This story appeared in Albany's Metroland newsweekly on May 24, 2001.
Free to Be
At Albany's most unique alternative school,
students have control over their own education
By Kate Sipher
LARRY BECKER AND HIS PREGNANT wife, Ellen, weren't looking for an alternative to mainstream education for their first child when they stumbled onto the Free School, a well-kept secret of our region for more than 30 years. In fact, it was a conversation between the pregnant couple and a pregnant waitress at a downtown restaurant that led them to the school. Bhawin Suchak and his pregnant wife, Maureen Murphy, weren't avid alternative-school supporters when they became involved with the Free School. They first found the community, nestled in downtown Albany between the Mansion Neighborhood and the South End, when they searched out the Family Life Center, located adjacent to the Free School, and became aware of, and impressed by, the school's philosophy. The Free School has been providing children an alternative to mainstream education since 1969, when a pioneer in the movement, Mary Leue, started the ball rolling by home schooling her son when his problems with public school led him, in fifth grade, to resist school entirely. She was in a quandary. She wanted him to learn, and she wanted him to enjoy learning. So, she decided to do it herself, and so the first modern-day home schooler of our area was born.
After she won some legal battles allowing her to continue to teach her son at home, others began to ask if Leue would teach their kids too: They were also in desperate need of an approach to learning other than that offered in the traditional school system. She would, and she did-and the Free School was born.
"I'm a big booster of the Free School," Larry Becker states. His two kids, Ted and Gabrielle, attended the school, which generally accepts kids from 2 years old through eighth grade. There are, however, exceptions to that rule, since younger kids will accompany their parents who teach there. Ted's attendance at the school began as a 6-month-old, since Ellen taught art there for a short time. "It was great. I think the kids learned democracy, independence, ability to think on their own, self-reliance," Larry says, touching upon the basic tenets of the school.
When constructing a philosophy for the Free School, Leue borrowed from other alternative schools of the time, and she contacted A. S. Neill, founder of the longest-running and most famous alternative school, the Summerhill School, in England. Scottish-born Neill's interest in Freud's New Psychology, and his friendship with the head of a self-governing school for adolescent delinquents, enforced his belief that a child's emotional well-being is more important than academic achievement. So with that philosophy he began Summerhill, a student-run boarding school, in 1923.
"Summerhill never actually called itself a free school," says Matthew Appleton, who wrote A Free Range Childhood about his 9-year-stint as a resident advisor at Summerhill. "It was the first school to work in that way: with democracy, with kids being equals." The Free School took that principle and ran with it.
"It's so crazy," Bhawin Suchak laughs. "The fact that it even exists is crazy and outlandish. It's a radical concept." After entering his first child in the preschool, Suchak went on to teach at the Free School, and today both of his children are enrolled. "Summerhill is where Mary got a lot of the philosophy for the Free School," he says. "Their biggest challenge was having teachers that couldn't handle the concept of being on the same level as the kids."
Adult authority, in these schools, is not a given.
"A teacher has to earn respect. At the Free School, a teacher can't, just by himself, mandate anything," Suchak continues, hinting at one of the most unique features of the school, the council meeting - a place where grievances can be aired and rules can be made or unmade. Council meetings can be called at any time, by anyone-teacher or student - and can address any matter. When they are called, attendance is mandatory - except for the youngest students - and they are over when a solution is reached, and everyone has had a vote. And with more kids than teachers, the student voice is the majority. A student presides over a specific meeting, keeping the conversation on topic and bringing others into line if they act up.
'IT'S A VERY UNIQUE SYSTEM," Sandra Winn says. Winn has been writing her doctoral dissertation on the Free School's council meetings, having been led to the school five years ago by a professor who thought that the unconventional school would be right up her alley. It was.
"I had been studying communication in education all along," Winn says. "My background has been the two: My undergraduate was communication, my masters is in educational policy, and I've been teaching for a good 14 years. Narrowing down a topic was really hard. It's a very rich school-there's so much to learn from it.
"Particularly I've been focusing on what the teacher's role is in the council meetings, and how that impacts the students and the outcome of the meetings. One of my major findings is that a teacher's role is very delicate. You have to exercise some control, but allow some freedom as well. And keeping that balance is a very difficult thing."
"Things come up, and they're not ignored," Ted says of the system. "So, when a problem arises, it's not ignored - and you have to deal with it." This allows the kids to feel they're important in the whole scheme of things. If things are going badly at home, or if a child has a problem with another child, it matters. How they feel matters. And it's handled with care. Some days are spent entirely in council meetings.
"What we are is a place where it's okay to bring your problems," Chris Mercogliano, codirector of the school, states in his book Making It Up as We Go Along: The Story of the Albany Free School. "Meetings become a safe, supportive space where the origins of problems can be examined."
"Some amazing things go on at the council meetings," Larry Becker says. "There are kids who are getting into fights, and it turns out that their parents are divorcing, and they kind of think of themselves as being the only one in that situation. And then you have two or three other kids speak up, and they talk about how their parents got divorced, or their parents are fighting.
