Are You Thinking Sudbury Parents Must Be Insane?

(Longtime Fairhaven School parent and author Johnna Schmidt submitted the following post. Enjoy!)


Back when both of my children went to a highly rated public Montessori School, I occasionally ran into acquaintances whose children attended Fairhaven School.  I smiled and nodded politely as they described the model of this “free school” where the kids decided to do whatever they wanted all day, while thinking “Are you CRAZY?”  I couldn’t believe that any intelligent and loving parent would take such a risk with their child’s education.  Didn’t we all agree that solid education was the only way a person could accomplish anything in this mad world?  Were their children sad misfits who simply couldn’t survive other more conventional models of schooling or were they (the parents) impossible idealists completely cut off from reality as we all know it?

Understand, I am a career educator, started teaching right out of college and never fully stopped.  I have taught in public schools, private schools, taught adults, children, and currently teach and administer a program at University of Maryland, partially because I want to be able to afford to send my children there someday.  So I have a lot invested in the world of education as we know it.  If it’s all a big mess than what on earth have I been doing all these years?  If kids don’t actually need teachers, then surely college-age students don’t need me.  How threatening is that?

So.  Here’s what happened.  My eldest son B.  got up to 7th grade, where the high-performing public Montessori school took especial pride in preparing a high percentage of their students to successfully test their way into the math and science public magnet school in our area that has the reputation (there’s just no other way to say it) of being the ONLY option for people who can’t afford private school.  We were told that all the 7th graders would be doing between 30 and 100 math problems a night, in homework, in order to increase their prowess and take their rightful places as rulers of the planet.  And I broke.  I snapped.  I couldn’t see it, couldn’t do it, couldn’t subject my child or my family life to it, suddenly thought “Good grief, K-12 is all institutionalized academic rigor and stress and tests, then University is more institutional academic rigor and stress and tests….what kind of education is that, really?” and I compared my own paltry schooling but extremely happy childhood with the one I was providing for my son, shook my head in disgust, and began looking for alternatives.

One thing led to another and I found myself on the back porch at a neighborhood party while two enthusiastic parents related how their son, who had been miserable at a neighborhood public school, actually enjoyed going to Fairhaven, was happy and acting more responsibly at home, and was occasionally cooking them eggs for breakfast without even being asked!  Will you think less of me if I admit it was the promise of my progeny becoming some sort of unpaid cook/housekeeper that made me start to listen?  And once I started listening and entertaining dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t stop.  Then I visited the campus and I was sold.  I wondered “How could a place that feels so good be bad for my sons?” In retrospect, I wish I had had the emotional courage to ask myself years before, how could a place that felt as bad as their former school felt, possibly be good for them.

My husband and I took a deep breath, clutched each other’s hands, and in the face of more raised eyebrows than you can shake a power point presentation at, we jumped off the educational cliff.  That’s what it felt like to me, enrolling at Fairhaven.

The first thing I noticed was different about B. after he started at Fairhaven was that all of his health problems evaporated.  Asthma, allergies, digestion problems, all of which he had suffered for his entire K-6th grade years.  All gone. He didn’t take many classes that first year, and that really freaked me out.  But he was happy and healthy, and my husband and I decided maybe we were just giving him a well-needed break.   He was doing such interesting things and had great friendships so I knew it wasn’t an entirely bad move, but we weren’t complete believers yet;  I kept worrying about my son’s pathway to college.  I couldn’t see it. If I list for you here my son’s involvements and accomplishments, and why I now believe my son will be able to create a future for himself, it will sound an awful lot like bragging, and B. will not allow me to publish this blog.  He’s a thoughtful, modest fellow and would prefer to impress you in person. If he chooses to go to college, he’ll go.  I can see that now. He’s fourteen.  Why, I ask myself, why, why, why did I think I should be able to see it any sooner?


Johnna Schmidt

April, 2013

7 comments to Are You Thinking Sudbury Parents Must Be Insane?

  • Beth

    Love this Johnna! Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Cheryl

    “we jumped off the educational cliff” Yes! This is exactly the way I’ve described our journey into Sudbury. My almost 5 year old has been attending the Tallgrass Sudbury School in IL for about 6 weeks now and our world has been SHAKEN in an incredible way. Thanks for sharing! We are so excited for the journey ahead of us.

  • Johnna Schmidt

    Cheryl: It’s great that you already see it as a world-shaker and a journey. It’s truly a paradigm shifting choice. One of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is how fear-based so many conventional choices re: schooling are. But as I observe my children growing and delve more into the research my own fears continue to melt away, thank goodness. It’s not always easy but it’s definitely been the right choice for my family.

  • What a great post! Articulate, funny and wise. Thank you!

  • Sarah

    This is great! We are just about two years into our Sudbury adventure and although there was definitely an adjustment period (that continues to this day!), the more I look at the public school system from the outside, the harder it is to understand how I was tolerant and even supportive of it for so long!

  • Leonid Levin

    Thanks a lot for this post! We didn’t even try a traditional school. When our daughter reached the school-going age of 4 two years ago, she went straight to De Vrije Ruimte, a democratic school in The Hague, Netherlands, where we live. She is so happy there that I can’t even imagine any other school for her. She wasn’t happy in the day care (where she went once a week from the age of 2), she wasn’t happy in a public school playgroup. But now she loves her school and often refuses to leave at 4 p.m. when we come to pick her up!

  • Very nice post!

    I run a french website about the flipped classroom model and I’d love to make a blog post with a translation of this testimonial. Would you allow me to do that?


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