Brief History of the Albany Free School and Community
by Jeff Root
 

Founded in 1969 by Mary Leue, the Albany Free School is the oldest inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. The school was born of necessity when Mary returned from England with two of their five children and her husband Bill, who had been studying at Oxford while on sabbatical from the State University of New York where he was a professor of philosophy. Their youngest son Mark was miserable in his fifth-grade class at one of Albany's "better" public schools. Mary made every effort to address the problem with both teacher and principal, but with no change in sight, Mark finally refused to go at all and asked his mother if she would teach him at home instead.

At this moment, the Free School's basic operating strategy was born: Act first, ask permission later. When Mary received a threatening call from the principal, the school nurse having ascertained that Mark was no longer coming, she sprang into action to establish the legality of teaching her son at home. She managed to find a man in the curriculum department of the State Education Department who assured her that her decision was legal and who offered to cite "state guidelines" to any school official that hassled her. The school district's truant officer called Mary the very next day and began issuing all sorts of final warnings. Mary responded by calmly giving him the name of the official in State Ed. Not long after, the truant officer, who was actually the head of the district's Bureau of Attendance and Guidance, called back to apologize and to offer his assistance. Ironically, this same man would later become our official liaison with the superintendent of schools and a trusted and powerful ally!

Thus, young Mark Leue became probably New York State's first legal homeschooler, perhaps by a decade or more. But not for long. Two weeks later, Mary ran into a friend who had three children suffering in another of Albany's finest schools. She begged Mary to take them on, too, and Mary agreed on the spot, not wanting Mark to be isolated alone with her at home. Voila, a school was born.

The rest of that year, according to Mary in her "History of the Free School" -- which can be found in Challenging the Giant: the Best of SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education (Down to Earth Books, 1992) -- went "swimmingly." Revolution was in the air. It was the year of the student strikes, the invasion of Cambodia, and the first Earth Day. In June, Mary and her gang of four voted to continue the school for another year, with another vote establishing the name "The Free School." At that point Mary decided it was time to visit other free schools, such as Jonathan Kozol's Roxbury Community School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Orson Bean's Fifteenth St. School in New York City, and to confer with other alternative school movement people like educational filmmaker Alan Leitman. Mary returned to Albany brimming with ideas and carrying three of Leitman's films, which she then showed around the city to growing audiences.

Suddenly, four students became seven, two teachers climbed aboard, and the need for a building was obvious. A rapid and exhaustive search led to an inner city black church in the city's South End, which was moving to a larger building across town. The minister agreed to rent their old building to the school for $100 a month. This accomplished two things: It was about all Mary could afford to pay; and the location ensured that the school would be integrated both in terms of race and social class. The rest of the summer was then taken up with round-the-clock renovations and fundraising, and come September, somewhat miraculously, the Free School opened its doors.

What followed was a most wild and tumultuous year, with parents battling over educational philosophy and practice, with kids from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum thrashing out their own issues, and with several city departments (building, fire and education) vying to shut down this funky, penniless storefront institution. Once again there was an ironic turn of events within Albany's officialdom. As the bureaucratic noose tightened around the school's neck, and as the call to the city's mayor (who was nearing the end of his 42-year reign over a Democratic political machine whose power rivaled that of Chicago's infamous Mayor Daly) to shut down "that Free School" once and for all grew louder, it was Mayor Corning himself who cooled down the situation, ordering his officials to work with Mary on whatever changes were called for.

Two important developments came out of that initial year of constant trial. First, teachers and parents hammered out, in a series of intense sessions, the policy that only those actually present day-to-day in the building could determine the school policy. Others were welcome to attend meetings and to advise and suggest, but that would be the extent of their power. This absolute internal autonomy remains an operational cornerstone. Next, in order to empower the kids to participate in school governance, and to give them a way to work out their differences nonviolently (which were many in that initial period), Mary and the other teachers instituted a "council meeting" system, whereby anyone with a serious problem could call a meeting at any time, with everyone dropping what they were doing and attending. Meetings would be run by Robert's Rules of Order. Therefore anyone, with sufficient support, could set policy, make or change rules, and establish consequences for anti-social behavior. The council meeting structure provided a safety net for everyone, guaranteeing that, borrowing A.S. Neill's phrase, freedom didn't become license.

After the first year the city condemned the funky old building, and forced Mary to seek out a new home for the school. She found -- and this time purchased (with a small inheritance from her mother) -- an old parochial school building on a different edge of the same neighborhood, which had once been filled with Italian immigrants. Over the next several years Mary was also able to buy seven other buildings on the block, for an average of $2,000. Some belonged to older Italian residents anxious to flee an influx of Blacks and Latinos. The others, obtained by Mary at public auctions, had been abandoned by slumlords and repossessed by the county for back taxes. Here Mary was acting on the advice of Jonathan Kozol, who strongly advocated that free schools develop some sort of business enterprise so that they wouldn't be tuition dependent and therefore accessible only to middle-class children.

