The Times Take On Free Schools: “I Can’t Imagine Who Sends Their Children There”



In the ongoing discussion of how alternative schooling and free schooling is characterized by the mainstream media, here is a an article from the Times about the Manhattan Free School.  Wacky? “I can’t imagine who sends their children there?”

Further evidence too, that we are not all the same, and there should be many kinds of schools available to many kinds of families and children.  There is not one right way.  In spite of media characterizations that their might be…

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/nyregion/05bigcity.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

October 4, 2010
Play-Doh? Calculus? At the Manhattan Free School, Anything Goes
By
SUSAN DOMINUS
The Manhattan Free School in East Harlem is not free, but the principal there practically is. Now in her third year, Pat Werner, a 57-year-old former literacy coach who logged 18 years in New York City public schools, accepted all of $3,000 in salary last year.

Few go into education for the money, but Ms. Werner’s dedication to opening young people’s minds might better be described as utopian than idealistic — which is only appropriate at a private school where students do not receive grades, take tests or have to do anything, really, that they do not feel like doing.

For parents exhausted by New York’s numbers-oriented, lottery-driven public school system or its hierarchical, hypercompetitive private schools, the Manhattan Free School represents another way to go: equally wacky, but at the opposite extreme.

A school like this, where a comic-book-making class is now offered but calculus is not, is not likely to drain applicants from Dalton. Operating on a $100,000 budget, the school, at Good Neighbor Presbyterian Church on East 106th Street, now has 23 students ages 5 to 18.

Of those students, Ms. Werner said, 20 percent pay the full fee, $15,000 a year; 25 percent pay $1,500; and the rest pay about $3,000. Ms. Werner said her salary was so low because “we don’t have enough money”; she and her husband get by on his pension from the parks department.

In the cafeteria of the church one recent day, lunch, like much else at the school, was happening in a fashion that could generously be described as fluid. The art teacher was offering her hummus to a wary 5-year-old who seemed hungry. The boy ate the hummus eagerly; followers of the free-school philosophy might posit that this was partly because no one was forcing him to. (Pizza was also an option.)

At the Manhattan Free School, which opened in 2008 and follows a model that first gained fame at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England, educators believe that students learn best when they direct their own education. Classes are held, but if a student wants to play video games or model with Play-Doh all day, so be it — even if that student is, say, 17.

“It comes down to trust,” Ms. Werner said, “the trust that given time, they’ll find their passions, and when they do, they’ll be eager to learn.”

Students and faculty members debate and vote on all matters of school policy, but the grown-ups are outnumbered: The school has two full-time teachers, and relies on parents and other volunteers who believe in the program to fill the gaps (including calculus, if a student were to want to learn it).

“I can’t imagine who sends their kid there,” one educational consultant said to me. The partial answer: A Metropolitan Transportation Authority engineer who lives in Manhattan; a dentist from Glen Ridge, N.J.; a hairdresser in Brooklyn.

Some students had rebelled elsewhere; some, like Amylin Di Dario, a 15-year-old from South Plainfield, N.J., needed a break from self-imposed pressure. “The stress was giving me stomach problems,” Amylin said.

Despite the varied backgrounds, the students described themselves as a close group.

With college spots so coveted, and the fever of competition trickling to ever-younger children, choosing the Manhattan Free School is like going off the grid — which might be more appealing to some people than settling for a so-so spot on the grid, perhaps a second-tier gifted-and-talented program, or a school that costs through the nose but fails to impress.

The Brooklyn Free School, which espouses a similar philosophy, opened in 2004 with 30 students and now has double that number enrolled, and a waiting list of 30, according to Alan Berger, its principal.

If the popular Reggio Emilia approach to preschool — which empowers the students to drive the curriculum and relies heavily on art — continued to older grades, it might look a little like the Manhattan Free School.

After lunch, a group of students sat in a lounge and had the kind of conversation that sounded as if it could go on forever. “I want to do something with my life between starting a family and dying,” one teenager said.

Then a 15-year-old popped his head in. “Seriously, are there any adults in the gym?” he asked. “Because I think that’s where all the little kids are.”

There was, in fact, an adult in there, but the moment suggested that the student had internalized one of the school’s favorite sayings: The flip side of freedom is responsibility.

E-mail: susan.dominus@nytimes.com

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