Children's Rights and Power
by Mary John, Dean of Education
at the University of Exeter, UK

kidjohn.gif

Chapter Eight

Alchemy at Albany

Resourcefulness, resilience and fearlessness characterized both children and staff at The Free School in Albany, which it was my good fortune to visit shortly after leaving Rajashtan. My good fortune was that, in changing cultures and geographical locations so rapidly, it sharpened comparisons, counterpoint and understanding. It was also surprising to find halfway across the world that the resonances were stunning. The connectedness was of communities, which prioritised educating the human spirit rather than the mechanics of the institutionalised educational process. These were children facing different challenges to the Indian children's responsibilities as members of their family economy.
 
Many of the Albany children were alienated, disenfranchised and damaged by 'education', families and the community In Albany, relationships with the community were immediate and tangible, while at Barefoot College [in Rajashthan], it was larger and more distributed in the outlying village night schools spread over more than 3000 kilometres. Only for rare special occasions like Children's Festival could the whole community get together as one celebrating 'family' having fun together - fun as an oasis in hard-working lives. The Free School was similarly'an oasis', although it is strange to refer to it as such, given the cacophony of sound and activity that greeted me when first I stepped through the door - yet it is a place where children are resourced and their great 'thirsts' assuaged.
 
Both initiatives had been works of visionaries who grasped the wider context of learning and made the impossible happen. In Tilonia it was Bunker Roy; in Albany it was the intuitive understanding of what was needed and the sheer educational and financial flair of Mary Leue which made things begin to stir and happen. Eventually the whole community could take it forward and let it grow into the joint enterprise it is today -'joint' since the generations of children who have attended the school have been an essential part of shaping it too. Like the night school, it provides relevant learning opportunities and experiences which have grown organically and relate to the realities of the children's daily lives. The community at the Free School provides for children - many of whom have little in the form of social capital - models of what it is to be a caring, committed, human being in the present, in the community and, in the case of many encounters there, 'in your face'! Both in Rajasthan and in Albany the children know they are valued, cared about and are important members of their communities.
 
The particular alchemy that makes up the Albany Free School is difficult to capture as it has, certainly for all the depth of thinking that goes into it, a magical air. Fortunately Chris Mercogliano, the present co-director, has written its story, titled, appropriately enough, Making .It Up As We Go Along (1998). He sets the school within the context of various alternatives to conventional schooling. Fundamental subjects like aggression, sexuality, race/class and spirituality are addressed, topics described as 'four primary colours of human experience that are all too often relegated to the rusty side spurs of our national thinking about children' (Mercogliano 1998, p.xxiii). Ivan Illich, commenting on this tale, said:
 
In touchingly plain language, Chris Mercogliano tells about 25 years of unfolding trust; how kids learn without anyone making sure; how a free school has become a pretext for a community; and how adults who care are able, by shedding their roles, to open unexpected spaces for friendship and new growth. More convincing than any book I have had the privilege to read, this one proves that learning by children ought, once and for all, to be institutionally disembedded. (Illich, 1998)
 
In terms of the theme of my book, power, this Albany community is about power sharing, about withholding judgement while other views of reality are explored. It is also about holding children through the crises of their own terrible, uncontrollable power so that they learn gradually, in a context in which they are safe and valued, to handle it for themselves. It is about being in the present. Affectionate portraits of individual children are given to provide insights into the challenges the Free School has faced:
 
She arrived at our door unannounced, three years' worth of rompin' , stompin' hell's-on-fire. Since the Free School is an energetic place to begin with ('How do you people stand the noise?'), and since Mumasatou was obviously a tightly strung, high-energy kid, we knew from the outset we were about to have our mettle thoroughly tested. (Mercogliano 1998, p. 21)
 
