Free Schools

How To Make A Free Skool
by Kate, l-san and Dina

Coordinating the School

Start by finding someone to coordinate the school with you. There's a good deal of work to do, and having someone to do it with will make the work a lot more pleasant, and go a lot quicker. The absolutely necessary jobs of flyering, phone tag, press releases, party hosting, and brochure designing will be more bearable and enjoyable if you're working cooperatively instead of alone.

Finding Teachers

Finding teachers is a matter of putting the word out. Make flyers and put them out all around town. Give bunches to friends and encourage people to tell everyone they know about this great opportunity for skill-sharing. Word-of-mouth will turn you up an easy semesters worth of classes. We'd advise against pestering friends to teach at the free skool. Quantity of classes shouldn't be your goal. To start with, the interest in and commitment to the free skool are your top priorities. Four classes with eager teachers is better than 10 with 6 teachers who will be sore when no one signs up or shows up for their class. Remember, teaching is a big commitment, and teachers need to want to do it. As well, keep in mind that you can't expect too many committed students. Decide on a realistic student base for your community--is it 15 people or 30? Is it more? Having more classes than you have students to fill will quickly dishearten teachers and students and coordinators alike. Teachers who get no students are unlikely to return to your free skool. Overestimating your student base is a rapid way to alienating everybody. Give yourself at least two weeks to get teachers.

Scheduling Classes

Work with the teacher to find a time convenient for them but also realistic for the class's intended participants. Some classes work fine during traditional business and school hours (M-F 9-5), but many won't. It's important for the skool to suit the students' schedule, or many won't pursue their initial interest. Also, consider how long each class can run or should run. The A-Zone free skool offers a six week semester in Fall and one in Spring. We encourage classes that need or choose to run longer to do so. With our current semester just ended, we still have 7 classes running--some to finish studying the prescribed material and some because everyone is having such a good time. Because of weather, we don't offer weekly courses in winter. Instead, we offer workshops--such as a day of bookmaking or an evening of home (or info-shop) repair. During summer, we also offer workshops instead of regular classes. Getting people to show up regularly in the summer is difficult, so, instead, we will offer workshops such as "Edible and Medicinal Plants In and Around the City,"and "Drumming In the Park."

Finding Suitable Classrooms

An infoshop is not always an ideal place for classes to meet. Nor is the local park. We've had teachers run classes out of their own homes, and other classes have run quite well at coffee shops. You can also hit up local theaters, and some community centers offer free classroom space to community groups. Make sure you coordinate teaching space with the teachers from the very beginning. Teachers will usually have good suggestions about issues related to their classes. Consider these problems we've consistently had:

  • Noise: Will noise disrupt the class? Will the class disrupt its neighbors?

  • Locked Doors: Don't schedule a class at your infoshop unless the teacher has a key. Locked out classes will turn into pissed-off people giving the free skool a bad rep.

  • Interruptions: Is kids' space scheduled at the same time? Do bands sound-check in the café every weekend from 5-7? Will you have to be answering the phone constantly?

  • Racial Sensitivity: Infoshops, artsy cafés and the like are primarily white youth spaces. If you want to generate interest in other communities, try to find racially neutral spaces. ESL, literacy tutoring, etc. should be taught in spaces that do not disempower their students. Local community centers and libraries might be good choices.

Promoting the Free Skool

With teachers, classrooms and a schedule you can now whip out a press release about your free skool -- its principles, its goals, its classes and schedule, and its opening party. Get this out to the press at least two weeks before your opening party. Simultaneously, get some nice brochures out to the public. Distribute stacks around the neighborhood and, again, give them to friends and comrades to share. Include in the brochure a description of the free skool and its principles. Include class descriptions, times, and locations. Use lots of neat graphics to illustrate the descriptions. Also include a registration form and a flyer about the excellent Back to Skool Party.

Have a Potluck for the Teachers

It's important to develop a sense of community with the teachers if the free skool is to be its best. At this get-together teachers and coordinators can get to know each other and learn more about the free skool. This is a good time to briefly discuss anarchist principles (how to teach without power-over, no one-way flow of info, knowledge as sharing not control.) You can also troubleshoot. Make sure all the times and places for classes are set up. As well, be sure teachers get a bunch of copies of the brochure. Many of the ideas and students you need to survive will come from your teachers. Encourage them to invite friends and co-workers. Offer to do an evening of flyering for any classes that want to make flyers (bring materials to do them there). Get the teachers involved. You want them to be a part of the free skool, not just their particular class. Oh yeah, and avoid the urge to turn this into a meeting. A fun social event will be more heartening than a dull consensual go-around.

