At Sudbury School In University City, Students Make The Rules

By Blythe Bernhard St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Blythe Bernhard reports, "The first Sudbury school opened in 1968 in Massachusetts, inspired by the "free school" movement of the time, a countercultural experiment aligned with anti-war, civil rights and anti-establishment ideologies."

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo.

The school has no textbooks. No grades, classes nor curriculum. And most surprisingly, no teachers. At St. Louis Sudbury School, students rule.

In a Sudbury school, students spend their time however they wish. They are responsible for their own education, which doesn't come from assignments or homework but the students' own curiosity.

The first Sudbury school opened in 1968 in Massachusetts, inspired by the "free school" movement of the time, a countercultural experiment aligned with anti-war, civil rights and anti-establishment ideologies. The basic idea is that children are equals in society who are capable of learning and developing skills within a community of peers. About 20 other Sudbury schools have since opened in the U.S., although they have no central governing body or formal connection.

Alexis Franklin, 27, of St. Louis became interested in opening a Sudbury school after researching alternative education methods. She planned to be a teacher but became disillusioned while student teaching in seventh-grade geography classes. Students and teachers were unhappy because of pressure to meet universal standards, she said.

"I realized the whole system was going to wear me down," Franklin said. "It's more powerful to start something new than fight against something that is so broken."

Franklin opened the private St. Louis Sudbury School last September, on 6 acres in Wildwood that included a pottery studio, farmhouse and opportunities for hiking and gardening. But meeting the city's building codes proved too expensive, and the school recently moved to a temporary home in a former Catholic school at All Saints Parish in University City.

Annual tuition is $6,930, and financial aid is available, Franklin said.

There are eight students enrolled, ages 6 to 14. Franklin has hopes to grow exponentially. She is the only adult on site and is volunteering for now. The school plans to hire a paid staff member this spring, with students conducting the candidate interviews and making the hiring and salary decisions.

Missouri has few rules for opening a private school. Franklin is required to keep vaccination records for students, but there are no other licensing or accreditation requirements. At Sudbury, students attend school a minimum of five hours daily between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

There is no schedule, so students can eat whenever they want and roam the school grounds at leisure. They read, play board games and video games, cook, make art and even walk to the nearby Loop. They bring comforts of home, including blankets, candles, plants and a record player. When outside, they wear name badges identifying them as students of an independent-learning school. Students have chores, which include taking out the trash and vacuuming floors.

Franklin's role is supervisory, with a goal of as little intervention with the students as possible. Students handle their own discipline through a judicial committee, which handles complaint forms daily.

"It's hard to trust kids. The culture tells us not to," Franklin said. "My role here is just to model general respectfulness."

Franklin was a straight-A student and self-described rule-follower at Parkway West High School. Her schedule was packed with extracurricular activities designed for an optimum college application, she said.

"All of those qualities were not helpful in the real world," Franklin said. "Following orders and meeting others' expectations is not a rewarding way to live as an adult."

The soon-to-be-hired staff member will be expected to spend their time at the school doing whatever they do at home. The students are hoping to find someone with interesting hobbies to share. Now, when students want to learn more about a topic, they can consult a binder with experts in various fields who are willing to volunteer their time. One student said he wanted to learn more about taxes, so Franklin is bringing in a personal finance expert to give a presentation.

There are no limits on students' use of cellphones or tablets, which are enjoyed liberally. The school is designed to cultivate boredom through downtime.

When the kids say they're bored, "it feels like a success, because they're experiencing mindfulness of the extent of their autonomy," Franklin said. "It's not humane to be micromanaged."

Most of the students attracted to Sudbury have experienced "educational trauma" in traditional school settings, Franklin said. They have been bullied by other students or felt pressured by grades and standardized tests. Most have a diagnosis such as autism, anxiety, depression or attention-deficit disorder, she said.

Lily Goldberg, 11, has dyslexia and struggled in private school with the push to read in kindergarten and first grade. Before coming to Sudbury, Lily was "unschooled," a form of homeschooling without a curriculum. She loves audio books but didn't learn to read until age 10, said her dad, Patrick Goldberg, who is studying remotely for a doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and is a member of the school board at Sudbury.

Lily's math skills lean toward the practical variety, timekeeping and money management, according to her dad.

"Anything she's interested in she can pick up, and it gives us confidence," Goldberg said. "For parents who are interested in this kind of learning, there is a huge amount of trust necessary. It's scary but it's also really rewarding."

Research on graduates of the first Sudbury school in Massachusetts found that about 75% go on to college, and most report satisfaction with their adult lives. Those who are interested in taking college entrance exams can prepare on their own, and their college applications stand out because of their individualized experiences, proponents say.

Kylie Beutler, 14, said Sudbury feels "freeing" after attending public middle and high schools in west St. Louis County, where she had failing grades and multiple detentions for being tardy. At Sudbury, she's become interested in a wide range of studies including taxidermy and calligraphy.

"I have the time and freedom to do it on my own," Kylie said. "Schools expect everybody to work with the system, but the system doesn't work for everybody." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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