When Mary Leue, our founder, asked A.S. Neill what he thought of her idea of starting a free school in the inner city, he responded with only one thought: "I would think myself daft to try." But Mary was used to doing things her own way, and so try she did. She was determined to found a school based on freedom and democratic principles that was equally, if not more accessible to children of the poor.
Thirty-two years later, the Albany Free School is still going strong, comfortably housed in a 130 year-old, former parochial school building on a residential side street in a racially and socioeconomically mixed downtown neighborhood in the nation's oldest incorporated city. Diversity remains one of our hallmarks. Approximately half of the kids come from the inner city, one-fourth from uptown neighborhoods, and the remainder from outlying suburbs and towns. The school operates by means of sliding-scale tuition. No one is turned away for financial reasons. Approximately eighty percent of the students are eligible for a free or reduced price breakfast and lunch.
So, who are we?
Truth be told, we are a community far more than a school - a safe, nurturing, open space where daily fifty-five kids ages two through fourteen, eight full-time teachers, a cook, a steady stream of interns, volunteers and visitors, as well as myriad goats, chickens, rabbits, pet rats, lizards and goldfish work, play, learn and eat together. Yes, there are certain traditional school trappings: Some rooms have desks and blackboards; there are lots of shelves with books and teaching materials of all kinds in others; and throughout the building there is a state of the art computer network, thanks to Times Warner Cable and a very generous local business. In addition, students are organized into homeroom groups more or less by age in order for them to have a space to call their own and a specific teacher to check in with during the day.
However, the resemblance to "school" pretty much ends here. Noise overshadows quiet. Kids are moving about constantly and play is rampant. We do not have a curriculum, or any compulsory classes. Classroom sessions that do take place are usually informal and last as long as the interest holds. There are not any tests or grades either, because we have discovered by trial and error over the years that learning happens best when it happens for its own sake. Again and again, our experience has confirmed that a child's innate desire to learn is a far more powerful motivating force than any external reward - or threat.
For a long time our unofficial motto has been: "Never a dull moment, always a dull roar." But perhaps we should also borrow the Stork Family School in the Ukraine's motto, "First love, then teach." For we have always placed the greatest emphasis on the fostering of loving, caring relationships. Observant visitors frequently comment on how closely connected the students seem, how carefully they look out for each other. The visitors note the brightness in the kids' eyes, the spontaneous joy, the natural exuberance. This is how children appear who are secure in knowing they are loved, and who are free at all times to return that love.
A companion motto would then be: "Trust children and they will learn." Because when you entrust kids with their own so-called "education" - which is not a thing after all, but rather an ever-present action - they will learn continually, each in their own way and rhythm. There is absolutely no need to push and prod and fret over when a given child will master reading, the mainstream dictum notwithstanding. Children who truly possess the responsibility for their own learning always handle that responsibility in a sensible and mature fashion. Adult fear and anxiety - oh so understandable in these days of heightened hype over standards - only slow the process down.
The same can be said for children and their behavior. Expect them to act responsibly and they usually will. This is why we don't monitor and manage our students. Instead, they learn to manage themselves. Urgent problems are dealt with on an ad hoc basis in student-led council meetings, which anyone can call at any time. The meetings are run by Robert's Rules of Order and afford the opportunity to explore matters in great depth if necessary. When the issue is an interpersonal conflict, the meeting becomes a supportive circle where real emotional healing takes place. We pay a lot of attention to the emotional lives of children because, as Joseph Chilton Pearce once said, "Address the heart and the head will follow."
Meanwhile, here students share the responsibility with teachers for school policy and planning through the weekly all-school meeting, where students and teachers have an equal vote. Between council and all-school meetings, Free Schoolers quickly become fluent with the ins and outs of real participatory democracy.
