Alternative Schools



Democratic Schools, Free Schools,

Community Schools, Small Schools

Small Democratic Schools

                From the Resource Center For Redesigning Education, Ron Miller defines the Democratic Schools in America are:

1) engaged, relevant, socially responsible learning

2) cooperation within a supportive, caring community, not competition

3) accommodation to diverse learning styles

4) celebration of cultural diversity

5) a fair distribution of resources with more equality of school funding

6) a whole, real world approach to subject matter

                The Small Schools of Europe started around the 1980’s, like the one in Hartford, England, which is modeled after, ‘ the family, not the factory’. The schools are community based and holistic, nurturing the children’s spiritual life as well as the mind. Small classes are maintained so that teachers can actually devote their time to teaching instead of crowd control. Each pupil is appreciated as an individual. The atmosphere is very much like an extended family. Mutual respect and manners are integral. Most of their teachers have never taught before and what they do in the classrooms is what they love.

                The children develop remarkable self-confidence, a beneficial byproduct of most alternative schools. The children are outgoing and articulate, extraordinarily capable at voicing an opinion. Friendships here ignore differences of ages or generations. Academically children are served well. There is a great deal of autonomy.

                In the United States, the Upitinas (up-at-Tina’s) School in Pennsylvania was the fertile garden for the evolution of the Association for Alternative Schools. This group organizes the myriad of alternative schools and school choices (including homeschoolers) with annual meetings to discuss immanent issues addressed by students, parents and teachers. There is equality among participants whether student or adult both in representation and presentation.

                The Upitinas Educational Resource Center is a “place and a program of events designed to promote and foster learning for people who choose to have control over their own education and contemplation, sharing and searching. It is a resource for finding people, books, equipment, ideas and support for designing one’s on-going education.”  The natural environment fosters movement, exploration and learning.

                In business, whenever things become unmanageable, companies downsize, especially with the administrative and managerial personnel. In education when management problems exist, schools upsize and/or consolidate. The schools and the classrooms became larger and larger. Several years ago, in an attempt to regain control as well as humanize education in these large schools, the Schools-Within-Schools model emerged. Children are clustered into heterogeneous numbers of no more than 300 or 400 with the same teachers, same students and same administrative staff throughout the entire middle and/or high school years. For schools like the Reading School district in Pennsylvania, which has 5,000 students, the second largest high school on the east coast, this would make some aspects of the school culture manageable. Large numbers still congregate in halls and auditoriums and principals still do not know students except when they are behavior problems. Although this model has had some success, it still does not replace the humane, familial, nurturing, manageable environment of the small schools (meaning no more than 350 students), which researchers statistically prove provides a better environment for learning.

                Some of these include; The proprietary schools like Summerhill in England or Stone Soup in Florida, which have no board of education have existed longest. Based on the Free School in the ghettos of New York, was Mary Leue’s Free School started in 1969 called the First Street School, in Albany, New York.

                A well-publicized Democratic School is the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. The youths in this school have a curriculum designed by student interest- they decide what they will learn throughout the course of the school year. Children ages from 7 to 17 attend classes together. The natural setting complete with ponds, trees and acreage, sets the foundation for the natural learning inside. The children are encouraged to freely move about the facility throughout the day. Teachers are selected each year by the student body, not the administration. (It is an awesome sight to view teachers’ politicing for a position). On the outset, it appears chaotic. However, an internal and an external infrastructure maintain an invisible checks and balances system.

                 “Children are free. Their natural curiosity is the starting point for everything that happens at school. Students initiate their own activities. The staff, the plant and the equipment are there to answer their needs. Learning takes place in formal and informal settings, in large and small groups and individually. The dynamics among students of different ages, helping each other learn about everything from fractions to human relations, is one of the greatest strengths of the school. Natural differences are respected and encouraged. The learning that takes place outdoors is as vital as the learning that takes place indoors. Students share responsibility for their own environment and the quality of life at the school. The school is managed by the weekly School Meeting, where every student and staff member has a vote: an education here is an education in hands-on democracy”.

