Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

While teaching at Catholic and public schools in the 1990s, Mark McCaig and his wife, Kim, grew increasingly frustrated with the amount of time they were having to devote to managing behavior and teaching material that didn’t interest students. They started reading about different approaches and were intrigued by the Sudbury Valley School, a democratic school in Massachusetts where students are in charge of what and how they learn. After paying a visit, they quit their teaching jobs to create a Sudbury-type school in Maryland.

The Fairhaven School, which opened its doors in 1998, has no tests or grades, and no assigned homework. Its goal is to help students develop two core traits: agency and autonomy. (In response to one of the most common questions posed by prospective parents, one parent and former staffer wrote a blog post explaining how a democratic school differs from other alternative approaches to education.)

To foster those traits, the school aims “to strike that balance between freedom and responsibility,” McCaig says, which he sees as two sides of the same coin. The institutional framework — rules and community responsibilities and related meetings — “provides a sense of order that is vital, but around that, students have a lot of liberty to shape their day.” They have at their disposal a large meeting hall, a workshop, two kitchens, several smaller meeting rooms, a library, and rooms dedicated to art, computer gaming, digital arts, and play. The grounds include a stream, a forest, playing fields, a basketball court, a playground, and lots of porches.

How it Works

Designed to be an affordable, “green” learning space with a heterogeneous student body, the school is in a racially diverse, middle-class suburb of Washington, DC. Today about 15 percent of the students are non-white, and the school provides grants or reduced tuition to low-income families. The only entrance requirement is a trial week to ensure prospective students are interacting positively with others and not endangering anyone, including themselves.

The roughly 60 students range in age from five to 18, with a fairly even distribution of ages, except for a recent uptick in 11-year-old boys who have transferred there from conventional schools. The children and adults mix freely, creating the essential “scaffolding” experiences for the younger members of the community. All of the children, regardless of their ages, “know what they want to do, and learning is a by-product of what they do,” McCaig says. “Learning is the result of doing, not vice versa.”

Five-year-olds who haven’t been exposed to formal classrooms are in many ways better prepared for this ‘discovery learning’ approach, because they are more attuned to this “natural way of interacting,” says David Bjorklund, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who specializes in developmental psychology. “Children begin as explorers—they explore the environment around them, watch others, and try out what peers as well as adults are doing. … What they need to acquire, they are able to acquire quite proficiently through ‘discovery learning.’”

Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

Newcomers respond to this environment in different ways, reflecting their varied personalities, interests and needs (students who enroll at Fairhaven are not necessarily any more self directed to start with than other children, McCaig says, especially if they’ve grown accustomed to having lots of restrictions). Those who crave more structure, he says, create it for themselves. Some exult in their newfound freedom and immerse themselves in previously curtailed activities such as playing video games, but eventually “they figure out how to manage that part of their lives,” he notes. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who have become so accustomed to doing what they’re told and being praised by teachers, that they find it harder to adjust to the freedom than to the responsibility.

The most significant responsibility at the school is that “you are responsible for what you make of your life,” McCaig says. To graduate, students write and defend a thesis that they have “prepared themselves to become effective adults in the larger community.”

The students’ endeavors are supported by five adult staff members, who bring varied skills and interests to the table: two are former schoolteachers; one is an artist; another is a former nature center interpreter; and the third is a movie sound technician. (The former schoolteachers also had some “unlearning” to do in order to work there effectively, McCaig says, including himself.) They help students clarify and achieve their goals, handle administrative matters, and serve as mentors or “village elders — people with life experience who know some interesting things and can help in a crisis,” as McCaig puts it. The entire school community — staff and students alike — votes each year to decide whether or not to extend each staffer’s contract.

The adults facilitate but don’t drive anything for the students, McCaig explains. “The hard work [the students] do here is learning how to become agents of their own lives and how to make things happen, whether it’s something academic, or organizing a fundraiser, or another event.” Technology, he says, “has increased efficiency and opportunity for our students; nevertheless, the liberty, respect, and community the school provides seem far more important and valuable than laptops or smart phones.”

The staff members organize classes when students request them. Staffers will teach the classes or hire someone else. Some of the classes are just one to one. If students lose interest in the subject and stop coming to class, there is no penalty, but there is a consequence. “I will say we’re done,” McCaig explains. “I don’t want to spend time preparing for something and not have the social contract met. … That is part of our job, to give students the reality of how to do things.”

One staffer, he notes, describes Fairhaven as a place to “practice life.” Students are given the opportunity to “practice the skills that one succeeds in life with, such as communicating with people, taking on jobs, learning how to cook. Academics may be just a part of that.” He adds: “A lot of what happens seems almost invisible. … Play and conversation, broadly defined, are the two most common categories of activity here, and seldom do these ‘look like school.’ Nevertheless, our students are constantly practicing life itself, and the rewards of this practice are as profound as they are difficult to measure.”

Some students shift their main focus to academics after they leave Fairhaven, or during the hours they’re not in school. “We’ve had people go on to college who did few academic things when they were here, to study all sorts of subjects,” ranging from social work to biology and creative writing, McCaig says.

Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

The Pluses and Minuses of a Democratic School

The freedom of democratic school does not translate into license to do whatever students wish. There is a “thick law book,” McCaig says, that has been developed over the course of 17 years at the “School Meeting,” where each staff member and student gets an equal vote. (Among other things, it describes the level of skill students need to demonstrate before being able to use expensive or potentially dangerous equipment, such as workshop tools or microwave ovens.) The students are required to participate in judiciary committees, follow the school rules, and record their hours of attendance. Students must attend school for a minimum of five hours each day, though many stay longer. The school’s governance system is explained in more detail here.