Visitors frequently ask what a typical day at the Free School looks like. We can only shrug and say that an accurate answer would require describing 165 - the number of days in an average school year. Each day unfolds organically according to people's moods and interests, to the season and the weather, and to local and even world events. We reserve the right to make plans quite spontaneously. For instance, one morning this past year the preschool instantly mobilized a trip to a nature preserve when a three-year-old asked if he could go and search for the painted turtle he had found there six months previously. Or another time the whole school dropped what it was doing when we learned that public high schoolers from all over the state were marching on the State Education Department to demand an end to high stakes testing. We hurriedly walked the ten blocks across downtown to join in on the protest.
This isn't to say that there aren't plenty of ongoing, focused activities and projects, too. On any given day students might be found writing poetry and short stories, creating books, magazines and works of art, rehearsing and performing plays, or learning French or algebra. There are daily reading and math classes for kids who choose to tackle their basic skills in a more orderly, directed way, and also classes in areas like history and science depending on student interest.
Though we are by no means a special school for problem children, we frequently serve as a safety net for children who have been falling through the cracks of the conventional education system. At any given time, approximately half of our students are referrals from the public and parochial schools. Our reputation with students that are struggling academically and/or behaviorally, and whose needs the system has failed to meet, is such that an increasing number of kids are coming to us having previously been tagged with labels like ADHD and placed on Ritalin and other biopsychiatric medications. Their parents seek us out because they're concerned about the side effects of the drugs and because they've heard that we work effectively with these children without drugs of any kind. Our active, flexible, individually structured environment renders the drugs entirely unnecessary.
Part of the reason we are so successful with students in crisis is that we neither segregate them away from, nor place them in competition against their peers. Instead, we invest faith in their integrity and ability, as well as place them in a position of responsibility for themselves and the school as a whole - all the while paying close attention to their emotional development. Students who come to us essentially for refuge and repair leave us able to make a successful return to the conventional settings from whence they came - even after spending as little as a year here.
Another hallmark of the school is its permeability. There are frequent exchanges between the school and the surrounding city, which we utilize as a "classroom" on nearly a daily basis. Older students participate in a wide-ranging apprenticeship program. They have worked alongside area artists, veterinarians, actors, attorneys, carpenters, dancers, models, midwives, archaeologists, magicians, chefs, computer programmers, and even pilots - the sky is literally the limit. They also seek out community service opportunities, volunteering at places like food banks, soup kitchens and infant day care centers. Some students become active in local environmental and preservation issues as well.
In the spring of each year Free School seniors, meaning the seventh and eighth graders, undertake a major trip to places sometimes as far away as Spain and Puerto Rico. The experience represents a rite of passage for them, not only because they have to cope with being far from home in unfamiliar surroundings for an extended period, but also because they have to figure out how to raise all of the funds themselves. It is no small challenge for a group of eight to ten twelve, thirteen and fourteen year-olds, many of whom are from low-income families, to bring in five to ten thousand dollars to cover their travel expenses.
There are a couple of other distinctive features to the school: We operate a small organic farm on the block, where students learn the basics of animal husbandry, composting, and growing flowers, herbs and vegetables. Additionally, we now own two tracts of land about twenty-five miles northeast of Albany, where students go for day trips and extended stays. One site, known as Rainbow Camp, is a rambling former inn set on a small lake. Here we fish, swim, boat, take long walks in the woods, and spend overnights. The second site consists of an old farmhouse, barn and 250 acres of mostly forested land that was given to us in 1995, where we are in the process of developing a satellite program for environmental study and wilderness activities. There we have already completed a twenty-four foot in diameter octagonal "teaching lodge," as well as a high and low ropes course, both set deep in the forest. A small-scale maple sugaring operation is also underway. Once or twice each year we invite groups from the neighboring public schools to join us for ropes course, orienteering and nature workshops, with plans to expand this connection in the future.
Thus we continue on into our fourth decade, the growth of the school continuing to be guided by an unpredictable blend of mission and serendipity. Visitors are welcome throughout the year. We only ask that they please contact us and make arrangements in advance.
Click here to read what one distinguished visitor from England saw when she visited the school - and what she did with her observations!
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