Home Schooling

                One of the fastest growing phenomena in the United States today is the Home Schooling movement. According to Faith Popcorn, an economic analyst, in the Popcorn Report, more and more families will be opting to educate children at home as education lingers behind the explosion in technology and information available. A strong organized faction, these parents are fed up with the few alternatives and schools that exist and home school for a variety of reasons. There are religious, morals and values issues as well as health issues. There are social issues and intellectual issues. All parents who opt for this method of educating their young make a strong, dedicated commitment. Children across the globe who have been home schooled share a common bond in the strength of their principles. Students display high self-esteem and more importantly a strong sense of security. The ability to independently find information from a variety of sources is apparent. A group of home schooled children in Pennsylvania in the 1980’s testified before the General Assembly and state Senate, on the logic behind amending the laws that prohibit (jailing parents) homeschooling. Among the presenters were eight, ten and twelve year old youths on the floor of the Capitol, living proof of the effectiveness of this alternative educational model.

                Much of the success of the homeschooling movement is attributed to John Holt, author of How Children Learn, How Children Fail, Teach Your Own and the central clearing house for books and resources accessible to home schooled children. Holt said, “The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”Of major concern to legislatures is the growing number of families opting to home school their children. This causes a decrease appropriation of tax base for local schools. Home schooling is the largest growing model of education in the US today with the National Home Schooling Association boasting of numbers in the millions. The rate of increase is approximately 35% this past year. The speculation for the increase is due to many factors: high crime, lack of security, outdated curriculum and tools, poor job performance and lack of training in major skills areas like quality of life and family living.

Reggio Emilia Schools

                 In Italy, Villaggio della Madre e dell Fanciullo was instituted for young unwed mothers during the end of the last war trapped in an intolerant political and religious culture.  In 1945, pregnant girls and women returning from concentration camps and those that had been raped by occupying and liberating troops were cast out by condemning families. Elda Mazzocchi Scarzella’s vision was to serve adolescent girl-mothers by respecting, preserving, and supporting the integrity of the mother-child relationship through pregnancy, delivery and early childhood. By women caring for other women, Elda created  a safe supporting-residential environment where young women could discover and develop within themselves the capacity to respond appropriately for their own and their child’s well being. Today, it thrives as the Reggio Emilio schools of Italy graduating the most creative, intelligent, self-secure children imaginable.

                In the Reggio Emilia, children are revered and honored because according to its founder, “A school needs to be a place for all children not based on the idea that they are all the same, but that they are all different.” Mothers and children developed a deep respect for each other as beings filled with potential. Children are treated as whole human beings, respected and honored for their innate character. Today, this school is a model of excellence for the world reflected through its exhibition tour around the world The Hundred Languages of Children.

Montessori Schools

                Montessori said, “Who labors so patiently to create a man? It is the child. The adult is the procreator but the child is the creator. Let us look at the children themselves and let us try to see their great achievements instead of staring ourselves blind at their shortcomings and errors that are so often the result of adult interference and failure to understand. We shall never get understanding by studying mistakes and errors”.    

                Dr. Montessori began her schools in the ghettos of Italy. This effective system of learning math, reading, and tactile awareness encourages a child to have freedom of exploration within few restrictions. The school environment was enhanced with specific materials, designed by Montessori, to achieve specific results. A four-year-old child might be observed pouring corn from one container to the next for hours without interruption (challenging the current notion that children have short attention spans). Children notice subtle differences with each pour. Something new and different is experienced to formulate in the child’s mind an understanding of the whole. Montessori understood the processes of the human development, mind and learning by engineering an environment that is conducive to optimal learning. The simplicity of thought encourages the ability to focus and discover subtleties in an experience.

                A special part of learning in the Montessori classroom is the care of the materials. Neglected routines not learned in the home, children are taught to clean, wash, and take care of equipment as part of the daily routine. At all times, these activities are considered an integral activity to daily life. Montessori classrooms display immaculate children’s books that are well preserved for up to forty years. Treating books and equipment with reverence is an integral part of the lesson.

