Preschool for Adults: An NHS Student’s View of Sudbury Valley School

October 2017 (Volume 68, Issue 1)

By David Yin, Staff Writer

My purpose in writing this article is to, somewhere down the line, spawn an entire generation of children who complain about having to go to school so incessantly that the institution of compulsory schooling collapses.

I believe that the only significant barrier to my goal is children believing adults when they are told: “This is just how it is.” Even the smartest children, when they believe this lie, stop listening to themselves and stop complaining, believing their complaints about school to be illegitimate. We are told that accepting reality is part of becoming a grown-up, and that reality means having a schedule, giving up free time, being assigned classes, having grades, tests, long nights of boring homework, and selling yourself to the system in hopes of getting anywhere in life.

The first step in overcoming this barrier is to let it be known that there is a viable alternative. Then, children will have no reason to believe that school is “just how it is.” They won’t simply accept the “necessary realities” of school. They will have no reason to stop complaining.

Luckily for us, we do not need to travel far to know that our way is not the only way. Located a mere 25 minutes from Memorial Hill is the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass, a K-12 school of about 150 students and 9 staff. Situated right next to Callahan State Park, the school sits on a open, grassy, neatly landscaped campus surrounded by woods that gives off a park-like vibe. The scenery was beautiful, but that’s not the reason I visited Sudbury Valley with my mom on their open house day in January. I visited to learn more about their unique educational philosophy.

At Sudbury Valley, students are free to pursue their own interests. There are no classes, no required areas of study, and no homework, so no one can really know what they’re going to do on any given school day or school year. They’re free to first identify something that they find useful or interesting, and then explore it however they want. If you were a student at Sudbury Valley, you would only need to learn things that you find meaningful. Scott, my tour guide and a graduate of Sudbury, told me he didn’t formally study trigonometry at Sudbury Valley until he was preparing for the SATs. He did, however, study calculus, because he was interested in AI and cryptography. Unlike at NHS, at Sudbury Valley, no one is forced to “learn” anything they don’t care about that they’ll probably forget in two weeks anyways. They are also not prevented from doing something just because adults don’t see educational value in it, such as playing a video game.

Students at Sudbury Valley are completely free from any adult interference in their educational path. They are not forced to learn anything, not even how to read or do basic math. The school’s philosophy holds that if something is absolutely necessary to learn, the student would want to learn it anyway (all students do end up learning how to read, of their own accord). Students are provided no guidance unless they ask for it, as the school believes that nobody could possibly know what the student needs better than the student himself or herself. Any questioning of a student’s authority is seen as attempting to enforce an adult agenda.

My guide, Scott, is one of the 87% of graduates who end up going to college (he went to BC). I asked him how his college experience compared to his experience at Sudbury Valley, and he told me, “College was so easy. It’s easy to meet a teacher’s expectations, but impossible to meet my own.”

Every bit of the physical establishment of Sudbury Valley seems to serve its educational philosophy. The walls of the main building are packed densely with bookshelves on any topic you would find in a library. If a student wants a book that Sudbury Valley does not have, he or she is free to go to Framingham’s public library, as any student 8 years or older has open campus rights. Also located in the main building is a full commercial kitchen, where students can practice cooking. There is also a small dance room, a computer room, an art studio where students are given a monthly allowance for art supplies, various reading rooms, and a general hangout spot. Behind the main building is a large pond where, presumably, you can fish.

Elsewhere on the Wi-fi covered campus are various playground structures and an outdoor basketball court. There is no shortage of places where kids can just play. The only other large building on campus besides the main building is the barn, which houses a full music recording studio, instruments of every type, more computers, and the video game area. Students at Sudbury Valley are bathed in a wealth of educational resources, but given no rigid instructions on what to use them for. They can find their own educational purpose for what’s around them. It’s less about making students learn and providing them the resources they need in order to comply, and more about providing an environment where students can’t help but learn anyways.

Students are trusted absolutely with their own educational path; likewise, they are trusted absolutely with running the school. All administrative and financial decisions are made democratically at the weekly School Meeting. Anybody may attend the School Meeting, where everyone, students and staff alike, gets one vote. Age is meaningless at Sudbury Valley. The student body is not segregated by age, and age does not determine voting power at Meetings. The Meeting makes decisions on matters like hiring and firing, staff salaries, spending, and school rules. The students and staff have access to all files in the main office so that they can make educated decisions.

Less important and more niche issues are delegated to Corporations, groups of students who have a common interest. For example, the Music Corp manages the musical instruments and plans performances.

Sudbury Valley’s few rules are enforced by the Judicial Committee (JC). The JC consists of one randomly chosen staff member and a group of randomly chosen students, assigned for the day. The JC holds hearings and deals out punishments, just like a real jury. Cases range from trivial to severe, but my tour guide told me that the most common offense is littering and the most common sentence is having to pick up trash for a day.

Between School Meetings, Corporations, and the Judicial Committee, students hold an enormous amount of responsibility. Adults there trust students with responsibilities as they would another adult. At Sudbury Valley, children are made into adults by never making them children in the first place.

Sudbury Valley opened in 1968 and has survived almost half a century of skepticism, all the while providing a place for students to learn how they want to learn. Around the world, there are now over 60 Sudbury schools, schools who use the educational philosophy first tested in Sudbury Valley.

More information on Sudbury Valley can be found on their school website, sudval.org. Their next open house will be on Saturday, October 21, 2017. No RSVP is necessary. This is a great opportunity for anyone wishing to learn more about an alternative educational system so different from what we’re used to.

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