How did this inspirational place begin and why did I choose to go there? I decided to go there quite simply because I felt, just as I had felt about going to Rajasthan, here was a place where children were taken seriously. The actual encounter was far from 'serious' - filled with fun, high jinks, noise, rough and tumble, yelling, with purposeful activity alongside - but through it all ran a level of shared understanding I had not experienced before in an educational establishment in the industrialised world. Mary Leue started a school with four students in her home in 1969, largely to cater for the needs of one of her sons who was becoming increasingly miserable in one of Albany's better public (state) schools. While this was a response to an immediate situation, it was within a history and climate of a rich diversity of radical and alternative approaches to education, in which Mary was particularly well-versed and networked. Indeed by then, A.S. Neill's Surnmerhill had been in existence for over 40 years. Mary, running the gauntlet of many aspects of repressive 'officialdom', responding with typical determination and persistence, briefly moved her small but growing brood to a former church and in 1971 they relocated to a 100-year-old building, which is the present home of the Free School. The children called it the 'Free School', reflecting that it was to be free of race and class prejudice, free of consumerism and dependence on material goods for personal happiness, free of beliefs in the necessity of war as a means of solving problems, free of educational cant and mindless adherence to method. Tuition is not free but charged on a sliding scale on which everyone pays; even welfare families pay, albeit a minimum.
 
After the first year, Mary took stock of the future of this school. She was already knowledgeable about radical thinking in education and had some original ideas of her own, independent thinker that she is. Nevertheless, she took it upon herself to visit other free schools, notably Jonathan Kozol's Community School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Orson Bean's Fifteenth Street School in New York City. She struck up a correspondence with A.S. Neill, asking him what he thought of the idea of creating a school with similar freedoms as Summerhill for the inner-city poor. Neill, based on his experiences with relatively privileged young people, viewed such a generalisation of the approach an entirely risky venture and replied, 'I would think myself daft to try' (Mercogliano 1998, p.5).
 
Inspired madness has characterised the Free School ever since! Mary also connected with her own roots and the home schooling she received at one stage in her own education. She brought disparate strands together in the way the school would operate. Formative influences on Mary's approach were Prince Kropotkin and [Wilhelm] Reich, particularly his theories relating to the healthy psychosocial development of children. The viewing by staff of Alan Leitman's films about successful educational alternatives added a further dimension. This rich brew nourished the early growth of the school. Gradually teachers and children came - teachers from all sorts of backgrounds who were seeking the freedom to be themselves in a school where method, practice, classroom technique and learning theory were relinquished in favour of what 'works'. The essential basis here was respect for the children, teachers and helpers.
 
The new school premises were in the centre of several blocks of run-down, rather dilapidated but elegant houses. Mary bought these buildings cheaply, as housing for staff at the school, who could be provided with rent-free accommodation in exchange for renovation work on the houses and services to the school. Besides teaching, the staff contributed carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills and helped with the cooking. There have been various weekend work parties, almost like Amish barn raisings, where tasks are accomplished collectively either on the fabric of the buildings or on developing outside spaces for collective use of various kinds. In some senses one feels that the concrete building work has provided a metaphor for the way the community has grown.
 
In the early years of exploring what policies, if any, to adopt, there emerged from the animated discussions a view - only those actually present in the building could determine the school's day-to-day operating policy, thus restricting the power of any commentators not immediately involved in implementation. The next innovation arose from thinking through how to empower the children to be self-governing in working out their differences in as non-violent a way as possible. From these discussions came the 'Council meeting' idea which survives to this day. Anyone in the school, teacher or pupil, who wants to resolve a dispute or wants to change school policy, can call a Council meeting at any time. This has allowed for organic growth and continual updating and support for rules in the school.
 
The school Council meetings provide a regular important forum for exchanging points of view. Everybody's reality counts, which is what makes these meetings so exceptional in transforming the usual power relations between adult and child. Each point of view is taken seriously and assessed collectively. Evidence is dealt with and everyone tries patiently to get at the truth. It takes place immediately after the 'offence' has occurred - which, for these young children, many with a short attention span, is important. The Council acts as a brake on escalating high spirits, bad feeling and unacceptable behaviour - a brake which is not arbitrarily applied from above by adults but which the children are party to. It follows Neill's dictum 'Freedom not licence' (Mercogliano 1998, p.6).
 
