School Drops Curriculum -
Students Do What They Want

From Charlotte Iserbyt
This article is more important than it appears to be, on the surface. If it weren't important, why would the controlled "Washington Post" publish it?
I see it as the necessary first shot in the implementation of the philosophy described in Lewis Perelman's ""School's Out". You don't need schools if you have technology (computers, etc.), do you? You don't even need teachers, do you?
You just need a central state office which keeps data on each child, and that will be easy as long as they are hooked by computer into the state's data bank. The business/state school partnership will determine how your child is to be trained for the global workforce.
I recall the head of the Office of Technology in my old Office of Educational Research and Improvement saying "Charlotte, in the future education will take place in the home."
The public school infrastructure is collapsing. It has been planned that way.
Just my musings on this ridiculous article, which must be taken seriously.
-- Charlotte
Learning On Their Own Terms
Md. School With No Curriculum Challenges
Conventions of Modern Education
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Between Rollerblade aerials and rail slides, Justin Reed described how he landed at a school that lets him do whatever he wants all day long.
He burned out on high-powered Eleanor Roosevelt High School in his home town of Greenbelt. Lost interest in the college track. Despised cafeteria food. By 11th grade, he was ready to drop out.
"I just really hated school, and Roosevelt brought that out of me," the 19-year-old said one spring afternoon next to an iron handrail that doubled as a launching slope. "Being told what to do and what to learn. Having to do homework. Grades. Grade levels. Everything that this school stands against."
Justin will graduate in June from the highly unconventional Fairhaven School with a diploma that may require explanation to a college or future boss. He took no tests in his three years at the private school, received no grades and had no course requirements. But he played electric guitar, read and wrote poetry, made friends and got the last laugh on lunch. "No more tater tots!" he said.
Fairhaven, in a wooded nook of Prince George's County near the Patuxent River, challenges the assumptions of every public and private school that measures success with test scores and prizes academic rigor. It is an educational anomaly in the super-competitive Washington area: The school day here is unscripted.
Seventy-two students ages 5 to 20 run the school with a staff of eight adults. Students follow no curriculum other than curiosity and whim. Sometimes they seek out a class or workshop, but they are not compelled to take English, geometry or any other subject. Often they just hang. For this, their parents pay $6,680 a year per student, less for siblings.
Is Fairhaven even a school? What is a school?
"The question, too, is what is an education?" replied staff member Mark McCaig. "What is an educated individual?"
The answer could lie in the fiction, philosophy and history lining the school's bookshelves. Or in the way children play on a seesaw, swing, stage or computer when no one is telling them what to do. Or in their own words.
"I judge whether my day is productive by how much I learn, how much I've got done, and whether I do something worth doing," said Alison Everett, 17, of Annapolis, a student there for four years. Among other recent pursuits, she played a fire goddess in a student show spun from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," studied algebra to bone up for the SAT (tests are not entirely out of mind here) and pounded tall drums with a friend outdoors.
Destiny Shugrue, 11, of Bowie, in her first year at the school, said: "I hang out, draw, go on the computer, play a few games. Just be myself. I actually read a lot. Every morning I get up saying, 'Yay, I'm going to school!' "
There is a price for defiance of academic custom. Students at Fairhaven earn no course credits toward a state-recognized high school diploma. Without conventional transcripts, graduates who aim for college rely on SAT scores, essays, letters of recommendation and interviews.
But those concerns do not deter Fairhaven. Conceived by an assortment of parents who had taught their children at home and others in search of educational alternatives, Fairhaven opened in 1998 with 33 students on 12 isolated acres along Queen Anne Road in the Upper Marlboro area. It is one of more than 30 no-curriculum schools patterned after one founded in 1968 in Massachusetts -- the Sudbury Valley School.
Virginia has one Sudbury school in Lynchburg and another forming in Louisa. Pennsylvania and Delaware have one each. Others are scattered across the country and in Europe, Canada, Israel and Japan. The schools are an experiment in educational democracy. The youngest student's vote on any policy equals the longest-serving staff member's.
All Conventions Left Behind
Fairhaven School, where there are no classes, no tests and no teachers, challenges the assumptions of every public and private school that measures success by standardized test scores.
"Ours is a place for children," said Daniel Greenberg, 70, a co-founder of the original Sudbury school, who still works there. "We begin with freedom -- personal freedom and respect for personal rights." Education, he said, is "an opportunity for a child or an adult to develop a path toward a meaningful life. The question is: How is that done best?"
Against the Grain
Sudbury schools have drawn attention in recent years as a counterpoint to the national movement toward tougher educational standards and school evaluations.
This spring, hundreds of thousands of children in local elementary and middle schools will take standardized tests in reading and mathematics to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. Virginia will administer more tests than ever. D.C. public schools are rolling out a new test. Some Maryland schools held pep rallies to get pumped for state exams.
McCaig dismisses it all as "a Faustian dance with testing and accountability." Many private schools make the same point to woo parents disenchanted with public schools. But few offer an alternative so radical.
A bearded former Catholic school teacher, McCaig holds a Harvard University master's degree. Fairhaven's Web site describes the 43-year-old as expert in birds, shark teeth and shiatsu massage. He and his wife, Kim, 41, who once taught high school English in Anne Arundel County, helped launch the school with a $200 starter kit bought from Sudbury Valley. Their 5- and 9-year-old daughters, Colleen and Maggie, are students. A few other parents also have worked alongside their children.
These adults teach but are not teachers. They lead but are not administrators. For example, McCaig deals with lawyers and insurers. ("They think we're nuts," he said.) One day this month, he had a grammar workshop with three students and a reading and writing tutorial with a 15-year-old.
