Room to Grow

By Jen Merrill

Encouraging Independence Through Alternative Education Encouraging Independence Through Alternative Education

Picture this: your child starts having trouble at school. Maybe she’s bored. Maybe she’s not moving at the same pace as the rest of her class, whether that pace is slower or quicker. Maybe her love of art leaves her doodling during physics while she “should” be reading from her textbook. Or maybe her love of math leaves her solving equations all day instead of working on that English paper. Maybe she’s being picked on or harassed on a daily basis, making it hard to face her peers day in and day out.

What do you do? Do you force her to fall in line and stay in the cattle shoots of a homogenized education system? Difficulties such as these may lead parents to question the true goal of their child’s education. Isn’t the whole point of it to prepare our younger generations for successful adulthoods?

In his 2009 piece for Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray, an author and research professor at Boston College, points out that our public schools do not teach our children about democracy through action, but rather dictatorship.

“Democracy implies freedom, but it also implies responsibility. The balance between the two is delicate and takes wisdom that can only be gained through practice…How do children acquire such values and learn to live by them?” questions Gray. “One thing we can be certain of is that children do not acquire such values in schools, at least not in the schools that most people know. People acquire values by actually experiencing those values, in real-life settings, and seeing that they work. In schools children experience dictatorship, not democracy.”

That idea leads some families to alternative options, options in which independence is encouraged and dedication to interests is fostered. One such option is unschooling. But unschooling isn’t really one option. It’s a choice that caterers to the individual and can mean a myriad of different things for different people.

The term “unschooling” was coined by educator and author John Holtz in the late ’70s and refers to, as his colleague Pat Farenga states, “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”

For some, that may still mean a school setting, such at Harrisburg’s The Circle School, located off Derry Street. The Circle School follows the Sudbury model of education and offers a directly democratic environment for students to explore their interests and passions in. For others, like the Bell family, it may mean “radical unschooling,” an offshoot of homeschooling that allows complete freedom for a child to spend his or her time, just as you or I mightAnd no, it doesn’t suffer from a lack of structure, but the structure involved is just different from our normal expectations of what educational structure is all about. All forms of unschooling encourage the following sentiment from John Hotlz himself: “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions – if they have any – and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

Democratic Learning in the Midstate: 
The Circle School

In 1984, Beth Stone, Jim Rietmulder, Sue Narten and Dee Holland-Vogt launched the Circle School in Lewisberry, Pa. Three of them were looking for educational options for their own children, and three of them were educators looking for a change from the public and private schools where they had taught. From 1982 until 1984, the four pinpointed their philosophy before opening their doors.

Today, a lot of resources exist for individuals looking to start their own schools, especially through resources such as Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). But that wasn’t necessarily the case back in the 1980s.

“If we had known what it was going to take to bring it about, I doubt very much that we would have done it,” says Rietmulder. “But, we’re so glad we did.”

The school continued to grow until they were in desperate need for a new building. In 1997, the Circle School relocated to their current location off Derry Street in Harrisburg, and they’ve spent the past 15 years educating anywhere from 70 to 85 children ranging ages 4 through 19.

“I suppose it was scary in one sense, but by then we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do. We wanted child-centered schooling. We wanted self-directed programs. We were pretty confident in that aspiration,” says Rietmulder. “It took us 15 years of the Circle School until we really had well crystalized exactly what we wanted to do. The principles of the school today are the same as what we started with in 1984.”

The Circle School has absolutely no set curriculum. Children are invited to do as they please and learn independently or in groups if they so chose. There is no type of standardized testing, and no evaluations or written report cards handed out.

“For high school levels, in order to earn a diploma in Pennsylvania, a student has to earn 21 credits in a certain distribution of traditional academic subjects. The law defines a credit as 120 clock hours of instruction,” says Rietmulder. “The idea that you can identify 21 credit areas and every student is going to be well prepared if they are exposed to those seems silly.”

The school’s literature states, “Absence of imposed evaluation makes several wholesome results more likely. First, children develop strong self-assessment habits and introspective skills. Second, children’s natural curiosity and motivation are preserved – habits of growth, rather than action to please adults. Third, children develop empowering confidence in their own grand ideas and original perceptions of the world.”

One argument against democratic schooling and the lack of overall curriculum is the idea that children need structure. The Circle School insists that they do have structure; it just exists differently as “laws, daily chores, judicial duty, certification procedures, committees, corporations – and lots of daily, weekly and yearly rhythms.”

