November Adventures

November is the time of year that I always feel is least adventuresome, so I tried to add a little challenge to mine this year.

Dan and I are studying the judicial system at SVS, something some of us have been calling “the heart of the school” for oh-so-many years. We are deeply immersed in it, and are more fascinated by its profundity every day. The way the kids in our school relate to the rules, to the Judicial Committee proceedings, and also to the School Meeting is extremely impressive.

So it was only natural that, as the study progressed, we would look and see if similar schools, with seemingly similar judicial systems, had the same sort of experience as we did.

Also, even though staff in different Sudbury schools communicate some, and often seek one another out for advice in meeting challenging situations, the truth is that none of us get to spend much time in other schools besides our own. Often during the founding process staff-hopefuls come from other places to see us, and to visit other Sudbury schools, but once a school begins, it turns out to be a consuming process for the adults involved. Life is very busy in all of our schools, and it is hard to find the time to leave them at all. (It is also, in fact, hard to leave: you feel like you miss so much when you are gone for a few days.) Last year, we had two such visits at Sudbury Valley. John Green, a founder and staff member of Fairhaven School, in Maryland, came for a few days; and then in the spring our Diploma Committee, which is comprised of staff from other schools, came and spent an extra day visiting after their work.

Thus, observing the role of the school’s institutions in other schools was one motivation for asking permission to visit Hudson Valley Sudbury School, The Circle School and Fairhaven School; but just visiting was another, very important, reason. I was hoping to start a wave, and I still hope that at least a ripple will occur. I was moved by the way students in the schools I observed interact smoothly with the school’s various institutions of government. That made me feel very much at home and very happy I had the chance to visit all three schools.

All three schools are full of friends. That is literally true, because the founding staff, and often staff that is added later, have gotten the chance to get to know us, and vice versa, in the Sudbury Schools Summer Workshops (1994, 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005) we have held for similar schools and startup groups. The Circle School has been present at all five workshops, Fairhaven at four of the five, and Hudson Valley as a founding group was here in 2002; as a school in 2005.

The Circle School

In this sort of a warm fuzzy mood, I happily set off on my first visit, which was to The Circle School, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The founding staff of TCS, which consisted of dee Vogt; Beth Stone; her husband and fellow staff member, Jim Rietmulder; and Sue MacAdam, a fourth founder who has since moved to a different part of the country, had visited SVS when they first heard about us in the early ‘90’s, and we began to form a close relationship then. TCS was already in existence, and had been a somewhat similar school with a closely aligned idea of how children should be treated. Since that time, there have been several visits to TCS by SVS staff, and TCS has played a key role among the “sister schools” in being supportive of younger schools. I had been there once in the very early years (soon after their restructuring had caused several of their families to depart); once when we were doing a study that led to the book, Starting a Sudbury School; and once, along with Hanna Greenberg, when they were celebrating their 20th anniversary. I had never been there through a real regular school day, and I was excited about doing that. Dee Vogt invited me to stay with her in her beautiful new home, which she had been renovating. I arrived in Harrisburg on Monday afternoon and was whisked out from dee’s house to Lewisberry for the evening to visit with Jim, Beth and their children, both of whom were educated at TCS and are now in college.

The next morning, filled with nervous anticipation, I went to TCS. I am always worried that, as an outsider, I will manage to step on the toes of one of the adults or be a pain in the neck to one (or more) of the kids. (I need not have worried. Everyone was exceedingly warm and kind to me.) The building itself is an old large house-type building, with almost as many rooms as our main building, and is furnished somewhat similarly.

The weather on the days I spent at TCS was beautiful. There was a lot of outdoor activity as well as people inside doing all manner of what kids do when they are allowed to follow their own interests. One of the somewhat unfamiliar things there that I enjoyed seeing is what they call “chores”. They are done before the students leave at the end of the day. When people arrive in the morning each person signs up for a chore; they do it later and it is checked by a “chore-checker”. I observed young children doing jobs like washing all of the doorknobs (not as onerous as it sounds; they use a spray bottle and a rag, and give it a quick once over, not necessarily spraying on each and every knob . . . . it is actually pretty cute to see). Another job was using the same kind of spray bottle and rag on all the windowsills! Perhaps in some ways their building is not as clean as ours – the cleaning is less professional; in other ways perhaps it is cleaner: many things are done much more often.

