The Sudbury Valley School has been in operation for more than 30 years now, and several other schools around and outside our country (the United States) see our school's success and are modeling their schools on ours.
The school accepts students from ages four and up, and awards a high school diploma. It is a private school, which relies upon tuition and does not engage in fundraising. Studies of our alumni show them to be "successful" by any criteria; most have gone on to their first choice career or college, most have a comfortable income, and (the best definition of success, in my mind) most are happy people.
The physical plant is a beautiful Victorian mansion on a ten-acre campus. It is furnished like a home, with couches, easy chairs, books everywhere (rather than hidden in a library), etc. The grounds are excellent for sport and games, and the school has several facilities; music rooms, an art room, a high speed Internet connection, a darkroom, a piano, a stereo, a pond great for fishing, several computers, etc.
Students (from age four on up) are free to do as they wish during the day, as long as they follow the school rules (more on school rules later). The campus is "open" and most students come and go as they please, without having to check with an office or other such nonsense. No one is required to attend classes and, indeed, classes are rare and bear little resemblance to the usual notion of a "class." There are no tests or grades of any kind. Students and staff (teachers) are equal in every regard. The students and staff refer to each other by first name, and the relationships between students and staff can't easily be distinguished from the relations between students.
[At a Sudbury School] Students and staff are equal in every regard.
The school is governed democratically, by the School Meeting. The School Meeting meets weekly, and is made up of students and staff (one vote to a person, following Robert's Rules of Order). It decides all matters of consequence; electing administrative officers from among its own members (yes, no distinction is made between students and staff as far as eligibility for an office), deciding school rules (enforced by the Judicial committee, see later), making expenditures, submitting the annual budget to the Assembly (see later) for approval, hiring, firing and re-hiring staff (there is no tenure, all staff are up for re-election each year), etc.
The school Assembly meets annually, and is made up of students, staff, and parents of students (as most parents pay tuition, it is considered only reasonable to give them some voice in the use of their money). It must approve the budget (submitted by the School Meeting) which includes tuition rates, staff salaries, etc. It also votes on whether or not to award a diploma to any students that have requested one. The Assembly is the broad policy-making body of the school.
Within the school, the rules are enforced by a judicial system which has been re-defined by the School Meeting several times over the last 30 years. Its most current incarnation revolves around a Judicial Committee (JC) made up of two officers elected every two months (always students, ever since the positions first opened), five students selected randomly every month, and a staff member chosen daily. The JC investigates complaints of school rules being broken, and sometimes presses charges. If the JC presses charges against someone, and (s)he pleads innocent, there will be a trial. If a person pleads guilty or is found guilty by the trial, that person will be sentenced by the Judicial Committee. Verdicts and sentences deemed unfair by the accused (or others, for that matter) may be brought before the School Meeting.
All School Meeting members are equal before the law. In fact, the first guilty verdict ever was against staff members. Typical sentences are things like "can't go outside for two days," "can't enter the upstairs for a week," etc.
Democracy alone is not enough to create a stable happy community. The revolution-torn democratic city-states of ancient Greece are testimony to this. It is also important that personal freedoms and rights be respected. As such, the school grants the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to its students; normally in American society students are not given freedom of thought or religion (a parent may force his/her child into Sunday school), free assembly (they're not even allowed to leave their seats to go to the bathroom in traditional school, without permission from a teacher), etc.
It is understood that the "purpose" of schools is to educate. So let me put forward the reasons why persons in Sudbury Model Schools believe that freedom and democracy is the best environment for children to learn.
People are born with an amazing capacity for knowledge -- the brain. It makes little sense to assume that such a thing could have evolved (or been created, or whatever) without the means of using it also being natural to human beings. Let me list some of the more obvious "natural" mechanisms by which children (and adults) encode information about their world. Curiosity (crushed in a classroom where you must study what others wish, rather than that subject which you are burning to know), role-modeling (not easy when the only person older than you is a teacher whom you probably dislike and is almost certainly not practicing the profession you would choose) and spontaneous play (that's right out the window, for children are so restrained by school that even "recess" becomes a time for working off violent energy rather than exploring one's world).
Let me list some of the more obvious "natural" mechanisms by which children (and adults) encode information about their world. Curiosity..., role-modeling... and spontaneous play...
People sometimes ask how Sudbury Valley students are "exposed" to different things. I find this a very odd question, for in reality how can a person keep from being exposed to things? We are in an age of endless information, and it takes a cell (like a traditional school) to keep a curious person from finding out anything and everything (s)he wants to know.
People naturally learn to deal with the environment in which they are placed. In a place with grades, where knowledge is spoon-fed to them and they never have any reason to make use of it apart from passing a test, students will learn to get good grades (whether that means learning to cheat, or learning how to "cram" for a test). In a place where people do what they want, they find the intrinsic value of knowledge. In a place where people are treated as adult human beings they learn that they must live up to certain community standards, but when they are treated as prisoners (read: traditional schools) they learn only that they are untrusted, and they learn to wait for the instructions and orders of others. It is testimony to the strength of the human spirit that there are so few apathetic and helpless people that come out of the public school system. (Sudbury Valley alumni, by the way, often become quite politically active in later life, and often go into helping professions.)
Books by the Sudbury Valley Press ® are available from bookstore.sudburyvalley.org, by calling (508) 877-3030, or by sending a fax to (508) 788-0674. You may write to the Sudbury Valley School Press ® at The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701. You can contact the school here
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The Sudbury Valley School ® is a democratic school run by a School Meeting. Students and staff each get one vote on all matters of substance; including the school rules and hiring/firing of staff. The school has no grades, tests, or scores.