According to Circle-School-published information, “The difference is in the kind of structure: top-down or bottom-up. If children are schooled for 12 years to follow someone else’s order and agenda – top-down structure – then that’s what they will expect as adults. On the other hand, if children are expected from a young age to direct themselves, mindful of the community around them, then that’s what they will expect as adults.”

The lack of curriculum brings about questions of the future endeavors of students. In a study of a 5-year period, close to 90 percent of all alumni went on to college. Though the school has no grading system of any kind, the students applying for college will often request instruction on how to take the SATs.

So how are they admitted to college without transcripts, or diplomas? Fewer than five students in the past 10 years have taken the test for the GED after their time spent at the Circle School. Instead of producing a transcript like at most schools, students of the Circle School create working resumes.

“Most of our graduates are admitted to college based on other credentials, personal interviews, personal resumes, test scores and other demonstrations of achievement and ability,” Rietmulder further explains in his book.

The Circle School operates under a direct democracy system, meaning that every individual at the school – students and teachers alike – has an equal say in how the school is run. All participation is completely optional.

The main opportunity to participate is at the weekly School Meeting. Ultimately, School Meeting is seen as the chief executive of the school. These meetings make decisions concerning business, staff, budget, facilities, public relations and the daily community in general. It overlooks the executive, legislative and judicial branches of itself. The school’s “Lawbook” is an integral part of these meetings. This book contains about 200 laws and 300 to 400 regulations that members of the school have voted on – and continue to vote on – themselves. Rules range from “9.21 Stealing is prohibited” to “12.16 Paper airplane makers must write their names on the airplanes they make.”

Students and faculty members are invited to write complaints about law violations for the Judicial Committee to analyze each and every day. The committee talks to related parties and votes on a consequence. Depending on the suggested consequence or severity of the charge, trials are sometimes taken to the School Meeting for further investigation. As always, majority rules.

The Judicial Committee is just one of the numerous committees present at the Circle School. Just like the judicial branch of the United States government, this body of individuals is responsible for holding people accountable for their actions.

Circle School literature explains that “the Judicial Committee investigates alleged infractions of laws daily, takes testimony, makes findings of fact, files charges when supported by evidence and conducts trials by jury when defendants plead ‘not guilty.’ Everybody takes turns serving on JC. JC Chairs, a coveted position of trust, are elected.”

Rietmulder feels confident in the system, even if he accepts that, like the American judicial system, there are some flaws. Because of the thorough research done by the Judicial Committee, between 95 and 98 percent of the cases result in a “guilty” plea. The cases rang on a large spectrum from things as minor as leaving a mess to theft and beyond.

The Circle School stresses that the School Meeting’s decisions produce consequences, not punishments. The democratic set-up of the school makes sure to place accountability on students and their actions.

“We don’t have a headmaster or principal or chief executive,” says Rietmulder. “The body of School Meeting is our chief executive.”

As a private, nonprofit, tax-exempt school, the Circle School is licensed and regulated by the Department of Education, but it receives absolutely no government funding. Instead, 75 percent of the school’s funding comes from tuition, and the other 25 percent is usually provided as charitable gifts.

However, the Circle School’s method of financial aid is quite different than other private schools’ methods.

“We commit to meeting the financial needs of every family. A family applies and fills out a form that goes to a third-party agency. That agency applies a federal formula similar to the FAFSA formula that we have created that takes into account household expense needs,” says Rietmulder. “You go through the financial aid process, and whatever that says is a fair amount that your family can afford based on your particular circumstances, that’s what the school will accept. That means that every year we have a huge financial-aid bill of which only a small fraction is funded. The rest, the school basically just eats.”

For that reason, studies have shown that the Circle School’s socioeconomic map closely mirrors the statistics for the area it serves. The median household income for students’ families is $46,000. Rietmulder says that from the birth of the school, they knew that they’d be doing a disservice to the community if they didn’t make their school accessible to as many people as possible.

“About 30 percent of households have incomes under $30,000. About half have incomes under $55,000. About 90 percent of incomes are under $100,000,” Rietmulder explained.

The primary service area includes Dauphin and Cumberland counties, but students have also travelled from Adams, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Perry and York counties.

The philosophy and methodology behind Harrisburg’s Circle School is certainly unique, and Rietmulder and the rest of the staff welcome any interest in their organization. Parents and non-parents alike often check out the school in order to have a better idea of what type of education is available for their children as well as the students of the general community.

“At the Circle School, we think school should be a place where children get to practice life, pursue the things that they are interested in and learn about the things they want to learn about when they find need for it. The program is self-directed. They manage their own lives, but there are certainly a lot of civic requirements of kids at the Circle School,” says Rietmulder. “Students and staff are citizens of a scaled-down version of the world.”