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We Care About Each Other Fiercely
By Chris Mercogliano
Chris has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973, and Co-director since 1985.
The author of Making It Up As We Go Along: The Story of the Albany Free School (Heinemann 1998), his essays, commentaries and reviews have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, as well as in three anthologies, Challenging the Giant, Deschooling Our Lives and .Creating Learning Communities. Chris also serves on the advisory board of the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools and is a deacon in the Presbyterian Church.
"Council meeting!" shouted out seven-year-old Kavon as he moved deliberately through the building, calling students and teachers together to help him settle an ongoing dispute he was having with Garrett.
As soon as all were assembled in a large oval on the carpet, three nominations were taken and a chairperson elected. This time it was Michelle, an eighth grader frequently chosen to lead the meetings.
"Who called this council meeting?" she asked.
,,I did," answered Kavon, his eyes flaring with anger. "Garrett's being a big bully. Yesterday at lunch he took my chair away from me, and this morning he was calling me names and then he pushed me down when I told him 'stop'."
All eyes turned toward Garrett, who is three years older and a head taller than Kavon. Violations of the "Stop" Rule - if someone is bothering you all you have to do is say "Stop!" and then he or she must comply - are taken very seriously. So is bullying.
Garrett lowered his head and stared silently into his lap. Any hopes that he would raise his hand and respond to Kavon's accusations appeared futile.
And so began an example of the Albany Free School's unique conflict resolution process.
Founded in 1969 by Mary Leue, the school is arguably the world's oldest inner-city free school. Because it operates according to a sliding scale tuition that begins at $70 per month and approaches education in a radically different fashion, the school is racially and socio-economically diverse. About a third of the students come from downtown neighborhoods, a third from uptown, and a third from suburban and rural areas. Half of the kids attend the school because they and their parents favor its freedom-based philosophy, the other half because they have been unable or unwilling to make it in a conventional education setting.
How is it that a school with a 130-year-old building even kind observers find shabby, no support staff or fancy equipment, and a per-pupil cost less than a quarter of the state average, has gained an international reputation for fostering transformative growth in even very troubled children? The answer, in a word, is "community." Our school is its own community. It is surrounded by the Free School Community, an intentional community consisting of a dozen or so families an( various individuals, most of whom live in either privately or school-owned homes on the block, which in turn is an integral part of a diverse innercity neighborhood that possesses many of the ingredients of community. What I mean by the term "community" is best described by M. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum:
... a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment A rejoice together, mourn together, and to delight in each other, making the other condition our own.
At the Albany Free School teachers, students, and parents practice community first, school second. Learning how to get along with others, how to love and be loved, and how to be an active, responsible citizen are valued at least, if not more, than learning to read, write and figure. Besides, happy, healthy, bonded children usually acquire their basic skills without a great deal of time and effort, especially when they are learning for their own satisfaction and not for external rewards.
In order to foster a deep sense of community, everyone cooks, eats, works, plays, travels, prays, celebrates holidays, and solves problems together. Students are intimately involved in the governing of the school. People care about each other fiercely. As a result, first
time visitors to the school are immediately struck by how un-school-like the place is.
"Where are the desks?" some wonder aloud, others only to themselves. "When do the classes meet?" "Is it always this noisy?" If their preconceived notions of school have been too thoroughly violated, then the sight and sound of 50 kids, ages 2 to 14, and 10 or so adults all heading seemmgly in different directions at the same time appear as nothing less than pure chaos.
But hopefully the visitors will stick around until something goes wrong. It often doesn't take long, because conflict is inevitable in a community of very different individuals who share closely in one another's lives. Here, when someone has a serious problem, one usually does as Kavon did and calls a council meeting. Council meetings are our conflict resolution and democratic decision-making system all in one. They are the glue that holds the school community together, by providing a forum in which people can work out their differences creatively and nonviolently. They also empower students to take ownership of the school by giving them a voice in the school's daily affairs.
Anyone can call a council meeting at any time. Everyone drops whatever they are doing and comes to the biggest room on the first floor of the building. Three nominations are taken and a chairperson is elected (usually a student, sometimes as young as six). It is the chairperson's responsibility to recognize speakers, keep the discussion on track, and maintain order. Interestingly, while the atmosphere of the school is characteristically freewheeling, strict decorum is required in council meetings at all times - which is
seldom a problem because everyone takes them very seriously.
Meetings, which are run by Roberts' Rules of Order, begin with the person who convened the meeting stating his or her concern. Policies and rules can be made and changed, and consequences for unacceptable behavior meted out by majority rule, with students
and teachers each having an equal vote.
Council meetings tend to take on a therapeutic rather than a governmental tone when the focus is an interpersonal rift. With the need for personal privacy and confidentiality respected at all times, the meetings become a safe, empathetic space where emotions can flow freely and the thread of the problem can be followed back to its source. Maybe it all started with something that happened a day or two before at school, or with some kind of trouble at home (an abusive older sibling, parents fighting, etc.). Tears are not infrequent.
Kavon's meeting continued with Kavon telling Garrett directly how sick and tired he was of being picked on by him. Then Nancy, one of the school's co-directors, wondered aloud if anyone else had been having a problem with Garrett. Several younger students timidly raised their hands. When asked why they hadn't called a council meeting, one boy reported that Garrett had threatened to hurt him if he did. This revelation brought a flurry of outrage raining down on Garrett, who sat still as ice, his anti-social behavior fully exposed at last.