TCS runs a program called Childrens’ Morning Out every Tuesday morning from 9 until 11:30. I was eager to observe it. The idea of CMO is that children too young to enroll at TCS, mostly three and four year olds (although some four year olds are enrolled in the regular program), can come and experience being in the school building, and on the grounds, with a lot of supervision, for a series of Tuesday mornings. They have found it to be a useful recruiting tool.

Even though CMO is not in any way like the regular program, the children are treated with total respect, and without any condescension, and allowed to engage in any activity they like within the confines of the school’s playroom, while inside, and under strict supervision outside. The children love it, and while their kids are attending, the parents get a chance to come in and out of the school a couple of times a day for a series of Tuesdays, learning that it is a pretty nice place; that free children (the rest of the school) are not wild children, just high-spirited and full of life; and that the building is neat, clean, and very user-friendly. They also meet the staff of the school. Each Tuesday, Beth is present at the CMO session, as is a parent (but not of a CMO kid), and a teenage student. The kids play for most of the morning, have a snack, and then head outside for a little while before they go home.

There really isn’t a whole lot more to it than that. It does occupy their playroom for a couple of hours. The CMO kids and staff put everything away before they leave, and it appeared to me that the students who go in to use the playroom afterwards find it even more precious because they couldn’t use it for a little while.

Most of the students ride school buses. There are more than a dozen school districts that send buses – sometimes big ones, sometimes vans – each day in the morning to bring the students and at around 3 to pick them up. There are some kids (who live outside the busing area, I imagine) who are there between 3 and 4, when the school closes, but it is a smallish minority. That gives the days a kind of pattern: most kids have pretty much the same hours as each other. Added to that is the factor that there is no open campus. So everyone is available all the time at the same time. The campus is fairly large, and full of trees and nice areas to be. I think it used to be a building that was in the middle of a large private park, but part of the park now belongs to a church, and a very large building is being put up on the winding private road that goes to TCS. They are aware already that there may be some danger of confusion – people wonder if they belong to the church, for instance.

One end-of-the-day Circle School ritual is a goodbye to an adult. Not saying a final goodbye (to one adult) before you skip out the door to your bus is an offense (judicially) like not signing out at our school. (That is, you will be punished for it, but not so terribly hard.) On Tuesday that became important, because a parent called at 5 worried that her son had not gotten home yet. (The bus just happened to take forever that day.) Someone was able to say she was certain he had said his “final goodbye” and that she had seen him (right out the door in front of her) get on the bus. That was reassuring.

Meanwhile, they would like to add a bit to their building. They would like a little more room for their expanding school, which now has 75 kids, and they would like a big room also. They have a medium large one, but not as big, for instance, as our dance room. One of the practical effects of that is that when they have Information Meetings (which have the same purpose as our open houses, but are more formal) they must pre-register people so that they can sit them all down at the same time and, in fact, inform them.

I wandered in and out of CMO during the morning and also got to feel more comfortable in the school itself. That morning a corporation was cooking pancakes up in the upstairs kitchen.

At 1:00PM, the Judicial Committee meeting took place. The staff member that day was Jim (there are five staff, so everyone serves one day a week). There was a JC chairman, a boy who did not have much experience. A little crowd of chairmen get elected in the beginning of the year, and then the Law Clerk, along with the elected people, decide who to schedule when. No one ever serves more than a month at once. There are three students of different ages. One serves as JC secretary, putting all of the information into a laptop as the meeting goes on. The meeting was very deliberate, careful, and fair – also a little slow. The inexperience of the chairman slowed it down, but that did not seem to be a problem for the kids on JC or those called in because of complaints. Sudbury school kids seem to be uniformly patient! I can never believe it here; I found it amazing in all three other schools. The wheels of justice take a little time to roll, and it seems to be time worth spending for all of the students.

