Sudbury Valley School: An Idea Whose Time Has Come [SVS Journal, vol. 45, Spring 2016]
Archetype: 1965 - 1990
- I. In the Beginning
- II. The Shakedown Cruise
- III. Swept Up in the Tide—and Almost Drowned!
- IV. Who Are We?
- V. Sustainability
Working Model: 1990 - 2008
- VI. Proselytizing vs. Modeling
- VII. Variations on a Theme
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
- VIII. How Increasing the Depth of Understanding Leads to Increasing the Reach of the Model
- IX. Where Does It Go From Here?
Archetype: 1965 - 1990
I. In the Beginning
Why set out to start a new school unlike any other?
An obvious motivator is dissatisfaction with existing schools. Usually, the first reaction is to search for a satisfactory alternative that has already been established.
But you can’t search for something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So you have to figure that out first; you have to have some general idea of what it is with the current system that you don’t like, and then formulate a picture of the kind of school that makes sense to you. All of which involves thinking seriously about education and child rearing. Then you have to look around to see whether any existing schools meet the basic criteria you have decided are most important to you in a school. This is what the various founders of Sudbury Valley had been doing in the early 1960s.
Those were times of ferment in society throughout the world. Many of the traditional foundations of culture were being questioned and challenged, and new initiatives sprang up in every domain, all characterized by a common theme: freedom from what were seen as the shackles of tradition. In the realm of education, the fashion was to create “free schools”, a term loosely applied to the large number of small schools established in churches, storefronts, homes, outdoor parks, and other sundry locations, all aspiring to allow the students and teachers various degrees of freedom in defining their daily activities, and all granting students some voice in their governance.
There was only one problem: the common feature of all these schools was the absence of a coherent, underlying philosophy of education that guided their operation. One looked in vain for insights regarding child development, learning, integration into the larger society, emotional and social growth, school governance, skills such as initiative, problem-solving, and many other such topics central to a functioning educational institution. It seemed as if each school was operating on the basis of some intuitively conceived, barely articulated scheme, flying by the seat of their pants, trying to adapt to changing conditions as they came up.
At the time, there were three options available to people who had problems with prevailing educational practices:
(1) Join the chorus of people complaining about the current state of education, either in writing, or by going to meetings, or listening to talks, etc. That gives a certain sense of satisfaction that you are doing something, without requiring any specific remedial action.
(2) Advocate for “educational reform”—that is, push members of the existing educational establishment to modify their current practices, while keeping the basic structure intact.
(3) Step back, take a deep breath, and dive into the deep, turbulent waters of innovation. Go back to square one, figure out what schooling is about, find others eager to engage in the same kind of enterprise, and try to develop a new model that embodies the ideals embraced by those people.
The founders of Sudbury Valley chose the third option. In November 1965, the first attempt to define a new approach was made public. In the ensuing years, a group gradually coalesced with the stated aim of defining the features of a new kind of school, and translating those features into practice. Concepts were articulated, debated, revised and refined. They were presented and discussed in extensive meetings, some limited to self-defined founders, others open to the public. They were put into written form and circulated, with the dual aims of making the new initiative widely known in the community, and seeking feedback from a broader public interested in changing the face of education. By the time the school opened on July 1, 1968, the groundwork had been laid for a unique new kind of educational enterprise.1
II. The Shakedown Cruise
Not surprisingly, considering the temper of the times, as word spread about the new school being founded in Framingham, Massachusetts, people from all the surrounding towns and cities, and from all walks of life, considered enrolling their children. We knew that the proposed school would never become a reality if we did not take the bold step of announcing a clear opening date, come what may, so that people thinking about a possible change of venue for their children would have a real choice before them. We did just that, telling everyone that Sudbury Valley would begin operation on July 1, 1968—a firm commitment, made even before a definite location had been bought, and permission to operate a legitimate private school had been obtained from town authorities. The reason we could do that was simple: we had completed the task of conceptualizing the principles underlying the school, and had spelled out enough of the operational details to make it feasible to try to create a working exemplar.
As the impending opening approached, people in the area who had issues with the schools and the schooling that their children had been attending began to think about enrolling in SVS. The first interviews took place in March, three months before the projected start date. During the lead-up period, some 130 children signed up for the 1968 summer session.
In fact, the plan to open first during the summer was to give the whole operation a trial run. All those involved—parents, students, and staff—were completely aware that the initial summer session was the “shakedown cruise” of this new enterprise, one in which any major defects could be detected and fixed before the actual launch as a bona fide operation in the school year beginning in September 1968. We expected to know by the end of that session who would stay, who would leave, and what features sounded good in theory but failed badly in practice.
In fact, some major conceptual errors came to light during those summer weeks, two of which were of paramount significance.
