A True Alternative in Educational Revolution
on the Horizon When Leeway Sudbury School
Opens Its Doors in September
by Michelle Hackney
"I feel like I'm being put in a little box. There are too many rules in the classroom and I feel stressed out about third grade. I need to be able to do things my way sometimes."
"They're turning us into zombies. It's my senior year and I feel like nothing I'm learning is really preparing me for anything but test taking. I wish I was trusted with more freedom to be myself."
This is what two local students said when interviewed about their feelings toward school. Unfortunately they are not alone. A study conducted through the Indiana University's High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) showed that two out of three high school students said that they are bored in class every single day. About 25 percent of the participating students indicated they are bored due to lack of interaction with teachers, and 75 percent reported that the material being taught is not interesting.
The HSSSE reached more than 81,000 students in 110 high schools across 26 states. It included only schools that chose to participate and represented a wide-range of socio-economic levels and race. The survey also showed that: 73 percent of students didn't like school; 61 percent didn't like the teachers; 60 percent didn't see the value in the work they were being asked to do; and 25 percent felt that no adults in the school cared about them.
In their responses, student participants explained that they feel they are not taken seriously, that their concerns and interests are not focused on, and no action comes from what they do and say. They also indicated that too much focus is placed on standardized testing, which doesn't value creativity or diversity and also creates "winners" and "losers."
Perhaps the school system is too linear. Schools are obsessed with rigid timetables. Every lesson from first grade to high school is approximately 40 minutes long. Research shows that this allotted time interrupts the flow of natural creativity. The existing hierarchy of subjects in a linear school system may also be squelching diversity by putting more importance on certain disciplines over others.
Cookie-cutter designs in education obviously aren't working, and even schools that deem themselves "progressive" are still not offering complete freedom from the system. However, a possible answer is on the horizon when Leeway Sudbury School opens its doors in September and offers a true alternative here in San Diego.
Leeway Sudbury School provides all students, ages 4 through 18, an environment where they are free to explore the world in their own unique ways. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit private school overseen by a Board of Advisors where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. The school operates by participatory self-governance in which students take responsibility for themselves within the larger school community. They acquire all the necessary skills to become self-directed, self-actualized individuals while obtaining the ability to deal with complex issues and ideas. This includes students with special needs.
"Students with special needs often struggle with feelings of self-worth and are constantly told that the way they behave and communicate is wrong and are placed within the same curricular structure as their neurotypical peers," says Brandon Wolfe, who is currently a candidate at the University of San Diego for an M.E.d. in Special Education. "The Sudbury model gives all children, including those with special needs, the autonomy to live their own life and allows them to create the structure that works best for them, and as a result, positive behaviors become the norm."
The energy that created Leeway started with two women, Alexandra DiMarco and Becky Wheelock, both mothers and teachers who decided San Diego needed an alternative to traditional coercive education. Over the years, people from all over the county have shared their vision of a school that values children's autonomy above all else and have joined in their efforts to manifest it. Brandon Wolfe, Claire Thiemann, and Aine Sheridan are helping to carry this vision and have joined DiMarco's and Wheelock's efforts as Board members, cofounders, and Leeway staff.
"Having been a Montessori teacher and director, I was drawn to the Sudbury model of education by my observance of the child's need for freedom to explore when, how, and where he or she is drawn; freedom to interact with others or be in solitude; freedom to sit, to think, to create, when the internal impetus is calling them to do so; freedom to learn in any way the child chooses," says Alexandra DiMarco. "This allows the child to stay connected to their own internal guidance and is part of who we are naturally. While current progressive systems espouse to 'follow the child,' they still imply a distrust of the child's ability to know what's best for themselves."
The fundamental premises of Sudbury are simple: all people are curious by nature; the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.
"Human beings are born with a natural sense of curiosity and a real hunger for learning," says Claire Thiemann. "Infants learn to walk and talk on their own, and they do so with incredible focus and perseverance. Children take their play as seriously as adults take their work. They will challenge themselves without being told to do so, and they will surprise us with what they accomplish. When we allow that innate enthusiasm for life to grow unobstructed, amazing things can happen."
In practice this means that students at Leeway initiate all of their own activities and create their own environments. Students are not obsessed about learning the right thing at the right time. Doing what they choose to do is the common theme; learning is the byproduct. The staff and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises.
"One misconception is that it's easier than public schools because no one is telling the children what to do, but if you think about it, it's much easier to follow orders all day," says Becky Wheelock. "Making decisions is a difficult part of life and students at Leeway are going to get really good at it because they'll always have the freedom to learn from experience. I've taught at the high school and college level and I recognize that my students were far more challenged when they chose their topics of learning and had to pave the path for themselves."
The business of the school is managed by the weekly "School Meeting" at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules of behavior, use of facilities, expenditures, staff hiring, and all the routines of running an institution are determined by debate and vote at the School Meeting. At Leeway, students fully share the responsibility for effective operation of the school and for the quality of life.
Leeway follows the "Sudbury model," which is actually not a radical new concept. Each school is a grassroots organization founded by parents and members of the community. The first school of its kind, Sudbury Valley School, opened in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1968 and is still running strong. Since then, schools have opened around the nation and in other countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Japan.
"It's a very different type of learning environment. The students are lively and energetic and happy to be there—not what you find at other schools outside of recess," says Aine Sheridan, who worked at Diablo Valley (Sudbury) School in Northern California for seven years.
"I've also worked in traditional and progressive schools and in the mental health field and I've never experienced learning the way I did at Diablo Valley. The students enjoy being there, but they learn far more quickly and efficiently when they are ready to acquire new skills. They become creators of knowledge, not merely consumers of it. I also had the privilege of watching children grow into some of the most articulate, intelligent, independent, and mature people I have ever met. Students learned that if they wanted something, they had to go out and get it—that no one was going to do it for them. But I also think that they were more likely to ask for help when they needed it because they knew they weren't going to be judged for it. We didn't have these artificial standards that we held kids to and allowed kids to make mistakes so they never stressed over something like grades. I am excited that children will have that same opportunity here at Leeway."
Leeway Sudbury School maintains a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, color, sex or gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, and sexual orientation.
Michelle Hackney is a human rights activist who, for the past nine years, has been using her writing as a voice for global awareness. She also enjoys outdoor adventures with her children and husband. –Photos: Johanna Pake JP Photography
1505 49th St. San Diego, CA 92102