Back to Skool Party

We've had great success with potlucks where interested people can get together and talk. Teachers and prospective students can meet each other and talk about classes, interests and needs. They can also get to know each other and experience a social bond before classes begin. Organize your space so that people can sit and talk comfortably. Have plates and utensils and glasses readily available. Mingle and talk about the skool. Encourage teachers to sign up for classes. Play low volume classical or jazz music. Make a point of talking to people as they come in. You will need to be host or hostess--don't expect people to come in and know what's going on. It's very important to be friendly and encouraging (but not patronizing) to people as they come in. This is a time for enthusiasm--it's a party.

After the Party

You've cleaned up after the party and are feeling pleased that most of the classes have at least one student. Now you need to call each teacher, thank them for coming to the party and give them the names and numbers of all their students. Suggest they call students each week to remind them, and let them know their participation is valuable. Similarly, you need to let each teacher know they're valuable. Especially after the first week of class, call every teacher and check-up on how things are going. You may have to console people who were totally blown off, you may also have to scramble for a new meeting place or time or new teacher (as we've done every semester since A-Zone free skool's inception with our Spanish class.)

Midway through the semester have a teacher/coordinator meeting to talk about how classes are going and see how you can help. Make it a finger-food potluck. This is one of the important ways to stay in touch with your teachers. Give as much moral support as you have. The teachers are

After your six weeks of classes have a show-n-tell and evaluation (a potluck, of course). Much less hosting is necessary, so you can relax and be a part of the fun. After everyone has eaten and is settling down, hand out evaluation sheets and get a discussion going about what worked and what didn't for students and teachers alike. Take notes. Check-in is a good time for show-n-tell--students and teachers can show/share what they've learned. Then, find out what classes are going on and which are ended. Discuss workshops for the next season--or the next semester. Most importantly, try to keep a social/party atmosphere. This should not be a meeting, but a social gathering and sharing.

Don't lose hope, the free skool will take a while to catch on. But it will, if you can keep your own enthusiasm up. At the A-Zone we've had a different coordinator(s) for each semester, with the early coordinators helping out in less taxing and demoralizing roles. For an infoshop or community center, this sort of responsibility sharing and decentralization would seem to be ideal.

Take a week or two off and get ready to start again.

A typical day at Summerhill School, Suffolk U.K.

This is a timetable for an ordinary weekday at the school. There is a glossary at the end to explain terms with an asterisk (*).

Naturally, regular times are sometimes changed by the Meeting or for some other reason. In particular, the bedtime laws are the subject of much discussion and are changed quite often. Still, the times here are correct at the time of going to press - or to web-site - and are fairly typical.

Remember also, while reading this, that just because a period is scheduled as being for `lessons' does not mean that any pupil must attend lessons then. It only means that there are lessons available which pupils may attend if they wish. (Generally pupils sign up for courses of lessons in the particular subjects that interest them at the moment, if any, and then go to most of the lessons in those courses.)

Breakfast is at 8:00 until 8:45. You have to be up and dressed by 8:30 or the "Beddies Officers" can fine you. A typical fine might be: back of the lunch queue, or half-hour work fine.

At 9:30 lessons begin. The older children "sign-up" for various subjects and then follow a timetable, just as in most other schools (except that classes are not compulsory). Children below the age of 12 go to class 1 (aged 5-10) or class 2 (aged 10-12). These have there own teachers and classrooms with multi-activity spaces. Their teacher can provide a timetable for the week, or organize activities in response to the children's needs and wishes. For art, science and foreign languages the children can choose to attend specialist lessons with the relevant specialist teachers. There are also English as Additional Language lessons, which new non-English speakers are encouraged to attend.

The range of subjects offered include:

  • Science (Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy)

  • Maths

  • English

  • French, German, Japanese

  • Woodwork

  • Art and pottery

  • Drama

  • History

  • Geography

Each sign-up student is given a blank timetable at the beginning of term in which they write their lessons. The timetable is changed from term to term depending on the choices of the kids and the subjects offered to them The principle of the timetable is to allow children to learn what they want. It leads to a structured day, with lessons starting at 9:30 and ending at 1:10. A computerized bell announces lessons. Each teacher keeps a register, but the children are able to choose to attend lessons or not, depending on what they want to do. We do not send reports to parents unless requested - and then only with the child's permission.

The specialist teachers are given a lot of independence in their classrooms, in terms of teaching method and objectives. But teachers are expected, by the students, to be able to teach their subjects up to GCSE (national English exams for 16 year olds).

During a normal day, children can choose to go to lessons, or do anything else. There are rules that stop you from sleeping during the day, watching TV during lessons, and you cannot go down town before 12:30.