"And then you have a whole bunch of kids crying-but really crying in sympathy with each other - and being open with each other," Larry continues. "And some of the teachers may talk about their experiences being divorced, or having divorced parents. It's totally different. "The kids really understand why some kid is going through hard times."
Because they are constantly discussing people's problems and conflict-solving, the kids at the school have a deepness of compassion seldom found in students their age. "Being at the Free School really does make you open to other people's perspectives, and being more aware of other people," explains Lily Mercogliano, daughter of Chris and a Free Schooler from the tender age of 2 weeks old (she is now about to enter Northeastern University). "You really learn to work out your problems with other people through communication instead of going crazy, or holding grudges, or running and telling a teacher, or doing something like that -which ends up really not getting to the root of the problem. When you can sit down, and, if you have to, spend three hours and figure out why this happened and what's really going on, and what's the underlying cause for it.
"I think everyone's really, really aware of people at the Free School," she continues. "I mean, there's only 50 kids, and there aren't many teachers. It's really easy to tell when something's going on with someone else, because you see them every single day. So on that one day, when they come in and all of a sudden they're really angry at everything, or they do that consistently for a week, obviously something's wrong. And so either they're going to talk with someone, or someone's going to come up and say, 'Hey, what's going on,' or in a council meeting it will come up. So there are a lot of different ways for communication to happen, so that it really doesn't escalate to a higher level."
WHILE THERE ARE A VARIETY of other small, unique schools in the region, the council-meeting system is not the only difference between the Free School and most other schools. The Free School does, like private schools, charge a fee; however, it is based on what a family can afford, and no one is turned away because they can't pay tuition. Oh, and one other thing: Classes at the Free School are not mandatory. "Attending classes in our school isn't an obligation, it's a privilege," Chris Mercogliano states in Making It Up as We Go Along. He makes this comment while telling the story of a boy racked with depression, pain, fear and anger, who was categorized in the public system as hyperactive-"impulsive, aggressive, short attention span, the whole nine yards"-and who eventually made his way to the Free School after falling through the cracks in public school.
This boy's mother had been addicted to drugs for most of his childhood, and he had faced the death of his older brother, his father and his uncle in his short life. "The repair work to Jesse's heart began the day he entered our school. . . . It began when we told him that he was free to do as he pleased in school, as long as he was respectful and didn't violate the rights or sensibilities of others," Mercogliano writes in the book.
If this boy was asked to leave a class, he would just leave - "where he went was his business"-but he wouldn't be punished for it. And, when he wanted to return - if he wanted to return - he was welcomed back, as long as he would respect those around him. It doesn't work that way in many places.
The Free School dropped compulsory classes early on, but in the beginning, there were a few. "For the first number of years, we kind of compromised," Mercogliano says from his sunlit home, surrounded by trees, in the Free School's neighborhood. "In the morning, kids had to do lessons. They just had to do them."
He laughs as he continues: "We'd chase the kids around who didn't want to do those things, and we played the same games that a traditional school would play. Just trying to cajole and calm those kids into at least doing a little reading and a little math and a little writing." The afternoon was theirs to do with what they pleased, with playing high on the list of priorities. "We just sort of gradually got away from the compulsory part," he says, "because we found out that it didn't work very well - that the kids who really didn't want to read, or didn't want to do math, still didn't do it. You could make them go through the motions, but if you were honest about how much they were actually learning, they weren't learning that much. You were just kind of reinforcing their resistance - which is what happens in public schools.
"The kids who really want to learn, they learn. The kids who really don't want to learn, for whatever reason, tend not to - at least they don't learn what the teacher is expecting them to learn. They just kind of go through the motions, or they get kicked out, or they get put on Ritalin, or whatever. . . . There is a large portion of the kids in public schools, at any given time, where it's just not working for them. That's what I discovered."
Some of these kids find the Free School.
"There was this one boy who graduated last year," Lily Mercogliano remembers. "I don't think he took a class in the four years that he was here. He had a lot of problems. . . . He was emotionally in a really bad home, and I don't think he ever took any classes. "But he's in Bishop Maginn right now, and he's passing all of his classes. He came in and showed my dad, like, 90s on tests. So he obviously is learning; and he obviously didn't come out behind. But he was able to sort of emotionally get himself together, and then go to public school and be fine."
This is what is heard over and over again. That kids want to learn, and it's a more enjoyable and thorough process if they do it at their own pace, according to their own desires. And a place like the Free School, which focuses on the emotional well-being of a child rather than a kid's testability, seems to offer a haven of learning and growth, and a haven where their voices can be heard.
'IN PUBLIC SCHOOL, IF YOU learn to read late, or if you're having some problem, you will automatically get set into a learning- disabled class," says Ted Becker. "The Free School lets the kids wait as long as they need to until they're ready to do what they need to do."
"We're just more relaxed," Chris Mercogliano says about the Free School's teaching structure. "Every kid is going to come around, because every kid wants to learn. Learning is a genuinely instinctive, natural act. . . . They want to understand how things work. They want to do experiments. Their parents don't have to worry, because in the natural course of a day, or a year, at the Free School they just learn these things. They learn history because they want to know about the world."