They are also careful not to say anything during a JC meeting that is not totally and utterly neutral. Lest you think I am accusing us of really doing the opposite, I am not. Not at all. We banter. We might mention in a meeting that a certain witness usually comes in and “forgets” for a while when asked for testimony. We do not consider this prejudicial. They don’t do that sort of thing. And they don’t seem to have many JC groupies. I am not certain whether this is always true; you never know what the factors are that cause people to appear or not appear at any meeting. For instance, I was there for unseasonably warm and gorgeous weather. People were outside (where they belonged!).

The thing that was clear in every JC I visited was that the students were not afraid and were generally truthful (if occasionally “forgetful”); they clearly felt that the JC was the way problems of certain types got solved and were very comfortable in that sort of situation. The fact that there were judgments being made did not seem to intimidate any kid in any school. The Circle School also seems to have more detailed rules than we do, but the kids know the rules, and know their rights. If the JC feels someone should be sentenced by the School Meeting, they can refer them with a recommendation for a sentence. There was also a girl who served as a runner during the meeting. She was sentenced to do so; the runner goes and finds people as the Committee needs and asks for them.

On the first day I was there, two kids who were part of a rough and tumble game outside decided to change pleas from guilty to not guilty (they have 24 hours after making pleas to do so) and have a trial. What read like a much-too-rough complaint, under further investigation, sounded like it wasn’t really much of anything. Plans for the trial were proceeding, but unfortunately it was not to happen while I was there.

They worry that the staff files complaints out of proportion to its numbers – maybe close to half the complaints. It didn’t seem like much of a worry to me – isn’t modeling what we are supposed to do?

The culture at TCS is not as deep as they would like, and not as deep as it has been in earlier years. Their School Meeting Chairperson, who was not to be in SM the next day because of a doctor’s appointment, has been there 5 years, and is amazingly articulate, but she is the student who has been there the longest. All their students from the early years of the school have graduated.

It was Halloween, so no one knew if anyone would come to the planned evening event, an Assembly potluck, which started at 5:30. At around 6:45, there was a discussion planned in the largest room, the JC and School Meeting room. I think there were around 30 or so people there, including about 5 kids, and they were a very nice group. People seemed to want to hear what I had to say – the next day other kids told me they regretted not being there. (The same thing happened at Fairhaven.) For the discussion, I decided to go around the room and ask people what their main questions were before we started. It was an okay way to proceed, but the group was a little large for it.

The next day, School Meeting was at 11. The secretary had prepared the agenda. There were about 10 or so kids there through most of the meeting, good weather or not. Sometimes they were there for a specific motion, sometimes not. The meeting was run in a very orderly fashion by someone who had never acted as Chairman before. One of the things being discussed was a new policy for deciding what was okay to do on a computer; they are aware that the line has blurred (been obliterated?) between games/videos/flash, and people were trying to come up with rules that would be socially acceptable within their norms.

There was of course a great deal more to my visit. I won’t keep going on. Suffice it to say, I had a blast. I left sorry to say goodbye, as I did at the other two schools.

The Fairhaven School

Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was stop two on my journeys. When I pondered it, which I had a chance to do while enjoying the town of Fairhaven, about 20 or so miles from the school, I realized this was my fifth trip to the area to visit in one way or another with the people involved in Fairhaven. Fairhaven struggled mightily through its opening phases. We visited there, too, when doing research for Starting a Sudbury School. That was long before a school could come into being, and in fact many high hurdles were in the way of the school, though the founders could not have realized in advance how huge a task meeting those problems would be. (The school would eventually have to be a sub-group of a “church” founded for the occasion, Fairhaven Fellowship, in order to exist legally in Maryland. And it would have to construct, painstakingly with a tremendous amount of volunteer labor, its own first building.)

Fairhaven, the town, is tucked into the Chesapeake Bay shore, and is a private community, with lots of little houses, some of which have morphed over the years to big houses, all set close together on a few little roads that end at a beautiful beach. Probably no house there is without a view. Kim and Mark McCaig, the ur-founders of Fairhaven, live there. This trip I stayed in a vacant apartment (kept vacant for the use of her children and their friends) in the home of Peggy McCaig, Mark’s mother. It was a wonderful oasis for me, but I wasn’t there often or long!