Mid morning we have a 20-minute break for tea. Lunch is served in two sittings, the first at 12:30 - the second at 1:15.

After lunch is free time. You can play pool in the sitting room, hang out in the cafe, study on the computers, make a hut in the woods, play games, read, play tennis, go swimming (open air and therefore only in summer). Tea is at 3:30 - a cup of tea and a sandwich or biscuits.

At 4:30 the afternoon classes begin. These are more activities than classes - they are not exam orientated.

Subjects range from French conversation to building a fence for the pigs! Supper is at 5:30 and 6:15. After that there are any number of things to do. Some days it may be "gram" (disco), or maybe something has been organized by the "social committee" (games)." On Tuesday evening we have our Tribunal and on Friday afternoon our General Meeting.

An evening snack, "Evening Breakfast" (cereal) is served at 9: 30.

Bedtimes range from 8:00 (lights out at 9:00) for the smallest (or "San") kids, to 11:30 (lights can stay on) for the oldest ("Carriage") kids. Elected "Beddies Officers" put you to bed.

Other regular events

Tuesday 14:00 - 15:00ish

Staff meeting Tuesday 16:30 - 17:45

Tribunal Friday 14:00 - 16:00

General Meeting

At the moment there are also regular trips go roller skating, play indoor volleyball and go swimming at the local sports center. In the Summer we swim in our own outdoor pool. Some of the kids run a café which is open on Saturday nights and on Sunday mornings for a leisurely late breakfasts (newspapers and croissants!).

Many other games happen spontaneously in the afternoons and evenings. Sometimes nothing happens and everyone gets bored. Under the current Laws, you can watch TV or play computer games at any time except during lesson time.

A note on bedtimes

Bedtimes are a source of frequent contention in Summerhill. Sometimes the Meeting decides to drop them altogether - but this never lasts too long.

They are looked after by fourteen elected Beddies Officers (all older kids, currently 13-17). They have been given the power to fine on the spot half an hour's work the next day and/or a pudding fine. If you feel you have been unfairly fined you can appeal against the fine in the general Meeting, but you must do the fine first. Compensation is 50p for work, or double pudding! At you bedtime you must be in the area of your room. The younger children get a hot drink and a snack at their bedtime. The Beddies Officers will often read stories to the little ones and anyone is entitled to a kiss goodnight from their favorite BO. It is not the houseparents' responsibility to get everyone to bed and make them shut up.

A Summerhill glossary

Beddies Officers: Elected members of the community who are responsible for putting the school to bed and getting them up in the morning.

San / House / Shack / Carriage: Where the kids sleep depends on their approximate age group. Each group has a house parent who sleeps in a room near them.

  • San 5 - 9/10 years

  • House 10 - 12/13 years

  • Shack 13/14/15 years

  • Carriage 14 upwards

The staff decide where people sleep. Becoming a carriage kid is a big thing. You get a room to yourself, and there is a certain expectation that you will now shoulder more of the responsibilities of running the school.

Staff room There are quite often kids hanging around the staff room, though staff are entitled to kick them out. Usually any kids present are evicted at tea and dinner, and these times are used as an opportunity for an informal staff meeting.

About Summerhill

Summerhill School is unique. It is a progressive, coeducational, residential school, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921; in his own words, it is a `free school'. This does not mean, alas, that it is state funded. The freedom Neill was referring to was the personal freedom of the children in his charge. Summerhill is first and foremost a place where children can be free.

There are two features of the school which visitors usually single out as being particularly unusual. The first is that all lessons are optional. A school which compelled its pupils to go to lessons would be, at best, a travesty of freedom.

Many people suppose that no children would ever go to lessons if they were not forced to. How miserable their own school experience must have been, if lessons were so unpleasant as to inculcate this belief! At Summerhill, it is rare for a child to attend no lessons at all - at least, after the initial shock of freedom has worn off. But when it does happen, no pressure is applied to the child to start going to lessons.

The second particularly unusual feature of the school is the weekly Meeting, at which the school Laws are made or changed. These laws are the rules of the school, and the Meeting is attended by all members of the school. Changes to the Laws are made by democratic agreement; pupils and staff alike have exactly one vote each.

These two features are certainly central to the school, but they fail in themselves to capture its essential nature. Needless to say, epithets like `the school where kids do what they like' similarly miss their mark. What they omit to say is that Summerhill is a community. It is a community most of whose 80-odd members are children, so teaching is a part of it; but it is not the most important part. The most important part is building and maintaining an environment where members of the community can coexist in harmony and in freedom.