Freedom is relative — some families who are accustomed to homeschooling find the rules at Fairhaven too constraining, and also don’t like the fact that, like all schools, it’s cloistered from the surrounding community. There are also those who prefer to be exposed to more adult-initiated activities. A small school such as Fairhaven is also limited by its size, McCaig notes. It doesn’t have a completely stocked science lab, for example, or a large faculty to consult. “Some students arrange those kinds of experiences for themselves off campus,” he adds. “They get internships or jobs, or take community college classes.”

What the students do have at Fairhaven is “basic freedoms, like freedom of movement,” McCaig says, and the ability to devote themselves to projects for as long as they want. The responsibilities that are attached to the freedoms help the students mature, he adds: “To be exposed to a place where there is so much responsibility leads to responsible people.”

The school culture and the transparent and democratic judicial system have made bullying almost non-existent, he says, but “we are not immune to the normal challenges life presents. People have conflicts. … The young people here are working on figuring out what to do with their lives, and answering this question and discovering how to make it happen can involve difficult work. People struggle here from time to time, and we expect this. What’s empowering is that we do not have to label or assess their struggles; rather, we are present to support and witness the students as they overcome life’s challenges.”

Leaving Fairhaven For Other Schools And College

A significant number of students (including the younger of McCaig’s two teenage daughters) eventually opt to transfer to a larger school, to meet more people, take advantage of the academic or extracurricular offerings, or just see what else is out there. “The macro issue is that students should be in charge of what they do, and if that means they want to go to public school, more power to them,” McCaig says. “It feels like a different thing than compelling them to do so.”

Long-time students often “want to see if they measure up, because we don’t evaluate them,” he adds. “They treat [the conventional high school] like college. They take it seriously, they know what they want, and they are there to master it.” Many have to really apply themselves at first and get additional support to catch up academically, he says, but most go on to make the honor roll within a year. “A significant number then come back,” he adds, “because they decide they find it boring.”

Fairhaven alumni have not experienced any particular difficulties getting into colleges, especially if they can distinguish themselves by going for interviews or submitting video interviews, McCaig says. But students with very specific goals — such as attending a technical college with less flexible requirements—“need a conscious plan,” which often involves taking specific community college classes on the side while they’re enrolled at Fairhaven.

Alumni have gone on to careers as varied as helicopter technician in the military, organic farmer and social worker. McCaig gauges the success of the school in terms of whether the alumni are satisfied with their lives: “Are they happy and thriving, doing something they want to do, and making a living?” Fairhaven has not collected hard data on its alumni, but the staffers do keep in touch with them, and McCaig says their experiences are comparable to those documented by Peter Gray and by the Sudbury Valley School in its book, Legacy of Trust.

Watch the trailer for “Voices from the New American Schoolhouse” below, a 2005 documentary about Fairhaven School by Danny Mydlack:

How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools 10 October,2014Luba Vangelova

  • Mark O. Hammontree

    AMAZING! True freedom to LEARN whatever is interesting, and learn at one’s own pace, instead of the typical forced education used here in the “land of the free!”

    • Mark O. Hammontree

      “Learning” happens when a person REACHES for knowledge.
      “Education” happens when facts are thrown into everyone’s faces. Force fed.

  • skaizun

    I still believe there should be structured learning, because nearly every kid I know, who wanted to be something in elementary through high school, became something totally different. However, I applaud giving children control of the reins to a point.

    • The schools are built upon building autonomy and changing career direction is a function of autonomy so your theory is fundamentally flawed. An adult that knows how to attain their own goals fundamentally has an advantage over adults who’ve never had to do that. If they lack basic education, they educate their self. If they need money, they research finance. What they have at all times is an objective that they actually want. This is something that is fundamentally left out of “structure learning” where what you want is irrelevant. It’s no wonder that so many college students have no idea what they want to become and why so many change the direction of their career. The reality is that while most people do change direction from what they wanted as a child, the most successful people don’t. If you want to be the best in the world at something, you have a massive advantage is you start from a young age; and beyond being the best in the world, if you want to achieve your own highest potential, that involves taking your childhood interests and following that well spring of interest into achievement and career.

    • WriteLearning

      The question is not whether learning should be structured, but who should control the structuring. At Sudbury schools like Fairhaven the learning itself is self-directed, but it also occurs within the context of a democratic, mixed-age community. At Alpine Valley School ( we call this immersion in a scaled-down version of the larger world “real learning for real life.”

  • katiefan

    Would like to see a list of colleges their alumni were accepted to. Could not find it on their page.

    • TObri001

      The Sudbury Valley School, the flagship democratic school in the US, has published a book on alumni and what the have done (are doing) in the years after SVS. It’s called “The Pursuit of Happiness” That can give you an idea of what kinds of colleges these students go to.

      • Jenna2784

        Yes, but what percentage actually maintain normal lives with jobs or academic systems? Books written by the institution itself are going to biased and have no hard statistical data. It’s an unreliable gauge as to the true success of its alumni.

        • You might want to look at the true success of most people who simply graduate high school. Public schools leave the bar incredibly low and for these guys to rise above that is utterly believable.

        • Scott

          Success is how you as an individual define success for yourself. Getting into college and having a 6 figure salary job doesn’t necessarily mean you have become successfully happy. For some, that lifestyle may mean success, but for others like myself, that’s not what being successful is about.