                Mastery of the tactile, kinesthetic environment is important. Taste, touch, smell and sound are alive and meaningful. Children are encouraged to explore their senses. The use of paper and pencils is non-existent considered inappropriate for early learning. All subject areas like reading, math, writing and geography are based upon tactile experiences.         

                Montessori believed that it was in observation that a teacher learned the essence of childhood intelligence. Teachers become observers before practitioners. The St. Nicholas teacher-training program in England requires beginning teachers to observe student activity for one year. What the teacher learns by observation is the innate gifts and talents children posses and left to their own natural behaviors, children display qualities of lessons to teach. In observation, the teacher develops a perspective of the essence of each child. For example, children eating lunch will readily exchange and share food with others. When a younger child spilled something, other children would assist in the cleanup. This is the reference, the known and familiar, where the teacher’s lesson on sharing and/or room cleanliness would begin. In traditional classrooms, often lessons are so abstract that children have no point of reference to recognize. The mind in need of relevant interconnections cannot create abstract thinking unless it is part of a known experience. Adults teach abstract theories without a foundation in a child’s reality of experience. Observations catalogued in journals are compiled, compared and formulated for teacher reference.

                The miracle of Montessori’s Italian children was that, “they had shown the strange powers of the mind while it is still sensitive and absorbent, still in partly an unconscious state before it comes completely under the domination of consciousness and reason, of established habits and prejudices; under the right conditions, children will have a natural spontaneous goodness and love, a natural desire to learn and work.“

Waldorf Schools

                Rudolf Steiner said that the aim of education was not to make all schools into Waldorf Schools but to create a new impulse in education at large so that the Waldorf schools would no longer be necessary. Waldorf graduates have stimulated the growth of “New Age” and/or holistic belief systems. Steiner believed that freedom and unpossessive love are the two practices to be developed by all human beings. His work is holistic methodologies and insights into specific educational practices. This theory maintains that there is a common archetypical ground for art, music, science and religion. The whole is found in every part and the part in every whole. Life is to be experienced as art is experienced- inner experiences expressed through the senses.

                Steiner believed that if we want to come to an understanding of a living educational form, it must be approached from a variety of perspectives and at more then one level at a time. The movement of the mind is fluid, full of currents and intersections. To ask for consistency from life would be to misunderstand its form. It is ever changing. The science of the interior being is called ‘anthroposophy’ or the knowledge of man. It is a science that integrates the inner and outer worlds. A medical model has been founded based on these principles of anthroposophy.

                Human beings are a part of a common physical-spiritual linkage. In order to know ourselves, we must turn the world of perception inside out. Inner development of the child must accompany physical sensory development. This inner development is the education of soul qualities, spiritual qualities, ego strength, differentiation, will, thinking, feeling and breathing.

                In the original Steiner schools, teachers and students were nourished and replenished through learning for the sake of learning. The curriculum places heavy emphasis on the writings of Goethe, the study of Theosophy and the experience of the cosmic Christ whose union with the earth marked the turning point of time. Nature and art are fundamentals in this system.  Children create their own textbooks with drawings that are full of pastels and light colors. Music and drama are also integral to learning as well as eurhythmy, a movement exercise.

                 Steiner believed that there was a definite progression of intelligence. Learning is ‘organic’. At each age or stage, certain qualities of the individual manifest and need to be nurtured. Young children are exposed to soft handmade toys such as stuffed creatures and elves and gnomes. Square, sharply angled blocks are replaced with less manufactured forms like strips of cloth, unspun wool fleece and outdoor trees, branches, earth and stones. In comparison to standard schools, classroom objects are very, very simple so as to enable the child’s imagination to develop.

                There is a main lesson designed to present a subject in wide scope and depth continued each day and for a number of weeks. This establishes coherency with the subject matter.  The ‘block method’ is in contrast to the public school timetable and lasts one to one and a half hours. In the afternoons children do gardening, arts and crafts, eurhythmy and gymnastics and in higher grades more practical work. Although this sounds similar to public curriculums, the atmosphere is very different. There is a feeling of lightness with the lessons both from the perspective of using pastels, on the walls and throughout the schools and from the central core of acknowledging the inherent goodness and movement of youths.

