A school without schooling

In Learning on Their Own Terms, the Washington Post profiles a private school on the Sudbury model that lets students do whatever they want.

Students follow no curriculum other than curiosity and whim. Sometimes they seek out a class or workshop, but they are not compelled to take English, geometry or any other subject. Often they just hang. For this, their parents pay $6,680 a year per student, less for siblings.

. . . The school has awarded 16 diplomas over eight years and has seven diploma candidates. To receive one, students must spend at least three years at the school and be 16 or older. They must also write and defend a thesis on how they have taken responsibility for becoming effective adults. An assembly of students, staff and parents votes on awarding diplomas. No one has ever been rejected.

Three graduates have gone on to four-year colleges: Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and the Art Institute of Chicago. Some have gone to community college. Other alumni include a professional skateboarder, a waiter and a librarian.

It seems like a lot of money to pay for “deep play” and the hope that boredom will drive your video-game addict to read a book. A homeschooling co-op could provide friends with whom to hang.

About Joanne


  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Wasn’t this the school in Pinocchio? Pleasure Island?

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    It seems like a lot of money to pay for “deep play” and the hope that boredom will drive your video-game addict to read a book. A homeschooling co-op could provide friends with whom to hang.

    But if the child homeschools, it’s more difficult for both parents to be in the paid workforce. If both parents work, they can afford the tuition for an only child and still end up with more money.

    Obviously, money is not the only consideration when deciding to homeschool, but most likely it’s cheaper for an only child to go to the $6680-a-year private school than to homeschool.

  3. Sounds like Summerhill. Are we back to that nonsense? I went to Residential College at Univeristy of Michigan and that seemed to be patterned after Summerhill in many ways. Instead of term papers, some students would turn in collages, for example. Of course, that was in the 60’s when anything anti-establishment was OK. Even liking Charlie Manson was OK.

  4. It sure sounds like the Sudbury school model tests the limit of human gullibility.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    Actually, this sounds more like Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

    And there do exist children who would benefit from a school such a Fairhaven or the older, more infamous Summerhill. These are mostly the brilliant, talented, self-directed children who have found their calling early in life, and enough maturity to follow it with a minimum of adult guidance. Fairhaven is not for sheepish normal kids who need a drop of communism in their lives.

    That’s the beauty – and tragedy – of schools such as Fairhaven, or other highly specialized private/charter ones. Parents need to have the choice.

  6. I’d be interested in seeing how many children from this sort of school go on to pursue careers/majors in the sciences. Or math. How many of these children become competent in higher-level mathematics? I know that one article mentioned a boy who got 1400 on his SATs, a fairly respectable score, but that’s just up to geometry. My gut feeling is (and so I admit that I have absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever) that Fairhaven and other like-minded schools wouldn’t do much towards helping America’s woefully lagging science department.

  7. Indigo Warrior says:

    I’d be interested in seeing how many children from this sort of school go on to pursue careers/majors in the sciences. Or math.

    My impression is that this sort of school is more for children with artistic callings. Time will tell.

    I’d be interested in seeing a private “scienschool” where the students can immerse themselves in science and math, and combines a certain amount of academic rigor with personality-nourishing flexibility.

    Prussia go home.

  8. If it’s a private school it’s beautiful. If it’s a charter school it’s a tragedy.

  9. sounds more like “unschooling” than homeschooling to me, at least based on the homeschoolers I know.

    I suppose it would work for a very small percentage of the kids – but they would be the same percentage who, if turned loose in a grocery store with money and told to feed themselves, would choose vegetables and whole grains over “fruit” Roll-ups and candy.

    If I had been told at eight that I never had to take math ever again if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have. And as an adult, looking back, that would have been bad for me. (Heck, if I had been told at eight that I could choose to never go to school again if that was what I wanted, I wouldn’t have. And I’d probably be standing on a street corner somewhere with a barely-legible sign saying “please help me, I didn’t complete third grade.”