        • Mark O. Hammontree

          What is “Normal?”
          In the USA, everyone is supposed to be free to do their own thing.
          What is “Success?” Earning a high wage and hating your job? Or earning a low wage and LOVING your job? Or, best yet, LOVING your job, and being well paid for it, too, as an independent business owner. Well, freelance, not independent.

          Or, on another tangent, perhaps success is marrying a compatible spouse and raising non-neurotic happy children of your own.

        • Pallas Purple

          This book does have statistical data. The samples sizes are small because the total population is small.

        • RevolutionaryGirlAlice

          Fulfilling-job-having, bill-paying alum in a happy adult relationship here. Can’t speak to the percentage, but the circumstantial evidence of knowing most of the people who went there 10 years ago personally says “seems on par with or better than with my public school friends have done.” It’s been a tough job market in general, but if anything, fostering a sense of how to fail and get on with life anyway and a worldview geared towards figuring out the way to what you want rather than following a pre-set path to it seems to be serving us well.

        • aikimoe

          As a fellow “artist, nerd, gamer,” I believe that there are very few “reliable gauges of true success.” Some people think that just making ends meet as a middle-aged artist is not being successful. Some people think that being rich and constantly under pressure to maintain a particular career and lifestyle is not being successful.

          Some people think that being happy is being successful. Everyone is different.

    • Good Vibe

      Well, My oldest daughter graduated from Fairhaven when she was 16. She decided to go back to our local HS for 9th grade after not being in a traditional classroom since she was 10 years old. She got into ALL AP classes, had a 4.0 throughout and HATED IT. I even got a call from the principal her first semester as she was given some award that kids must be nominated by the teachers to receive. However, she found that public school boring, the kids were rude, she was forced into a mold with no freedom and couldn’t wait to get back to Fairhaven. She got accepted into SCAD in GA with a 50K scholarship. I did NOTHING she did everything and said, “Mom can we go to SCAD for my interview”. She only stayed a year and went into the Army, she is a SGT, BlackHawk Mechanic. She’s lived in Europe most of the time but is now back in US. She has been going to college via UMUC Europe since she’s been in the military and will be using her GI bill to continue her education. She did VERY well on her SAT and ACED the ASVAB. My youngest, also graduated Fairhaven at 16. She ACED the ACT and is top in college for nursing and will graduate within a about one more year. I am very proud of my girls. They never had to “rebel”, never wore make up, skimpy clothes, never had one piercing or anything because they were free to be who they truly are. I know all of the kids in the video and will not name or tell what they are doing, but I can assure they are all doing well and most have finished or are still in college.

      Public school is doing one thing, PUMPING OUT WORKERS, DRONES. There is no time for self exploration or, God Forbid, independent thought. Everyone is made to think the same, learn the same, be the same. BORING.

    • Pallas Purple

      I was accepted at Goucher and UM College Park. Other alums went to Mary Baldwin, Ursinus, Brown, and others I can’t think of right now. Someone got into Harvard too but I think they ended up going elsewhere. Fairhaven doesn’t have a large staff so compiling lists like this is on their back burner.

  • angelofmercy

    I like this idea, I would like to see what a day there looks like. I’ll bet the kids are happier there, my kids feel like school is jail. And they are good kids making A’s and in honors classes. But they are unhappy to go every day.

    • Good Vibe

      Both my kids went and graduated from Fairhaven and are doing phenomenal. Fairhaven was the BEST decision I ever made for them.

    • Pallas Purple

      As an alum I can say that every day was different. If I was in the throws of a project my whole day would be dedicated to that. If not I would meander from activity to activity with less urgency. There were stressful situations from time to time but I never wanted to “play hookie”

      • Strandwolf

        throes, hooky

        • Pallas Purple

          Oops! Good catch!

      • angelofmercy

        Thanks for the reply, it’s good to know my first thought was correct, I think it sounds like a wonderful school, teaching in a way that seems better.

      • However it wasn’t ever like that.–xyVeDnmchu4lKn4Nhes59i3X59EZ9gc1znk/edit The original cyber-terrorist have been harmless critters.

    • Agreed. I felt as your children do about school. All I wanted was to get out. Up until the very last day, the administration treated like children, yet led us to believe that we were somehow ready for the ‘real world’.

  • Stacey Engel

    not surprised that Fairhaven does not collect hard data on it’s alumni

    • Gail Weaver

      See the comment above for where to find “hard data” on alumni. They reference “The Pursuit of Happiness”.

    • Good Vibe

      I am very happy I sent my 2 girls there. They are both very successful as are all of their friends that went there.

  • Amy

    Our son is a student at our local Sudbury school and we (he included) could not be happier.

    • Pericles Parthenon

      A kid at Sudbury FISHED for five years, (while his dad fretted, and his mom patiently waited) eventually was a “depth expert”, then put it all down and went into a productive, intellectually challenging computer career. Go figure.
      Life finds a way.
      Just loosen the grip, maintain some structure and expectations, and you’d be surprised. It’s not a license for ridiculous boorish anarchy. It’s a license to learn responsibly yet freely.

      • People have so little faith in the inherent goodness of people when it comes to children.

        • Resilien7

          It has less to do with inherent goodness and more to do with inherent competence. I don’t dismiss this approach to teaching, but most young people and even adults are not capable of being their own teachers when it comes to a field they have absolutely no experience in, and most kids aren’t mature enough to want to learn everything they may need to learn to be successful in life or be a productive participant in our society (heck, there are a lot of adults who are still too immature to see why things like social studies, art, chemistry, physics, etc. are taught in schools).