The story of the Albany Free School Community

Twenty-six years ago, we gathered in an old building which had once been a mid-nineteenth-century German Lutheran church, then an Italian-language parochial school named St. Anthony's, in Albany's South End. The year was 1972, a time when most of the original Italian residents were moving away to the suburbs, alarmed by the rising tide of crime and squalor which were (and are) the inevitable concomitants of occupancy by a socially isolated, impoverished black matriarchal population with few organic roots in the family structures of real community, most of them having fled the segregated South following the Civil Rights era. At that time a local newspaper article dubbed us "The Shoestring School," reflecting our relative non-monied status. Well, we haven't changed all that much. We are still an integral part of this changing neighborhood, where longtime residents and newcomers are living and working together to rebuild a sense of true cooperation and commitment. And inside our building is an extraordinary learning community. There is a kind of electric aliveness about both the school and the growing community that surrounds it. You might say that we bus kids into the ghetto, although it really is no longer that, in view of the mix of all sorts of people from all walks of life that we have become, at least in our part of the South End!

The Free School is a process which must be experienced to be fully appreciated. The kids themselves make the choice to join us, after a weeks visit (we do not leave that decision to parents alone) and since the changes they may want and need to make occur only over time and the space to discover for themselves who they really are, we ask parents for a commitment to allow their children to stay in the school for at least a year, so that the value we have for them can be fully realized.

We follow a calendar similar to the public schools, and tuition is on a sliding scale based on family income, so no one is excluded. And, as with the children, so it is also with the adults who work and live in this little community. In all of the twenty-eight, now becoming twenty-nine, years of our school's existence, we have never hired a teacher, never fired anyone who came to teach with us, never asked for professional qualifications, never mandated what subject a teacher should offer! Thus, the adults, as well as the children, are only those who have really chosen to be members of our learning community!

Truly, we are always making it up as we go along which is the title of Chris Mercogliano's new book about the school, about to be published by Heinemann in 1998. The extraordinary promise of a totally voluntary learning community is one whose story unfolds year after year, as we continue to consolidate the spiritual and social harvest being reaped from this evolving process!

We are eight adults and fifty kids, ages two to fourteen white, black, Hispanic, Asian from both middle class and poor homes. Unlike the families of children in most urban schools, our parents flock to our monthly PTA meetings, eager to share their discoveries with each other of how each one responds to the changes being brought home by their children. Together, we work and play and share the joys and sorrows of growing and living together.

We are committed to finding tolerance and compassion in an environment dedicated to openness and emotional honesty, drawing on the natural resources of the surrounding community for support and outreach. Don't expect to find a lot of expensive learning materials inside the building. We know that motivation comes from within the child and is not dependent on outward gimmicks. We have discovered that success comes quickly to children who are learning because they want to and not because they have to. And we know that children learn best when they are engaged in joyful, exciting, real activities. So, we cook, take care of goats and chickens, draw, paint, write poetry, make books, create original plays, and, almost incidentally, acquire basic academic skills in an atmosphere of work, play, and study. These programs include crafts, pottery and woodshop, music and dance, creative costume design and other sewing projects, science projects, history, cooking, geography, and several languages.

The school community also publishes two nationally acclaimed magazines: SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education, and the Journal of Family Life, a Quarterly for Empowering Families often sharing the children's creative work with our subscribers to SKOLE, along with the writings and drawings of children from other places. Older students participate in a wide range of apprenticeships with professionals and others in the city at large; and, every spring, raise the money themselves for a major trip, doing things like traveling around the United States or helping hurricane Hugo victims build a new septic system in a mountain village in Puerto Rico or reuning with friends at the annual National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools conferences. Experiences like these help them to develop a sense of autonomy and competence.

All of us have frequent opportunities to become well-acquainted with nature on our 250 acres of semi-wilderness land in nearby Grafton, N.Y., where we walk in the woods, fish, swim, and even make maple syrup. Founded in 1969, we are one of the oldest urban free schools in the country. We have developed an internal economy which enables us to avoid dependence on grants from government or industry. The important element we offer children, both by experience and example, is an awareness that "You can do it!" Even the children who leave us after two or three years let alone those who are with us for the full decade! have a clear sense of confidence, dignity and leadership. Their eyes are alive and open, their shoulders back yet relaxed, their bodies poised and vigorous. In every sense of the word, they belong to themselves!

We welcome visitors, whether as potential school families, as researchers into educational innovations, as educational doubters or simply as curious observers. We need to be experienced to be understood, and allowing visitation to be unrestricted (at least so far!) has become part of our community's tradition. The children enjoy new people, readily assimilating them into their life experiences, and thereby enhancing their natural acceptance of the larger world out there. And a few who originally came as skeptics or even to scoff, have remained to learn! So give us a call, (518) 434-3072, and come visit!

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