A couple of years ago, when my son Max was 8.5 or 9 years old, we saw a video about Sudbury Valley School. When the video was over, I looked at my son. He had tears in his eyes. He said, “Mom, why can’t all schools be this way?” I won’t argue here that all schools should be this way. I can’t presume to know what’s best for all children. I do, however, know that the public school model is not what’s best for Max for many reasons, which is why we chose to homeschool.
I love homeschooling. I love that we can make our own schedule, and I love the freedom to go where we want when we want. I love that we can spend as much time with our friends as we want, learning and playing together. I love that when all the other children are locked in doors, we have the world to ourselves from 8 AM to 3 PM, and usually at a discount price. Max loves homeschooling, too. However, he has said for years that he would rather go to his idea of the perfect school than homeschool. We didn’t know if this was his truth, or if his ideal school even existed. We just knew that we wanted to honor our son, and when we discovered the Sudbury model, we said that if ever we saw a way, we would try to get him to one.
Last fall, when my husband finished his degree and struggled to find a job in Kansas City, we decided to branch out. Keeping Max in mind, we said we would first only apply to cities which had a Sudbury school. (You can find the list here.) When a friend informed us of a job in his town, Harrisburg, home of The Circle School, we thought it was meant to be, so we went for it. Jeff got the job, and though it was hard to leave our beloved home and all our friends, we moved to Harrisburg January 1st. (You can read more about The Circle School by following the link, and while you are there, check out the blog.)
“At The Circle School and other self-directed, democratic schools, agency in community is the heart of our daily practice. Children come to school and live their lives — choosing, experiencing, reflecting, and choosing again — mindful or reminded of the community around them.” ~ Jim Reitmulder, “Agency, Attention, Mistakes, and School”
I must admit that I was hesitant to send Max to school, and even though we moved here largely for that purpose, I had a hard time believing that The Circle School would be everything we’d hoped. While the idea seemed good, we really didn’t know what to expect to see in practice. I was fully prepared to be disappointed at the tour and to go home and say, “Well, we gave it a shot. Let’s continue homeschooling.” However, when we actually arrived, what we found was pretty amazing.
We first had a meeting with Jim Rietmulder, co-founder and staff member, before touring the grounds. What struck me about Jim was how incredibly patient and attentive he was. Max can take a while to formulate his thoughts, especially when nervous, and Jim not only waited for Max to find his words, but he appeared to be genuinely invested in what Max had to say. And when he responded, he was thoughtful of Max’s concerns, and he treated Max with the same respect and regard as he would an adult. He didn’t dumb down his language, laugh when Max was “cute,” nor did he dismiss anything which may have seemed trivial to some. For instance, I believe the two of them spoke for at least 15 minutes about video game ratings, what constitutes “gore” and “violence” in a game, what type of gore or violence is allowed, and how the rules about the two can and do change based on the comfort levels of those in the community. This is important kid stuff that is often ignored by adults in institutional settings, or simply avoided by blanket rules which can be unfair or unreasonable.
During our meeting, several kids walked by and peeked in to see what we were doing. Most of them offered a friendly wave. When we toured the school, though the children all seemed to be doing something different, there was a unifying theme. They all appeared to be happy, and they were all engaged. Some were playing Minecraft in the computer room, navigating and negotiating the server they had created. Some were in the art room, some were eating or preparing food, and some were just chatting. We saw two teens lazily holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. (Jeff and I both assumed that was all those two probably do, but I later discovered that they are two of the most active students carrying much responsibility in the school.)
In the library, there was a little girl sprawled out on a sofa with a book. She looked up from it to say hello. I exclaimed at how nice of a library it was, and she said, “Oh yes, it’s my favorite place in the world. I spend most of my time here.” From the library, we stepped outside where a group of kids were doing an experiment with a stick, a leaf blower, and a roll of toilet paper. We stopped to watch. My four year old was mesmerized. In the music room, a kid slid over and allowed Jeff to duet with her on the piano. In the science room, we discovered snake skins and dried insects and bats. Then we found out they had lasers. Real lasers. Lasers that can cut through wood. Max was informed that only those with the highest level of certification may use the lasers, to which he nodded solemnly. It makes sense.