          The ideal of traditional education systems is to produce individuals with a well rounded base of knowledge so that they have the freedom to pursue a wide range of fields and the exposure to a broad enough range of studies to have a good chance of discovering what they truly want to do in life.

          • JaneSS

            I have my doctorate and math beyond fifth-grade level basic division and multiplication has never been necessary in my life or career.

          • Your argument is wrong at times and flat out cynical. It not only presumes ignorance but also immorality. Educating yourself about world and US history is simply something an educated and responsible person does, if they wish to talk about the current state of the world with any accuracy. Also, if you want a technical job that requires high level math, you learn that or you can’t do that job. Everyone that knows what they want and can see the obstacles before them is ready to remove those obstacles. We all learn to walk on our own. No one has to teaches you how to walk. Everyone falls down before they walk. That happens hundreds of times. This is how a person teaches their self everything. When they get older, the only difference is if they choose to listen to somebody that knows more about it. The individual always implements what they listened to and then they see if they fall down or if they’re walking. The input from other people simply makes learning easier. Regardless, a person always teaches their self because the act of listening is an act of will.

          • aikimoe

            But kids at traditional K-12 schools are already mostly failing to learn history. Sure, lots of them temporarily memorize it, but that’s not learning history. And lots of students only learn to believe that history is boring because it’s forced on them and taught in completely boring ways.

            Personally, I love history, but some of the kindest, happiest, healthiest people in the world don’t know anything about history. And all of the very worst policy decisions in the last 50 years which ignored history were designed and implemented by people who studied history at the college level.

          • aikimoe

            The ideal of traditional education systems is to produce individuals with a well rounded base of knowledge so that they have the freedom to pursue a wide range of fields and the exposure to a broad enough range of studies to have a good chance of discovering what they truly want to do in life.

            And every year that ideal fails millions of kids who simply don’t have the personalities that adults wished they had. How much easier education would be if all kids were the same.

            Continuing to pursue the same strategy of forcing kids to temporarily memorize arbitrary facts in the hopes that they’ll have a “well rounded base of knowledge” is a perfect illustration of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

  • Roo123

    This sounds wonderful, but comparing this to traditional schools is irrelevant. This school has 60 students of various ages and abilities, so I am sure the older they are, the more independent they are. It says they have 5 staff. That makes it about a 1-12 ratio. In our district, a middle school teacher may have 40 students per class and six classes per day, for 1-200 ratio. I doubt the people of our district would pay the taxes for a 1-12 ratio for the schools. So, reading this is interesting, but trying to make correlations to public school is ridiculous.

    • Evan

      You’re absolutely right about the number of students a public school teacher may see in a day. But I believe that at Fairhaven those 5 staff may be the entirety of the paid employees–there are no non-teaching administrators. At my district (Pittsburgh Public), 29,445 students are served by 5,180 full-time employees, for a ratio of slightly less than 1-6. That’s twice as many employees as Fairhaven has per student.

      • Pallas Purple

        Fairhaven Alum here.
        At last check they had one additional part time office assistant and that was it for paid staff.

    • Good Vibe

      My daughters are both graduates of this school and its the BEST decision I ever made! Would do it over and over. Now that my daughter is having her own baby and moving back to the area I am SURE her child will go here as well.

    • The natural instinct is defend what you know, but you don’t need to. Public schools are closer to prisons and mental asylums than the Academy that Aristotle envisioned. The hope for schools is to create autonomous individuals and this is the way to do it. Debate the logistics all you want. There are solutions to those problems, and you’re pettifogging the issue.

    • JRSCline

      What it sounds like is homeschooling at school, which is fine, but your point about apples and oranges is well taken. I’m curious about the acceptance process, for one thing.

      Private schools have the privilege of choice when it comes to shaping their student body, which hugely facilitates the curriculum they can offer (or abstain from, as with Fairhaven).

      Public schools OTOH are obliged to take all comers, and suffer accordingly from the necessity to teach down to the lowest common denomination. The underlying tragedy of our public education system, to be sure, is that not all children get a challenging education from American public schools under this all-comers model. For those outliers, it’s good that there are alternatives.

  • cy

    I’m a former student that has been student teaching at a public elementary school in Greenville for a couple of weeks now, and I don’t think there’s been a day in that school that Fairhaven hasn’t crossed my mind. So thankful that Fairhaven was part of my own educational background.

  • heather

    This is like home schooling on a larger scale, specifically unschooling. If you look up unschooling, it’s the framework for what this school is doing.

    • Jenna2784

      “Home schooling” is a slippery slope because the success of the child’s learning is largely entrusted to one or two individuals (the parents). If said parents have busy lives or perhaps aren’t well educated themselves then the child’s education is already in jeopardy. A system where the student’s development is entrusted to several individuals who have an educated background (certified teachers) increases the chances of learning success. So even though this school seems like a nightmare to me, it’s still better than home schooling in my opinion.

      • Tor

        Having grown up in a homeschooling environment from kindergarten to age 15, I can attest that while my family did a fair amount of teaching, most homeschooling families I know will conglomerate into “co-ops” that are very similar to this style of school. Teachers will be parents who, although may not have spent years going to school to get certificates, have real world experience in their field (for example, my science teacher was a microbiologist). While I agree that the traditional idea of homeschooling, such as what you described, isn’t as supportive of a learning environment, most homeschooling parents you’ll find won’t be leaving the education up to the child. That would be unschooling specifically. 🙂

      • Good Vibe

        Addled Brain?