One was the “smorgasbord” plan. This emerged from the following line of reasoning. If all the students’ activities were to be initiated by the students themselves, and not planned in advance by others, then students had to be given broad access to information that they could call on in the course of their self-education. What would serve as the source of the information they needed? We knew that one would be the printed word, available in books and periodicals, a fact that led us to contemplate a large and varied library, spread throughout the school, in which students could browse and from which they could select items to borrow if they wished.2 And since we didn’t have funds to buy a large collection, from the beginning we solicited books from anyone willing to donate them—a fact that greatly enhanced the usefulness of our library, since the books we received had been picked by individuals who had at some point found them useful for their own intellectual growth, rather than being chosen by library “experts” who decided what books belonged in a good library, but who were not individually committed to the fields in which they had made their selections.
There was also a second source of information available: human beings who were knowledgeable, and were able to transmit their knowledge directly to interested students who asked for it. That, of course, had always been the method of educating apprentices in any domain, and remains so to this day. And, in the temper of those times, there were dozens of experts in dozens of fields who were ready and eager to impart their knowledge to those eager to imbibe it, and to do so as volunteers in this new school where student interest was the basis for student-teacher interactions. Given the large number of such volunteers, and the broad range of areas of knowledge those volunteers spanned, we came up with the notion of offering, from day one, a “smorgasbord” of information seminars. Volunteers informed us of the times they were able to appear at the school, and the subject areas they were interested in presenting, and each was assigned a location on campus where they could engage with the students. Students, in turn, were free to choose as many such offerings as they wished—or none.
Thus, between the wide selection of printed matter, and the broad range of live seminar-type encounters, we figured we were setting up an ideal environment for students to discover what their interests are and to pursue them as far as they wished.
The plan, however, turned out to be a disaster, from a public relations vantage point as well as an educational one. The volunteers showed up, but the students didn’t. Or, to be more precise, some students showed up for some of the volunteer sessions once, and almost none returned for a second session. It was a classic reality check: the theory sounded good, but it had nothing to do with real students in a real world setting.
The reasons became obvious. First of all, it was summer; the campus was beautiful, and the outdoors beckoned one and all to play, walk, chat, and generally have a good time. Second, since there was no compulsory schedule to follow, the appearance of a particular student at a particular seminar depended on a highly unlikely spatial and temporal congruence: student and lecturer had to be at the same place at the same time, without any prompting by any authority. Third, there was an even more unlikely overlap between the specific interests of some student with the specific subject the presenter was offering in a given session—and the overlap had to be significant in order for the student to make the effort to appear at the right time in the right place. How unlikely this overlap is can be gauged from anyone’s personal experience in a traditional educational setting: how often have you been deeply interested in the specific subject matter one of your teachers was teaching at the actual time the class was meeting according to the published class schedule?
So volunteers showed up, many of them important figures in their fields, eager to be in touch with students passionate to imbibe their knowledge—and no one showed up to meet with them; or, even worse, some showed up once, and never returned. One and all, they felt humiliated; they could not imagine that the valuable contribution they were offering us would not be eagerly welcomed, and could only conclude that the school’s conception was inherently flawed and unworthy. And they were not hesitant to convey their conclusions to anyone in the wider community who was willing to listen.
The second major flaw that surfaced during that first summer had to do with the way the school was staffed. We had opened the planning meetings to anyone who wanted to attend, so that we could get a wide variety of suggestions defining the school’s underlying principles and modes of operation. While it was clear to us that certain core beliefs were inviolate—to wit, treating the children with the same respect due to adults in our society, and all the consequences that follow from that approach—it was equally clear that there were many ways to realize those core beliefs in action, and even clearer that there was no single “right” way to do so, but that the school would be an ever-evolving expression of those beliefs. That was why, at meetings during the initial planning phase, we were open to any and all opinions that the participants offered, so that we could examine them and determine whether they would be useful in furthering our enterprise.
When it came to opening an actual, functioning school, planning and openness had to give way to execution according to specified guidelines. A functioning school could not be floating in a cloud of uncertainty. There had to be an articulated philosophy and we had to operate according to a set of practices that could be shown to be consistent with that philosophy. As the time approached for opening, those members of the open planning group who felt that the direction the school was taking was not to their liking self-eliminated from the project, leaving a small group of planners who wanted to serve as the staff of the school when it opened.
It is important to understand that there was no formal vetting process for the first group of staff members. Without a school, and without some experience in its everyday operation, we could not generate criteria that might define a potentially effective staff member. In addition, given the almost total lack of funds available for launching the school, we knew that at least for the first year, the entire staff would have to work on a volunteer basis without pay, a fact which, together with the absence of hiring criteria, meant that anyone of the founding group who still remained when summer came, and who wished to serve as staff for the first year, was welcomed.
What we had failed to do was create a mechanism whereby we could evaluate potential staff candidates during the planning year, and rid ourselves of those who would turn out to be either incompetent or not in harmony with the way the school was evolving. The result was inevitable: there was mayhem among the staff during the summer’s test run. Deep and angry divisions surfaced that disrupted the life of the school. So in the end, it turned out that the summer session served as the vetting process for determining the staff that would serve the school in its first full school year—a painful process as it unfolded, but one that enabled the school to start in the fall with twelve staff members who could work together, in support of those goals that had been articulated by then.