I suppose that aside from how happy the children seemed, what we were most impressed by was how much everything made sense. There are plenty of rules at The Circle School. A lot, actually, possibly even more than at other schools both public and private. The big difference is that at The Circle School, the rules are not made by one authority figure, or a committee of adults or “bosses.” The rules are made by the community through the democratic process. There is a judicial committee made up of children and adults who run the school, and through the judicial process, enforce the rules. If a child, or an adult for that matter, breaks a rule, they will not be “in trouble.” What happens is, someone (usually another child) writes that person up, citing which rule was broken. That citation goes to the judicial committee, or “JC,” and the JC decides if it is indeed an infraction. If so, the child may plea guilty, or they plea innocent in which case they go to trial.
From what I’ve heard, trials may go quickly, or they can take up a full week with mostly everyone in the school getting involved. You can read more about The Circle School’s democratic process here, but I will offer an example of what may happen if a child is found guilty. There was one case where a kid kept neglecting to wipe his feet and tracking mud into the school. There is no janitor here, the kids all have chores, so no one appreciates that sort of negligence. The kid was found guilty, and his “punishment” was to stay near the door for a certain number of days when the ground was wet, and make sure everyone else was wiping their feet. Or something like that. The point is that the kids are creative in their discipline, and the punishment fits the crime.
As I mentioned before, I was pretty apprehensive about the whole thing. During our trial period, I kept checking in with Max to see how he liked the school. I reminded him not to feel any pressure about his choice. We could extend the trial period by however long we needed before committing to a full year. I could tell he was annoyed with me, but I continued to ask daily. Finally he said, “Mom, when are you going to have respect for the fact that I want to go to this school?” That settled it.
Since then, Max has been so very happy. He wasn’t unhappy before, not by any means, but he felt there was something missing, and whatever that something was seems to be fulfilled by his current attendance at The Circle School. Oh, and I am so proud to hear of the initiative he has taken. You see, in order to be able to do many of the activities, or to use much of the property, a child must be certified. Different certifications are run by different individuals or committees, and some only happen at certain times. For instance, to be certified to use the music room, you must attend the music committee meeting at 10:30 on a Tuesday (or something like that), and then you may begin the process. There is no one to make sure that you attend that meeting. It is all up to you if you want it.
It took Max a few weeks to remember to attend the music committee meeting, but then he wanted to play the drums badly enough, and he did what he needed to do. He has since been certified to use dishes, to check out books from the library, and has completed the basic certification for the science room. There’s probably more. It’s been a while since I asked. He’s also been experimenting with selling different items as a side business, and from the reports I’ve heard, he completes his daily chores with pride and without complaint. I am so happy to see him take charge of his life in this way, to have agency and the freedom to make mistakes.
Oliver, my 4, almost 5 year old still homeschools. He could go to school with Max as kids may start as early as preschool, but he’s not ready yet. Even when he is ready, it’s possible that he may never choose to go. Max might decide after a year to go back to homeschooling. We are fortunate enough to have that option. However, for now we are happy with where we are. Max is thriving. For the first time in his life, he wakes up and gets ready without complaint, and is happy to go to school. I am still a bit shocked that we made this move across the country, following not only my husbands dream of a career in academia, but also Max’s dream of attending a school without restrictions or conditions where he may grow, and that it is actually working out. I’m seeing my boys’ dreams come true. I feel proud, and I feel inspired by them to pursue my own dreams. It feels good.
I’d be happy to answer any questions I can about alternative schooling options including Sudbury/democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling, etc., as I’m sure would Lara and Charlie. Feel free to ask in the comments. And if you are a TCS (The Circle School) student, staff member, parent, or alum, and I’ve missed anything or I’ve gotten anything mixed up, or you’d just like to share a thought, please speak freely.
Update: I was wrong about the lasers. They do not have any strong enough to cut wood, but they are certainly open to getting some. Perhaps someone will read this and donate one, or maybe enough students on the science committee will be interested enough to raise the funds. I’d certainly like to “play” with it! After going through the proper certification channels, of course.