Frequently Asked Questions
What is a democratic school?
In our school, democracy is both a matter of principle and a source of endless learning opportunities. It is central to our curriculum. Democratic values are integrated with the foundation of the school in order to promote understanding of justice, mutual respect, trust, responsibility, and self-determination within a community of equals.
The students as well as the staff in a democratic school make decisions and vote on rules together.
At South Jersey Sudbury School we:
- nurture equal opportunity for everyone and total freedom of expression within the rules of the school
- offer voluntary courses
- use a formal conflict-resolution system with due process and rule of law (realized as the school Judicial Committee, which is made up of a rotating panel of students and staff members)
- do not enforce age segregation or mandatory groupings of students
- do not subject students to evaluations or standardized tests
Have a look at our page explaining the Sudbury Model for more information.
What do students do all day?
It depends on the individual student. Open discussion, sports, reading, gaming, building, and dancing are some common activities we've observed at Sudbury schools. Sometimes students even assign staff members to teach specific lessons or courses.
Our school is more of a community than an institution. If I asked you what people in your town do all day, it would be hard for you to answer since people engage in so many varying activities. It is the same in a Sudbury school. We trust children to determine what is best for their own education.
How does a student eventually move on to college?
When he or she decides to go to college and chooses the college he or she wants, the experience of all existing Sudbury schools is that there will be no stopping him or her. Read the story in Free at Last of the Sudbury Valley School student who decided she wanted to go to Wesleyan University after the application deadline had closed, and how she accomplished it. Like her, most Sudbury graduates get into their first choice of college because of who they are, not what a transcript says. And today, most colleges, including Harvard University, have a specific Admissions Officer assigned to interview students who were home schooled or who attended free, democratic schools. College admissions are looking for people with achievements and passion, not just a resume template. Sudbury students, by virtue of having more free time and being unimpeded by traditional academics, have a clear advantage here.
Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons points out:
“We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular. If you’re a great poet, we’d love to have you send your poetry along. You could send your short stories or mathematical solutions or computer programs or your life sciences research. Whatever it is you have done, we want to get that information to make the best possible case for your admission.”
He goes on to explain:
“With 35,000 people applying, you can see that standardized test scores are relatively unimportant in the end, because most of the people who apply have strong scores and grades and are fully qualified to be here. So the real question is to try to get beyond the test scores and grades. Examples of applicants’ accomplishments in math or music, to name just a couple of areas, help us do that. The people who have the energy, the drive, and commitment to do something unusual in math, music, athletics, theater, or any activity have transferable sets of skills. It’s human potential that now happens to be directed, say, at women’s rugby, but could also be directed at any other kind of activity during college and later.”
Columbia University and Princeton University, among others, address admission for students of non-traditional education on their websites. Click here to read an academic study of Sudbury alumni and here to read a testimonial from a co-founder of Sudbury Valley School. Studies show about 40% of Sudbury graduates go on to become entrepreneurs!
Don't the children play all day if they don't have to go to class?
Traditional schooling has given all of us a misunderstanding of the value of play in childhood by relegating it to a place of non-importance in the child's school day. Nothing could be further from the truth or more harmful to child development.
Physically, children need to move, and current research indicates that they learn more when they are moving. Play almost always involves movement. It also involves an intensity and focus that are precursors to the same level of performance that children will show when they find passions and their career interests.
Further, creativity demands play. We play with ideas; managers play with new processes; scientists play with hypotheses and experiments; inventors play with new toys, vehicles, products; marketing professionals play with new slogans; and pioneers in all fields play with finding new ways.
Children learn all sorts of things from each other during play. Listen to a group of any age: they learn that there is more than one way to do something; they discuss politics from their family's perspective and hear how other families think; they dream about the future and share their dreams; they take charge one day and follow the next; they are honest with each other about their feelings; they examine the workings of machines; they hear about a friend witnessing her baby sister being born; they hatch a plan to protect their inventions; they help younger children with a project; they find a way no matter how long it takes... the list and the learning is endless.
Children also learn about society through their interaction with others in play. They learn the importance of rules and boundaries, the importance of working it out, the value of all members of the group. They develop skills in leadership, initiative, cooperation, responsibility, collaboration, fair play, compassion and justice.
Most importantly, they learn all of these things in the process. They learn in an experiential way because it is part of their play. That is very different than the focus of traditional schooling which believes that it is their job to teach these things, usually through manipulated activities or to 'please' the teacher. Children 'own' what they learn on their own and most children discard the majority of what is taught to them when they did not ask to be taught. (Teenagers, probably more so.)
