Re: [Discuss-sudbury-model] Mountain Laurel Sudbury School

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Date: Mon Jul 12 09:36:01 2004,1,3722036.story?coll=hc-big-headlines-breaking
Ultimate Unschool
Courant Staff Writer

July 12 2004

Every so often Nick Marshall-Butler gets a call from a former classmate at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford. Almost always, they want to know when he's coming back.

"Why would I come back?" he asks.

At Mountain Laurel Sudbury School in New Britain - where Nick is now a student - there are no tests, grades or homework. Students have a say in every decision and choose what they want to study.

There are a total of five pupils and no teachers, formal classes or a curriculum. Students are guided by staff members who shepherd them toward resources and information.

"Most of my friends think it's crap," said Nick, a self-assured 14-year-old with braces and spindly legs. "They are entitled to their opinion. I like it. It's good for me."

Everyone involved with this private alternative school founded in New Britain two years ago seems to feel the same way. Despite the lack of structure, they are confident there is as much or more learning going on as in a conventional private or public school setting.

But Mountain Laurel is struggling to survive. Operating expenses are covered almost entirely by the $5,000 annual tuition, and, with just five students, the school is barely viable.

Board members host monthly open houses to attract new students - the next one is scheduled for July 21 - but if more don't enroll the school will close, said Marie Sampson, a retired public school teacher and the only paid member of Mountain Laurel's six-person staff.

"It's a challenge until you get going," Sampson said. "It's a new idea and it can be scary to people."

Looking For An Alternative

Mountain Laurel is one of the many "unschools" popping up across the nation. The growth of these alternative educational opportunities - though experts question their effectiveness for all students - has been explosive and is expected to continue. Increased emphasis on standardized tests and ever more rigid standards in public education are among the reasons, they say.

"What's happened is people are fed up with the dregs of the old system," said Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a New York-based resource center for home-schoolers and alternative educators. "Thanks to `No Child Left Behind,' people are abandoning [conventional] schools in droves."

In the last two decades, the number of parents home-schooling their children has grown from 20,000 to about two million - a 100-fold increase, Mintz said. He estimates there are about 12,000 alternative schools nationwide, which includes Montessori, charter and public alternative schools.

Of those, about 300 follow the democratic - one person, one-vote - model of Mountain Laurel Sudbury. The fledgling operation is one of about 30 "Sudbury" schools in the nation - and two in Connecticut, New Britain and Hampton - modeled after Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass.

Founded 35 years ago, that school sits on a wooded estate near Boston. Mountain Laurel occupies a rented portion of the religious education building of St. Mark's Episcopal Church.

Students and staff - a mixture of former home-schoolers and refugees from the public school system - point to the success of the original school when asked about their prospects. Close to 90 percent of Sudbury Valley's nearly 700 graduates have gone on to colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, said Mimsy Sadofsky, a staff member and spokeswoman.

Everyone Has A Say

The Sudbury model includes weekly school meetings. At Mountain Laurel, they are laid back, free-form affairs.

At a recent meeting, Sampson and Beth King, a parent and part-time staff member, ran through items on the agenda. Nick stood over a stool nearby alternately playing cards and offering feedback and commentary.

Two other students, Emily King, 16, and Shae Nethercott, 13, played Old Maid at a nearby table. Nick's 5-year-old brother, Liam, the school's youngest student, twirled in circles in his stocking feet, swatting the air.

Students draft school laws, and at this meeting - the last one of the school year - they revised a policy on leaving campus. King dragged a pink highlighter across a map to mark the boundaries of the downtown area where students are now allowed to visit.

The next item: Voting on whether to use student activity funds for everyone to have lunch at a downtown diner. Approval was unanimous. The outing was to celebrate the end of the school year.

King said she home-schooled Emily and her 18-year-old sister, Alex, before enrolling them at Mountain Laurel.

"What we were looking for was for her to be able to direct her own learning but to have a community around her everyday," said King, who heard about the school from a professor at Central Connecticut State University.

Nick was bored and stressed out attending Sedgwick, said his mother, Melissa Marshall, a trustee of Mountain Laurel. "Schools are so focused on standardized tests that it takes away from real learning."

Since transferring, Nick seems more responsible, more independent and more in charge of his own life, Marshall said. "I've seen so much growth in every single kid at the school."

The school maintains regular hours, but full-time students are required to be there only 25 hours a week. On any given day, you're as likely to see them climbing trees as reading books.

