There are several comments I want to make regarding points brought initiated
first by Peter, who attended Summerhill.
First the question of low staff quality when there is no pay. I don't know
anything about Summerhill: how it's run or how it chooses staff. I have met
most of the staff from most of the Sudbury schools across the country and I
can say that I have the utmost respect for them. They are truly impressive
people. What has impressed me most does not have to do with their academic
skills or background (which of course is incredibly varied and interesting) so
much as their skills at navigating the immensely difficult road of treating
children with respect, yet not holding back their own opinions; helping when
asked for just the right amount, but not intervening when it's inappropriate;
being fair and wise in JC and School Meeting, and not overly emotional or
swayed by turmoil. Let me tell you, it is a rare person who can do all this!
My attempt at it this year has been laughable in my own opinion, but I am
learning an awful lot - probably more than the students!
As far as staff at our school, we have five staff this year, none of them
paid, (but hopefully will be next year) and here is a sampling of their skills
Three have degrees from top Chicago area universities. One has a cosmetology
license. Two have no special degrees. One is a lawyer. Two are certified
teachers. One is a successful musician. One ran his own business. One has
extensive science and math background. One is a professional photographer.
Several speak foreign languages. Two have sewing/craft backgrounds. One
writes poetry. One writes music. Two have extensive
philosophy/religion/history backgrounds. Some are fairly computer literate.
Having said that, I'm sure there are many topics a student might find missing.
That doesn't mean that there is no way for students to get what they need.
One student of ours is interested in automotive repair. This student has
partially pursued taking classes at the junior college and doing an
internship. Will he/she follow through? That remains to be seen - depends on
how interested he/she really is. Staff have done their part to support this
search for studying automotive repair, including finding the contact for the
internship and getting info from the college, but we do not try to "persuade"
Some of our students wanted to learn Spanish, so they wrote a motion which
passed that allocated funds to hire a Spanish teacher. This was several
months ago. Interestingly enough, the students who wrote this motion never
followed up by actually calling the teacher and scheduling something. We're
still waiting. One thing for sure, none of us staff are going to do it! This
is interesting because I remember at the SM that passed this motion, a staff
member questioned whether or not the students were truly motivated enough for
this, given the fact that they could use language tapes or computer programs,
but hadn't been. The actual experience of no one following up has been much
more of a learning experience for these students than a discussion at SM or
Peter brought up math. I don't know how Summerhill runs things, but at our
school if you want to learn math, and no teacher has a math background, there
are still many options. You can learn the math together with a staff member,
you can pass a motion at the SM to get a math instructor, you can find a
volunteer in the community to come in and help with math, or you can get a
book and figure it out yourself. (Don't laugh at that last option - it has
happened at many Sudbury schools. I myself have had the experience many times
of having to figure out science and math stuff on my own because my teachers
were either horribly inept or couldn't speak English. And my own daugher has
pretty much figured out how to add on her own.)
Regarding being literate and staff having responsibility for that, I don't
agree. I think we are all responsible for ourselves in that area. I can't
imagine someone making it to age 18 without realizing that he/she will most
likely need to read, write and do basic math to achieve their goals in life.
My daughter clearly, clearly realizes this and she is 5. Of course there is
the story of the Sudbury graduate who has a PhD in mathematics but didn't
start doing math until, what was it, age 14, and then did it mostly on his
On the other hand, I remember reading about a millionaire who didn't learn to
read until recently - and he was in his 50s. The only person who knew he
couldn't read was his wife. Not even his children could tell. He developed
some remarkable strategies to compensate for his inability to read, and was a
very successful person. He had attended public schools, but had moved a lot
as a child. It was funny, because the article was applauding his courage at
finally admitting he couldn't read, and I was applauding his ability to
succeed without being able to read.
And think of all the people who graduate from public schools and can't read or
do math. They have had many adults try to persuade them that it was
important. Certainly there are many people who don't do well at math, despite
having instruction. They use calculators and hire accountants. The point is,
that a person needs to realize for him/herself that it is important, and then
be self-motivated enough to do something about it. That is where the
characteristics of self-reliance, of independence of Sudbury graduates comes
from. As far as I know, there has never been a Sudbury graduate that didn't
know how to read.
Another issue that was brought up was the idea of a drop-in center that
includes students of all ages, and internet classes. These ideas address one
problem, but in my opinion they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
One of the central struggles of a Sudbury school is reconciling individual
rights and freedom with community rights and needs. I can't speak enough of
the importance of this struggle. A drop-in center and internet classes simply
can't incorporate this aspect in the same way.
With respect to adults, I agree that learning is a life-long process:
however, it has been my experience that what children learn, need, and bring
to a Sudbury school is (in general) very different from what adults learn,
need, and bring. I personally have found it very challenging to see things
from the students' perspective, and I am a person very committed to this
model. It is especially hard to sit back and watch students decide something
that seems so clearly a mistake, based on your adult experience and knowledge,
and allow them to learn for themselves the hard, and long, way, in particular
when you think it is bad for the school. (I must mention that you often find
out that they were actually right.) Some kids spend a lot of their time just
getting used to having power. I think in time things will evolve at our
school where there is not such a division between how the students view issues
and how the staff view them - that has happened already to some extent - but
it is a process.
But I can't imagine having lots of adults around dropping in as students and
bringing all their adult perspectives and baggage. I would be afraid that it
would really harm the balance of power, among other things. I'm not
suggesting that the adults are unimportant or have nothing to offer: quite
the contrary, but I really feel that a Sudbury school run democratically with
a judicial committee for enforcing rules would not be at all the same if it
were not a place primarily for children with most of the power resting with
Having said all this, I acknowledge that I have not done research on this
subject or tried to develop a school like this. Perhaps the goals would be
much different from those of a Sudbury school. Who knows, maybe it could work
just fine. This is just my gut reaction based on what I have read, discussed
with other Sudbury schools, and experienced myself.
OK I think I covered everything I wanted to say. Just one more comment. I
guess it is in response to the "cult" notion. Please keep in mind that the
people who actively participate in this list (post things) may not have any
connection to, or experience with, an actual Sudbury school. Actually, it
seems that few do, mostly (my guess) because many of the Sudbury schools'
staff are too busy or just not that into internet discussion groups. And even
if more did, I think you would find that not even those directly involved in a
Sudbury school agree with what a "Sudbury school" means!
Someone who appears intolerant of criticism may indeed be so, but have no
direct affiliation with Sudbury schools, or may just be someone who holds very
strong opinions, and others respond defensively, or it could be someone who
has had to deal with a lot of people who say they get it and really don't. At
all. Which tends to make one much more blunt over time. Which some people
might call intolerant. Anyway, I don't think it's judicious to cry "cult"
based on the discussion on this list.
On the other hand, I'm sure there are those who would cry "cult" based on
direct involvement! C'est la vie....
Excuse me while I go to my next brainwashing session. (Insert dreaded smiley