III. Swept Up in the Tide—and Almost Drowned!
Of the 130 students who had enrolled for the summer session, about half returned in the fall to register for the full school year. An equal number of new students enrolled, so that the total student body in September was back to 130.
It wasn’t clear how these families heard about us, or why they came. Since we had relatively little printed literature about the school—a catalogue and a booklet called “About Sudbury Valley School”—most of those who came, including those who had bothered to read what we sent them, had only the vaguest notion of what was in store for their children in this hip “free school”, the only one being established in the greater Boston-Cambridge area. As one of the founders said, the school was like a lightning rod attracting every family that considered some form of student-centered school to be just right for their children. The result should have been anticipated – but it wasn’t.
Actually, there were a lot of outfits that called themselves “free schools” at the time, but they were tiny, usually occupied storefronts or church basements, had no detectable program other than letting children do what they want (often including using controlled substances), and were almost always populated by teenagers who were deeply into the “new reality”. “Respectable” families did not send their children to those places, but they were eager to find a school that seemed in tune with current trends—trends that many of them were championing as adults. It was those that came to enroll their children in Sudbury Valley.
For a new school, inexperienced and untried, staffed by a group of people who were still struggling to define and understand the basic philosophy and practices they were responsible for, a sudden influx of 130 children of all ages—four through seventeen—was a huge challenge. For example, the basic governance was a participant democracy based on New England town meetings, which include all residents of the community—in this case, all students and staff. School Meetings began in July, and continued every week from then on, so there was no ambiguity about who made the rules. But there was no formal system in existence to deal with people who break the rules. As a result, all allegations of breaking a rule were discussed and dealt with on the School Meeting floor, with the result that there was no effective disciplinary arm of the school. It would be an understatement to say that the situation was chaotic.
We had all the ingredients for an explosive situation: a large group of people who were strangers to each other who were tasked with establishing a new kind of school, unlike any in existence, without sufficient understanding or agreement within the community of what the principles and practices of the school would be. And an explosion happened. First, the School Meeting—meeting for hours over a three day period—took disciplinary action on the floor, indefinitely suspending over 30 students. Then, about half of the families called an evening protest meeting, accusing the school of not doing what it said it would. If it wasn’t clear before that meeting, it certainly became clear after it: we had not articulated sufficiently what Sudbury Valley is about, and as a result we had nothing substantial to point to in order to justify what we were doing. To be sure, people can misinterpret even the most carefully written documentation, but one can hardly expect a common understanding if documentation doesn’t even exist. The result was the departure of half the families before the end of 1968, leaving the rest to focus on working during the balance of the first school year to make the prototype functional!
IV. Who Are We?
A major task lay before us: figure out the school, and try to articulate clearly what we have figured out.
There were several venues in which members of the school community strove to define the educational principles underlying the school, and the practical ways by which those principles could be realized in the school’s operation. The primary one was through direct discussions and debates, held among staff, students, families, and outsiders. Such conversations had the advantage of developing depth as ideas were passed back and forth for scrutiny and responded to; they had the disadvantage of being limited to the participants, and having no record other than their (often conflicting) memories. But there can be no doubt that for each of the parties to such discussions, the back and forth they represented served as crucial incubators for clarifying their thought and actions.
Additional, not unrelated, venues were the public-relations events in which members of the school community engaged the public at large, in an effort to interest people in the school, and to recruit new students. These included meetings organized in homes, public speaking events, and media appearances, where outsiders were able to challenge what we were doing and demand explanations from us. Few things force you to sharpen your thinking more than being faced with the need to articulate in a reasonable and convincing way that what you are doing makes sense.
For us, perhaps the most important venue was, and continues to be, the written word. There is, after all, a reason that the introduction of writing into human culture was a major historical revolution that led to the explosive flourishing of thought and culture: writing can be shared widely, can be revisited at any time and its content re-examined, and must be presented in a format that has some universal appeal. In addition, people putting their thoughts into hard copy are forced to examine them with their permanence in mind—edit them, remove contradictions, omit mis-statements, etc.—something that does not intrude the flow of words in a conversation or oral presentation.
And so we wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
Let me give you some idea of the scope of those efforts.
From the beginning, we published a booklet called About the Sudbury Valley School, in which we laid out principles underlying the school, and how they were interconnected. In our second year, we launched a project that resulted in a long paper entitled “An Evaluation of The Sudbury Valley School Within the Context of the Current Educational Scene; with an Appendix, The Goals of Education—Where Are They?” We felt that this paper warranted distribution, and it became No. 1 in the Essay Series published December, 1969 by the newly minted entity called “The Sudbury Valley School Press”.3
In 1970, the school published its first book, entitled The Crisis in American Education.4 While a great deal of thought was given to arranging for a trade publisher to put out this book, in the end it was decided to establish our own in-house publishing company called “The Sudbury Valley School Press”, which ended up printing and distributing Crisis. To our surprise and delight, several thousand copies of the book were sold in a relatively short time.