We then spent the next ten years slowly rehabilitating the buildings apartment by apartment, which were then used to house Free School teachers and families, and to generate much-needed income for the school. Somewhere along the way, Mary managed to arrange both IRS and local property and sales tax exemptions, essential ingredients in the school's long-term survival. By the fall of 1973, securely housed in its "new" 120-year-old building, the school was burgeoning, with forty kids of all shapes, sizes, ages and colors, eight full-time teachers, and a host of interns and volunteers. Students came from both inner city and uptown neighborhoods, and as word about the school spread, from suburban and rural towns as well. The extraordinary diversity of the student body became one of the school's strongest assets.

The place was as intense as ever, with all of us who were working there living on the edge. Salaries, when we got paid at all, were miniscule. Many of the students were in crisis much of the time, and their emotional struggles tended to bring up teachers' unresolved issues. A number of the teachers were attempting to live together semi-communally in school-owned housing, which added a frothy interpersonal dimension. It became more and more apparent that we needed some sort of forum outside of school where the adults could resolve their conflicts and deepen their communication with each other. Mary suggested we start a weekly support group, which has now been meeting continuously since 1974. It is here that we sharpen our "humanity skills" by attempting to practice emotional honesty through compassionate interaction both with the truth and with each other.

There was surprisingly little staff turnover during the school's first decade. As various teachers stayed on, we began settling into more permanent relationships. A Free School "baby boom" ensued, and we started spreading out into the various Free School buildings, which, because they were on two parallel streets, often had adjoining backyards. The buildings more or less in order, we started in on the yards, creating cooperative gardens and outdoor gathering places. More and more, we found ourselves eating and celebrating birthdays and holidays together. There was a real sense of community emerging.

Teachers who were putting down roots decided to buy their own homes on the block -- for the same low prices that Mary had paid for the Free School buildings. Armed with the necessary rehabilitation skills and tools that we had acquired while fixing up the school buildings, but with very little money, we devised a cooperative system for helping each other with our houses, often by means of weekend-long "work parties," as we called them.

The several-year-long housing rehab phase cemented the shared intentionality that increasingly bound us together, and we began to refer to ourselves simply as "the Free School community." With the school on a solid foundation, Mary conceived a number of satellite projects aimed at addressing the needs of community members. One Mary dubbed the "Money Game," which is part credit union and part cooperative investment group. Members are able to earn a much higher return by pooling their money, and we can also utilize the fund's assets to make loans to each other at much lower interest rates.

Partially in response to the arrival of so many community babies, Mary, with assistance from Betsy (both are Registered Nurses), founded the Family Life Center. The purpose of the center is to provide perinatal support to pregnant couples, parenting support to parents of young children, and to teach self-help medical care. The center had an immediate synergistic effect on the school and the community, with the outreach services of the center drawing in many new families. Later, Mary and Nancy, who had previously run a natural foods store in Albany, started up a food coop in the basement of the Family Life Center building, giving us twenty-four hour-a-day access to organic foods at wholesale cost. At the same time several community families collaborated on a small organic farm with goats, chickens, honeybees and large gardens on nearly an acre of vacant land on the block that we purchased together.

Once our homes were more or less done and the various community projects were up and running, we began dreaming of a place away from the city where we could retreat to as needed. Before long, Larry, a master of the fine art of wheeling and dealing and also the school's pro-bono attorney, found an ad for a "camp" about 25 miles outside of Albany. In upstate New York, a "camp" means a vacation cottage or home set on a lake or in the woods. This camp turned out to be rambling old lodge with two forty-foot living rooms, six large bedrooms and two kitchens, which the owner was looking to sell cheap because it was beginning to need substantial repairs. It was absolutely perfect for our needs. Rainbow Camp, as we christened it, is used by the community for retreats and vacations, and by the school for day- and week-long trips with the kids.

The purchase of Rainbow Camp led to a friendship with an older man, Hank Hazleton, who was devoting the remainder of his life to defending the rights of Native American peoples. Living on 250 acres just over the hill from the camp, Hank dreamed of turning his land into a wilderness learning center and forever-wild sanctuary. When Hank suffered a series of crippling strokes, he decided to give his land to the Free School so that we would steward the land and carry out his vision for him. After Hank died, a Free School community family moved into his house and is beginning to establish a small, subsistence farm and to run wilderness education programs for children. To date we have constructed a high and low ropes course and a twenty-four foot-in-diameter octagonal teaching lodge in the forest about a half-mile from the house.

Both school and community have continued to expand over the years. At the present time, the school's enrollment stands at about fifty-five, and approximately fifteen families and various individuals make up the Free School community. Second generation students and teachers are beginning to show up, much to everyone's delight. May the Free School's next three decades be as fruitful and exciting as its first three!

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The Albany Free School
8 Elm Street
Albany, NY 12202     (518) 434-3072