"But then you've got a large percentage of our kids," Mercogliano continues, "who have spent time in public schools, have been called failures, have internalized that they've felt stupid, have been just crushingly bored in the process of learning history, or learning math, or reading - or whatever they were supposed to be learning. So their attitude toward learning gets pretty negative, pretty hardened." Ted Becker didn't take many classes at the Free School, but that's not to say he didn't learn: "What I was most involved with at the school was from fifth to eighth grade we'd go on trips to meet with other alternative schools like ours in various locations, or we'd just go on a trip somewhere," he says. "And we'd have to raise our own money for it. So that was one of the biggest things I did there, was sell raffle tickets, organize dinners at the Free School."
"They go on these trips - they go all over the place-and they do a lot of good works," Larry Becker says. "But they combine it with fun. So they go down, for example, to help people in Puerto Rico when the schools were destroyed by hurricanes, but they also managed to spend a bunch of time at the beach." This year, the class went to Spain.
Students of the Free School also learn through apprenticeships and internships, and they start quite young. Lily interned with a veterinarian at 10 years old, because she thought she'd like to be one. But the incredibly long hours made her decide against it. One of Ted's apprenticeships was with an airplane pilot who had flown in Vietnam, and Ted even spent some time behind the controls. Ted is a well-spoken 17-year-old who, along with his sister and Lily and many others, made the transition from the Free School to public school rather easily. Since kids have to leave the school after eighth grade, they all must make a change to a school that is wholly unlike where they've been - and what's most interesting is that the transition is rarely difficult. Hard to believe, since some kids leave the Free School with very little formal schooling under their belts.
"What's amazing to me, and I guess the fear that every parent faces, is that these kids are not spending seven or eight years learning multiplication tables," Larry Becker says. "What's going to happen when they get to high school? And the answer is: They do fine." When his daughter Gabrielle was nearing eighth grade, and her time to join the kids at Albany High was near, she asked the teachers to teach her certain subjects she knew she would need to know to succeed in public high school. "So they would sit down with her and go over whatever she was going to need to know for high school," her father says. "The kids do that, because they know high school's different."
Lily attributes her relatively easy transition to Albany High to the fact that the hugeness of the school rendered just about everyone out-of-place. "Everyone was uncomfortable. Once you realized that you weren't the only one that had no idea where you were going, it was no big deal," she recalls.
But she did have nagging worries that she was going to appear dumber than her new peers: "I was so worried about the academic aspect of it." It's a worry many students and parents have, but former Free School students seem to catch up at remarkable speeds. "I remember sitting in math class. . . . This was pre-algebra and I hadn't done a lot of pre-algebra," she says. "So, we reviewed it. And I was scoring higher than everyone else on tests, and I didn't understand how that was happening. And they had all done this before. . . . You review so much in high school. As long as you don't raise your hand as say 'I've never learned this before,' no one ever knows. And it was never a problem for me at all to just fit in and go with the flow."
Lily attributes this to the Free School approach: "Overall, I think that it was perfect. . . . When I got to public school I had never taken classes like classes in public school. So for me, especially in freshman year, the work wasn't really work, because I just had such a love for finding things out. Because it hadn't gotten old to me yet." And for her, it didn't get old for a long time. "Whereas I'd look at a lot of my friends, and to them it was, 'Oh my God, I've been doing this for so long, and now I'm doing it all over again,' and I think it starts to get really redundant spending so much time working in that system."
THERE ARE OTHER DIFFERENCES, too, according to the transplants. In public schools, says Ted Becker, "From what I've noticed, really, the emotional side of the students is ignored, basically. I guess they have guidance counselors that you can go to and talk to, but it seems like it's something that's supposed to be kept at home-and you go to school to take classes and learn. . . . Half the kids in public school don't really want to be there, and half of them know they're not going to pass - they're just sort of there messing around."
Ted's sister noticed some very inherent differences between schools. "I guess my daughter's comment - the one that was most telling to me-was her feeling that the public schools don't trust the kids," Larry Becker recalls. "She felt not trusted, and that was real unusual after having been at the Free School, because there it's just the opposite. The kids are given a lot of responsibility, and when you're given a lot of responsibility, naturally you feel like you're trusted."
And when a child is trusted, a child feels a sense of self-worth - an attribute a kid is lucky to leave the public school with. "The number one thing that a kid will come out of the Free School with is a sense of who they are," Suchak says.
And along with having to interact and communicate with the adults of the school, the students of the Free School learn to get along with kids from all walks of life. Kids from Delmar, Burnt Hills, Hoosick, and many Albany neighborhoods - including the inner-city one where the school is located - mingle.
According to Suchak, it gives them a sense of the world and the way it works. "The world is-and especially this country - really diverse. You can't live in a bubble anymore. The Free School is really a microcosm of the world."
"There's a very organic quality to learning at the Free School, which I think is beautiful," Chris Mercogliano says. "I think that's the way learning is anyway. Once upon a time, there were no schools anyway."