In September, 1970 the second essay in the essay series appeared, entitled “Memorandum to The Sudbury Valley School”, which was an analysis of the problems facing the school in defining itself and its operation, and suggested solutions. Eventually, a total of thirteen essays appeared in this series, but those that appeared after the second one were republished in a new venture started by the Press in the beginning of the fourth school year, 1971-72: a periodical publication, “The Sudbury Valley School Newsletter”, which, after changing its name later to “The Sudbury Valley School Journal”, has been published continuously from that time on. It’s primary purpose was to publish essays on education, and on Sudbury Valley’s approach to it. The topic “education” was interpreted broadly, as it should be, to include such topics as child rearing, child development, learning theory, epistemology, social theory, and generally the role of schools in society.
This periodical has, from the beginning, spawned an array of contributions that can only be characterized as stunning in its breadth and depth. To give you some idea, here is a very partial selection of titles from the issues published from October 1971 through May 1976, the first five years of the journal’s existence:
Revolution Or Reform?; Thoughts on the Character, Strategy, and Destiny of the
Sudbury Valley School
Commitment and the Future of the Sudbury Valley School
Sudbury Valley School: Reform Or Revolution?
Five Myths About Democracy; Another Chapter in the Sudbury Valley School’s
On-Going Struggle with Currently Fashionable Fallacies
Right, Left And Center
Sudbury Valley School: Reform Or Tolerance?
Evangelism, Politics, And Power
The Newsletter And The School
From The Periphery
What We Want Of Staff Next Year
Freedom And Happiness
A Study Sponsored by the Trustees:
Structure And Function: Who Does What At The Sudbury Valley School
A Learning Centered School
Subject: The Staff
On Books And Other Things
On Our Diploma
The School’s Physical Plant; A Trustees’ Report
The School’s Relationship To The Outside Community; A Trustees’ Report
The Principles Of Administration; As Applied, In Particular, To Democratic
Schools, With Special Reference To The Experience Of The Sudbury Valley
School; [a report of the Administration Study Group]
Former Students—What Are They Doing Now?; A Trustees’ Study
When Is A School Needy?
Some Thoughts On The Enrollment Problem
Subtleties Of A Democratic School
Reflections On The Trustees’ Study On Former Students
At The Crossroads; A New Era Opens For The Sudbury Valley School
When Does A Person Make Good Use Of His Time?
For Parents Only! What Is Wrong With The Sudbury Valley School?
In Reply To “For Parents Only! What Is Wrong With The Sudbury Valley School”
In Response To “For Parents Only!”
Value Of Openness In Education
The Raison D’Etre Of The Sudbury Valley School
Do People Learn From Courses?
Individualism And Personalness
Two Levels Of Womens Liberation, And Their Social And Educational
Motivation And Teaching
Should The Sudbury Valley School Become Involved In Planning A Health-Care
Aspects Of Community: The Ethical Basis Of Sudbury Valley School
Sudbury Valley’s Secret Weapon: Allowing People Of Different Ages To Mix
Freely At School
Violence At The Sudbury Valley School: Is There A Flaw In Paradise?
Cooperation For What Purpose?
Great Dictators And Little Followers: Some Social, Moral, And Political
Implications Of Self-Directed Growth
Seven Years Of Progress, But . . .
Is There Abuse Of Power At Sudbury Valley School?
Private Commercial Enterprise At S.V.S.; A Trustees’ Report
Some Objections To Private Enterprises At The Sudbury Valley School
Continuing Discussion Of Private Enterprise At S.V.S.
Private Enterprise At S.V.S.: An Attempt At Clarification
More On Private Enterprises
Private Enterprise Continued
Free Enterprise And The Values Of A Free School
Equality And Personal Responsibility
An Opinion On Staff Salary Disbursements And Its Relation To Tuition
A Philosophy Of Teaching
Role Of The Staff At The Sudbury Valley School
A Fifth Century B.C. Instance Of School Accreditation: Plato’s Protagoras
History Of Staff Hiring Policy At The Sudbury Valley School
Child Rearing [Serialization of a new book, in a series of Newsletters]
My Formula For Developing A World View
Communication In Democratic Institutions
How The Committee On School Affairs Is Used At Sudbury Valley School [A study
of the school’s Judicial System]
What’s Going On At School; A Computer At SVS?
What’s Going On At School; The Presence Of Children Below Age Four At The
Sudbury Valley School (A Trustees’ Position Paper For The Assembly)
All in all, these articles were written by 21 different individual authors—staff, students, parents—and some by collective study groups. If you counted all the contributions, the number of different authors is far greater. Clearly, we are looking at a community-wide determination to work hard at figuring out important issues that were felt at the time to be important to understanding the foundations of the school.
