- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

PALMYRA, Va. — Most schools are all about rules, schedules, timed quizzes and tests.

But a group of parents and children in central Virginia are creating a different style of school, which would allow students an equal say in curriculum, hiring and budget decisions — a “democratic school,” as volunteer staffer Brenda Callen explained.

Children ages 5 to 19 can attend Friendship Sudbury School, which will open next fall at Camp Friendship in Fluvanna County. So far, 10 children have pledged to attend the school, mostly the youngsters of the organizers.

Many students interested in Sudbury are home-schooled children who want the social opportunities of a school but not the traditional structure, Miss Callen said. Organizers hope to have 33 students for the fall.

An interesting difference between home schooling and starting a private school, Miss Callen said, is the disparity in state supervision.

As a home-schooling parent, she had to present test results and evaluations to the state proving that her daughter was getting a worthwhile education. But private schools, unless they are accredited, have no such requirements to the state, she said.

The first Sudbury school opened in Massachusetts 37 years ago, and the idea has spread to other states, including Virginia.

Pennsylvania’s Circle School, founded in 1984, mirrors the U.S. government with executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Another tenet of the Sudbury system is allowing students with common interests to work together, despite differences in their ages.

“Kids are a lot wiser than adults give them credit for,” said Jim Rietmulder, a founder of the Circle School.

Students and adult staff members — the Sudbury model eschews the word “teacher” — serve on a school council that votes on rules and penalties, as well as other factors in school life.

The result is a structured system, but one in which students have quite a bit of say.

Judicial sessions take place daily at Circle, Mr. Rietmulder said, but there’s still a backlog of cases, most involving students leaving messes behind or not doing chores. There are rules against harassment and bullying, but not rudeness per se.

Learning rarely takes place in classroom settings, although Circle holds classes when students initiate them.

“It’s sustained by their interest,” Mr. Rietmulder said, noting that classes break up when students tire of a topic.

Over the years, the school’s popularity has grown, as well as its enrollment, from three students in 1984 to 71 this past fall.

Some raise questions about how children will succeed in college or traditional schools if they aren’t taught the basics.

But Miss Callen says that some of the basics taught in school are never used in real life.

She added that students are aware of the necessity of learning to read, write and do math, regardless of their environment.

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