What are the rules in this school?
All of our rules are made through a vote at School Meeting. Contact us with any questions about school policy or for an updated copy of our Rulebook.
But what if my child isn't self-motivated?
All kids are motivated. All children have a passion for learning and discovery. If your child doesn't exhibit motivation for learning, why might this be the case? What has his or her experience in "learning environments" been like? Has your child become accustomed to being led, directed, and bossed around by adults? Unfortunately, most "learning environments" designed for kids these days are really just structured, adult-led activities during which the kids are expected to be more-or-less passive subjects. They are not allowed the freedom and trust required to truly develop their own passions and pursue their own curiosity.
In a Sudbury school curriculum, kids have the freedom to pursue their own learning in whatever form appeals to them. For some kids, this freedom is an immediate call to action. For others, it takes more time. Boredom (in the absence of coercion) is the best way to cultivate self-reflection, followed by self-motivation.
We challenge all parents who hold this belief about their child(ren) to reconsider. Reflecting inward about your own experience as a child will help. As always, communicating openly with your child and asking about his or her experience may yield the best results.
Do you have teachers?
No, we have adults in the school known as staff members. Our staff members all have professional experience in education and love spending time with children. Staff members must pass criminal background checks and be Child-CPR and First-Aid certified for South Jersey Sudbury School.
At the request of the students, staff members may teach lessons or workshops and provide tutoring services. The teaching style and attitude of the instruction will be catered to the students' desires. A staff member's main job is to be a resource for the students and to make sure the school is running appropriately, properly, and legally. Staff members are required to take on a considerable amount of other responsibilities, such as specializing in certain types of knowledge the students are interested in, generally studying to be better role models, and working independently to improve the school.
There is no tenure and the staff members are elected one year at a time. School Meeting can hire or fire an employee at any time. This might be our most radical departure from traditional schooling in which teachers are revered as authorities with considerable job security.
What does one learn at a Sudbury school?
It would be impossible to come up with a general list for all students. It's based on them, their interest/passion, and their choices. They will learn many different things, often without even realizing it. Lessons can be specific fields of knowledge or about life in general (e.g. communication skills, respect for human rights and the opinions of others, practice with empathy and conflict resolution because of the School Meeting/JC process, and their own agency and ability to affect the world around them). Students learn at their own pace the kinds of things that they want to learn. Now that the internet is widespread and all-encompassing, all children have the knowledge of the world at their fingertips.
How does a student learn the basics?
If a certain bit of knowledge is considered a necessity to being an effective human, it can be picked up in almost any aspect of life.
For instance, if a child seriously wants to repair a bicycle, cook a meal, program a computer, or even go fishing, they'll have to read to learn about the process, they must use math to work out measurements, and participate with others in groups to learn and teach the process. It's this kind of motivation to accomplish something that is natural in humans, is not in short supply with children, and requires a supportive environment that an authoritative model of education doesn'tprovide.
As staff and as a school, we don't put a value on any specific type on knowledge. We believe anything considered basic is picked up by everyone at their own pace and in their own way when placed in a social environment with various ages and experience levels.
What about discipline - can the children just run wild all day?
Of course there are rules and boundaries. They are created by School Meeting and broadly fall into two categories - respect for others and respect for the school building and reputation. These rules are enforced through our Judiciary Committee, which is made up of a rotating group of students and staff members. Our school’s democratic approach ensures that issues which arise are handled by peers (students and staff members alike) in an open and fair way. J.C. has the sole discretion to determine disciplinary action (with an eye towards growth and compassion). Cooperation and understanding are reached when all members of the community work together to create an environment of trust and support.
Alternately, students can be trained in mediation and opt to "Talk-About-It" in lieu of Judiciary Committee. In this case, the students having a dispute can choose a neutral third-party to mediate in a mutually compassionate way.
To be clear, our school code prioritizes (in descending order):
Student safety is more important than anything.
2) Respect for Human Rights
Our school models respect for oneself and one's peers. Personal boundaries and property rights are strictly enforced.
3) Learning & Exploration
Unstructured play introduces and reinforces life lessons. Staff members are available as resources to all students.
What are your operating hours?
Drop-off is 9:00 - 9:30. Pick-up is from 2:30 - 3:00 for full-time students. Our ability to accommodate exceptions depends on the individual staff members present. We may organize an after-school program if there is sufficient demand. Please contact us with any questions.