The first evening, I went straight to the school. This was also my first trip since they expanded from one building to two, which allowed them room for their growing population, now close to 80. When it comes to physical plants, we are 19th century; TCS is probably early 20th; Fairhaven is definitely 21st century design. With that comes the necessity for things like big wide halls and doorways, and ramps. The buildings are very welcoming and accommodating, and the way they are situated on the grounds and in relation to each other gives the students an endless number of nooks and crannies and spaces to explore on the inside and the outside of the buildings. It is also set in beautiful woodland, with some big cleared spaces for play.

After a quick look around, we set out for Annapolis where the rest of the staff was meeting us for a fashionable dinner. The staff are Mark, Kim, Leo Hussey (a graduate of Evergreen [Sudbury] School in Maine, which has since ceased to exist), Lisa Lyons (a founder of Evergreen and staff member of Fairhaven for 7 years), John Green (another founder), and two staff members who are new this year.

I tried to get my bearings in the new school the next day, with some success. At noon, I went to the Judicial Committee meeting. It takes place in a sort of medium-sized room with a table. The two clerks sit on one side and the four JC members around the table. Two teens, a 12 year old, and a younger child, were the JC members, although there is sort of a professional sub, a middle-aged boy who is waiting in the wings each day for the opportunity, and who also runs a concession selling food in the school. When they are lucky (they were that day), someone has been sentenced to be the JC runner, a hard job at Fairhaven (as it would be at SVS, if we had runners) because they have open campus privileges, plus those endless nooks and crannies. I actually think it might be even harder to find a kid there than at SVS, where it can be quite time-consuming. The complaints got read, people got called in, told, questions get asked, testimony weighed, reports written, and charges made. Looked pretty familiar; although when there are trials, they take place in the School Meeting. Things run all too smoothly. I say “all too” because one of the clerks has been a clerk for most of the school’s existence, Mark McCaig. I think they are changing that arrangement now. The JC work is done by hand, not by computer. Sometime, somewhere, the information gets entered into a database.

Among the cases: a rather charming and unassuming teen who constantly does “tagging”, vandalizes things with paint, but with talent. There is a largish metal shed like structure outdoors that has solar panels on it. He has totally painted that. But he had permission. Unfortunately there are other things around the school he has painted without permission that need to be painted over. He had been having trouble remembering to do his sentence for some recent tagging; the sentence involved going to Aesthetics Committee meetings. He was sentenced to a half hour of community service for forgetting, to help with setting up for that evening, and still expected to go to the committee meetings. (Leo, an artist himself and the Physical Plant Supervisor, says he doesn’t mind painting over Peter’s spontaneous graffiti.) The point is that Peter, who wants to graduate this year, and will try, still does not take responsibility for everything he does.

Another case had to do with people, a mixed age group, going off campus and not writing on the sign out sheet (which sits on a table at each entrance and is impossible to miss) where they are going or when they are coming back. They got perfunctory slaps on the wrists, and the School Meeting was appealed to for mandatory stiffer sentences for such violations in the future.

There had been outdoor play that had ended with one kid pinning down another and the second biting the first. There are bruises still! The biter, but it seems not the arm pinner, got referred. And, eventually, suspended.

Fairhaven had planned an early evening event with a presentation by me and then a sizable time for discussion. There was a lot of organizing going on for it. Several kids were sentenced to help with it. (Community service is the sentence, and it is assigned to a person, clerk, or corp.) Chairs were set up; some lighting that worked on batteries was bought for the parking lot, which in the end didn’t work at all; camera and mike were set up – by a very nice boy, Lucas, who was later helped by a parent who filmed the evening. The lighting in the room was . . . intense, at least on the risers where I was sitting during the evening event. It was in their gorgeous very large room. They had nice refreshments, well set up. The room is their main room for events and of course for plays, etc. They are in rehearsal for a Batman play, adapted by a boy named Richard, who is also Law Clerk; scenery is being built and painted at a rapid clip, mostly out of cardboard boxes, put together artfully into very large and sturdy structures, and mostly by Leo, but he often has help from kids. The structures, up and painted, look like buildings in a city. They have a little diorama of what it will look like when it is done, and it is in fact mostly done and gorgeous.

