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I work at Arts&Ideas Sudbury School in Baltimore, 8 years old at this point. I have been with them for two years.

There is no veto. There is simply discussing the issue and revisiting it if necessary. While it is always possible that a disastrous decision will be made, anecdotally, it seems to be exceedingly rare.

Students want the school to succeed. They want to be safe and respected. When you start from those places, bad decisions rarely happen if someone points out why they are bad. Of course, like any group, we may all think a decision is good when, in fact, it is bad. But if someone has a good view or argument, everyone listens.

I have learned that democracy is not about voting. True democracy is listening and being heard. It is a bit like in Buddhism and how simply witnessing and acknowledging emotions will often lead the way to a good outcome.

The absolute core of the school is accepting, without question, that each student is responsible for themselves. Once everyone really gets that, bad intentions melt away.

It is important to have a strong environment for students to experience mutual respect. Starting a Sudbury School is very difficult. But once it starts, as long as a small percentage of new students is added at a time, they will acclimate to the environment and accept the idea of balancing the needs of the many with the needs of the one which is ultimately the balancing act that we all must struggle with.

On many occasions, students have come to School Meeting with a rule that staff did not like. Sometimes during the discussion the staff have their minds changed. Other times, the student might change their mind. Still other times, the rule gets passed and the staff come to see that it is a perfectly good rule.

We also have a jury-style system (Judicial Committee) for rules. It is a body that the staff turn over the responsibility of adjudicating rule breaking and sentence making to. When some students make a mess (no cure for that, I am afraid) and I feel angry, I go and write them up. My anger passes and by the next day, I am okay with whatever our JC comes up with. It is generally fair and equitable.

Students almost always plead guilty if they did it, but if they did not do it, they will certainly say so. And we all get to suggest a sentence, but the members of JC decide on what it will be. They debate thoughtfully and generally rule wisely.

I have seen plaintiffs ask to drop a case while defendants ask to keep it. They want to admit to wrong doing and move past it. There is no shame, just lessons to be learned.

It is the most humane and fun environment I have ever been in. Students learn how to be part of a community, how to accept responsibility for themselves, and how to learn.

They may or may not learn academics; it is their choice. Academics, it turns out, is rather easy to acquire for children coming from a place of empowerment and respect.

To grow up accepted is a powerful foundation to accomplish anything.

One thing I was always interested in w.r.t. Sudbury Schools (but never met anyone with personal experience to ask about it) is how do the students, being trained in democratic way of doing stuff, deal with real life once they finish the school. They start working for a corporation with strict command & control hierarchy, they have to deal with political system where your vote has basically zero value etc. One's naive expectation would be that they limit their choice of work to the few places which are run in truly democratic manner -- but how many of those are out there, really? If they do not, they are likely to be deeply unhappy about what they do.

I work with a young school so the experiences are not quite there yet for me personally. Sudbury Valley School did do a study of its graduates at one point and found that they led very satisfactory lives embracing challenges everywhere: http://www.sudval.org/05_alumni.html#03

There is a lot of entrepreneurship involved in their pathways.

Our first graduate wanted to become a pastry chef and upon graduating our school, apprenticed to become one and is now a pastry chef at a well-respected restaurant. Our only other graduate just graduated from the college of his choice so it is a bit early for that one. From SVS, of recent fame is Laura Poitras, of Citizenfour.

My impression is that they embrace life with eyes wide open. If they happen to work for a bad outfit, they will understand why they are there (need the money, perhaps) and be open to moving on. They keep their power, always carrying around a memory of this accepting community in their hearts, motivated to take on challenges in their lives.

I am sure there are good stories and bad stories amongst the alumni, as with any group. But I would be willing to bet that the spark of living in the moment is almost universally present in all of the ones that attended a Sudbury school for most of their 5-18 years.

As for politics, a person can have a lot of power by taking actions, organizing, doing the hard work of establishing a movement. They learn at our school, presumably, that while voting is important, it is not nearly as important as being actively involved in the community, in talking with people, in making the connections that lead to results. Even bad bosses can be politicked for is not a bad boss just someone who is suffering and could use a helping hand?

I susepct your real question, and it is quite telling about our society, is "If you were going to end up a slave, would you rather have some freedom first or not?"

Is it slavery if it is the only (statistically) viable reality?

That question sounds like cognitive dissonance at work. As if you're stuck in a big corporation without any influence and need to rationalize the path of choices that led to this point.

Grandparent's point was that that is, by far, not the only choice.

> One's naive expectation would be that they limit their choice of work to the few places which are run in truly democratic manner -- but how many of those are out there, really? If they do not, they are likely to be deeply unhappy about what they do.

Why is that naive? What's stopping them from redefining work? I would venture that adults emerging from these type of school systems will be very well armed to call bullshit when they see it and not comply with it for the sake of belonging. I think you underestimate just how many good organizations, teams and opportunities are out there.

Or maybe I'm also too naive (and that's really not a passive aggressive statement, I actually mean that that could also be the case!)

EDIT: That said, I'd be very curious to learn about the challenges the alumni run into when leaving school too!

You wrote a very beautiful post and created value (at least for me). Thanks for taking the time to write this. It was thought provoking.