As the school matured, so too the legal documents defining it were modified to conform to the evolving definition of the school’s structure and function. Several revisions of the corporate by-laws were made, and the School Meeting Lawbook (described by the School Meeting as a “living document”) was constantly updated to include new rules passed by the School Meeting and remove those that had been rescinded.
Clearly, during the formative period of the school, creating and perfecting a prototype was the central preoccupation of the Sudbury Valley community.
There was one potentially fatal flaw in the prototype: as it existed from its inception through 1985, it was critically underfunded.
Two factors underlay the tuition rate that was set for the first year: the desire to have the cost to parents affordable enough so that the school population would not be limited to relatively high income families; and the determination to show that this new type of school would not be more expensive—would not have a per-pupil cost higher—than the cost of tax-supported public schools. Since the per-pupil cost in the Framingham area at the time was in the vicinity of $700, the first year tuition rate was also $700.
What we didn’t realize at the time, and what is generally not realized by almost all people who take the officially announced per-pupil costs in public schools, is that those figures don’t come close to revealing the actual costs. They do not include a host of items that are left out of the published operating budgets of public schools—items such as federal and state grants that are available to be used by the public schools every year; capital expenses (most of which are covered by state grants); legal expenses; insurance expenses (public institutions are self-insured and immune to most suits); mortgage expenses (bond service is “off budget”); and support offered by other town or city departments. For example, while the published local per-pupil cost in 2015-16 is in the vicinity of $16,000, the actual cost is by all estimates well in excess of $20,000.
The other factor that affected our financial viability was the size of the student body. When we set the tuition rate that first year, we did so in the spring of 1968, before we had any idea of how many families would actually enroll their children. Economies of scale were in play here—but we had no idea of what the “scale” would be. A school with 150 students would have a completely different financial profile than one that we finally ended up with—to wit, a school with about 60 students. We made it through the first year, but that was thanks to the fact that the entire staff worked without pay. To be sure, that is not atypical of start-up businesses in general, but it was a situation that could not sustain itself for the long run.
For the second year, we raised the tuition to $950 per student, but in order to encourage families to enroll all their children, we charged only for the first two children in a family, and allowed all other siblings to attend free of charge. That tuition rate held firm for many years—we are a stubborn sort—well after it had fallen below the per-pupil costs of public schools in the area. Since the student population hovered between 60 and 85 until the early 1980s, the school’s income remained insufficient to pay anything resembling real salaries. The result was that two staff members were paid a small stipend (both were married and had spouses who supported their families), and all the others remained unpaid.
This was clearly an unsustainable situation. There were three ways to move towards financial stability: one, to increase the tuition rate; a second, to seek grant and donation money; and a third, to increase the student population. The first could be done by fiat, by having the governing body of the school agree to a new figure. That was done, when the bold steps were taken to make a jump of $250 to $1,200 per student, and to eliminate the free tuition of third and subsequent siblings. Some of the bite was taken out of this raise by allowing sibling discounts.
The second had been ruled out when the school was founded, as a matter of principle. Grant money always came with conditions that had to be met, as it should: the very nature of a grant is a quid pro quo—one party agrees to provide funds to a second party in return for some tangible outcome being achieved by the second party. There is nothing unreasonable about that, and anyone who thinks that grants can come from any private or governmental institution “with no strings attached” is living in another reality. As for donations, we have always felt that a school based on self-reliance should not depend for its existence on pleading with outsiders for hand-outs. Occasionally—rarely—we received spontaneous gifts, and once in a while we made appeals to the SVS community to help defray the costs of special needs5. But it was not until 2012 that, at the urging of some outside advisors, we instituted an annual fund-raising campaign directed at the families of currently enrolled students and some former students and their families. I should add that the funds raised by these campaigns have never accounted for more than 4% of the total annual revenues and, though helpful, were not relied upon to bring the annual operating budget into balance.
The third—well, how were we to break out of our inadequate population figure?
In 1985 the school drew up a comprehensive public relations plan and decided to move full steam ahead in carrying it out. The aim was to make Sudbury Valley better known in its catchment area, a region that encompassed families that lived as far away as an hour and a half commute from the school. The campaign included media exposure, a new initiative to present ourselves directly to groups through speaking engagements, and an expanded presence of the Press, in the form of new publications in print and other media, and efforts to make those materials widely known. For example, an attractive new printed school catalogue was produced (and regularly upgraded), and a separate Press catalogue was designed and produced as well.
Positive results followed quickly. The school population increased significantly, passing the 100 mark, and then continuing to increase slowly but more or less steadily. A gradual but continuous increase in the annual tuition rate became possible without any negative feedback or effect on the enrollment. Additional funds became available to improve the physical plant, and as the result of a major land deal in 1986 with the school’s neighbor, the entire look of the campus was transformed, and a substantial reserve fund was established.