About 40 - 50 people were at the evening event. The room is sort of cavernous, and there were kids running in and out during most of the evening in a way that was more disruptive to the audience than to me, since they were closer to them and only in view of me. (Two of the four worst offenders – the other two were not present to plead their case – got referred to the School Meeting for it the next day). Mark introduced me. I think it was the sweetest introduction I have ever had in my life. He went on about how they had met me really early on (they came to SVS to visit) and through thick and through thin, night and day, I had been there in any way they needed, anytime. Of course, he exaggerated a lot, but it felt lovely anyway to have such a gracious introduction.

The audience was very responsive. The subject I spoke about was Trusting Children. The discussion was terrific.

On Wednesday JC starts at 11, not 12, because School Meeting is at 1. When I got to school there was a boy named Eric frantically preparing the SM Agenda. He is the Secretary. He typed whatever needed to be typed into the computer. The chairman was brand spanking new, first week of service. Her name is Zoe and she had Eric, the Secretary, sitting next to her, computer open, at a table in the front

At School Meeting it is the Law Clerk’s responsibility to bring the Judicial Records of each child who is referred and to answer questions about it. Also at the SM, a list of complaint numbers, who was charged, with what, and (I think) the sentence, is read aloud. That is basically as close as the School Meeting comes to actually seeing any of the records.

Kids came in and out. There were a few that stayed the whole time. Richard, the law clerk, certainly did. He was on the “stage” in an easy chair. People wander in and out but it is a little more disruptive than at SVS. The biter got suspended. The boys who were the most rowdy in the Tuesday night event were referred and got a suspension warning – a warning that recurrence of that type of behavior would probably result in a suspension, plus a month of no after hour activities, which keeps them out of the first two of the four Batman performances, but not the last two.

Hudson Valley School

I had long ago discussed coming to visit Hudson Valley Sudbury School. I had tried to go two years ago and ended up shattering one of my elbows a few days before the trip. This time, Nina Jecker-Byrne had been the go-between person. She suggested that I come to be there on one of their Information Meeting days and stay for a Philosophy session. I agreed to the weekend of November 16-18.

Early on a rainy Thursday morning, I drove to Kingston, New York, adjacent to Woodstock of concert fame. The Hudson Valley Sudbury School is located there. Hudson Valley had first opened in 2001 or 2002, but quickly had to vacate the premises it was using, and soon after it closed for regrouping. The founders, who include Jeff Collins, his wife Lisa Montanus, Sheri Ponzi, Vanessa Van Burek, Ruth Hahne, and several others, persevered through more than a year of refining what they wanted in a building, getting it built, and refining their ideas of what a Sudbury school should be like. The result is a very beautiful building, full of large and small rooms, cozy and open rooms, and windows galore, a perfect Sudbury school structure. I was amazed that a brand new school could feel so totally non-industrial. It is also totally handicapped accessible, which is very nice, even its 6 bathrooms, which are grouped in one area of the building. There is a gorgeous kitchen, well-equipped (including a pool table!); a small couple of rooms that are being redesigned as a multi-media area; an art room; a music room in desperate need of sound-proofing, and therefore in only limited use until that happens; a computer room; some large and small library rooms; a comfortable office; a very large lounge area; and more. This year, founders Lisa and Sheri are not on staff. They have added a new person, named Tim Rehwaldt; and Nina, who was elected to staff last year, is serving once again.

