Frequently Asked Questions
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Life at Eugene Sudbury School
We are very lucky in that our relationships with the local school district and administration are excellent. While they may not choose to send their own children to ESS, they have supported us in our mission to provide a different kind of school choice to the families in our area.
We have many relationships with local business that provide ample support to our students for resources.
ESS is a participatory democracy, governed by its own set of Bylaws, laws, policies and rules.
Our lawbook contains all the rules of the community, as well as procedures for handling rule infractions. The rules are decided democratically by students and staff as the need for them arises. In general, the rules provide for the protection of individual rights while maintaining an atmosphere of safety and respect. Anyone in our community can “write-up” anyone else in the community. Once per day, a student-led judicial committee gathers to investigate all complaints and determines sentences as needed. Our experience is that students find the system to be the fairest way of handling discipline.
The Assembly is the legally constituted governing body of the Eugene Sudbury School corporation. It is comprised of students, parents, staff and may elect public members from the larger community. The Assembly makes the yearly budgetary decisions, elects the officers and board of directors, and is concerned with long-term goals. The Assembly has two regular meetings a year; the spring meeting decides the budget for the following school year, and the fall meeting elects officers for the Board of Directors. Also a number of ‘Special Assembly Meetings’ are called to decide other matters when necessary. The Assembly has the power to change its Bylaws, set general educational and financial policies, and has final approval of each year’s school budget
The School Meeting consists of all students and staff and is responsible for the day-to-day management of the school. Meeting weekly and operating by Robert’s Rules of Order, the School Meeting makes and amends the school Lawbook, manages and spends the Assembly-approved budget, hires staff, approves volunteers, administers projects, and attends to the myriad other responsibilities of running the school. It elects School Meeting Officials who have specific administrative duties that serve the needs of the school. The School Meeting makes decisions by majority vote with each student and staff member having one vote.
The School Meeting delegates judicial procedures to a committee known as the Judicial Committee (JC). The Judicial Committee is comprised of up to five students and one staff member. When problems between members of the community arise or rules or laws are broken, the JC can refer people to facilitated problem-solving, impose consequences, and refer more serious issues to the School Meeting. Additionally, school members experiencing interpersonal conflicts can ask the JC for a facilitated problem-solving.
Program Committees run the individual learning centers of the school, buy materials and set policies for those areas. Democratically elected Clerks do the administrative tasks, and insure the smooth functioning of the school.
We believe that the parents’ role in the lives of their children is of paramount importance. For the school to succeed, we need the support of parents. Because of this, we welcome parent participation in a variety of ways. The range of parent involvement depends on the individual parent. Some parents come to every Assembly Meeting or are Members of the Board of Directors, others choose not to. Some parents volunteer at the school and have a schedule of activities they are committed to do with students, while others volunteer to do much needed work. Some parents come to school often and others we rarely see. Parents at ESS are welcome to spend scheduled days with their children. We hold monthly Philosophy Meetings to get parent feedback and have monthly Workshop Days that all parents are invited to attend. Also, every parent of a student that attends full time is a member of the Assembly.
We do occasionally suspend or expel students, but not in the usual ways.
Sometimes a student goes through the judicial processes for repeated behavioral issues and the JC refers the problem to the School Meeting. The School Meeting then debates the issue and may vote to suspend in an effort to make an impact on the student. Once in a while a student is suspended for a first violation if the offense is serious enough, as in the case of violence or drugs. Students may always speak in their own defense, often suggesting community service instead of suspension.
When a student is suspended, our hope is that they will go home and consider if the school is the right place for them. If they decide it is, they consider what they will have to do to succeed. Upon returning to school after being suspended, they meet with a democratically elected suspension committee. This committee expresses the needs of the community, and offers the student assistance in succeeding at school. Occasionally (but rarely) a student has such severe problems that keeping them at the school would be harmful to others. In this case they have to go.