        Edison was a poor student. When a schoolmaster called Edison “addled,” or slow. his furious mother took him out of the school and proceeded to teach him at home. Edison said many years later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had some one to live for, some one I must not disappoint.” At an early age, he showed a fascination for mechanical things and for chemical experiments.

        In 1859, Edison took a job selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Detroit. In the baggage car, he set up a laboratory for his chemistry experiments and a printing press, where he started the “Grand Trunk Herald”, the first newspaper published on a train. An accidental fire forced him to stop his experiments on board.

        • Resilien7

          Edison also wasn’t that bright in many respects. He was a prolific experimenter, a tenacious self-promoter and a ruthless businessman. But a closer look at Edison’s life (and especially when compared to other famous inventors of his age, like Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell) reveals someone who didn’t have full grasp of the science and technology he was experimenting with, which he might have had he studied these fields formally.

          Edison was wrong about the current wars but used his money and unethical marketing to sabotage his competition. He killed his assistant (and blinded himself) with reckless X-ray experiments. And it’s even possible that had he been public schooled he might not have developed some of the negative character traits he displayed throughout his career.

          That’s not to say that he would have been as successful financially and as well known if he’d gone the other route. But there’d be no great loss to society. The incandescent lightbulb was already being made commercially viable by Maxim and others. The patent for the carbon microphone would have gone to its rightful inventor. And who knows what benefits earlier adoption of AC current would have brought.

    • RYamamoto

      The unschooling approach to homeschooling is just that an approach to education done in one’s home. A Sudbury model philosophy has many similar features; however, it should in no way be called unschooling. There is definitely a school, and children are learning. Perhaps, the confusion lies in the child-initiated curriculum that occurs in a Sudbury model school.

      • Pallas Purple

        Children do learn while being unschooled too. I did both Fairhaven and unschooling at different points so I can say they have similarities and differences but both can turn out amazing adults.

  • Jenna2784

    What I want to see are statistics for their graduates in adulthood. How many of them actually hold down jobs, how many of them retain jobs long term, and how well do they fair in a collegiate environment. Almost every other institution in our country has guidelines for both behavior and work performance. If they aren’t taught how to live within the boundaries of a structured system how well do they actually fair in the real world?

    • Good Vibe

      My girls both graduated from Fairhaven at 16 and are MUCH more successful than friends kids.. and I know all of the kids in that video. They’re all doing very well. “Real World” The real world is what you make of your world.

    • RKGoldman

      Jenna – You seem to be hung up on “boundaries”, “institutions”, “data”, “work performance”. You’re missing the whole point. If you are concerned about kids acquiring basic reading and math skills that’s legit but if you’re worrying about whether kids will fit into our messed up consumerist society as good little drones then you’re way off base.

    • Charles

      I noticed you are all over this thread, and I am curious. Are you a parent seeking options for your child’s education?

      • Good Vibe

        If so.. I am a parent of two graduates and know all of their friends who’ve graduated.. ask me anything!

    • Mark O. Hammontree

      Working at ONE job for forty five years is not success, unless it is something that you MOST Love to do.

      Clinging to one job for forty five years is FAILURE to try new things. Failure to reach for something BETTER.

      And structured systems are HORRID things to put people into.

    • Linda_bav

      I have been reading about the Sudbury schools for over 12 years, and helped to found a new one in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Based on what I have read, ALL of their graduates have gone on to either college, a job, or started a business of their own.
      If anyone had ever graduated from a Sudbury school and then proceeded to laze around their parents’ house doing nothing, or had become a criminal, I’m sure the parents would make sure that the rest of the world heard about it!
      The Sudbury schools have a very highly structured rulebook with guidelines for behavior! Each school’s rulebook was created by the the students and staff of that school, and is modified, by suggestion, discussion, and voting, when the situation calls for it. The schools have a peer-based judicial system, operated like the U.S. judicial system, that deals with cases of accusations of rule infractions. (Unlike the tyrannical model used in public schools, no student is considered guilty until – or, in many public schools, sometimes even if – proven innocent, at a Sudbury school.)
      The students’ “work performance” is their compliance with the school rules! If they use art or kitchen supplies, they have to clean up afterwards. If they want a turn with a limited resource – such as a school computer, they have to sign up for a turn, and move on to something else when their turn is up. They are not allowed to be bullies, or resort to violence. They have to respect school and private property. In other words, they have to be good citizens!
      Anything more than that is slavery. Public school children are forced to do tedious work for long hours, 5 days a week, with no choice to opt out, no pay, and constant threats of punishment for non-compliance or for any sort of failure. That is the very definition of slavery!

    • RevolutionaryGirlAlice

      We ARE taught to live within boundaries. Trust me, you should see the damn Law Book.

      A Sudbury education teaches distinction between reasonable and unreasonable boundaries, and the confidence to challenge and change the structure around you. It teaches that the consequences of your actions are yours to control, and are more than just a mark on a paper.

      As others have mentioned, a staff of 5 doesn’t lend itself to the free time to compile statistics; I’d be happy to see them myself, but I know roughly what they’d look like, and they’d be no matter for huge concern.

  • Good Vibe

    I think NPR should interview the alumni and their parents if they want to really determine if the model works. I am a parent of two alumni and am happy to share our experiences with Fairhaven.

    • Pallas Purple

      Alumna here who would also gladly share my experiences and thoughts on the model.

