In September of 2010, my daughter began attending school at Sudbury Valley in Framingham, Massachusetts. Alli was five years old.
Sudbury Valley is not at all like public schools. Some call it a "democratic school," but what that meant exactly was something I had to find out for myself, through sending Alli to attend. In fact, today as she prepares to enter her third year of schooling in the Sudbury Valley Way, my eyes are still being opened to precisely what that means. Alli, on the other hand, knows and understands what it means to be an "SVS kid." She loves it, proudly proclaiming she never wants to leave the school. In her two years at SVS, there has never been a single day when Alli asked to go anywhere else for school. During vacations she looks forward to returning, on the weekends she counts the days and sometimes even the hours, minutes, and seconds before she can get back to her school.
At SVS the students run the school. That's right. They make all of the decisions about their school. They manage the budget, make decisions about fund raising and tuition costs, and even hire and the fire staff. "How do they do it?" I am asked repeatedly by my own peers working in public education, teachers and principals alike. "It doesn't seem possible for our students to have that kind of responsibility," they say. "Imagine what they would do?" they ask me with a look of horror on their face. Then, they giggle...nervously perhaps?
I attended public school. I am a licensed public school teacher and principal. I have been a leader in "reforming" schools, k-12. Public education has been my life and my livelihood. When I walked onto the campus of SVS for the first time, I was aware; aware of the students, the adults, the environment.
That very first visit to SVS stands out in my mind. The students, ages 5-18 years old, had organized a cook out. I am not sure what the occasion was that called for such an event, but I saw them there, on the school lawn, waiting in a line of more than fifty kids all different ages one behind the other. There were no adults that I could readily see, although I suspect one or two were around somewhere. The kids were cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on a large grill, a table was set up and some students were working the table passing out food to the others that were lined up before them. All of the students waited patiently, chatting among each other, the oldest and the youngest spread out within the line. There they were, the SVS kids. I turned to my husband and said, "look at that," in total awe of what I was observing. No pushing, no yelling, no "acting out" in any way. No adults monitoring or telling students what they could and couldn't do. It was obvious that it wasn't necessary to do so. I stood and watched for a few minutes, taking in the sight with deep appreciation. This was where my daughter would go to school.