What is Sudbury Valley School?
It is a place where children are completely free to pursue their interests as they wish. The underlying idea of the school is that children, like all people, are naturally curious and work at all stages of their life to increase their understanding of the world. Little by little, people get exposed to a tremendous amount of information over their lives, and it isn't necessary to direct them. So it's not as if they're never going to learn that they need arithmetic to use money, for instance, or that they need to be able to read in order to read a sign. As life goes on for every one of us, what we're interested in shifts and changes and becomes more and more sophisticated. We expect that to happen with every single child.
What are some of the things that are happening around the school from day to day?
It's impossible to describe the full range of activities going on. People are playing basketball and riding bikes and reading books. They're talking about what they did over the weekend, talking about political issues, talking about anything that might come up in a conversation between two people. They're meeting new people, swinging, eating. At any moment, some of them might be studying traditional subjects in a traditional manner, but most of them won't. There will be people stuck away in a corner reading some book they found on a shelf, or a book they brought with them, others painting or playing music, others interacting in various ways, through playing multi-player computer games, board games, Dungeons and Dragons or cards.
What kind of campus do you have?
It's a beautiful place. It's ten acres of gorgeous New England landscape. It has a granite building on it and also a pretty large barn. Both of those buildings are in constant use. The main building has a kitchen, an art room, an office, and many rooms of various sizes which are probably the most important rooms in this building because they can be used for anything under the sun. In the barn-type building there are sound-insulated music practice rooms with lots of equipment, there's a video games area, there's a big area in which you can have meetings or performances.
What is the role of adults in the school?
We obviously don't have a need for people whose main function is teaching. The adults hired by the school community do sometimes teach, but their main purpose is to be here as resources, as people who help make sure the school is running properly, and as role models for what it's like to be a grownup. There are specific people whom you would be more likely to go to for certain things. Some of them are generalists, some are specialists. All staff are elected for one year at a time -- there's no tenure -- and they are hired for who they are rather than for specific teaching abilities.
How is the school run?
The weekly School Meeting, which includes all students and staff, manages the school and creates policies. It’s a real democratic community, not subject to monitoring by any outside governing body. The idea of the school is that you are responsible not only for your own education here, but also for the whole community. That makes being responsible for your own education a little bit less of a fairytale and more down to earth, because it’s a very real community with very real responsibilities and very real calls for judgement on many, many different subjects everyday for everybody – not just for grownups, but for every child too.
How does the school deal with discipline? How does that function within its democratic structure?
We have a judicial system that is an arm of the School Meeting. It meets daily and investigates written complaints about possible rule violations. The Judicial Committee (JC), as it is called, is made up of students – two of whom are elected as Clerks for a quarter of the school year, and five of whom are selected by lot from various age groups to serve for a month – and a staff member rotating on a daily basis. Anybody in the school can make a complaint about anything they think has happened that might be a violation of the rules. The complaint is investigated, and the committee decides what they think actually happened. Based on their findings, they may charge someone with having broken a rule.
The Committee is pretty careful about its work and mostly when you’ve done something you say, “Yeah, I did it,” because that’s the atmosphere in the school. Afterwards, you can be sentenced by the Judicial Committee in many different ways. Except for serious rule infractions, the sentences usually run to, “Warned never to do that again,” or, “You can’t go into a certain room for a day,” or, “You have to do the trash an extra time,” or something like that.
What types of things do children learn at Sudbury Valley?
There are some things that every student learns here, because you can’t be here and not learn them. One is to love the outdoors. Kids can spend as much time outside as they want and that’s very healthy for their minds, their hearts, their souls, their bodies. Most of the people who have gone to school here talk about how important the outdoors was to them. Second, the whole idea of the governance of the school means that they have to constantly examine ethical issues in all their complexity. Beyond those things, it can be anything: physics, art, music, running a business, psychology – it can be whatever you’re passionate about, or whatever you happen to be accidentally exposed to. Students learn at their own pace the kinds of things that they want to learn, and end up with a broader perspective on life with greater resources and critical thinking skills. What is most astounding about the kids who go to school here is that they feel they’re in control of their lives. Things can happen to anybody, but the kids who go to school here feel deeply that they can influence their lives in any way they want, and that they can influence the world as well by their actions. That’s a miraculous thing: not to feel that they’re being pushed and pulled by the tides, but to feel that they can take charge and do what they want in life.
Are children who attend Sudbury Valley prepared for life as adults?
Kids who leave here are usually extremely well-prepared for a variety of choices in life. First of all, they tend to be quite knowledgeable, extremely articulate, and quite motivated to succeed at what they choose to do next. For example, if they want to go to a college for which SAT scores are important (which certainly is not every college) then they apply themselves to learning how to do well on the SAT’s. Kids who go to school here are used to doing their best. Our graduates go on to an enormous range of careers. The outstanding characteristic they all share is seeking a life that has meaning for them, and choosing work that they enjoy and perform well.