    Given the number of college students I counsel who put off important classes tht they need for their chosen major (which they CHOSE based on what they want to do with their lives), because those courses have the reputation of being “hard,” “lots of work,” or “boring,” I tend to think that most people benefit from some sort of structured framework rather than a big free-for-all.

  10. This is a private school. Charters are public and don’t charge tuition.

  11. To Indigo Warrior, Greg, JJ, Allen, Ricki, and Joanne:

    References: http://www.sudval.org/

    I suspect some comments have been made in the absence of knowledge and or understanding of the Sudbury education model.

    One of the most critical things that kids learn in the Sudbury model is that they are responsible for their own learning, and that they learn how to learn. When they accomplish this, and believe me, I have personally seen them do it – they then go on from there to learn whatever they have the interest, self motivation, need, and raw intellectual capability to learn.

    The referenced links will describe the Sudbury model pretty well (see you will learn on your own, nobody will “teach” you about the Sudbury model, you’ve learned how to learn too (probably just in a structured traditional model))! 🙂

    As with everything in life, one size does not fit all – some kids will thrive in the Sudbury model, others won’t. I have heard before the assessment that this model would work for bright, talented “gifted” kids – and it can. I have also witnessed it work for my now 21 yr old son who tourettes, and fetal hydantoid (includes less than “normal” intellect) affected, and just the opposite. When the local school district could/would only offer him placement in a behaviorally disturbed class which was totally inappropriate for his needs (he wasn’t a behavior problem) we enrolled him at Cedarwood Sudbury School. That (now young adult) learned more about biology, dinosaurs, and other personal topics of interest that any student below college level I have ever met. He is now struggling to become a fiction writer, and has published his first book, “The Death of Sara”. What this educational model does is allow students to purse topics of interest to whatever depth and degree of interest they may have. Along the way, if they discover that they need additional, complimentary, or supportive skills or information, they have the freedom, motivation, and ability to pursue those topics as well.

    If a student is interested in math or science, they can pursue those topics as far as they wish. The school and staff have the mission to support a student request for assistance in any topic by helping the student locate and access that material. So IF a student is interested in algebra, or calculus, and ASKS staff for assistance – the staff will do what is within the resources of the school to assist. I do not currently have access to the references, but I am aware that many Sudbury students have gone on to traditional college settings IF THAT WAS IMPORTANT TO THEM, and I seem to recall at least one example of one who graduated from MIT with a PhD in engineering. If you are interested, I am sure that contacting one of the reference links can help answer the question/concern about the ability to pursue math and the sciences. If a student is wound up in math, or chemistry, or physics there is no time limit on how long he can spend on that topic – any day, all day, all week, all month, all year if he so chooses. There are no time limits – it is as far, and as deep as the student is intellectually capable and interested in going. Likewise, if they are interested in art, yoga, guitar lessons, . . .Some of the older students take advantage of the educational freedom of the Sudbury model to supplement time in the Sudbury model by taking classes at local colleges.
    Sudbury students learn very quickly about making choices and decisions, and the responsibility that goes with that. Basic concepts in this model include: individual freedom and the responsibility that goes with it, a democratic model of operation, self control, and taking charge of one’s own learning.

    While there are no required classes for reading or math, I have observed two things about students I this model: 1) when they are developmentally and intellectually ready to learn these skills and discover the value they bring (and “doors” that they open- i.e. when the student is self motivated to) they will learn them, and 2) they will acquire these skills/knowledge a WHOLE lot faster than in the traditional educational model. I have witnessed that it does NOT take “regular” kids 8 years to learn basic math. I have witnessed that when kids are motivated and developmentally ready, they learn, with astounding quickness, how to read quite readily. You would be AMAZED at how fast a group of Sudbury kids (as young as 7-9?) can figure out how much they owe for their share of the price of a pizza! Again the caveat, one size does not fit all.