(I've been reading HN for years. I know agreeing or appreciating something is handled via upvoting. Sometimes it's just not enough and a human connection is more important than the HN guidelines).

> I have learned that democracy is not about voting. True democracy is listening and being heard. It is a bit like in Buddhism and how simply witnessing and acknowledging emotions will often lead the way to a good outcome.

I agree with this so strongly - do you have any ways in which you've seen these thoughts or ideas shared or written in some form?

No, but I haven't looked. I have been reading about Buddhism lately and working at a Sudbury School so the two naturally are feeding into one another in my mind.

I have been always curious to know the outcome: how do they become when they are 25-30 yrs old? Do they perform exceedingly better than other students? Are they more brilliant? Or ... smarter?

I am also curious about something I hope you can answer. I guess (big assumption!) that most of these pupils share similar backgrounds, like families with good/high education, high income, etc. How would it work if we put these kids together with students with different backgrounds, e.g., parents with severe problems, very low income, bad language, etc.?

And how do these kids react when one or two bullies (a group of outcasts (?)) of try to overpower the democratic "state"? Or ... what happens when one kid more "ambitious" than others is trying to manipulate them? How do they react?

Do you have any articles about this?

Just saw this. For the older, look at http://www.sudval.org/05_alumni.html#03

I think the basic answer is that they seek out a challenging and satisfying life. They can get along with people and are generally more emotionally stable.

At Arts&Ideas as well as the Philly Free School, we are working to support those who have low incomes. We have one student who was even homeless for a time this past year. We have parents who have been recently bankrupted, unemployed, etc. We also have some well off parents as well.

For the most part, it is hard to spot the kids that have different backgrounds. Everyone is accepting of others. Sometimes students from challenging backgrounds get stressed out about the insecurity at home and the students around show them compassion and acceptance which goes a long way towards eliminating the stress.

I have never witnessed anyone try to overpower the democracy. It is possible in theory, but it just doesn't seem to happen nor do we have a group of outcasts. Occasionally, someone will dislike something about our system and try to change it in a way that the community would not want. It gets voted down. But by letting the disgruntled have a voice, their disgruntlement seems to dissipate.

There was a time when a group wanted to get a gym bar. They outnumbered everyone else in the room, but through discussion, it was made clear to them that they had to think this through a lot more. They did, came back later, and got it in a way that the community was comfortable with. They did not try to overrule with their numbers.

It can be hard to understand, but when one is in a culture of cooperation instead of competition, winning at the expense of others is not a path often traveled.

There is a lot of reading one can do from Sudbury Valley School. For the low income experience, you can see if Philly Free School has anything. Urban Sudbury Schools are still pretty new so there just isn't too much out there yet about it.

How do parents react if their child doesn't choose to learn academics?

Depends on the parents. Some are okay with it, some try to manipulate their children, some try to manipulate the school.

When parents and school disagree on the degree of autonomy children should have it puts quite some stress on the child. That's why the Sudbury-like school I went to does have a discussion with the parents beforehand on wether this kind of school really is what the parents want for their children.

It is very important for the school to make it clear that this can happen, is likely to happen, and that they need to be okay with that. This can certainly be a deal breaker.

Also a deal breaker is unlimited screen time. Or the freedom to go off-campus (with an age appropriate buddy system). Or any number of other things that giving a human being responsible freedom really means.

It is easy to give freedom to those whose actions you agree with. But that's not really freedom. Being happy with letting people make choices that you strongly disagree with is when you know you truly believe in freedom.

Of course, there are always boundaries to freedoms which is where it gets messy. We base our rules on the good of the community, not the individual. But even that can be abused. It takes honest dialogue to work it all out.

All parents have to face a time when they must let their child be free. We advocate for that being earlier rather than later. Some embrace it, others don't.

What we try to convince parents about is that they can best support their child at our school by enjoying their time with them at home and accepting them for whomever they choose to be that day.

And if a parent is into mathematics, then they should share that joy just as they might share the joy of whittling wood toys because they want to share their passions, not because they want the child to learn those passions.

A lot of parents in this culture have a problem with letting academics be optional. And by academics, I mean mathematics. No one seems to care much about anything else except maybe parents of 5 year olds and reading.

I have years of experience dealing with adults who have been traumatized by math education. They come to me believing they are bad in mathematics, that they cannot handle it. In a single semester, I get them from 7th grade algebra up through calculus and statistics. They start doing guesstimations in their daily lives. The nightmares of the math monster under the bed fade away and they are empowered. So what exactly did their K-12 academic education do for them?

Even the ones who do well, one has to wonder at the spoon-fed nature of traditional teaching. The hard part of learning is not answering the questions, but asking them in the first place and getting started in the right direction. Traditional education sweeps all of that real activity of academics under the rug. They have to. You cannot teach someone those skills. They have to acquire them by their own experiences dealing with their passions and interests. And failure cannot be socially stigmatized.

We want to empower human beings to be their own amazing selves. This is not a message most can embrace, but some do and the results are inspiring.

By the way, about reading, a great article is http://schoolingtheworld.org/a-thousand-rivers/

Thank you, holy crap that's a good article too.

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