Drugs and alcohol, and/or their influence, are not allowed at school. However, every once in awhile there is a drug issue that arises and it is dealt with quickly and seriously. One might ask, “If the students make the rules, why wouldn’t they just change that one?” Because students here are truly responsible for themselves and the fate of the school, history has shown that they would not make such a careless decisions which might put the school in jeopardy. Our students are very protective of their school. Actually, the students tend to be more hard-nosed than the staff when it comes to infractions of this kind. They cannot change a rule to something illegal though.
We don’t have a big problem with bullying, but it does sometimes occur. It isn’t accepted here and doesn’t last long. ESS’s culture is one in which students don’t receive negative consequences for “narking.” Sometimes it takes a little while for this to sink in with new students, but eventually all students become empowered to take care of themselves either by using the school’s judicial system and problem-solving processes or by taking care of problems as they arise.
Anyone, staff or student, can ask for help from our judicial system or problem-solving processes. We are all answerable to the rules. Our judicial system ensures that everybody in the school has a voice and can have conflicts resolved or perpetrators dealt with by the community. Because the Judicial Committee is comprised largely of students, the message that is sent is: bullying behavior is unacceptable here, not only to the staff, but to everyone, a true jury of one’s peers. Usually problems are resolved amicably. However, it is important to mention that because the students here mix freely with people of all ages, it is common for older students to let younger ‘bullies’ know that they do not like to see people treated that way.
At ESS students spend a great deal of their time engaged in social activities; even the formal instruction is quite social. Obviously, the students here make friends just as they would anywhere else. However, we believe that because students are not in competition for grades, positions, or teacher praise, because they are interested in what other students are doing and are learning from each other, they wind up being interested in a broader spectrum of people. As a result, the lines between social groups tend to be fairly faint.
Yes, of course, we have a wide range of students of every designation. However, these labels are not useful to us. Here, students of every kind work and learn and play together.
This is a big issue for most democratic schools with no real right answer. ESS has found that students are basically not interested in contributing in this way until they are at least 12. Our policy at ESS is that students are responsible for cleaning up their own messes and are held accountable for this through the Judicial Committee. However, we don’t expect students to be responsible for the general cleaning that happens every day like vacuuming, mopping, toilet scrubbing, etc. For these duties we rely on paid/volunteer labor (either regular staff, cleaning people, or parent volunteers) depending on the budget.
All students are assigned an area for clean up time at the end of the day. They wipe down the tables and make sure the room is tidy.
At ESS we currently have three full-time staff, at least one parent volunteer each day, and we sometimes have an intern to serve 20-40 students.
“What I have learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even imagined.” ~ Hanna Greenberg, founder of Sudbury Valley School, in The Art of Doing Nothing
Everyone and everything is a potential teacher. We do, however, recognize our special role in the community. Staff members are ultimately responsible for the survival and smooth functioning of the program. On a day-to-day basis, staff members focus on holding the space in which children can be free within the boundaries of safety and respect. Although we practice non-interference as much as possible, we are always available to help students if and when they ask.
First and foremost, our staff need an ability to work well in a democratic, noncoercive setting. We look for someone who will be adaptable, genuinely interested in the school philosophy, and is a good person and role model. Also, as we have no separate administration, we look for individuals who will be capable of a variety of tasks; we also look for people with a wide range of skills and interests that the students can utilize.
We recognize that parents make the biggest decisions in a child’s life. Not everything has to be put to a vote, but the more your child feels control over his or her own decisions and the more his or her opinions are valued at home, the better this program will work for your family.
“If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.” ~ John Holt
It is true that the adults at ESS (staff members) treat students in an egalitarian style, without condescension or coercion, and have an equal voice to all other students in the running of the community. This doesn’t mean that your child will stop appreciating the wisdom of experience, provided that it is not forced upon them. The reality of the matter is that parents will continue to make the big decisions in their children’s lives. We believe that parents should be sensitive to that and treat their children as respectfully as possible, much like you would treat a friend.
