expected to learn/perform for tests/teachers. They're expected to be responsible for themselves, to make decisions, and to live with the ramifications of those decisions.

After the tour, we were given some paperwork and a wonderful little book called "Like Water" by Mark McCaig. The book is a collection of stories, poems, and essays about Fairhaven, a Sudbury model school in Maryland.

My favorite handout we received was this delightful comparison of the Sudbury model to Montessori, Waldorf, unschooling, etc: "Okay, so you're sort of like..."  One of the contrasts to homeschooling that it contained really struck me: "Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example."

My favorite chapter from the book was a stream-of-consciousness piece celebrating ten years of the Fairhaven school, and containing the longest and most beautiful run-on sentences I've ever read, reproduced entirely here:

"When the school's neighbor who owns the soybean field across the stream told me a nudist colony used to occupy this hilltop campus, I thought, of course it did. Freedom runs deep here at Fairhaven -- nowadays people can go barefoot, but not naked; people can talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll, but not do them; well, except for the rock and roll, and I'm cool with that, just ask Robert, or Matt, but some days I feel like Uncle Billy in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' and I've dropped 8 grand in mean old Mr. Potter's lap and he's just waiting for the bank to shut us down, then five o'clock rolls around and we're still here, and little Sunshine and I have just buried her dragonfly after trying to revive it in the sun, and she's asked it to say hello to her cat Lucky, in heaven, and aside from the dragonfly, at day's end nobody's hurt - well, not too bad - and nobody's sued us, and they all do learn to read, and much more, actually, our students are ethical, bright, shining gifts to the world, just talk to them, because now they're coming back to visit as grown-ups, with shoes on their feet, though they might kick them off when they're here, and, like I said, it's five o'clock and my colleagues and I are dancing around the office like George Bailey and Uncle Billy after the bank run and we're holding up our two dollar bills and kissing them cause we're still open, dammit, and the next morning we'll be here and the morning after that and the morning after that and now I'm unlocking the door and it hits me that it's been ten years of dollar bill dances and pristine openings just like the very first morning, ten years of holding miracle water in our hands, water that never disappears, cool water that's clear but if you drink you taste the clay and the greensand, you taste the salt and maybe just the slightest hint, I swear to you, of chocolate.
"So I'm leaning on a porch rail explaining to Ricky that only dictators erect solid gold statues to themselves, therefore, no, I won't be supporting his motion at School Meeting, when I smell the sugar cookies baking and two girls run by saying the Kitchen Corp's taking IOUs and lord almighty what's that sound? It's the echo of billions of footsteps taken in liberty, and I know it's over a billion because Diana has counted hers today and she pokes her head out from the back seat of the red coupe on the way home and says one thousand, five hundred sixty-seven, and I know we'll extrapolate Monday. That's when I decide, Sunshine, that the ghost of Lucky the cat must sometimes leave heaven to join the ghosts of nudists prowling this very campus, that Lucky must rub up against our legs, keeping us open these ten years, and it has never mattered what they do, just that they do it, from Alex's juggling to Chloe's drumming, and you've never seen people who stand so straight up, so true, as these students, never perfect, always perfectly who they are, and that, my friends, is what I'm talking about, this is what we're celebrating, this little haven of big ideas, this is what I appreciate, all of you who've trusted us, who have trusted your children, all you students who have believed in yourselves, you barefooters who will soon commence your tenth season of chasing windblown leaves, yellow and red, who create for me all these days of wide-eyed amazement, and, yes, rock and roll, who spark these incandescent mornings, you brave pioneers who have given me this daily buzz of ten thousand dragonfly moments."

Who wouldn't want that? I mean, I'd love it for me, but since I'm not the demographic, I'd adore it for my daughter.

Here in Austin, the Clearview campus is actually at a church, and located strategically next to a park. It is also across the (very busy) street from Mueller Park and everything new that's being built over there, like the Thinkery (children's museum), a food trailer park, and a bunch of shops. Parents can elect to permit their kids closed campus, extended campus (which includes the parking lot and the adjacent park) or open campus permissions. One of the staff said that lots of students use the open campus option to walk to Starbucks during the day.

In fact, the house that James and I looked at (the one that's still pre-market, marked below with a green oval) is just as convenient to the campus as Mueller.

If you're ready for more information, there are four upcoming opportunities to attend informational meetings; two this month, and two in October. Also, you can contact the school to schedule a visitation day. More is available on their website (click below).

Even if it turns out that my daughter never wants to attend school here, I'm pretty sure we'll end up enrolling the soon-to-arrive kidlet as soon as that's an option. I'm so glad I stumbled upon this information and so grateful to know such a place exists. Check it out!

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