I arrived shortly before a JC meeting, which I was extremely interested in seeing. The clerk of their JC is Vanessa; the staff serving that day was Jeff. So there are two staff among the five on JC at the moment. Also, their clerk elections, which mirror ours, were later that day at School Meeting, and another staff member, Ruth, was elected. Two staff were the nominees. Vanessa, who enjoys being clerk very much, regretfully turned over the reins to Ruth. There were three kids who were serving, I think for a month each but am not sure, and they were also quite pleasant and efficient about their work. One of their primary sentences there is chores. Everyone does chores “for credit”; often a JC sentence involves doing chores “not for credit”. Obviously, there are a certain number of things that need doing each day, and each School Meeting member is expected to do these things on sort of a regular rotation. That is the “for credit” part. It is very similar to the way we do trash (their favorite “not for credit” chore, as it is ours). If your name comes up in the regular rotation, you do trash and your name doesn’t come up for quite some time. If you litter frequently, you are likely to be doing a lot of extra trash.

JC passed without real event. It was like a version of our JC in a smaller school. The enrollment is in the 30’s this year; last year there were some disaffected people who chose not to return. They have work to do to recover numbers, but the atmosphere is such that their work should be successful. It is a vibrant and pleasant place, with lovely, busy, friendly kids. One of the nice things about having a ground-level school is that you are closer to the “action” when you look out the window, and each side of the school seemed to have mixed-age groups engaged in happy outdoor activities.

The School Meeting takes place in a large library-ish room. The chairman is a girl named Jonquil, who is extremely competent. The agenda moved through a somewhat familiar (but unique to them) set of sections. The first item on the written agenda had to do with a request from a German graduate student to visit for a couple of weeks. It is extremely convenient for them that there have been three SVS books translated into German, so he could do his homework beforehand.

The next motion had to do with a request to leave school early sometimes to do dance. It was from a lovely girl, 13, named Marina who lives to dance. She dances every second of the day, no matter what else she is doing. Her arms and her hands, and usually her feet, are in beautiful motion. It was voted on then and there.

Every item on the agenda was dealt with carefully and with high level debate. They had some amazing kids there, and, as at SVS, there was no question of condescension.

That evening, the staff and a few others took me out to dinner at a lovely local restaurant. I will spare any readers who are still with me the details of the hotel-from-hell that I stayed in that night (after carefully selecting it on the internet and with recommendations). I did better the next night!

There was supposed to be a staff meeting the next morning, which I was going to be allowed to attend, but when I got to school most of the staff was in a room with a parent (not the student; he came about 45 minutes later) talking about the student being discouraged because it looked like it might be a lot of work to graduate between now and June! (He is brand new.) At Hudson Valley when you first enroll, you enroll until end of school year. So September enrollees (who pay between $1,500 and $8,500) are enrolled for a full school year, and others for less. That, coupled with the recent removal of a minimal time for enrollment before graduation, could give people the wrong idea, I guess. On the other hand, they feel that their graduation procedure is such that it should not give anyone the idea that a diploma is just there for the plucking.

I passed the rest of the day very happily.

The first scheduled public relations event began at noon the next day. It was an Information Meeting and had been pretty heavily advertised. They usually have a couple of interested families, but this time they had quite a few. It took place in their major lounge room. The meeting lasted for about 2½ hours, a half hour longer than they expected, and people didn’t really leave until about 3. The scheduled Assembly Philosophy Discussion Meeting then instantly followed. I enjoyed both!

All of my November adventures were fun for me, although I will admit to feeling like I was working pretty hard – just interacting with a whole new school full of kids every week is exhausting. A four day weekend around Thanksgiving was a lucky break afterwards. But I am very glad I did it. Nothing is quite as affirming as going to another Sudbury school and finding out that just what you hoped would be true is true: the kids in the school feel free, empowered, confident, and in control of their time and their school. They are pursuing their activities with enjoyment and intensity. It is a beautiful thing to see. I remember being bowled over the first time it happened, which was in the first few months after Sacramento Valley School had opened. I was invited out there to try to help with a P.R. event. Their school was tiny – 9 or 10 kids, several part-time. But the minute I walked in I felt at home. Children being treated respectfully are amazing, but you kind of get used to it when you are so spoiled that you see it every day. Sometimes it is good to step out of our own school to realize the fullness of what we have right here.

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