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Mount Washington school redefines education

Caroline Chavasse stood before a room of fidgeting young bodies and wandering eyes and made a tearful plea for her livelihood.

The fate of the 51-year-old rested with this group of 40 youngsters who, with a check of a "yes" or "no" box, would decide whether she would be able to pay her mortgage for the next year.

"I really do want to come back," Chavasse, a mother of two, told the students of the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School. "This is the best job I've ever had. I love being with you and seeing you grow."

She said she was motivated, like them, by the understanding that she had more to learn, more to achieve in her job as a co-founder of the Mount Washington school.

"What have you set out to accomplish that you might not have this year?" she asked. "The answers to those questions are your education, and mine."

Such is the essence of the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School, where children ages 5 to 18 take their education into their own hands.

From how their days are structured to the way the school is governed, students mold their education to their own interests, which can include playing video games all day or teaching themselves photography. They are supervised by staff whom they vote in every year, and follow a rule book they created themselves.

"It is a school, but the curriculum is democracy and the goals are developing essential life skills," Chavasse said. "It's a place for learning, a place where the gifts and strengths of childhood are not squashed and squandered, but cherished and honored."

The Northwest Baltimore school, known as AI Sudbury, is hosting a summer camp this month, where children design their own summer experience, much as they do the rest of the year.

The school's philosophy is rooted in a model that has spurred an international network of Sudbury schools that follow principles of educational freedom. The first Sudbury school was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Mass. In Baltimore's school, one of two in Maryland, that means everyone is equal, everyone has a voice, and everyone has a vote.

In many ways, the nontraditional private school has all of the ingredients of reform that public schools are struggling to grasp: student engagement, individualized education, real-world application, and preparation for college and career.

But there are no schedules, classes, curricula, lesson plans, tests or teachers — only the belief that children, if given the chance, are intrinsically motivated and responsible enough to find their way in the world.

Students learn not from behind desks, but on computers, in front of televisions, doing chores, practicing music, making art, playing in the garden, putting on performances, or venturing off campus in groups into Mount Washington village.

Real-world interactions and exercises are not identified as "literacy" and "math," but students are grounded in situations where they are employing skills of both subjects.

They learn math not from formulas and work sheets, but rather fundraising, on-campus jobs and trips to the neighborhood Whole Foods. Reading and writing are practiced through the responsibilities of being an active member of the school's society, the staff say.

"There are going to be gaps, but the same can be said for traditional school," Chavasse said. "The fact of the matter is that they are learning every day."

To understand AI Sudbury one must observe the school community engaged in its democratic process.

This ethos has empowered students to pass budgets, create new rules, expel a student and even vote out a key staff member.

Twice a week, students meet as a school community to vote on school business. On a recent day, that included debating whether to institute a new policy proposed by a staff member that required all food to be labeled with names and contents.

"Plastic bags are hard to label; Sharpies rub away on Ziploc bags," said 9-year-old Leila Pearsall. "Besides, I'm just too lazy to do that, and my mom won't want to either."

The proposal failed unanimously.

In the same meeting, students and staff voted on whether a student could bring his snake to school for the day.

Ten-year-old Parker Francoise made his case.

"He's not going to hurt you because his head is so small," Parker told the group. "He really could only pee on you."

Parker's request won unanimous approval.

AI Sudbury, which will charge tuition of $6,125 this coming school year, is run out of the old St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington, where it moved this year. Chavasse co-founded the school in Northeast Baltimore in 2008.

Since then, the school has grown from nine to 40, including Chavasse's two children, and is expected to grow in the fall.

Chavasse acknowledges that it's a lot to ask families to take a leap of faith in the school, which she says is routinely compared to "Lord of the Flies," the William Golding novel.

But Chavasse says the school is the antithesis of the story.

"The kids got all of that freedom all of a sudden, and look what happened," Chavasse said, referring to the children in the book who, when left stranded on an island with nothing but free will, turned barbaric. "That would never happen here."

With all of the freedoms at AI Sudbury, there is order.

Students take part in a judicial committee, a courtroom-like setting where grievances are filed, heard and settled by a jury of peers. On one docket, Chavasse pleaded guilty to abandoning her chores.

One of the keys to the school's success is that parents buy into the idea that their children are responsible enough to take ownership of their lives.

Robert Ellin, a real estate agent, realized that traditional school was not going to work for his 15-year-old son, Matt, after he had attended six schools, both private and public, by age 13.

"There have been moments that you think, 'What are we doing?' " Robert Ellin said. "How is he going to feed himself?"

Upon entering Sudbury, Matt taught himself how to play bass and guitar. The self-learner also emerged from his anger and depression in an environment where he felt more respected.

"I was just really angry that these authority figures were treating me and my peers like we were lesser than them," Matt said. "The more [angry] I became, the less I learned."

Ellin said he recently began questioning Matt about his future. The same week, Matt went to a bus stop and began playing guitar for money. He decided he wanted to be a busker.

"The reality is that he thinks about what he's going to do in his future ... and he talks about it more than he ever has before," Ellin said. "You can't put a grade on that."

For Brooke Armstrong, another staff member at Sudbury, students like Matt are what inspired her to leave traditional classroom settings.

The 23-year-old was a student teacher at a conventional school when she realized she wasn't comfortable with that model.

"I was making decisions for other people without any authority to do so, besides my age," Armstrong said. "I was telling a room full of 30 people when they could go to the bathroom, when they could speak, who they could speak to. I was dictating every part of their lives for six hours a day. It felt like I was running a prison. It just felt so wrong."

While the staff don't consider themselves teachers, they do consider themselves facilitators of learning — primarily by keeping the school operating and being active members of its democracy.

"I'm a teacher in the sense that in the adult world, you ask whoever knows the most about something to teach you," she said. "I learn from them all the time. I like that I'm not expected to know everything."

AI Sudbury discourages students from receiving tutoring or any supplemental education, and some say that they have faced the reality that they trail behind their peers in traditional schools.

Cody Kayes, 11, who began attending AI Sudbury in kindergarten, said she felt most behind in math when she did one short stint at Federal Hill Preparatory School. She said her stomach sank when her classmates leafed through their workbooks faster than she did.

"I was so confused as to why everyone knew how to subtract double-digits and I didn't," she recalled of third grade. "There, I felt like if I was behind, I had to try and catch up. Here, I go to a computer and study what I need to know for what I want to do. Here, nobody can ever really be behind."

Students say that while they feel they are preparing for life after Sudbury, taking such a nontraditional route can lead to obstacles.

For Cameron Murray, the school's second graduate — their first, an aspiring pastry chef, has an apprenticeship at a local restaurant — it took a trip to Philadelphia to explain to the college he wanted to attend why he didn't have transcripts.

"They were definitely a little reluctant," Murray said. "But the more I talked about the school, it was OK."

The 17-year-old chose to attend Sudbury over Atholton High School in Columbia because he felt "the way I was being taught was not the best way for me to learn."

He taught himself photography in the last three years. He also attended homecomings and prom at the Howard County high school.

Murray graduated this past May after completing a Sudbury requirement: Students have to present an argument and defend it before a panel of Sudbury staff from Baltimore and other schools.

He earned his diploma by completing a six-page thesis about photography and presented a portfolio of his work.

"I feel like I'll be fine because I know how to adapt, and I had to sell myself," he said. "I feel like I've been preparing for my career all along."

In the end, Chavasse said, children at Sudbury get a head start on practicing two life skills that most don't experience until adulthood: freedom and power.

The students exercised both in allowing Chavasse, who received one "no" vote and one abstention in elections, to return to school in September.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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