Brooklyn Free School - a friend's daughter goes to this school and loves it. I 've heard very brief and vague stuff about the Modern School Movement (Francisco Ferrer's La Escuela Moderna) and I've yet to read Paul Avrich's book about the US offshoot of Ferrer's thing. I emailed Alan, the BFS founder, asking if he'd heard about Ferrer's schools and he said he's not familiar with the Modern School Mvmt but that the BFS sounds closer to it than to Montessori (NYT article). I can see the John Dewey connection (article) from little fragments I've read in Chomsky's books (he himself went to a Dewey school).
One of the cooler things about it: 60% of students attend the BFS on reduced tuition. Then again it is a private school with all that that implies. So were Ferrer's schools, if I'm not mistaken.
Has anyone had any experiences with Free Schools? Has anyone read Avrich's book or A.S. Neill's "Summerhill"?
p.s. Sorry about the super long article below... posting it cause it may not be available on that site for too long in the future and we don't always have access to lexis-nexis, etc.
Land of the Free
By AARON GELL
IT was a gray Wednesday morning, and the weekly Democratic Meeting of the Brooklyn Free School had been called to order. In a bare-bones classroom in a Methodist church on 16th Street in Park Slope, two dozen students, ranging in age from 5 to 16, sat in a circle on mismatched folding chairs, along with their three teachers, a couple of volunteers and Alan Berger, the school's 49-year-old founder and director.
The agenda turned to a crucial issue.
"I've had a bunch of people come up to me and say, 'I'm so bored, I need something to do,' " began Sophie Danish-Brown, a dark-haired 14-year-old who for some mysterious reason was wearing a pair of silvery fairy wings. "And I've felt it myself. So I just wanted to open it up for discussion, ways to, basically, alleviate boredom."
This was no small matter for a place where boredom is not so much a minor annoyance as a pedagogical imperative. The Brooklyn Free School, which winds up its second year of operation next month, is arguably New York's most radical center of learning, a romantic gamble on the idea of laissez-faire education and an audacious repudiation of the regimented curriculums and high-stakes tests that increasingly dominate the city's public school system.
In theory, students at the Brooklyn Free School can go for weeks, even years, without ever laying eyes on a No. 2 pencil or one of those fearsome grids of ovals used to identify answers in standardized tests. Students are not graded or ranked in any way. The only homework they are likely to get is the kind their nervous parents take it upon themselves to assign.
What's more, students are not required to attend classes — ever. Instead, they are encouraged to design their own education, or not, the idea being that real learning occurs only when it is self-directed and "noncoercive," as free-school disciples put it, rather than imposed from on high. This can make for some long and tedious days as children figure out how to fill the hours.
Mr. Berger views the approach as particularly well suited to the information-age economy. "Kids going out with an education like this will be more creative, more inventive, and more adaptive and flexible, which is going to be a big thing as the economy changes," he said. "People with standard credentials figure, 'I'm set.' But what happens when your job is outsourced and you have to figure out what to do next?"
In the eyes of others, the Brooklyn Free School represents, at the least, pedagogical pie in the sky.
"There's a certain kind of student and family that will thrive in the free-school environment," said Victoria Goldman, who with Catherine Hausman wrote "The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools." "The right kid will do beautifully. But if you don't come from an intellectual home or a reading family where the parents are true professionals, this thing is not going to be good. I don't think every kid needs to be whipped, although, dare I say, most do."
And E. D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the author of "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," added in an interview: "The public school approach isn't very benighted. But that doesn't mean that this providential approach to education, where by some natural process the child will end up being educated, is going to work either. It may work for children from well-educated homes, but it doesn't work for children who haven't had those advantages."
Plato and Flying Socks
Bold, visionary institutions tend to have eccentric figures at the helm. Think of Stanley Bosworth, the irrepressibly outspoken founder of Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights. The city's last free school, Fifteenth Street School in Park Slope, which closed in the 1980's, was led by a blacklisted actor, Orson Bean. By contrast, Mr. Berger seems almost religiously self-effacing. Tall and lanky, with a monkish haircut and a soft-spoken manner, he began his teaching career 10 years ago at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan.
"I was really idealistic," said Mr. Berger, a former cable company manager who took up teaching after becoming disenchanted with the business world. "But it turned out the education system was the same: a big, dehumanizing bureaucracy. Instead of profits, the bottom line was G.P.A. and test results."
