NEW YORK -- On a recent Wednesday morning at the Brooklyn Free School, a class was in session. Ten students, ranging in age from about 12 to 16, sat around a table having a heated debate about chemistry. And superpowers.
"Those elements don't really go together," said one boy in a hoodie and glasses. "Or I don't think they go together."
"But that would make it a good power," another boy piped in. "Cause they're all so different. It'd be awesome to get all those elements together in one guy."
"Maybe," The boy in the hoodie replied. "Let's say maybe."
This was Chemistry: The Gathering, a class where students were creating an "elemental" version of the popular card game, "Magic: The Gathering," involving different characters with specific chemical powers. Its curriculum was approved by the students themselves, just like all of the classes at Brooklyn Free School, a completely democratic K-12 private school occupying four floors of a quaint brownstone in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.
As the animated back-and-forth went on, the young teacher, or "advisor," who could have been mistaken for a student, mostly sat quietly and listened. Occasionally he posed questions, but generally the students guided the discussion. They were running the show.
At Brooklyn Free School, which is split up into an upper school (ages 11 to 18) and lower school (ages 4 to 11), everything works like this: the students make the rules, they pick their classes, and they don't have to come if they don't want. There are no tests, no mandatory homework, no grades on a transcript. If there's an issue that needs to be raised, you can call a meeting and discuss it with the entire school. If you're sick of Chemistry: The Gathering, you can get up and walk out, or head up to a lounge and read a book all day, as certain kids are wont to do. Some spend years on "independent study" projects of their own choosing, while others opt for another class, like Screenwriting, Architecture and Design, Dystopian Literature, Serial Killers in Society, or Seinfeld Appreciation, a student-led class that started recently.
The Brooklyn Free School is looked to as a beacon for what independent, democratic schools can offer, especially to students who previously struggled in public schools. It has led a resurgence in the movement in America overall, one that peaked in the early-'70s and then mostly died out with the Nixon administration.
It’s also a model that has been widely criticized. Critics of the model say its completely structureless environment won't prepare students for the real world, and that lower income students, who can't afford outside tutors, will miss out on essential learning.
Renowned education writer and researcher Jonathan Kozol said that American free schools in the late-'60s and early-'70s, catered too much to the white middle class, even going so far as to refer to them, in his book, “Free Schools,” as "a sandbox for the children of the SS guards at Auschwitz.”
But Brooklyn Free School’s founding principal, Alan Berger, soft-spoken and blunt, said a primary mission is to create a diverse student body, economically and ethnically. Only 20 percent pay full tuition, he said, and many simply pay what they can. The student body, made up of 60 students, is 49 percent white, 30 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian.
Berger used to work in business, before he grew tired of all the "mergers and acquisitions" and moved on to education. He worked in New York public schools for a while, as a teacher and administrator, before being turned off again, this time by the lack of creativity and choice available to teachers and students in that rigid system.
Berger said that every student "finding their own way" is a key part of his free school philosophy now.
One student, Oscar (all students' names have been changed), a talkative upper school kid with an impressive vocabulary, found his path after a rocky start. He said his favorite classes were The Wire and Urban Studies, where students watched and discussed the TV show "The Wire," and another involving the study of different voting patterns, where they analyzed the best restaurants in the area, and then went and ate at those restaurants.
"I also liked this class where we made exact replicas of ourselves out of tape," Oscar said.
He loves talking about the school, although he said it's hard to explain to his friends what he does all day. It also took him a while, he said, to get acclimated to the free-for-all environment.
"It's easy to figure out how everything works, but to get used to how everything works is another story," he said. "Some kids fit right in. For me it took more than a year. I was upstairs playing Minedraft all the time."
If you don't force any set of rules or academic requirements, Oscar said, each student will discover his or her own path to success.
"Kids that don't want to do anything, for example, eventually they just say, 'I'm going to start doing something,'" he said. "The key is to build a relationship. That's what we try to do here."
"Oddly enough," said Oscar, "It works every single time."
"Well," Berger paused and laughed under his breath. "Mostly."
IS A ‘WIDE OPEN CLASSROOM’ FOR EVERYONE?
When Berger founded the Brooklyn Free School in 2004, inside a Methodist Church in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, he wasn't sure what would happen. His was the first free school in the New York City area since the last one, the Fifteenth Street School, closed in 1975. Would people come? Would they stay?
Free schools in the U.S. in the late-1960s and early-1970s were a result of the "whole social upheaval going on at the time," said Ron Miller, author of "Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s." These free schools were often in obscure locations with minimal resources, like abandoned dry cleaners, public parks, and churches.
"1972 was about the peak year, a sense that a real revolution was happening in education," Miller said. "Not only were there these hundreds of independent free schools, but even in public education, people were pushing for open classrooms."