                Whatever subject is being presented, it is presented by the teacher devoid of textbook. Children create their own texts. The artwork of Waldorf youths is demonstrates a freedom of expression uncommon to most children of similar age. Art is an integral part of the curriculum at all times because it is the soul expressing itself. (Graffiti is not a problem in Steiner schools!) All children participate in theatrical performances that have meaning and depth relating to life experiences. Youths are exposed to deep issues, philosophies and ideas synonymous to human life and struggle.

                A predominant feature of the schools is that if lessons are not achieved by the end of the school year, then they are continued at the beginning of the next because the same teacher progresses through the elementary grades with them. This insures continuity and creates a bonding.

                Children learn complimentary functions. For example, all children learn to knit and crochet with tangible results- hat, scarf or purse. From a developmental standpoint, this singular activity enables the learner to develop hand-eye-coordination with focused intent with an intrinsic reward of the item produced. Also, innate in this activity is the ability to grasp writing tools as a natural transference from the crochet hook. Children love these activities because the results of their labors is immediate. 

There is a great deal to be learned from the past…


                Prior to the 1900’s, the public schools went from a private free enterprise activity with no compulsory attendance laws, no school taxes and independent thinkers to creating complacent ‘good citizens’ that don’t rock the boat, pay their taxes on time and leave politicians to chart the course of the nation.

                Eliminated and brought to extinction was one of the most admirable systematic educational designs developed- the one-room schoolhouses.  Here in a small, community environment, children received a cultural local heritage, a sense of community and belonging, personal identity, infinite knowledge and moments of exploration.  In addition, youths of all ages learned from each other. There was a passion for learning. This system produced individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

                Children valued education initially because it was a wonderful distraction from household and farm chores. There was little competition because young and old assisted each other in the process of learning. This promoted cooperation. Also, teaching others was the key to imprinting knowledge for oneself as the lesson was repeated to someone else. Over and over, younger children benefited from the repetition while the older children performed other lessons. In addition, if a lesson had not been mastered the first time, one could rely on hearing it again. Labels like emotionally disturbed, attention deficit, mentally retarded, were nonexistent because everyone had a sense of equality. The one room schoolhouse contained many children at different age and grade levels working in unison very much a microcosm of the community. (Youths had a short time in school because upon reaching puberty, teens were expected to apprentice in some vocation.)

                These were the schools that reflected the community. Although not perfect, everyone had a sense of placement and belonging both at home and in the world. Small classes are special, integrating many ages as well as developing skills of intimacy. How many intimate friends can an individual pursue? Having 3 to 5 close friendships is all anyone can hope to successfully achieve at any given time. In the one room schoolhouse, these relationships were nurtured. In schools, clicks have replaced intimate friendships. The chaos of large environments everyone promotes apathy. One-room schoolhouses were the closest replication of the family of any educational structure.

                The teachers were dedicated individuals. For little if any pay, weathering severe conditions like having to chop wood or arrive at 5 A.M. to start a fire or get children home during a snowstorm, teachers in the past were revered individuals. The teacher often resided in someone’s home (even shared a room with the students). Initially, only men were teachers. As teaching evolved, more and more, women were attracted to the profession. Female teachers were unable to marry or have families, as a mothers’ job was considered more valuable for the purpose of maintaining the family structure and community. If a woman had her own children, she could not possibly care for, have time for and devote her herself to educating others. However, the most desirable female in a town for marriage was the teacher!

                Although natural, school environments were not the healthiest in the world. Smoke filtered indoors when the fireplace or pot-belly store was lit. The youngest sat in the front of the schoolhouse near the wood stove to keep warm. However, the older students sat in the rear of the room near the door where it was drafty and cold in winter. In the South, schools were dismissed when the temperature was too hot and humid to concentrate. The rooms were sooty and full of dust from the wooden and/or dirt floors and stoves. All in all, indoor environments of one-room schoolhouses had little distinction from the outdoors.