“We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.” ~ Alice Miller
Your child may mature and grow in unexpected ways while enrolled in our program. That is the beauty of Sudbury schools! As with any other relationship in which one person is changing, the other may have to make adjustments as well. You can expect your child to demand more autonomy and respect at home. If you are open to making changes in the way that you relate to your child, then your relationship, and your child, will blossom.
Most families choose this model of education because they want their children to learn how to make their own decisions and pursue their own interests in a community environment rich in resources and energy. Some families choose this model because they have a particular student who is not thriving in his or her current school and they feel that ESS will help their child be successful. Some students choose this model themselves.
There are no typical parents. People from all walks of life send their children to ESS. Many of our families moved to Oregon specifically so they could attend ESS. Our families span a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and lifestyle choices.
A core component of choosing ESS is that the child’s family must support the model. Friction between the school’s philosophy and the family is usually a recipe for disaster, though understandable. Children sense when their parents are worried, this creates a great conflict in the child and the results can be damaging for the child, family and school.
The thought of children playing all day without anyone forcing them to sit at desks may conjure up images of a day care. But because students at ESS are not told what to do and are certainly not entertained, they must constantly decide what to do with their time. Freedom is not as easy as you may think, especially for older children who are not practiced in it, and responsibility is even harder.
“If you force kids to study things that they are not interested in, they may come to appear to be lazy.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization
Depending on how many years your child has been in a traditional school setting, they may go through a period of de-schooling when they first arrive our program. We see this as a valuable and necessary transition time in which the student gets back in touch with him or herself. This may include long periods of doing nothing at all. Your child may also be testing the adults around him or her to see if they are serious about not interfering with their choices. All of this is completely normal and you have to be prepared to accept this as part of the process before enrolling your child.
“Play is the highest form of research.” ~ Albert Einstein
Play is exactly what your child should be doing! There is a reason that nature has endowed children with an intense need to play in their earliest years of development, at a time when they are learning the most and the fastest, more than at any other point in later life. Not only do children make meaning and construct models of the world through play, they also practice their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
Sudbury schools have welcomed every ‘type’ of child – from the highly academic student to the traditional school ‘drop-out’. Students who are best suited for Sudbury type schools include: bright, highly motivated kids who want to surge ahead and challenge themselves; kids with unique learning styles who want to move at their own pace; kids who are ‘different’ in some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness; social kids who want to be part of a democratic community; little kids who are passionately engaged in exploring and creating; high-energy, restless kids who want to be active; frustrated kids who are sick of schooling; shy, sensitive kids who want to pursue their own interests; and self-directed kids who are ready for responsibility.
Sudbury students are capable of self-motivation, self-direction, self-assessment, and self-regulation. Almost everyone is capable of these things, although some students might not be ready right off the bat, they need to be capable of moving in this direction. If a student, for whatever reason, is not capable of these things, then ESS might not be the right place for them.
Prospective students will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As with all of our students, a decision about whether ESS is appropriate for a child would depend on the child’s ability to learn to take responsibility for his or her actions. Our program is not equipped to handle a student who experiences severe difficulties in learning independently or in self-correcting negative behaviors but we do assess students on a case by case basis to see if it’s a good fit.
Regarding children who are labeled ADD or ADHD... How well and how quickly (generally) do they adjust to a democratic school?
We have found that most children who come to us labeled ADD/ADHD from traditional school usually have a fairly easy transition. Rather than focusing on weakness and conformity, we allow each student to work and play as they see fit. Because we do not expect students to do things which are unnatural to them, we find they flourish in this kind of environment.
It is quite possible that your child will spend all day on the computer. With all of the negative media attention surrounding screen time, it is not surprising that many parents are concerned about this. Some parents see the computer, including video games, as a mind-numbing activity that “rots your brain”. At ESS, we recognize that computers are the most important tools of modern society and that there are many advantages to playing with them. Furthermore, computers and gaming are very social activities in our community in which students engage with each other, learn from each other, and constantly problem-solve together.