In 2001, Mr. Berger was promoted to assistant principal at Murry Bergtraum. Shortly after, he read an article about a free school in Woodstock, N.Y. "It just grabbed me to the core," he said.
Free schools, which trace their lineage to the work of progressive educators like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, had their heyday in the 1960's after the publication of A. S. Neill's best-selling book "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing." The philosophy is predicated on the theory that the less quantifiable benefits of the child-centered learning — self-reliance, enhanced critical thinking and social awareness — will more than offset the lack of traditional skills. For Mr. Berger, the appeal was powerful.
In October 2003, he outlined his idea for a free school in the newsletter of the Park Slope Food Co-op, a nerve center of hummus-and-sprouts Brooklyn liberalism. Less than a year later, the Brooklyn Free School opened for business in the bottom two floors of the Brooklyn First Free Methodist Church on 16th Street with 30 children, three teachers and a provisional charter from the state.
Most of the students are from middle-income families — a number of the parents are teachers, struggling artists or former hippies — and most live in Brooklyn. Tuition is $9,500, administered on a sliding scale; fewer than half of the families pay full tuition, and one struggling parent just slips Mr. Berger $20 now and then. The school, which has an annual budget of $200,000, is $20,000 in debt, scraping by on grants, donations and the occasional good-will gesture.
Any child can apply and visit the school for a five-day orientation, after which the admissions committee (made up of students, teachers and parents) must vote unanimously to admit a child based on two criteria: whether the parents and child all want the child to attend the school, and whether the school has the resources to work with the child.
Many students go there to escape the stress of more conventional settings. And no one would accuse the Brooklyn Free School of being conventional. Children make soap and study Japanese. Mr. Berger has taught classes in cheese-tasting — last year, the students sampled more than 80 varieties, learning some geography, biology and chemistry in the process. An active book club spent a month discussing "America (The Book)" by Jon Stewart.
There are seminars in philosophy (Plato's "Euthyphro," anyone?), psychology, sociology, video making, astrology, business, storytelling and circus arts, many of them initiated and sometimes conducted by the students themselves. A course on Tibet, taught by Nick Gulotta, 15, is among the most popular offerings.
There is also fair amount of sword fighting, wandering around and napping. One morning, a visitor narrowly escaped getting beaned by a tube sock, collateral damage in a game called Asoxination in which participants assassinate their opponents by walloping them with athletic socks. But all of it, Mr. Berger insisted, is learning, all of it valid. "We try not to pass judgment," he said.
The Upside of Boredom
Student empowerment at the Brooklyn Free School is not limited to how children spend their days. To a large degree, they run the institution themselves through the weekly Democratic Meetings. At these sessions, nearly every element of the school's day-to-day management — from behavioral issues to admissions criteria — can be debated, and everyone, from the youngest child to the director, has an equal vote.
One of the more hotly contested issues was the playing of video games on school computers. Over several months, a Talmudic set of guidelines evolved. One mandated that games be played only on particular terminals. Another limited play to certain times of day. When it was decided that scholarly research should take precedence over more frivolous uses, a new regulation was adopted allowing gamers a three-minute grace period before getting kicked off.
Running the Democratic Meeting that gray Wednesday was the budding Tibet scholar, Nick, who has a riotous tangle of black hair and a goth-inspired wardrobe. Although attendance at this meeting, unlike attendance at classes, is mandatory, paying attention is not. Three inseparable little girls — Sienna, Winnie and Lila — drew pictures and slurped cantaloupe during the proceedings. A pair of 11-year-old twins played quietly with a set of wooden train tracks, something they had been doing for the better part of each day for weeks, to the consternation of their mother.
Nick put the issue of boredom on the table for discussion, and hands shot up. "Contrary to popular belief, boredom is self-inflicted," suggested Silvan Carlson-Goodman, at 15 one of the school's elder statesmen. "The best cure is to just force yourself to do something, anything. Go for a walk, choreograph a musical, anything. Just do something."
David Easton, a 26-year-old instructor and self-described refugee from the New York Teaching Fellows program, added: "There's nothing wrong with being bored. In fact, it's actually the first step in figuring out what you really want to do."
Nick turned to Sophie, the 14-year-old. "So, is there a proposal, or did you just want to open the discussion?" he asked.
"Well," she replied, "I guess I would propose we come up with a list of things to do, suggestions for when someone's bored that we can post on the wall."
"A bored board!" someone chimed in. The motion carried by a wide margin.