  • John Ostrander

    Hmmm… those who crave structure create it for themselves, some immerse themselves in activities such as video games but eventually “they figure out how to manage that part of their lives,”. I’d love to see that, because it doesn’t fit most children.

    Mostly this seems like my idea of everything I’ve ever heard about liberal arts colleges

    • Charles

      I take it you didn’t attend a liberal arts college.

      • John Ostrander

        Very astute of you. Went to a real school, got a real career and I can still have fun thinking deep thoughts about abstracts if I want to, instead of investing six figures getting a degree in it and being unemployed.

        • Charles

          I don’t really understand. The structure of Fairhaven doesn’t even remotely resemble the structure of a liberal arts college. I attended a Jesuit run liberal arts university for Information Systems, and I don’t think I’ve ever been unemployed. Also didn’t pay six figures, but that was a long time ago. University tuition is ridiculously, disgracefully high now.

          • John Ostrander

            You don’t have to understand. I don’t understand either. According to the article (without reading too much into it) there is no structure. The students make their own structure.

    • Pallas Purple

      The key is in leaving the student unmolested for a long period of time. I cannot think of another situation outside this model of school where children are allowed to pursue their passions and interests for months or years without being forced to stop by the adults in their lives and “really learn something.” Sometimes you have to do something until you are sick of it before you are ready to move on to something else or find a facet of your interest that looks more like learning to others. My brother was totally focused on video games for several years while in attendance at Fairhaven and he is now doing very well at Digipen, the best college for video game programing and design. He is pursuing his passion while training for a growing field which pays very highly.

      Anecdotal to be sure, but he is far from the only alum I know who is thriving or has thrived in a traditional academic setting studying something they focused on at Fairhaven.

      • John Ostrander

        It’s good that it works then. At the same time, the idea strikes me as similar to a private school, where parents have a lot of clout, and a bigger hand in the decision making process as to the education of their kids.

        Ergo this would fit not an unstructured environment, but an environment that is not under direct and close supervision, rather a general supervision where parents and adults keep their distance. It’s how I raised my own kids, and they are flourishing in school and prospering in life because they have learned to think.

        My remark lies with that this cannot be mainstream as there are a lot (a majority perhaps) where the kids would treat such general supervision as a doormat. They would run amok, not unlike they try doing in public schools. Video games (among other past times) would makeup the majority of their schooling. I’ve seen many many kids who do not tire of slacking off. They grow up to be adults who slack off. I know many of those too.

        • Pallas Purple

          Parents are actually kept out of the school to a large degree. Some of them actually take issue with this. The staff do take a more distanced roll but the student body has a culture of responsibility that takes on the role of keeping kids from “running amok”. It is true that much of a student’s time is spent doing what might be seen as “past times” but I argue that if they graduate and go on the lead productive, happy lives after a happy childhood, that is just the icing on the cake.

          • John Ostrander

            Yes, I read all that in the article.

            However, I have seen first hand that most children will run amok if you have general supervision no immediate supervision. Most kids are not reared to take responsibility, so much like private and elite institutions, the children who go there are capable of self-structuring. I use the word elite because most children are unable to do this for themselves, hence the structure (or attempt at structure) in regular schools.

            As for me, I would so much love for my kids to go to private schools, I really would. I know some that I would choose were I more affluent, but, as it is all I can do is raise them to think for themselves, and that is what they do. They are already leading happy productive lives because it was how I raised them, regardless of where they attend school. This sort of “school” just wouldn’t be my choice.

  • jcSoThai

    Happy to see that alternatives like this are still being explored, but there is actually a much monger tradition of schools like this than the article suggests. I attended this school, which has been operating for 44 years now, and it’s a public school –

  • Public Teacher 101

    What percentage of students are on an IEP? Are ELL? Have serious behavioral issues requiring staff to be CPI certified? Is this really a product of different schooling, or a product of only allowing particular


    • Elx

      Was thinking that, too, actually.

      • You can’t just dismiss the educational idea of an institution because it doesn’t have students of a certain demographic. There are democratic schools, Albany Free School and Phllly Free School who have students from low income families. They also benefit from being allowed to follow their own interests and from not being compared to other students through tests and grades.

    • Pallas Purple

      I don’t have the percentages, but I can say that within the 6 years I attended Fairhaven, we had many students with ADHD most of which no longer needed medication after enrollment. One student had Down’s Syndrome although we did not overlap at the school. Diagnosed Depression was also present in the student body along with extreme trauma from a family murder. Some students came to Fairhaven because they had already been expelled from one or more public and private schools for behavior problems.

      IEPs are not something that translates well and I graduated just as they were becoming commonplace in public schools I think so I can’t speak to that.

      As for ELLs, we had one student who was hard of hearing and had been adopted from somewhere in Europe. He had a very low level of understanding of English when he first enrolled but he was accepted into the community and to my knowledge was never mocked for his strange “accent” or brightly colored hearing aids.

    • WriteLearning

      I’ve been working at Alpine Valley School (, which follows the same model, since 1998. We admit anyone who wants to enroll and can handle the very minimal standard of abiding by the rules that everyone sets together. As a former public school teacher, I find that model overwhelmed with jargon and labels. In contrast, my Sudbury career experience has shown time and again that without all that baggage people thrive who otherwise would be held back by the structures supposedly aimed at helping them.

      IEP? In over two decades in education, I’ve never seen learning that was more individualized. ELL? Our students are immersed in a social context that places facility of verbal expression at a premium. CPI? Everyone, student and staff alike, handles conflict resolution according to due process.