“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~ John Holt
A big leap that any parent must make before enrolling their child in our program is the willingness to trust them. You must trust that they will learn what they need to in their own way and in their own time. Once you shed the notion that real learning can be measured, you will begin to see your child in a different light and trust your own instincts about whether or not they are growing.
At ESS we administer the state benchmark tests in compliance with state law at what would be grades 3, 5, 8, and 10. The state law does not compel any individual to take the test. Some of our students do not choose to take the exams and some do. The students who choose to, do it for a variety of reasons. Some do it to practice test-taking skills, some want to know if they meet standard benchmarks, some do it just for the fun of it. We do not keep individual records of the tests at school; we send them directly home.
We stand very strongly behind our basic philosophy that children need to have the freedom to make their own choices regarding their learning and that there is no timetable outside of the students personal needs, interests, and drive. We believe that reading is a tool that everyone decides they need eventually, and they all end up in the same place in the end. Studies show that reading proficiencies are not related to when a person learns to read.
When a child is ready and willing, the basics like reading, writing, and math are quite easily learned. Traditional schooling forces children to learn these at the same age and at the same rate, often before a child is ready or interested. Thus, the process seems to be difficult and time-consuming. The fact is that we have seen children teach themselves to read, some at the age of 4 and some as late as 12, with absolutely no instruction. By age 13, you can’t tell the difference between the child who learned to read at 4 from the child who learned to read at 12. As for math, it has been proven over and over again that all of the math content from K thru grade 8 can be learned in just 6 weeks when the child is ready for it. Imagine all of that time saved for valuable play!
For a different perspective, watch the TED video Why Math Instruction Is Unnecessary.
“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process…the independent scientist in the child disappears.” ~ John Holt
We believe that all children are born with a strong desire to learn what they need in order to become an effective adult in the society to which they are born. In fact, our species would not have survived for very long without this inner drive. Our current education system was designed to short-circuit this process in order to make people into cogs of the industrial machine. It made sense at one point in history. However, in this post-industrial, or information, age, children know that much of traditional schooling is a waste of time, so more and more of them are tuning out. Our community provides your child with the time and space to get back in touch with their own natural desire to learn without being told to do so.
Most democratic schools have no grades of any kind (A’s, B’s, C’s, etcetera) or age segregation (3rd, 4th, 5th). Students are totally in charge of their own education; they are free to attend to their own learning and evaluate themselves in any way they wish. We find that without coercion, students’ self-evaluations tend to be more rigorous. If they are truly engaged, they will not stop until they believe they have achieved mastery. We believe this personal evaluation is more authentic and therefore more meaningful.
“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget
We live in the information age, where knowledge is available at your fingertips. For this reason, when kids are free, exposure is not an issue. Furthermore, because students are free to explore and interact with students and adults of all ages all day long, they are exposed to a wide variety of topics, more than they would typically get in an environment where only one person is delivering the curriculum. Students in our program don’t look at learning as a set of fixed subjects to be mastered. Instead, they follow their curiosity and interest, which isn’t limited to a classroom.
Yes, if they want it. As the students themselves design all classes or independent work, whether or not they take work home is their own decision.
At ESS doors open at 8:45am and the day ends at 4pm, Tuesday through Friday. We adhere to Oregon law, which expects students to be in school at least 25 hours a week. This leaves room for students whose parents drive them or have a need to come in late or leave early. Also, we consider field trips, internships, and other educational experiences as part of the student’s education. ESS is a full-time program, with the exception of Preschoolers who may attend half time; we do not accept part-time students. We are a community, absent students leave holes in the life of the school.
These are as vast as the personality differences of the students themselves. The qualities we typically see most in students are: Self-esteem, tolerance, integrity, fairness, understanding, sensitivity, compassion, assertiveness, management skills, creativity, individuality, humor, personal interaction skills, motivation, and common-sense.