By the end of the 1980s it was finally possible to institute a long-range staff salary plan that would, over a period of five years, make it possible for staff to support themselves. This removed the reliance of the school on volunteer staff, and made it possible to open the staff hiring process to people who needed to earn a living.
By 1990, over two decades after the school opened, the era of creating a functional prototype had ended. The school was now a bona fide working model for a wholly new concept of preparing children for their lives as adults in the modern world.
Working Model: 1990 - 2008
VI. Proselytizing vs. Modeling
One of the questions facing innovators who have succeeded in developing a functioning prototype is whether their intention is to have it be the forerunner of a global transformation, or whether they want to continue working on refining it.
There is a fundamental difference between these two approaches. Those who want to “change the world” must begin from the premises that what they have developed is universally applicable to all situations, has reached a state of completion that allows for only minor adjustments, and—perhaps most important—should be acknowledged and used by everyone, which often means that, if necessary, those unwilling to accept the innovation should be made to do so, by force if necessary.
Humanity has witnessed the consequences of this approach all too often. It has been adopted by some religions, by most social and political philosophers, by many claiming to be scientists—and, since the end of the nineteenth century, by educators. For over 150 years governmental authorities have used their power to impose a system of schooling for all children that brooks no significant variation. The damage resulting from the uniform imposition of one common approach to raising the next generation should be evident to everyone, and is often widely acknowledged by people who lack the power, the conviction, or the will to confront the authorities in control.6
The notion of “changing the world” is fundamentally contradictory to everything Sudbury Valley stood for. One cannot espouse the basic right of every person, including children, to take responsibility for their own education and for preparing themselves for life as adults, and at the same time insist that every child conform to one method of undergoing the passage from early childhood to adulthood. At best, Sudbury Valley could claim to be a functioning working model for a completely new approach to child rearing in a free society, and make its workings transparent to others seeking models that were different from the prevailing one.
On the other hand, continuously working to better understand the model, to refine it and discover its varied manifestations, to uncover its underlying assumptions and examine them, and to reveal the infinitely nuanced results of its operation—such activities, carried out at an institutional level, would mirror perfectly the activities undertaken by each individual member of the Sudbury Valley community, students and staff (and often parents), as they carry on their
daily lives. And by doing so, the working model would be constantly improving, and those in the outside world who chose to observe it and take from it whatever they found of value would be acting in precisely the same way that members of the SVS community act—forging their own path towards what they see as a healthier educational environment.
Sudbury Valley has chosen to present itself as a working model for a wonderful, exciting, introspective, and highly successful environment in which children can grow to lead meaningful, rewarding lives as adults. As it sought to articulate what it was doing, and publicize itself in order to be viable as a community and as a financially stable institution, something interesting began to happen.
Others, in places far and wide, took notice.
VII. Variations on a Theme
In the early 1990s, we were approached by several people who were interested in either opening new schools like Sudbury Valley, or changing an existing school that they were running to a format like ours. They had heard about us in a variety of ways—from our books, from articles about the school in the media, from trade books or textbooks on education, or by word of mouth.
From the beginning, we made it clear that we were not interested in controlling, supervising, or evaluating what anyone was doing, but that we would be as helpful as we could be. Many of the people involved in these enterprises visited Sudbury Valley to see it close up. We welcomed contact with them, often went to their locations to address their founding groups or, in the case of operating schools, to address their community. As we had anticipated, this gave each group a feeling of independence, and the knowledge that it was their initiative and their vision that governed the kind of school they had, and that our interest was not to standardize their work, but rather to present a working model from which they could garner whatever they felt was useful.
In the summer of 1994, we thought it would be a good idea to organize a workshop at Sudbury Valley, to which all those who had schools inspired by SVS would be invited. The purpose of the workshop was twofold: to share ideas and experiences, thereby enriching what each and every one of us was doing in our school; and to get to know each other, so that we could foster a feeling that we were, together, spearheading a new concept of education, and that our individual schools were not alone.
To give you some idea of the spread of the model by 1994, here is a list of the ten schools (other than SVS) that were represented at that summer’s workshop:
Red Cedar School
When the workshop was over, it would be fair to say that all of the participants left with the feeling that they had spent a good time together, and had benefitted from being there. All of us looked forward to having another one, and indeed two years later, in 1996, the second summer workshop was held, this time including not only schools already in existence but also members of founding groups of schools in formation. In the short period between those two workshops, an email list was established by one of the participants from another school, which included all the 1994 workshop participants who had email addresses. It is hard to remember that this was the early period of “email”; putting together such a group reinforced the feeling that we were, indeed, operating on the cutting edge of the emerging culture!
In addition to putting on a conference in 1996, we prepared and published a selection of email threads that had appeared on the email list in the intervening years, so that the participants could see what kinds of topics had been discussed by members of the group as they (or I should say, “as we all”) went about seeking to gain a better understanding of what we were doing. The resulting volume, called “The 1996 Collection”, ran to almost 300 pages, and was rich with insights and stories of experiences from the daily life at the various schools.7
It is striking to see how much the group had expanded in this short period. We had decided to invite startup groups as well, and all in all there were twenty schools and groups present, double the number from just two years earlier.
