By Lisa Marshall
Natural Awakenings Magazine
Ask Isaac Graves what seventh grade was like at The Free School in Albany, New York, and he paints a picture that would seem like a dream to many conventional middle schoolers—and a nightmare to their administrators. There were no tests, no homework and almost no schedules.
On a typical day, students of all ages would scatter around the refurbished inner-city tenement at will, some spontaneously engaging in a game of Dungeons and Dragons in one room, while others planned a trip to Puerto Rico, learned Spanish from a fellow student or designed a literary magazine on the computer. At weekly, democratic, all-school meetings, they voted on everything from what optional classes the school should offer to what color to paint the walls; not once were they asked to fill in small circles with a number 2 pencil to prove they were learning something.
“We were, at a very young age, in control of our education,” recalls Graves, a remarkably astute 23-year-old who now lives in Oregon and works as an event planner. “I had to figure out what I liked, what my passions were, and how to access information in a variety of ways. I had to interact with adults in a real way—not just as authority figures. I had to learn how to learn.”
To many, the notion of a school without schedules?where kids and adults have equal say and “test” is almost a dirty word?seems utterly unworkable in our present society, where education funding is increasingly tied to student academic performance. But 40 years after the birth of The Free School, and the 1960s “democratic education” movement that inspired it, the nearly defunct philosophy appears to be making a comeback.
In May, a group of educators founded the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), which, through town meetings, social networking and online education, aims to help teachers infuse more student choice into what they see as an autocratic K-12 public school system. Meanwhile, new, private democratic schools have opened in Seattle, Portland, New York City, Denver and elsewhere, bringing the number to 85, according to the nonprofit Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). In all, its online directory has swelled to 12,000 options, including those affiliated with Montessori, Waldorf, Democratic and other methods which, while they differ in curriculum, all share a dedication to a learner-centered approach.
By contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of kids enrolled in an assigned public school dipped from 80 percent in 1993 to 73 percent in 2007. “We are at a crucial point,” says Jerry Mintz, who founded AERO in 1989. “Everybody knows there is something wrong with the current educational system, and people are now starting to realize they have choices.”