“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn
Even though adults may not notice it, children set goals for themselves all day long. When they are young, the goals are usually small: they may want to make a birthday card for a friend; they may want to learn how to play a video game; or they may want someone to read a book to them. Some goals are larger, like proposing a new rule or planning a field trip. In our program, children learn how to accomplish these goals for themselves. They become skilled at creating their own reality by doing things on their own or asking others for help. As their confidence grows, so do their goals. The important thing is that students don’t rely on anyone else to set goals for them.
Although students are free to do whatever they want all day long (within the boundaries of safety and respect), the community has two very important structures that make up the heart of the it: 1) The student-led justice system where rule infractions and disagreements are handled daily (Judicial Committee) and, 2) the weekly community meeting where the rules, processes, and budget are decided democratically by students and staff (School Meeting).
Sudbury and Montessori are similar in that children are given more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves. Both models also hold the basic assumption that people are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn. The Sudbury model, however, gives students even more freedom and makes no assumption about how individual children will learn.
Our program is similar to unschooling in many ways. Both value self-directed learning without the use of coercion or extrinsic motivators and both trust that children will learn what they need to when they need it. However, students who attend our program get some time away from their parents. This enables them to take on much more responsibility for their own choices. It also enables them to practice living in a democracy with all of its rewards and challenges.
Whatever the student’s request. If there is not a member of the staff who can teach the course, the students can look for a teacher to bring in, also we encourage internships in areas of special interest. The students at ESS are currently pursuing; All levels of math, essay writing, reading skills, pottery, glass blowing, jewelry making, calligraphy, animation, graphic design, drawing, drama, grammar, computers, music, sports, photography and a never-ending variety of others subjects. There is a well-equipped computer room, playing field, art room, library, kitchen, games area, pottery area, sewing center, publications center, writing center, and music room.
There really is no typical day at ESS. When students arrive, they sign in, put their lunch away, and usually go look for their friends. Throughout the day, there are children at the computers, some eating lunch, some in a class, some in the art room, and some playing a board game or working on a puzzle. Often groups of students organize a game of tag or an impromptu talent show, while one student is making a video, one is playing music on the keyboard, one is working on their math, and another is catching bugs in the grass. Each day is rich with opportunity that is only limited by the students’ imagination and interests.
At ESS we take students year round, however we take a limited number of new students per month so sometimes there is a waiting list. To start the enrollment process you must call or email the school and speak with someone on the Admissions Committee. The next step is a visit which will include a tour, preferably with the whole family. Then if you decide to enroll, there is a visiting period, which lasts about a week; this is to determine, from experience, whether ESS is a good environment for the student. If it is a match, then the student signs a ‘contract’ with the school. The contract states a willingness to abide by the ESS Lawbook, to participate on the Judicial Counsel and a desire to be at school. After two months of being enrolled, all students in good standing and the parents who have signed the enrollment papers become members of the general assembly. During the visiting period, the student may not get certified to go off campus, or vote in the School Meeting.
Life After Eugene Sudbury School
How will my child get into college? And will they be ready? Without grades or transcripts, how do students get into college?
For democratic schools that have been in existence for many years, time has shown that the lack of grades and transcripts has been no impediment to college admissions or performance. Most students from democratic schools worldwide go on to college, most get into their first choice schools. Some of the colleges and universities attended by democratic school graduates are: Amherst College, Bard College, Boston University, Colorado School of Art, Eastman School of Music, Hampshire College, Harvard University, Mass College of Art, New England Conservatory, Northeastern University, Rutgers University, Smith College, Sorbonne University, Vassar College, the University of Oregon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University. Some alumni have received master’s degrees and PhDs.
Recently Grace Llewellyn, the author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, interviewed admissions officers at some of America’s top colleges and universities. The Deans of admissions at Harvard and Brown said they believed that students at schools like these and who are pursuing their own education actually have a better chance of gaining admission in that their unusual applications force admissions committees to consider applicants for a longer period of time, and by different criteria.