Since the amount of effort and expense involved in setting up these workshops had turned out to be considerable, we decided to space them a bit more widely. The next four conferences were held in 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008. In preparation for each of the first three of those, a collection of emails was prepared and published, so that by 2005 there was available an extensive store of information from a large number of contributors, touching on philosophical issues, operational problems, innovations, and stories.
To see where all this ferment was headed, look at the list of schools and groups participating in the last SVS summer workshop in 2008:
Alpine Valley Kanaf DemocraticSchool
Beach School Katuah Sudbury School
Berkshire Sudbury Longview School
Blue Ridge Sudbury Mountain Laurel Sudbury School
The Circle School Neue Schule Hamburg
The Clearwater School Rising Tide School
The Clearwater School Sacramento Valley School
De Kampanje Sego Lily School
Diablo Valley School Shonan Sudbury School
Fairhaven School Spring Valley School
The Highland School Sudbury Valley School
Hudson Valley Sudbury School Sunset Sudbury School
Indigo Sudbury Campus School of Chester, CT
Jerusalem Sudbury School Ting-Schule
Jordan Lake Sudbury School The Trillium School
We had indeed come a long way!
But in the years leading up to the 2008 workshop, it became clear to us that the nature and value of such conferences had changed in a fundamental way. With the rapid expansion of the number of schools formed and in formation, the vast majority of people involved were busy in exploring ideas and issues that the more experienced schools—and most particularly that SVS—had spent much time and effort dealing with. This situation had become evident in the postings on the email list after 2005, so much so that there seemed no added value to publishing a “2008 collection”. Most items dealt with issues that had been thoroughly explored in earlier years, and in the available literature, but it seemed that the community had little interest in spending the effort to explore the vast reservoir of knowledge and experience that had accumulated and been made available during four decades. This situation became crystal clear during the sessions in 2008.
In fact, it also became clear that we could no longer keep track of the expanding universe of schools declaring that they were inspired by, or based on, the Sudbury Valley model. Our determination to refrain from judging the performance of those schools had led to a proliferation of schools that introduced their own variations and versions of what they felt to be the important features of the model—just as one would expect from a collection of people whose primary purpose was to create places where children could create their own individual models of reality and actualize their own destinies.
Nothing could have pleased us more.
As a result, we decided not to organize more summer workshops, and devoted our full attention and efforts to deepen our understanding of what we at Sudbury Valley were doing. There was, and continues to be, no limit to the extent to which the model can be improved to better realize its aims. We remain willing and happy to extend a hand to those who wanted to communicate with us, and to make them comfortable as visitors.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
VIII. How Increasing the Depth of Understanding Leads to Increasing the Reach of the Model
What exactly do I mean when I talk of “efforts to deepen our understanding of what we at Sudbury Valley were doing”?
I mean several things. I mean continuing assiduously to articulate every aspect of Sudbury Valley, to examine and put into words everything we can about us. I have already discussed our early efforts to define who we are. Not only have these not flagged, they have increased in volume and intensity throughout the decades.
The Sudbury Valley Newsletter, re-named some two decades ago “The Sudbury Valley Journal”, is, as of the date of composition of this essay, in its 45th year of publication. It has published over 1500 articles, long and short, by well over 100 different authors.
The Sudbury Valley School Press, which had published three books before 1986, now lists more than two dozen audio CDs (or sets), 7 DVDs, and 27 books (the most recent published in 2016). The school’s website has, for over three years, on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, posted an original blog, and these blog posts have been written by dozens of members of the community. In addition, every month our website adds a Featured Essay to our Online Library.
But this does not represent even close to all of the community’s efforts to spell out what it believes, what its raison d’etre is, and how its institutions and practices contribute to attaining its goals. There are endless venues in which members of the community meet the challenge of articulation—venues such as weekly School Meetings (over 1500 and counting), daily Judicial Committee meetings (thousands), meetings of various school organs, admissions interviews, suspension conferences, public talks, and media exposure. Each of these occasions affords another opportunity to refine, redefine, modify, and create the frameworks that define the school.
All these efforts have not gone unnoticed outside the confines of the school community. The more we articulate, the more opportunities people have to hear about us, to think about what we are espousing, and to seek out what we have to offer by way of a model.
It is impossible to overstate the extent to which these efforts have broadened the reach of our ideas. Perhaps some simple facts will help make the point:
Since the Sudbury Valley School Press has gone into high gear, in 1986, its sales have totaled well over $300,000—and that figure obviously does not include a vast number of items distributed on a complimentary basis.
