- We Care About
Each Other Fiercely
- By Chris
- Chris has been a teacher at the
Albany Free School since 1973, and Co-director since
- 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
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?"
- ,,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
- 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
- ... 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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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