Today’s higher education landscape is rapidly changing and there is now a wide array of options available. We encourage students to research and pursue the option that works best for them in reaching their goals. Many students do choose to enter traditional 4-year colleges and universities. The history of Sudbury graduates is that 80% get into the college of their first choice. They do so because they stand out to any admissions counselor in that they usually know what they want to study and can articulate why they chose this institution over others. Once they arrive, they have already had so much experience with freedom and choice that they are more prepared for college life than many of their peers.
Just like any graduating senior the first step is deciding which college to attend and where to apply. Students figure out what the application requirements are for the colleges they choose, with help from staff if they want it. They do the things required for acceptance: they write application essays, sometimes they take the SATs or ACTs, they include their extracurricular activities, apply and are accepted.
“When kids are constantly having to make decisions [in a democratic school], they begin to know who they are, and to know how they feel about almost everything. When these kids go into an authoritarian situation, they do not feel threatened about losing their identity; they see the situation, instead, as a game that has to be played in a certain way.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization
We have had several students transfer from our program to a more traditional system. One was required to take a test to determine appropriate grade level and did so without a problem and two others were placed in their age-appropriate grade and excelled. In all cases, parents and teachers were surprised at how well these students performed. This is not surprising to us because we know how demanding a Sudbury program really is when it comes to personal responsibility and self-regulation. In any other program where someone tells you exactly what is expected of you is easy in comparison.
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~ John Dewey
Our students are well prepared for life in the real world. They are used to being in control of their own lives and making decisions for themselves – just as all adults do daily. They decide what to do, when, and how to do it.
It’s a common understanding that people today often change careers as many as 7 times in their adult lives. Technologies are changing all the time. Our students learn how to learn for themselves, to take on challenges that interest them, and to constantly pursue their own natural curiosity. We believe this intellectual flexibility will allow them to thrive in the rapidly changing landscape of America and the world.
A 45-year history of graduates from Sudbury Valley School has shown that the vast majority are living lives that are congruent with their values. In other words, graduates know themselves, know what they want, and know how to get it. Sudbury graduates don’t just settle for a paycheck, they seek out meaning in their work and in their personal lives. They are happy and content with the lives they create for themselves. Sudbury students are also particularly prepared for a fast-changing world in which self-initiation and lifelong learning is a must.
Trust. The most important thing is trusting the individual to make his or her own path. Trusting that the student will find for himself or herself what is right for them, and at the appropriate time. Sometimes this can be difficult. Grandparents want to know why a grandson or granddaughter cannot yet read, neighbors have heard that that school is ‘weird’. It is essential to be strong, for parents to support their children and for students to believe in themselves.
Are there other ways that graduates show that their democratic educational experience was a good one?
There are a variety of ways. One that we believe speaks loudly is the number of graduates who grow up to have families, and send their own children to democratic schools. Another thing that distinguishes people who have attended democratic schools is that their recollections of childhood are so happy and vivid. Also, during their education, students whose parents support them seem to have better familial relationships than most American children. While it is necessary to show that graduates of democratic schools can go on to attain scholastic and professional achievement, we believe that the other less quantifiable results are the more important.
Noncoercive schools like these date back to 1783, however some of the older schools in operation today have been open since 1921 (Summerhill), 1968 and 1969 (Sudbury Valley, and Albany Free School). Eugene Sudbury Sudbury school opened in 2011.
The democratic school movement is growing worldwide. In Israel there are two; Hadera School is government funded. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Thailand also have free schools, England, America, Denmark and others. Also the schools outside of the U.S. tend to have quite international student bodies, and the American schools themselves are becoming more international.
The answer to this question varies. Many American democratic schools are extremely small (about 25 students). Summerhill has about 65; Blue Mountain had about 60 while Sudbury Valley School and the school at Hadera have over 200.
Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg
Making It Up As We Go Along: The Story of the Albany Free School by Chris Mercogliano
The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School by George Dennison
Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing by A.S. Neill