Staff member John Green, 47, led a science book club for six students that day and a public speaking class for two. Such encounters can last 45 minutes to an hour. It doesn't add up to much formal instruction. No one tracks time spent on academics. But Green said learning happens. "Sure, there is teaching that occurs here, constantly," he said. "But we don't like the word."
A pack of laughing girls bursts onto the deck. McCaig shoos them inside. "That's a class," he said. The Prissy Girls. They do girl things, whatever those might be, sans adults. "Deep play," the school calls it. Games that stretch imagination and social skills. The school puts a premium on free-flowing conversation. What gets discussed is almost an afterthought.
Danny Mydlack, a Towson University media professor, probably knows Fairhaven better than any other independent observer. He spent two years, off and on, filming a documentary about the school. He said it turned his beliefs about learning upside down, leading him to conclude that what kids learn is less important than how they learn. "Everything these kids study, they own," he said. "It's theirs. Because they wanted to."
Legions of academics, educators and public officials would debate his conclusion. But no one at Fairhaven cares.
One warm afternoon, kids shot lazy hoops on an outdoor court. A boy towed a girl in a little red wagon. Another boy sped downhill on a driveway on a pair of kick scooters, one for each leg. An acoustic guitar leaned against a Volkswagen. Two seesaws bobbed. Children mucked in a creek. Teenagers listened to iPods and talked on cellphones. Some played computer games or surfed the Web. Many gabbed.
Students come and go when they want. The only requirement is to spend at least five hours at school between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Many roll in after 9 a.m., some close to noon. Those who fail to sign in pay a 50-cent fine.
Some events consume the school for weeks. Michael Fizdale, 17, of Bowie wrote and recently directed the two-act take on the Sendak classic that included a "wild rumpus" dance. Michael said the tale of mischievous Max scared him as a child and inspired him as a playwright. "This is a completely original piece," he said. "I took the book and made the most out of it. It's a story about acceptance."
Michael said he is studying mathematics and physics at home with his mom, a public school teacher. He also studies bees at nearby Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and is thinking about a biology career.
Richard Morris, 17, of Edgewater, played a prince in Michael's show and is interested in writing, sound recording and filmmaking. He is attracted to a school where student government means student power. He lobbied to pass a rule requiring secret ballots on personnel-related votes at school meetings. "I'm very into the politics of the school," he said.
Meetings are central to a school without a principal or headmaster. A student judicial committee convenes daily to enforce a thick rule book established collectively by students and staff. Anyone can be "written up." On this day, three boys -- Lukash, Ruslan and Roman -- were brought before the committee by a boy named Zack to face a charge of improper screaming in a computer room. "They did it," said one teenage witness in a brief trial. The youngsters pleaded "no contest" and were barred from the room for three days.
Yet discipline, as an outsider would conceive it, is scarce. At 9 one morning, several youngsters were sprawled on a couch, whooping over a Godzilla-like video game. At 10:30 a.m., they showed no sign of letup. No rule prevents a game fanatic from sitting in front of a screen all day. "For three years, I did exactly that," said Eric Steigerwald, 17, of Silver Spring, now in his sixth year. "It got depressing." Yet he enjoys the school and talks of becoming a writer or graphic designer. Fairhaven relies on the threat of boredom to spur student creativity.
Some tire of the freedom. Izzy Rosen, 14, of Northwest Washington is switching to the private Nora School in Silver Spring after seven years here. He said Fairhaven helped him grow socially. Unlike many adolescents, he can relate equally to peers, youngsters and older teenagers. But he wants a structured high school to prepare for college. "It will be a fresh start," he said. His parents hired a math tutor for him this year.
Izzy's mom, Gayle Friedman, was on the staff for several years and helped found the school. "It's a gorgeous concept," she said. "It works beautifully for some kids, well for others and not so well for others."
She taught pottery, Spanish, a bit of yoga. Sometimes, she was disillusioned. Students often bailed on her Spanish class, she said, because they didn't want to do the work. Her
4-year-old son won't be attending Fairhaven.
Opening Doors
There is little way to evaluate Fairhaven except on its own terms. The school is not accredited by any independent organization. The school has awarded 16 diplomas over eight years and has seven diploma candidates. To receive one, students must spend at least three years at the school and be 16 or older. They must also write and defend a thesis on how they have taken responsibility for becoming effective adults. An assembly of students, staff and parents votes on awarding diplomas. No one has ever been rejected.
Three graduates have gone on to four-year colleges: Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and the Art Institute of Chicago. Some have gone to community college. Other alumni include a professional skateboarder, a waiter and a librarian.
Thor Jensen, 20, Class of 2005, said Fairhaven taught him how to learn. Now, Ursinus professors find he raises his hand all the time. "I learned how to be interested and engaged in what I'm doing," he said, "so I can continually obtain new information and increase my understanding of how the world works."
Ben Umstead, 22, Class of 2001, graduated last year from a Los Angeles film school. He said his Fairhaven diploma has never been an obstacle. "The general reaction is pretty much, 'Huh, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.' "
Justin Reed, in this year's graduating class, is an aspiring rock musician. His mother said Fairhaven restored Justin's love of learning. "It had really been beaten out of him," Jan Reed said. Now, she said, Justin studies poets such as Allen Ginsberg and is flourishing as a writer. "What I would like to be able to deliver to my child, and every child, is the education they need, and the education they desire, and really open that up for them," she said.
Jan Reed is principal of Mount Rainier Elementary. It's a public school in Prince George's.



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