You Call That School?

simone_ellin_square“Where does Matt [my 14-year-old son] go to school?” It’s a question I’m asked frequently. When I try to answer, I generally have, as Ricky Ricardo would say, a lot of “splainin’” to do. Here’s how a typical conversation goes.

Other person: “Where does Matt go to school?”
Me: Matt, goes to a school called Arts and Ideas Sudbury School. It used to be in Hamilton, but it just moved to Mount Washington.

“I never heard of it. What is it?”
“It’s hard to explain, but … Arts and Ideas is based on the Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 in Framingham, Mass. Sudbury proponents believe that children are natural learners, who left to their own devices and given unlimited time for play will get more out of learning than students in more traditional schools.”

“What’s the curriculum like?”
There is no curriculum. Kids can do whatever they want, whatever interests them. They have to follow the rules though — rules the kids have made. … Matt spent the past year teaching himself to play bass guitar. Imagine, he spent about six hours per day practicing. He’s gotten really good.”

“What kind of classes do they offer?”
“There aren’t classes, unless kids ask the staff members — who aren’t called teachers — to hold them.”

“So how do they learn to read or do math?”
“They learn because they’re curious, and they teach themselves. The school hasn’t graduated any students who aren’t literate.”

“Is it a special needs school?”
“No, it’s for mainstream kids although, of course, there are a few kids there with issues, like anywhere else.”

“What grade is he in?”
“There aren’t grades. The school has kids from ages 4 to 19. They all hang out together.”

“How will he get into college?”
“If he decides he wants to, he’ll prepare himself by studying independently, with the help of staff or perhaps by taking community college classes while still at Arts and Ideas. Sudbury’s research has shown that graduates who want to go to college usually get in and get in wherever they want to go.”

By this time in our conversation, the person with whom I’m conversing may be ready to call the Department of Social Services to report me for child neglect.

Admittedly, my husband and I have chosen an unusual educational setting for our son. We probably wouldn’t have considered it if Matt had been happy and thriving elsewhere. He isn’t a typical learner, but given the numbers of kids diagnosed with ADHD and learning differences, not many kids are. Sometimes I panic and think I have made a mistake. I worry about his future. I hear about what other children his age are studying and wonder if we are doing him a disservice. Then I hear about the homework battles and the anxiety and depression of kids in traditional schools, and I feel better about our decision. The fact is, for the first time, Matt is truly happy, relaxed and motivated. He used to have problems paying attention, but not anymore. It’s easy to pay attention when you’re pursuing your passion.

People at Sudbury believe their model is best for all students, even the ones who seem to do fine in traditional settings. Call me crazy, but I’m coming to believe they are right.

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter


  1. Mike Sadofsky says

    You write,
    “The fact is, for the first time, Matt is truly happy, relaxed and motivated. He used to have problems paying attention, but not anymore. It’s easy to pay attention when you’re pursuing your passion.”
    So don’t worry. If you have any concerns watch the videos of Sudbury Valley School graduates and read the books that include studies of many more graduates and former SVS students. You’ll learn that for the most part they are able to pursue their passions and make their way in the world without difficulty. And that’s a lot better than we see for people who have come out of our public (and private) structured education system.

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