- This story appeared in
Albany's Metroland newsweekly on May 24, 2001.
- Free to
- At Albany's most unique
- students have control over
their own education
- By Kate
- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- "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
- "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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,"
- 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
- "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."