Junior Knows Best

Sudbury schools let kids learn what they want

Public, private, parochial, charter, magnet, small-by-design, homeschool. With the array of educational options for kids these days, it can be overwhelming to decide who the right people to teach your children are. The Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Framingham, Massachusetts, insists that the best educators are actually children themselves. Hara Estroff Marano, writing for Psychology Today, finds that kids doing what they do best -- playing -- is a highly effective teaching method. Writes Marano: 'Psychologists believe that play cajoles people toward their human potential because it preserves all the possibilities nervous systems tend to otherwise prune away.' The school, which has served as the model for some three dozen others, encourages play, as well as other activities that facilitate children taking control of their own academic destinies and enjoying the resulting confidence.

With 25 hours of mandatory attendance each week, staff members (not 'teachers') on hand to help interested children, and textbooks available, the Sudbury schools are equipped to help the students map their own courses of learning. Nathan Conz of the Hartford Advocate, encapsulates the tack this way: 'There's no need to force material down a kid's throat, especially when it's a subject the kid isn't interested in. In time, a student will learn what he or she needs to know.' Conz visited the Mountain Laurel Sudbury School (MLSS) in New Britain, Connecticut. Upon observing two playful students, he declares: 'They're free-range children. And that's not a knock. The model seems to have served them well.'

Conz points to MLSS's first graduate, Nick Marshall-Butler, a 16-year-old whose SAT scores are in the 90th percentile and who plans to take preparatory classes at Harvard Extension. Marano finds that while only about half of the students at SVS go directly to college, most get there eventually, echoing the Sudbury philosophy of bucking tradition and finding one's own path to educational goals. Many of the 800 graduates of SVS have been successful in the gamut of professional options, with 42 percent going on be entrepreneurs. If there's anything to laud, says Marano, it's that most graduates 'are unusually resilient,' 'feel that they are in control of their [destinies],' and 'lead deeply satisfying lives.'

Despite such successes, it's still tough to convince parents to do away with teachers, classes, homework, and grades. Students may come to a Sudbury school for a number of reasons: failure to adhere to test-intensive schools, lack of social interaction in traditional schools, or a propensity for kinesthetic learning. And Sudbury's model is not an option for all. With tuition at $6,000 per student, parents may be taking a leap of faith on a school system that doesn't teach reading. 'The youngest and longest-term students are largely from well-educated families that have the confidence to buck convention,' writes Marano.

Whatever their reasons, some parents are fully embracing the Sudbury model. Jeffrey Hohl, a father of six, sold his house to move closer to SVS. 'You don't realize until you're an adult how natural it is to learn, how interesting the world really is. We adults think we know how to do it and that children don't and therefore we have to teach them how,' he says. 'After spending many years in the business world, it dawned on me that you learn best what you really want to learn.'

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Evan Ravitz
9/4/2009 12:14:55 AM

I don't know what public schools cost near SVS, but I confirmed that Denver public schools cost MORE than nearby Alpine Valley School, a Sudbury-model school, when I and Colorado Board of Education member Jared Polis toured it in 2005. Jared is now our Congressman. Almost all private schools cost more than public schools.

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