    One last item. There was a recent study/survey published about how many high school aged students did not understand civics and Constitutional issues. No small wonder when many school districts suspend many constitutional freedoms both on and off campus (guilty until proven innocent, restricted speech, and so on). The Sudbury model is based on the democratic, civil, and Constitutional processes. Students and staff vote on issues as equals. Students are responsible for Judicial due process, students charged with an offense are innocent until proven guilty, and punishment is decided by student judicial process, or if necessary vote of “school meeting”. On campus, sudents, staff, and parents are subject to equal application of judicial rules and process. This model LIVES Democracy, and civics!

  12. First, an admission. When I read “Sudbury” I substituted “Summerhill”. Through the good graces of Wikipedia I’m now clear on the differences, such as they are.

    Also, you don’t have to direct your righteous wrath towards me. Whatever my feelings are on the validity of the Sudbury model, those feelings in no way infringe on your right to educate your child as you see fit and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Your child, your responsibility, your choice.

    If Sudbury turns out to be a terrific choice then the people who took the chance and paid the fee, collect the reward. If it turns out to be a lousy choice then only those directly involved suffer. If it’s a private school which, I understand, the school is.

    But, if you want exciting, cutting-edge educational concepts like Sudbury in the public education system then I do have a say and what I’d say is “no”.

    If money is going to be extracted from people under force of law then the recipient of that money ought to be under an obligation to show minimal acceptable results. That requirement largely excludes exciting, cutting-edge concepts because of Sturgeon’s Law.

    With regard to your comments about the public education system, keep in mind that education is only one job of the public education system and probably not the most important one. The public education system becomes much easier to understand if you ignore what it’s called and focus on what it does.

  13. Allen – “Rightious Wrath”? There was no “heat” intended in my posting towards anyone. Perhaps you misread the intent of my comments, which was to provide insight from someone more familiar with the Sudbury model. I didn’t direct my comments to you because I interpreted your comment as a simple support for “choice”.

    By the way, someone pointed me to the article about the Sudbury School that is published in the June issue of Psychology Today (something I don’t normally read) and that article seems a fairly accurate description.

    One size does not fit all, and each of us has the “mission” to find the model that meets our needs best.


  14. Allen – woopps i did include in the address of my inital post, but again the people I intended to address were those whom I felt I could offer a constructive dialog and further their understanding of the Sudbury model. Understanding things is good, but it doesn’t mean that you subscribe to, oppose or “put down” that which you understand.


  15. I thought the phrase “righteous wrath” was over the top enough that it was clear I wasn’t offended or found offense in your post. More in the way of a bit of needling at, what seemed to me to be, a degree of upset with people who didn’t understand the concepts underlying Sudbury.

    Regarding Sudbury, I’m not familiar with the school and though it sounds a lot like Summerhill, I’ve only read a couple of books about that school. In all honesty I’m not now nor was I ever impressed with Summerhill despite all the glowing testimonials. It smacked of the sort of disciplineless, self-centered Bohemianism that was all the rage among self-styled intellectuals back then. There wasn’t any intellectual rigor in the ideas underlying the school, it was just right in a way that defied mundane explanation and that was good enough, if not preferable.

    Which doesn’t really matter.

    What matters is that A) the school worked for your son despite my reservations about the validity of the concept and B) you paid to send your son to the school.

    My reservations about the validity of the concept upon which the school is built only become important when I’m required to pay for it. Then I do have an valid interest in the outcome and a say in how and on what the money should be spent. I’m going to want to make sure that the basics are thoroughly covered using a methodology that either has a strong track record of success or has a basis in the type of research that doesn’t come out of ed schools. I’d like to be able to accomodate your son in my kind of school but my interest is in the benefit that society gets from funding public education, not the benefit that your son gets from public education. That may sound harsh but there really is no alternative within the current public education system.

    Harvey wrote:

    One size does not fit all, and each of us has the “mission” to find the model that meets our needs best.

    Trouble is, the public education system has the same inflexibility and rigidity that typifies all expenditures of public money with a couple conditions peculiar to the public education system that makes the system more rigid and inflexible then you’d normally expect from a publicly-funded institution.