Garrett has only been in the school three months, having spent several unhappy years in a public school where he was frequently the target of bullying. That school's solution was to dismiss Garrett ten minutes early at the end of the day so that he would have a head start in getting away from his tormentors.
Finally Jeff, one of the four teachers in the group, asked Garrett if he had anything to say. Garrett answered that some of the older kids present teased him sometimes and made him feel like they didn't want him in the school. Jeff inquired if this was true and the hands of two 8th grade boys, Julio and Jamar, went up. Both admitted that they had put Garrett down on more than one occasion, prompting a general discussion of how meanness rolls downhill. The two boys promised Garrett they wouldn't do it anymore.
Garrett, thawing a little, raised his hand again and looked across the oval at Kavon. Garrett said he was sorry and pledged to stop harassing Kavon, who considered the apology sufficiently heartfelt to accept. Someone asked Kavon if his problem was solved. When he nodded his head affirmatively, a motion was made to adjourn.
It is through the council meeting system that the school meets Peck's test of "making the other's condition our own." The daily practice of supporting each other through their difficult moments teaches that we all face the same struggles, regardless of age, race, or gender, and that together we can solve problems that appear overwhelming when faced alone. This is the lesson and the power of community.
Awhile back a reporter from a local newspaper spent a day at the school so that he could
write a feature-length profile. During a wrap-up chat in the afternoon, he shared an astute
observation. He began by noting how in most classrooms in school there are always at least a couple of kids who are loners, who seem withdrawn or "out of it" in some way. The thoughtful journalist then went on to say that he was quite taken by not having seen a single child in the school who fit this pattern, for which he admitted he had been watching carefully. All of the children, he noted, appeared to be "in the flow." Everyone always seemed to be actively engaged in something, whether alone, in pairs or in groups of various sizes. Finally, he asked why this was so. The response, again in a word: community.
Including students in the running of the school, not ranking one above another, and allowing them to express their own genius in their own way fosters a deep sense of acceptance and belonging in a nurturing community of equals.
This is the reason why the school has had such success in turning around kids who come, after years of failure in conventional school settings, with a negative attitude toward learning and a badly damaged sense of self. Although he never seemed fully convinced that children could learn all that they should be learning in an environment in which there are no set curricula, no compulsory classes, and no grades or standardized tests, he appeared to accept the statement that countless graduates have returned to report having left the school fully equipped to lead happy, successful, empowered adult lives.
The reporter left profoundly moved.
Just as the Albany Free School is a community, the surrounding layers of community are very much a school. Students do some of their most important learning during the school day beyond the school's four walls. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders have the opportunity to apprentice themselves to professionals in the Albany Free School Community. Angela learned fine woodworking at the wooden boat works started by two community members and located next door in a school-owned building. She later went on to start her own successful wood refinishing business. Elisha learned all about natural childbirth from a doula in the community. Joey learned about the law from a husband and wife attorney team in the community, and discovered this was not the career for him. Jeremy learned how to fly an airplane from a retired Air Force pilot who joined the community after he left the military. Lily apprenticed to a French chef in the community, which led to future work with a local caterer.
Or if a student wants to learn a subject, perhaps a foreign language, or dressmaking, or a higher level of science or mathematics that no teacher in school is able to teach, very often there is an adult in the Albany Free School Community who can and is willing to work with that student. Thus the community greatly extends the school's reach.
Students also venture farther out into the city at large to work with professionals of all kinds. There is no shortage of grownups willing to give their time to interested young people. And here lies a benefit beyond the obvious one: Moving education out into the world helps reestablish some of the web of interconnectedness that is fast disappearing from our urban centers.
The school makes liberal use of the neighborhood and beyond as an educational resource. Museums, art galleries, theaters, concert halls, court rooms, legislative chambers, newspaper offices and factories, to name just a few, all frequently serve as adjunct classrooms.
One of the greatest sins of modern education is the isolation it engenders by warehousing children away from the real action, which only teaches them passivity and disempowerment. Albany Free School kids, on the other hand, have actively involved themselves in the political process numerous times in order to fight for issues of deep concern to them. Once they lobbied the state legislature to restore funding to the New York State Children's Theater. Another time they joined in on a series of rallies to shut down an inner-city garbage incinerator that was poisoning downtown areas and was a glaring example of environmental racism. Yet another time they fought to save the historic outdoor public swimming pool located on the edge of the neighborhood. The contribution of the students was no small part of each victory.
For 33 years the Albany Free School, the Albany Free School Community, and supportive professionals and business people throughout the Capital District have demonstrated the natural fit and the immense value of forging a connection between education and community.
Schools acting alone can't possibly do the job of preparing children to live in a confusing and complex world that changes seemingly at the speed of light. More than ever kids need to be in contact with real people and the real world. Textbooks and the Internet are fine as sources of information, but that is all they are. They will never provide the grounding, the inspiration and the guidance so essential to the educational process. Only adult role models and mentors can do that - but not when the typical teacher/student ratio is one to twenty-five or one to thirty. And not when the teacher is forced into the role of pressure-driven, teach-to-the-test taskmaster.
But such is increasingly the fate of the modem-day teacher. The current obsession with standards and high-stakes testing - soon to be a national regime - is hemming teachers into prepackaged curricula that allow for little or no improvisation. Education is evolving into a
mechanical process stripped of its humanity.
How do we reverse this inward spiral before it is too late? For certainly the recent epidemic of school shootings are a canary-in-thecage-like symptom of how rigid and impersonal American schools have become?
In a word? Community.
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