    • Long time public educator

      My child had an IEP/504 for 7 years in the traditional setting and has now been at Fairhaven for 3 years. I don’t believe there has ever even been a formal discussion of whatever differences she brings to the table.
      The important thing is she is not only thriving, but she has blossomed into a confident and trusted member of the community. In her case those documents and meetings served to help her fit into a mold most convenient for the public school machine. But they did her a terrible injustice.
      Thank God we found Fairhaven.

  • benu

    As a graduate of Fairhaven, I’d be happy to answer any further questions interested parties may have about a day in the life of a student and the life that can come after.

    Please keep in mind I graduated 13 years ago when the school was only 3 years old, and has, like any place, changed considerably.

    Also, please keep in mind that questions about statistics on success etc. won’t get you very far as I’m not interested in weighing my success on an often opaque and limiting system. As many of us learn at some point during our lives (and on occasion not till the end), success is what you make of it.

    • Alan Posner

      Interesting. Did you and your classmates choose to study important but dull subjects like grammar and semantics? Did the teachers review and critique your drafts and require you to revise and re-submit? Did anyone teach math beyond basic arithmetic? I love less authority and individual attention, but only if real substantive learning takes place.

  • lgriffin001

    I have 2 children who attend The Antioch School in Yellow Springs ,Ohio. It is the oldest democratic school in the country. It was founded in 1921 by Arthur Morgan, then president of Antioch College. It has been independent of Antioch College since 1979. For over 90 years The Antioch School has successfully educated generations of children without using grades or tests or homework, based on the belief that they inhibit curiosity, risk taking, and true learning.

  • If you want to learn more about Democratic Schools, watch videos and see a state by state list of where to find one near your, you can do that here:

  • J Warner

    Cool idea. However, I feel like this is an option for children with a specific background (aka middle to upper class). Many of my students come from no structure at home. I feel like for those children, this might be difficult because then their lives would have less structure and they would feel more out of control
    . What do you guys think?

    • RevolutionaryGirlAlice

      Alum here.

      While I think a majority of students there were from upper-middle class backgrounds, it was certainly not all of us. It’s not quite accurate to say that students at a Sudbury school have no structure — it’s more to say that we have a transparent and flexible framework. Children with little structure at home tend to flounder a little at first, then feel MORE confident in a system that has clear boundaries, but strong emphasis on self-control and freedom within them. Hope that helps!

  • People often ask me if the Natural Math approach of self-organized learning works in schools. In a democratic school, it would!

    To answer similar questions about other play-based curricular approaches, look at your school’s management and government structures. Who and how decides what gets done in math, and then makes it happen? My main requirements are that direct participants, that is, teachers, parents, and students:

    – Choose what to do out of many existing activities, and
    – Fit and change activities to suit their needs (remix), and most importantly
    – Make their own activities happen.

    In other words, teachers and students need significant support and freedom, agency and autonomy, will and opportunity to self-organize their mathematics – and other subjects, of course.

  • Ruth Eve

    Students in Montessori schools have similar freedoms. The difference is that there are no gaps in curricular information, because materials (responsively designed to match and support neurological and physiological requisites at each stage of development) are organized in order of only one isolation of difficulty. This allows the child to learn with very little instruction, and to see the scope and sequence of every subject area (the whole as well as the sum of its parts) within an intellectually curious, creative, respectful and multi-aged community.

    • Jesse McCarthy

      Really thoughtfully said, Ruth.

      Incidentally, working at a Montessori school, I regularly send this video to prospective parents, attempting to give them a window into the genuine freedom and earned confidence that is possible for children.

    • Dana Ortegón

      The two models share some similarities, but one of the glaring differences is the following (from the Fairhaven School blog):

      “Montessori children may choose only between the specific options
      presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which
      life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children
      learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom
      activities on the model’s assumptions about what is “developmentally
      appropriate” for each age group, and restrict access to certain
      activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not
      been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how
      individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that
      one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle
      before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any
      activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.”

      • Ruth Eve

        I think that the comments show a misunderstanding of Montessori pedagogy. Any adult who sticks to a “pre-planned sequence” is not aligned with Montessori best practices. We “follow the child” : )

  • Jesse McCarthy

    Although I don’t believe having children create their own educational system will ultimately offer them the tools necessary for true independence, I absolutely love this sentiment/line of Mr. McCaig’s: “you are responsible for what you make of your life.”

    • WriteLearning

      Students at schools like Fairhaven and Alpine Valley School, where I work (, are given the opportunity to ask the sorts of questions adults face on a daily basis: What do I want to do today? What do I *have* to do? Do I like what’s going on in my life — and if not, what do I want to do about that? Decision-making, problem-solving, conflict resolution, etc. — seems like really good practice at becoming independent to me.

      • Jesse McCarthy

        In the way you framed it, I wholeheartedly agree. However, because children are necessarily ignorant of the scope of human knowledge out there, I’m arguing that attempting to have them *create* their own curriculum, basically ex-nihilo, doesn’t make sense. Just as we would never put a child in charge of figuring out his own medical treatment in an attempt to have him develop independence, decision-making and problem-solving skills, etc., I don’t think we should attempt to put him in charge of his own educational framework.

        • WriteLearning

          Well, Sudbury really isn’t an “ex nihilo” scenario. Actually, I’ve found these mixed-age communities of people with varying interests and values, all enjoying the freedom to explore the world around them, an incredibly rich environment for discovering and safely exploring what’s out (certainly much more so than the externally structured and managed conventional schools). The community aspect of these schools — full of peers and elders — is an absolutely critical component of this model. It’s within this supportive structure that managing one’s own learning — which is to say, *living* — is not only feasible but wildly effective.