I was there when a child, with all the urgency of a messenger from the front line of the Trojan Wars, came flying through the hurly-burly of activities calling urgently 'Council meeting, Council meeting' and everything stopped instantly and unquestioningly The whole school gathered to hear what the trouble was. On this occasion it was straightforward enough - someone had broken the rule that there was to be no noise in the quiet room. A child, selected by the meeting to act as chairperson, conducted the meeting following formal rules of order. A discussion took place, the matter resolved and the rational basis for the rule explained and explored. The school then got back to business as quickly as it had stopped.
 
Shortly before my visit, the Council meeting had elaborated into a full-scale mock trial lasting over three weeks (it was at the time of the O.J. Simpson trial). It related to a case of petty theft and the failure of the culprit to own up. The suspected culprit offered to 'play' the villain in the mock trial and interestingly even went so far as to execute the punishment prescribed by the 'judge'. Many weeks later, the culprit confessed. This was a long-drawn-out process but an object lesson in the nature of justice. Moreover, it gave the child himself time to reflect and take direct responsibility for his actions. Parents and teachers alike said that the children could talk of nothing else while 'The Trial' was going on. Mercogliano says of the Council meetings:
 
When the focus was an interpersonal rift, meetings tended to take on a therapeutic rather than a governmental tone. They then became an empathetic space where emotions could flow freely and where the thread of the problem could be followed back to its source. (Mercogliano 1998, p.7)
 
The Council meeting system is a key to the democratic practices, forming the central core of the school, where staff, pupils, parents and helpers alike are equal stakeholders, bear mutual responsibility and have reciprocal rights, which makes for complete interdependence. The children really govern themselves within this framework. Aiming at a policy of complete internal autonomy was easier said than done. Avoiding competition, compulsory learning and social-class-based status rewards is difficult. Many parents wanted the Free School:
 
to look and function like the local public school, which virtually guaranteed their children would remain trapped in the cycle of poverty. Their expectations were largely governed by the class system that had only betrayed them generation after generation, one based on upward mobility as a key measure of success. They wanted their kids to have desks, textbooks, mandatory classes, competition, grades and lots of homework. The absence of these trappings of a 'real' school became fertile ground for the fear that here their kids would 'fall behind', lose their competitive edge vis-a-vis the rest of society. (Mercogliano 1998, p.9)
 
Enlisting the help of lower-class white, black and Hispanic parents was quite a challenge, which was made no easier by the shabby second/third-hand furnishings, books and equipment of the school and the generally high-spirited atmosphere of the place with little in the way of conventional order, structure or routine. Local folklore characterised this as a place with total freedom where children played all day and were even allowed to curse. It was difficult to convince these parents that this was indeed a school. Views about approaches to discipline and the control of aggression also revealed class differences. Middle-class parents were happy with a laissez-faire approach to discipline but not to aggression, while the working-class parents wanted a strict code of conduct enforced by punishments.
 
As regards aggression, Mary, influenced by Reichian thinking on suppressed emotion and the development of armouring, was far less ready to compromise. Whatever the middle-class parents thought, Mary was insistent that the Free School should serve as a safe space where the expression of emotion would be encouraged. The school adopted techniques to enable children to 'rage it out' (Mercogliano 1998, p. 11). Occasionally, a child who is ready to explode is held front-to-front on the lap of a willing and sympathetic teacher, who allows the child to safely struggle, kick and scream until his/her rage is spent, followed by the tears of pain and grief that often seemed to be trapped beneath the anger. Physical fighting, for the same reasons, was not outlawed in the school. What happened was that if two children started to fight in order to sort out a dispute, providing that the fight was fair and they were not inflicting any significant tissue damage on each other, nobody intervened. There would be an adult watching to ensure safety and to help the fighters reach a sense of completion and reconciliation. The depth of human caring that lay behind managing the children's emotional expression in these ways was impressive.
 
The practices fed a local belief that the school taught fighting. A number of parents stuck to it for a while and then, as their anxieties got the better of them, put their children back in the public or parochial schools from which they had come. Some of the early doubters were swayed by the atmosphere of the school where relationships were such that people, children and adults alike were cared about and cared for. The quality of human relationships in the school was rare in other educational establishments so some parents stayed with it for long enough to see profound changes in their children. On my visit, a young pupil, a one-time hoodlum and tearaway, took my hand on one of the school's local outings, asking me with all courtesy and graciousness, 'Would you like to see my River Hudson?', and he showed it to me with all the pride of a citizen of Albany. He had received from others respect, caring and consideration and saw how they valued the community and environment in which they lived. The work of the Free School is subtle, pervasive and, I would surmise, lasting. Many of these children had not been valued and responded to like the cognisant people that they are until, often as a last resort, they came to the school.
 
