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School in Albany (Albany FreeSchool.com). By the 1970s, as many as 800 democratic schools were in operation. While pioneering mod- els like Sudbury Valley and The Free School have survived and flourished, Miller says the larger


movement became When the bell rings, students


file into another room, where the same scene plays out again. That structure, according to education historians, is no accident. With the Industrial Revolution


underway in the 1800s and waves of families moving from rural settings (where life followed a seasonal rhythm) to cities, education pioneers faced a formidable task. “Civic leaders realized that people were not well prepared for this new lifestyle of working in a factory,” explains Ron Miller, Ph.D., a widely published education historian. “Public education was designed


with the idea that people had to learn how to follow a set schedule, follow orders and come up with a product in the end. The day was broken up into time periods with a bell, because that was what factory work entailed.” Miller observes that the system served its pur- pose well. “The U.S. became a tremen- dously productive industrial society.” But by the 1960s, some critics be-


gan to point to what they saw as a glar- ing hypocrisy: America claimed to be a democratic society, yet our youngest citizens were given no voice. In 1968, a group of parents in Sudbury, Mas- sachusetts, founded the SudburyValley School, a K-12 learning center where adults were literally prohibited from ini- tiating activities, while kids chose what to do, where and when (SudVal.org). One year later, a homeschooling mom named Mary Leue opened The Free


usurped by the 1980s trend toward more standardization, with most demo- cratic schools shutting their doors. Now, growing discontent over


standardization has inspired a revival. “The public school system tends to operate under the paradigm that kids are naturally lazy and must be forced to learn, so they need homework and testing to be motivated,” says Mintz. “Advocates of democratic education and other learner-centered approaches believe that children have a natural pas- sion for learning and are good judges of what they need to learn. Our job as educators is to provide them resources.”


Renewed Democracy in Action


Rebirth of the democratic school movement can be credited in part to Alan Berger, an idealistic NewYork teacher who, after reading an article about the 1960s Free School move- ment in 2002, was inspired to open the Brooklyn Free School in the basement of a small church. Today, the school is thriving, with a diverse student body of 60, a new five-story brownstone to call home, and a sliding fee scale that lets children of all economic backgrounds participate in an education they largely create themselves. On a typical morning, students


gather in the music room for impromptu Beatles jam sessions, do yoga in the hallway, scrawl art across a designated wall or curl up with a book in the well-


stocked library. Some attend optional math and writing classes. For others, the year’s lesson plan evolves more organi- cally out of a larger goal. For example, in preparation for a school trip to Tanzania, some students studied Swahili, African cuisine and the region’s history. “There are just so many things that


I love here,” raves student Erin Huang Schaffer in a new documentary about the school called The Good, The True and The Beautiful. “I love making art and drawing, and I’ve started making stories… I’m just finding out so much about the world.” Thousands of miles away, at a new


democratic preschool called The Patch- work School, in Louisville, Colorado,


natural awakenings August l 2010 23


“Montessori really is a ‘no child left behind’ teaching


philosophy. If you are ready to


keep moving, you keep moving. If you aren’t, you can stay on task until you get it.”


~ Tanya Stutzman, whose six


children have attended Montessori schools in Sarasota, Florida


“The reading, writing


and academics all came out eventually, as day-to-day living required that they learned them.”


~ Wonshe, who “unschooled” both of her sons in rural Virginia


“Waldorf understands


that there are many ways for a child to express oneself— not just through words


and academics, but also through creativity.”


~ Patrice Maynerd, who


enrolled her son in Waldorf education at age 3


photo courtesy of Harriet Tubman Free School


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