                The school was the center and the most utilized building in the community.  The court, the Sunday picnic, church services and any important event or situation that needed to be held or discussed transpired in the schoolhouse. Financial, material, scholastic support was distributed among all members as well as the wood for the fire, furnishings and texts. The community decided what was best for the children.

                One-room public community schools were varied in form and design. However, there were also private schools held in plantation houses and on large estates. Youths in these schools viewed education very differently. Since recorded history began, the nobility always received the best education of the day whether in Europe, Asia or the America’s, most often males. To become a gentleman or lady was a revered commodity for transferring information, culture and customs from one generation to the next. To have a well bred, educated son or daughter was a measure of wealth, respect and honor. 

 ·        Children progressed by ability rather than by age. Instead of subjecting the entire class to review math problems, for example, year after year, a child was able to glean from overhearing repetitive lessons taught to younger students pertinent pieces of information for continuity, repetition and continuous flow of whole perspective.

  • Children were grouped by community rather than by age, grade, physical or learning disability without the added expense of special tutors or specialists.
  • It was the child’s responsibility to learn no one else.
  • School was perceived as a privilege although legislated a right. Children attended school only after doing morning chores, community service or tending the fields in the wee hours of the morning.
  • The sense of community extended itself to having the school as the heart of the community.
  • Children assisted each other in supportive relationships rather than competition, siblings supporting each other.
  • The McGuffy Reader of the late 1800’s stressed the development of characters, morals and values in stories. The inherent theme was “We-Us’ rather than the values of today, which are “Me-I” as well as character not personality.
  • Teachers had high expectations of students and the burden of proof was left to the children not the teacher.
  • Readers were challenging, stimulating and relevant to daily life.
  • Labeling of children was nonexistent, assisting each other, especially the young was expected.
  • Women were unable to be teachers if married because it was felt that the community benefited from mothers at home. And mothers at home were considered unfit for being with children all day and night.
  • Generations lived within the same household, sometimes up to four, thus bridging the gap between cradle to rocker.
  • Superior quality of work was more important than the quantity of information memorized


                Who can define a ‘good education’? Is the purpose of learning, as in school, for the socializing effect, for the success factor, becoming proficient at test taking, career placement or something else? If history is any indicator at all, some of the most knowledgeable, successful and functional human beings were uneducated by today’s standards.  An infamous football coach Vince Lombardy said it best when he sought to hire only PhD’s- Passionate, Hungry and Determined people. Self-motivation, self-fulfillment, drive, passion and embracing life are more apt to measure success than any subjects studied in school. And these skills, although most probably directly unteachable, can be cultivated, nurtured and guided to fruition. The process of learning in the West has become so alien to life, so diluted and devoid of meaning and tangible experiences and more theoretical by design, ( as well as more politically, economically and socially insane), that ‘real-life’ and ‘real-learning’ has become a myth.   

                Some major factors that deprive the process are rooted in a ‘fear’ pervasive environment that inhibits:

•The ability to question without retribution (authorities, experts, peers)

•The need to fully explore (kinesthetically, mentally, emotionally, physically)

•The longing to feel secure and safe

•The joy to revel in one’s own creativity, intelligence and innovation (instead of those of the past)

•The capacity to honor soft skills (compassion, intuition, integrity, honesty, commitment, service to others, respect) equal to hard skills (physical prowess, intellectual capacity),

•The sense of belonging instead of separate, isolated and alone,

•The introduction to knowledge, skills and experiences at a moment when the organism is incapable of filtering, ordering and assimilating the data with over stimulating the neurology instead. 

                Although Maslow defined the most obvious human needs, some are so intangible that means of measurement are impossible to standardize. Why is there a national fetish to measure learning in such a manner (except to justify billions of dollars into a system that is irrelevant, archaic, inept and crumbling?) IF education is the measure of learning and socialization, how can a tool of measurement be devised to define when one becomes an adult morally, ethically, emotionally, socially or even intellectually?  Tools of measurement are arbitrary, inaccurate, narrow and change with the times.  The time for national dialogue and the dissolution of the educational infrastructure is imminent because education is no longer relevant to modern learning.