Students rule at Sudbury schools

Stress, homework, studying, and structure are concepts integral to the daily life of an SAS student. But to the students of Sudbury schools, these concepts are completely unknown.

The Sudbury school model is a type of schooling that follows a unique educational philosophy. According to the Sudbury school model, learning is entirely self-directed. This means no tests and no homework, and therefore, very little stress. Students learn through methods of direct democracy, in which students and teachers are viewed as equals. There are no grade levels, and students between the ages of five and 18 mingle with and learn from each other. Every student of every age is expected to dictate his or her own daily schedule.

Fairhaven School in Maryland and Tallgrass Sudbury School in Illinois are two of many developing Sudbury schools worldwide. Both schools follow the Sudbury model.

“At Fairhaven school we prioritize people, not test scores,” claims Fairhaven’s website.

If it ain't broke don't fix it.Noor Habbal, a 15-year-old girl, attended public school in third, fifth, and seventh grade, and is currently one of 19 students at Tallgrass Sudbury School. “Before you enter the Sudbury model, you should understand that all students, teachers, and staff are at the same level, with an understanding that nobody feels superior or inferior to others,” Noor said in an email interview.

While Noor has only been at Tallgrass for a little over a year, she is happy with her choice to leave traditional schooling and pursue self-directed learning. “Tallgrass allowed me to learn at my own pace while ensuring my full understanding of a wide range of concepts with the help of passionate teachers.”

Lola Jade, a 15-year-old girl at Fairhaven School, has never attended a “typical” school with a six-subject curriculum, but she has friends who have, and frequently listens to their complaints against learning. “These kids cram all the information in just to pass a test and then most of the time, they forget it,” Lola said in an email interview. She compared her friends’ experiences at public school to her experience at Fairhaven, saying, “It’s way easier to retain stuff when you actually want to learn it.”

Learning habits are not the only difference prevalent between typical classroom-style schools and Sudbury school model. While students at SAS define their typical day through a block schedule and a combination of classes and electives, students at Sudbury schools have trouble defining their typical days.

“I don’t exactly know how to explain a typical day, because they never are typical or the same or consistent,” Lola explained.

According to Noor, students have the ability to build, draw, paint, use the computer, play, and move. They can even go off campus and explore. Through these activities, students learn about their own interests and discover their own abilities.

Take math class, for instance. For SAS students, sitting in math class is a familiar everyday activity. At Sudbury schools, though, math class isn’t necessarily part of their daily routine. Students learn arithmetic through everyday activities like handling money. Students are then trusted to come to teachers with questions about higher-level math when the concepts are applicable and the students are ready.

At Tallgrass Sudbury School in Illinois, students and staff work cooperatively as equals. Photo by Tallgrass Sudbury School.

“We all really control what we learn, what we do with our day, and what we want to do with our lives,” Lola said.

Although SAS students might envy the Sudbury school model of a stress-free education, there may be some downsides to this self-directed learning style.

According to Noor, Tallgrass lacks a wide range of classes and clubs. For instance, language classes and school sports – options often taken for granted by SAS students – aren’t even offered to students. In addition, the small size of Tallgrass makes finding friends with common interests a difficult task.

Senior Michael Chu is Executive Council President, varsity tennis captain, and a participant in Gawad Kalinga and peer support. “My activities have let me connect with students outside my normal circle of friends,” Michael said. “Both StuCo and tennis have people from all grade levels, so I was able to meet and learn from older students from a younger age.”

Math teacher Darlene Poluon visited Diablo Valley School, another Sudbury school, earlier this year. “I think they’re doing what they think is best for kids,” Ms. Poluon said. “We’re also doing what we think is best for kids, but the level of rigor, for us, needs to be there. We want a high level of rigor, with relevance, and relationships. That school definitely builds relationships and they have relevance, but [it is] lacking the rigor.”

However, what the school system may lack in rigor and extracurricular activities, it makes up for in student voice and leadership.

With no principal, Sudbury schools are run by the students and teachers as equals, in a democratic voting system of one vote per person. Through a combined use of The School Meeting, the Assembly, and the Judicial Committee, students and teachers work together to create a school system that is ideal for the majority.

Democratic Practicies - Sudbury SchoolsThe Judicial Committee (JC) in particular largely differs from practices known to many typical public and private schools worldwide. In this process, the JC evaluates written complaints of rule violations, interprets statements made by the complainant (plaintiff) and the defendant, and invites witnesses into the investigation. Through cooperation and communication, the JC works to determine a consequence and a resolution.

Instead of detention, typical sentences that result from the JC include being restricted from a certain area of the campus, cleaning a mess, repaying the owner of a broken item, or picking up trash. Any activity seen as particularly serious or dangerous can be referred back and opened up to the School Meeting for a more severe consequence such as suspension.

Because of the JC system, everyone involved in an incident is able to speak their opinions, which makes the resolution process as fair as possible. “In most ‘typical’ school settings, if you do something to get in trouble, then you go the principal, and both people involved get in trouble no matter what happened,” observed Lola. However, in the Sudbury school model, “People who have been written up have a chance to defend themselves.”

This philosophy of student power not only acts as a method to keep things fair, but also serves as a tool to help bring the students together. “Being involved in [the Judicial Committee and the School Meeting] enhances school spirit and a sense of community because we all have a say in all the decisions made about school,” said Lola.

Despite the drawbacks, the Sudbury school model provides freedom for students to pursue their own interests and allows a way of interacting that is uncommon in many schools.

“Fairhaven is such a tight community,” Lola said. “It teaches us all to look out for the people we love.”

Author: Jenna Nichols

Jenna Nichols is a Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Eye and part of the Morning Show production staff. The senior is enjoying her third year on staff and her seventh year at SAS. When she’s not writing articles or reporting for the newspaper, she’s probably watching The Office or eating Thai food.

2 thoughts

  1. Super interesting & well-written, Jenna! 🙂 I wonder if this model is feasible in larger schools though – I mean, there’s a reason most countries aren’t run through direct democracy.


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