          • Jesse McCarthy

            Appreciate your writing and offering your experience with the Sudbury model. I looked through Alpine Valley’s site, and it’s hard for me to really have an objective take of the school as there’s not much on *the what*, content, only on *the how*, method. I believe the clarity of *both* is necessary. (From my years working in and on education, Montessori pedagogy offers the best combination, particularly from 0-6.)

            It sounds like you are seeing great results so I wish the continued best for you and the students’ affected by Sudbury.

  • Guest

    As a Los Angeles public high school teacher for 16 years (and a college prof for 5 years early in my career), I often dream of being able to offer my students the kind of education available at Fairhaven and other Sudbury-modeled schools. With our current structure and class sizes of up to 43 that is not possible, although I try to give my students some freedom of choice within a more constricted framework. This does not need to be an either/or proposition. We are simply not able to fund and organize such democratic schools on a large scale at this point in our history, but perhaps someday their successes can influence the public arena. Keep up the good work!

  • happyteacher

    As a Los Angeles public high school teacher for 16 years (and a college prof for 5 years early in my career), I often dream of being able to offer my students the kind of education available at Fairhaven and other Sudbury-modeled schools. With our current structure and class sizes of up to 43 that is not possible, although I try to give my students some freedom of choice within a more constricted framework. This does not need to be an either/or proposition. We are simply not able to fund and organize such democratic schools on a large scale at this point in our history, but perhaps someday their successes can influence the public arena. Keep up the good work!

    • WriteLearning

      In my years of promoting Sudbury schools like Fairhaven and Alpine Valley School (, the question of scale has come up regularly. I question the assumption that having lots of Sudbury schools accessible to all requires a large-scale system. In a different context, people like Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben argue that sustainability is more likely to come from smaller, locally-controlled networks than the centralized, industrial systems to which we’ve grown accustomed.

      Similarly, I’m skeptical as to what “some freedom of choice within a more constricted framework” can accomplish. Allowing choices of what classes to take or what projects to pursue in those classes still sends the message that adults are (and must be) in charge, that young people aren’t capable of being responsible and can’t learn what they need if they’re in charge of their own learning.

      I don’t mean to come across as adversarial; I just believe no educational model can stray very far from its core assumptions and values. And when we’re talking about conventional schooling and Sudbury, we’re comparing models based on controlling and empowering, respectively.

  • Laura

    RE: “We are simply not able to fund and organize such democratic schools on a large scale at this point in our history”

    I’m not sure what that is based on. The student-to-faculty ratio may be low, but if you’re looking at the total per-student cost, I’m guessing it’s probably about the same, and maybe even less, for democratic schools, because they don’t have all the costs associated with developing and implementing set curriculum components for everyone, plus all the testing. Even if democratic schools expanded their offerings to provide more materials, I’m guessing they would still be more economical.

    It would be interesting to know if there is an optimum size for democratic schools, and if they would not work as well above a certain size. Even if they needed to be kept relatively small, if they don’t cost more per student, I don’t see any reason why democratic schools couldn’t be part of a public education service. There’s no fundamental reason why publicly funded schools must all have the same mandates and structures.

    • Laura

      To clarify, this was in response to a post by “happyteacher” below, not to something that was said in the article.

  • However it wasn’t ever like that.–xyVeDnmchu4lKn4Nhes59i3X59EZ9gc1znk/edit The original cyber-terrorist have been harmless critters.

  • John Saint-Smith

    I taught in a democratic high school in Brisbane Australia 40 years ago. It was, if anything even more student based than Fairhaven. Students were required to earn their weekly tuition fee of $20 through their own labour.(That was a lot of money then) The students each had 1 vote, exercised at daily school meetings in which students decided on school policy and the allocation of their modest budget.
    In return the school, with an enrolment of 40, from year 8 to 12 afforded the students the right to pursue whatever course of study that interested them, assisted by one paid teacher and about 5-6 part-time volunteers like me. I was then studying for a post-graduate Diploma of Education.
    After an initial period of chaos, while students de-programmed themselves from the learned helplessness and oppositional attitudes they had acquired during their prior education in conventional schools, the school settled down to become the most committed and motivated learning institution I ever attended. For example, when a practical science class experiment ran over time, I suggested that the students might like to stop for lunch. They refused, but out of consideration for me, they delegated one student to ‘go buy the teacher a hamburger’, so they could continue with their investigations.
    The Queensland State Government and the Brisbane City Council conspired to close the school for non-compliance with safety regulations, ending one of the most productive periods of education for me, and the ‘Independent School’ students.
    For years afterwards, I would run into ex-students on the train to work(in a conventional high school prison), and share with them the difficulties I was having with the juvenile and disruptive behaviours of senior high school students – of the same age. The maturity of these teenagers frequently exceeded that of my teaching colleagues!
    I was never able to re-visit that magical learning environment until, in my final years, I was given the ‘poison chalice’ – charge of an off-campus ‘school for the unteachable students’ who by law were required to remain enrolled, but who regularly absconded from their conventional classes.
    It had been a violent hell-hole under previous management, so I set about re-writing the rule book – by throwing it out and beginning with the rules the students set for themselves. Within a year I had the most emotionally and educationally damaged students in the district burning with the desire to join us (a) to live past their 18th birthday, and (b) to develop a real career that included apprenticeships and tertiary education and didn’t involve drugs and alcohol.


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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