There they are part of a community working towards shared understandings and shared respect, where everybody's point of view matters. In this setting, children are able to exercise their right under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to 'express a view and have that view taken into account in any matter that concerns them' (Article 12, UNCRC). Albany goes a long way beyond; their view is not just acknowledged but actually shapes decisions. Children's feelings and views are paramount and, importantly, they are encouraged to disclose these feelings, to be expressive and outspoken about their views. Truthfulness and spontaneity is encouraged in the interests of them being able to function autonomously in the present as people with intrinsic worth.
 
Being involved in a school of this kind is demanding and risky, and so takes its toll on staff and helpers. Tolerance of the acting out, the chaos, the riotous noise, while the children flnd their own way to structure, certainty and personhood, requires a certain surefootedness from the teacher. Just as the Barefoot College acted to resource and replenish the night-school teachers in Rajasthan, so the staff at the Free School actively support each other in achieving this calm acceptance of the child's behavioural progress. All live very close to one another with a lot of interaction between the houses, informative exchanges on the stoops (front porches) of an evening and thoughtful discussions over gardening, house renovation, 'barn raisings', barbecues or whatever brings them together. This is not a'job'that begins and ends at the school door; it is a way of life. In fact, in the early days some of the staff took part-time jobs elsewhere so that they could afford to work for free at the school. Every Wednesday, a more formal meeting is held where issues can be brought up and thoroughly examined. At these meetings, staff are open with each other, work compassionately towards conflict resolution and decide whether or not they need specialist guidance or further study to take their individual and collective growth further. The school is seen as a focus for the growth of adults and children alike. The adults have fortified themselves and each other through going on courses, inviting speakers to come to their gatherings and engaging in various psychotherapeutic activities together. They have been meeting weekly since 1974. The staff resourced each other's spiritual and personal growth and professional effectiveness; they also developed very practical means of help. Synergy between the school and the community was further enhanced by setting up the Family Life Centre for birthing, prenatal and postnatal care and training in parenting. A bookstore and wholefood outlet were among other initiatives.
 
A home-loan system was set up to assist low-income Free School families to purchase homes. A revolving home-loan scheme was established, followed by teaching families inexpensive ways of refurbishing and restoring these run-down properties, drawing on the skills the teachers had developed in the early days of rehabilitating their own homes. Of course, throughout all of these activities, children were present, witnessing and learning from the ways in which adults worked together and cared for each other. By 1980, the Free School community was fairly well established and attention (not surprisingly, given the core values of the school) turned to spiritual needs. This spiritual dimension deepened the relationships in the wider community and added to its stability and permanence.
 
Further links between the school and the community were forged by the introduction of a system of apprenticeships. Children could opt to spend some time as an apprentice to a variety of professionals and craftspeople in the community They could, for example, work with the boat-builders in the workshop next door to the school. Some of the pupils had chosen to do an apprenticeship in the Family Life Centre with the midwives there. Thus, they learnt about how their community operated and the community, in turn, learnt a lot about them. They have at times, undertaken high-profile activities in their city by, for example, lobbying their Assemblyman, Capital District Legislators and a Senator's aide to save the New York State Theatre institute from a massive funding cut. These encounters taught them, among other things, that not everyone takes children as seriously as the Free School and its community. Over the years, this community and the school acquired other resources to call upon and enjoy in country vacations, daylong and weeklong trips and a weekend workshop programme. They set about making a wilderness education centre, a teaching lodge and a wildlife sanctuary
 
The school and the community have come a long way, developing organically all the time. The heart of the school's concept of education is based upon the principles of love, emotional honesty, peer-level leadership and co-operation. It has demonstrated what can be done if children are respected, cared for and taken seriously by everyone around them. This is a fine example of relationships between adults and children in which traditional models of adult-child relationships have been radically transformed and power is shared.
 

Back to the bookstore