But Does It Work?
Another example of what the Brooklyn Free School aspires to was on display one recent afternoon among the younger children in the Dolphin group, who are usually supervised by Kristen Palmer, a sunny 31-year-old with cat's-eye glasses and a bright smile. While Ms. Palmer showed a visitor the project her charges had been working on — a car fashioned from a big cardboard box — the children packed themselves into a fort made of foam squares.
"Hey, guys," Ms. Palmer suggested. "What if we made a poster about how we built the car?" It was a valiant attempt at redirection, but while it got them out of the fort and over to the table where Ms. Palmer had set out pens and paper, the plan fizzled: Oren, a bright-eyed 6-year-old, had a different idea.
"Hey, look how I make weird shapes," he announced as he folded a piece of construction paper, made a few random cuts, and with a bit of fanfare, unfolded the paper to reveal a pattern of stars. "Cool!" the others shouted as they dived for paper of their own. Ms. Palmer flashed a grin.
But can cut-out stars, Platonic dialogues, Asoxination and fancy cheese take the place of times tables and test prep? Mr. Berger thinks they can. While acknowledging that students in more traditional schools might be more proficient at certain skills, he added: "There's no reason a child of 7, 8, 9 needs to know the particular content they're being drilled on. If you learn how to learn, you can always pick up the content later."
Even among the school's parents, there is not total agreement on this point. A few of them, concerned about how their children will fare in an increasingly competitive world, have hired outside tutors to make sure the basics are covered.
After some of the older children started worrying about how they would get into college absent grades and transcripts, one teacher began holding a weekly discussion group called "Life After B.F.S." designed to explore the transition to jobs and college.
"I don't really know what they're doing academically," said Joe Gilford, a screenwriting teacher whose son, Jacob, 15, enrolled at the Brooklyn Free School this year after having trouble at Bay Ridge Prep. "I just have my fingers crossed."
Randi Karr, an administrator with the state Office of Mental Health, whose 11-year-old son, David, is a student, agreed. "Honestly," she said, "I think sometimes he plays most of the day."
Mr. Berger's ex-wife, Tokie Ozaki-Berger, is another critic. Ms. Ozaki-Berger, a receptionist in a doctor's office, was so upset when the couple's 14-year-old son, Alex, chose the Brooklyn Free School over La Guardia High School that she reported her ex-husband to the city's Department of Social Services, accusing him of educational neglect.
"I tried every angle to put Alex back in a regular school," Ms. Ozaki-Berger said. "I'm very worried about his future."
Nick Gulotta, who used to attend the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, is in many ways the ultimate Brooklyn Free School student: free-thinking, politically astute and so self-motivated that along with preparing his weekly seminar on Tibet he is taking three classes at the New School and working in a bookstore.
But even he is not sure that freedom is all it's cracked up to be. "I think I was really fortunate to go to a public school and get what I needed to pursue my interests," he said. "If these kids were in a regular school, they'd do writing and math every day. Here, they can play and stuff, but what happens when they want a real education?"
A Walk in the Park
The school is still recuperating from early growing pains. Eleven of the original 30 children drifted away during the first year; some parents withdrew their children in order to home-school them, while in other cases, the families left the city. The original three teachers also left.
But there are bright spots as well. Mr. Berger says that the three new teachers have more experience than their predecessors. After determining that the Brooklyn Free School was indeed a legitimate educational institution, Mr. Berger said, the Department of Social Services determined that he was not guilty of educational neglect. (A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment.)
The school's financial situation is also rosier: a direct-mail campaign netted $10,000, and enrollment is now up to 37.
But the Brooklyn Free School will never be just another place of learning, as was obvious one unseasonably warm day when Ms. Palmer tried to take the Dolphin group out to play.
In a free school, this is not exactly a simple matter.
"Who wants to go to the park?" she asked four little ones who were making car noises as they pushed big stuffed animals down the hall. "Not me!" came the reply.
In response, Ms. Palmer clasped her hands and called a meeting. As the children flopped down on a pair of beanbag chairs, she tried again. "How about we just go for a second, for a breath of fresh air?" she asked. "We can run around, play tag. ..."
In a conventional school, they would have been hunting for their jackets and dutifully lining up in single file. Here, they simply shook their heads and with self-satisfied giggles rushed back to their game.
As they dashed off, Mr. Easton poked his head in from the corridor. "What's up?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Ms. Palmer replied. "All I know is, I just got steamrolled."