But equipment is sparse: a couple of donated computers, a VCR and a television purchased when the school opened. Bookshelves are filled with mostly donated books and supplemented by the collection at New Britain Public Library, where students also rent videotapes and use the computers.

There are no graduation requirements. If students want one, however, they could propose it and bring the matter to a vote at a school meeting.

"We create rules as we need them," Sampson said.

Not For Everyone

Such liberties come with a price. Students shoulder the ultimate responsibility for acquiring the knowledge needed to reach their goals. If Nick, for example, wants to attend a college requiring a diploma or the SAT, it's up to him to master the material needed to pass either test.

How successful these students are depends on the child and his or her family, said noted author and educator Theodore Sizer. Those who fare best are instinctively curious, stubborn and highly self-motivated.

"There are some kids who will simply drift and flounder," said Sizer, former dean of Harvard University's graduate school of education and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a school reform initiative.

Some youngsters mistakenly think "democratic" means "I can do anything I want," said Sizer. "There is another side, a very difficult side, that involves pitching in and working together to make the community collectively function. The whole thing rests on the paradox of having a structure in place that allows kids to learn how to work as a community in a democratic way."

Whether that's happening at Mountain Laurel is hard to say. Students do appear happier, though, and extraordinarily mindful of rules despite the lack of direct supervision.

On one warm June afternoon, Nick, Shae and Emily huddled on the stone stairs outside the church chatting and reading paperbacks.

"Here you're not going to be forced to read a certain thing and then tell everyone about it," said Shae, whose mother describes her as a bright, strong-minded kid with a thing about rules.

Shae, who transferred to Mountain Laurel from Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol, battled with her mother nightly over homework. She took three different medications for a collection of learning and behavioral problems, including attention deficit disorder, sad Liz Shupe, her mother.

"In public school, you have to fit into a box otherwise you're in trouble," Shupe said. "You're not to question anything. She's not that kind of person."

At Mountain Laurel, Shae is "functioning beautifully" and no longer requires medication. "She's much easier to deal with and much happier," Shupe said. "It's such a relief."

Nick, who is fascinated with politics, spends one day a week doing volunteer work for U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd's office in Rocky Hill. Emily is enrolled in a pottery class at Wesleyan University in Middletown.

If such freedoms seemed radical when alternative schools such as Summer Hill appeared on the scene 40 years ago, they don't anymore. For more than a decade, public educators have been using the approach to deal with so-called "high-low" students - low performers with high intelligence - or those not finding success in a traditional school setting.

Colleges have come around, too. Receiving applications from students who lack grades or traditional transcripts is not a new phenomenon, said Reggie E. Kennedy, senior associate dean of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford. Instead of transcripts, administrators rely on interviews and recommendations.

"We just take those on a case-by-case basis," Kennedy said of such students. "You never want to close the door. Ultimately it comes down to the individual and how well they apply themselves."

Trustees at Mountain Laurel have set July 31 as the deadline for bolstering enrollment. Whether the school survives hinges on how well they convey their vision to parents like Heidi Alletzhauser.

The Bristol resident and her husband were among those attending one of two open houses at Mountain Laurel last month. They are weighing whether to register three of their four sons and concede they are still undecided.

"What draws us is the egalitarian nature of the culture there: the ability of the kids to be able to pursue deeply what interests them," said Alletzhauser, who moved to Connecticut from California two years ago.

The lack of a permanent facility, the school's small student body and its uncertain future are among their concerns, Alletzhauser said.

Melissa Marshall hopes the school can be saved. She is certain that both Nick and Liam will come away from their education there better equipped than they would from a public school.

"I think they are learning a broader set of skills to be self-sufficient," she said. "Instead of working on tests, projects and getting A's, they are focused on self-examination and what they want in life."
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant

-------------- Original message from Mike Sadofsky : --------------
> >July 12, 2004
> >Ultimate Unschool - Hartford Courant
> >At Mountain Laurel Sudbury School in New Britain there are no tests,
> >grades or homework. Students have a say in every decision and
> >choose what they want to study.
> These are the opening words in an article in today's Hartford (CT)
> Courant. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it through their
> *registration* process in order to access the entire article. Perhaps
> someone else will and will post the entire text here.
> Mike
> _______________________________________________
> Discuss-sudbury-model mailing list
Received on Mon Jul 12 2004 - 09:35:43 EDT

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