In the late 1990s, to greet the new millennium, the Press decided to put together a comprehensive collection of items deemed useful to people who wanted to consider starting their own school based on the Sudbury model (and to people who wanted to obtain as much information as possible about the school in one fell swoop). This collection was dubbed “Planning Kit for Sudbury Schools”, which currently retails for $675. Since it was launched, the Press has sold over 250 Planning Kits all over the country and the world. Here is an idea of its reach:
Where Planning Kits have been sold in the United States:
Alaska Kansas New York
Arizona Louisiana North Carolina
Arkansas Maine Ohio
California Maryland Oregon
Colorado Massachusetts Pennsylvania
Connecticut Michigan Puerto Rico
District of Columbia Minnesota Tennessee
Florida Mississippi Texas
Georgia Missouri Utah
Hawaii Montana Vermont
Idaho Nevada Virginia
Illinois New Hampshire Washington
Indiana New Jersey Wisconsin
Iowa New Mexico Wyoming
Various Press materials have been translated into foreign languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Polish, Hebrew, Maharani, Gujarati, Chinese, and Japanese, and have been reprinted in English in low-cost versions in India. In addition, several video presentations have appeared on the school’s YouTube channel, which has recorded over 150,000 views to date—a number that does not include views of many other videos related to the Sudbury model that can be accessed by searching on “Sudbury Valley School”.
The school has been discussed in several widely distributed trade books put out by well known publishers, including Nation of Wimps8 and Free to Learn9; is referenced in a wide variety of publications on education, learning theory, child rearing, and related subjects; is written about in newspapers and magazines (such as the recent article in The New Republic), and in countless blogs, such as Peter Gray’s on the website of Psychology Today. It has been featured on several national television shows and in podcasts on the web.
In the mid-1990s, when the Internet began to move into high gear, the school decided to create a website. It has been revised and expanded several times since its first manifestation, and is currently being viewed by an average of 12,000 visitors a week.
The school has a Facebook page that has registered over 5,000 “likes”, and that is widely viewed, with many posts being re-posted to thousands of recipients. It has an active twitter account. Its website registers an average of over 3,000 visits every day.
All of this is the direct outcome of the wide distribution of the materials published by the school. The entire process is an upward spiral—more articulation leads to a wider availability of the school’s concept in all its aspects, which in turn leads to broader interest to an ever-widening audience.
IX. Where Does It Go From Here?
No one can predict the future. But that doesn’t stop us from trying!
If you believe that, at its core, the human spirit strives for freedom, independence, and meaning, and that, in the grand sweep of history, society—at great cost, and against brutal odds—inexorably forces its way towards the protection of every one of its members’ right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; if you believe that, then you can also believe that the future will transform the current educational system into an environment ever so much more like that of Sudbury Valley than like that of today’s traditional schools.
1. For a full account of the planning period and the first year of the school, see Announcing a New School…: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School, by Daniel Greenberg (Sudbury Valley School Press, 1973).
2. See Daniel Greenberg, “Library? What Library? Re-visiting Labels”, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 45, No. 2, pp. 25-30.
3. This essay is being reproduced in this issue of the Journal.
4. The Crisis in American Education [no authors noted other than “The Sudbury Valley School”] (Sudbury Valley School Press, 1970).
5. For example, when the school pond’s holding dam was breached and threatened to turn the pond into a swamp, and a huge expenditure was required to restore the dam; or when a fund, now defunct, was set up in order to help established families meet their tuition needs if they had encountered a sudden and unexpected financial setback.
6. I experienced a chilling example of this in the late 1990s, when a uniform standard testing regime for public schools (“MCAS”) was introduced by the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Somehow I landed on a panel to discuss this new situation. Others on the panel included principals of elementary, middle, and high schools, each of whom made eloquent presentations opposing the new tests. When I asked them why they agreed to implement them in their schools, they made it clear that they had to obey “superior orders”. Pointing out to them that if all, or even a large number, of principals joined in refusing, there could realistically be no mass firings, they refused to consider the possibility of action.
7. Distributed by the Sudbury Valley School Bookstore (online at the school’s website, www.sudval.org) as part of The Cyberspace Collection: The 1996 Collection; The 1999 Collection; The 2002 Collection; The 2005 Collection, prepared for Sudbury Schools and Planning Groups, compiled by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg (Sudbury Valley School Press).
8. A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, by Hara Estroff Marano (Crown Archetype; 2008)
9. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray (Basic Books; 2015)
A particularly satisfying outcome of this process is the emergence of groups all over the world who announce their intention of establishing schools based on the Sudbury model—from China to Japan, Ireland, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark, and Israel, not to mention all corners of the United States. And this only covers the initiatives we happen to hear about. We know of several instances of functioning schools that have helped and inspired others, without our ever having heard a word about their formation.
The Sudbury Valley School model is an idea whose time has come. And in a relatively short time, historically speaking, given the overbearing dominance of the prevailing educational model that has been pushed on children globally: in a mere half century, it has made a dent in the protective walls that traditional education has built to protect its bloated empire.
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