But that initial surge faded, quashed by the Nixon administration's strict education policies, Miller said, and most of the schools closed. Now 30 years later, the movement is revving up again, though it remains mostly private in the United States. Education Revolution, a website of alternative education resources, lists more than 100 free schools. Most are in blue states, but some have spread into the red ones, like the Great Oak School in Spring, Texas, and the Farm School in Summertown, Tenn. In New York, Brooklyn Free School paved the way for the Manhattan Free School, which opened in 2008. There are other free schools all over the world, including Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt.
Miller lamented that today’s American free schools still generally cater more to middle and upper middle-class students. He pointed to the Albany Free School, founded in 1969 and open since, as an anomaly, and one that future free schools should look to. The Albany Free School calls itself "the oldest inner-city independent alternative school in the United States," and the Brooklyn Free School has adopted many of its policies.
"What I think is happening is that as the system becomes ever more standardized, with more control at the top from government, corporations, another grassroots movement is coming," said Miller. "What you're seeing now with Brooklyn Free School and others is families and educators wanting to get out from under the thumb of this standardization agenda."
Miller said he understood the reticence from certain parents and educators to the free school philosophy. "A wide open free classroom" will not be the best environment for every student, he explained. But the principles behind the free school movement -- the idea that every family blazes their own path for their children and each student discovers his or her own way of learning at their own pace -- is an agenda that serves the student, he said.
"So many kids going to these alternative schools have really thrived," Miller said. "Because they've been freed from the rat race. They follow their own path. They're happy. And that's what this is about: not having to be successful in conventional terms."
THE ‘SELF-ESTEEM INOCULATION’
Lily Mercogliano, a former student of the Albany Free School, has been on the Board of Trustees and has worked as an advisor at Brooklyn Free School since 2005.
"Most people who went through the free school system certainly have an affection for it," Mercogliano said. "They see what it can do."
Isaac Graves, a former Albany Free School school student who now writes and researches free school programs extensively, said he took from his experience a startling, "legitimate passion to learn," and appreciated how few constraints there were on what he was allowed to study. He remembers being 13 and reading about acid rain, how it was killing all these fish in the Adirondacks, so he and a group of students decided to try and stop it. They became so passionate that they contacted Eliot Spitzer, who was attorney general and "fighting coal plants" at the time, and asked him to speak to students. They also brought in a government biologist.
"Nobody told us to learn about these things," Graves said. "We wanted to."
A sense of community is inherent in the free school movement. At Brooklyn Free School, if a parent or outside volunteer wants to teach a class, they can. There's also quite a bit of volunteering. After Hurricane Sandy, many students have dedicated each Friday to gathering supplies and working at local Occupy Sandy depots.
Kristan Morrison, an education professor at Radford University in Virginia and author of "Free School Teaching," said she has been amazed at how well-rounded free school students are. She said many free school students often opt for a more standardized high school education -- mostly because of parents' persuasion -- but because of their free school "foundation," they are more able to thrive there.
"They learn quickly how to play the game, how to do what teachers expected, and picked up knowing how to be competitive," Morrison said. "The harder game is how to be emotionally whole and emotionally healthy. I grew up thinking: this is the way the world is, this is the way I have to be. Whereas [free school] kids know there's another choice. They might want to play this game, or not."
Free schools offer a sort of "self esteem inoculation," Morrison said, where if someone thinks well of you, then you thrive. She said she wishes this notion was more central in inner city schools, where some teachers are often despondent and kids are caught in "bubbles" that they never burst.
"Know the whole child, understand where the child is coming from, adapt the curriculum to the child's background and interests, give the child a lot of autonomy, there's so much info out there, and all of it speaks to the sorts of things being done in progressive schools like Albany Free School, Brooklyn Free School," Morrison said. "Those schools take it to the far extreme of progressive education, but theres a lot of research out there that says: this stuff works."
One potential problem in free schools being widely accepted, Morrison said, is free school "official data." When asked how many graduates the Brooklyn Free School has had, for instance, Berger said "20 or 21." When asked how many had gone to college, Berger said, "We know how many have gone," but wouldn't provide a number.
Still, Berger said, there are 60 students at the Brooklyn Free School, and a "growing waiting list." He just wants to make sure he continues fostering a diverse mix of students, and to keep offering affordable tuition.
"We've learned a lot since we first started," Berger said. "But we try to make it work for all kids. We support kids for who they are."
WHEELS! SCREENS! CHOICE!
After Chemistry: The Gathering, the students clear the classroom of folding tables, and both the upper and lower school kids stream in and began setting up chairs in a circle. It's time for the All School Democratic Meeting, which happens every Wednesday morning. The volume is unrestrained. The kids are loud. There's a lot of dyed hair.
This is the meeting where both students and teachers can bring proposals to the floor, and the entire school votes. Some kids come prepared with proposals they know they'd like addressed, but most just come with vague ideas of things that bother them.
First, students raise their hands and nominate a meeting "chair." Every student has to accept the nomination, and most of the lower school kids decline.
"I nominate Alla," one very young boy offered.
"I don't accept," she said immediately.
Eventually an upper school girl in a beanie and canvas jacket, Lee, won the nomination by a show of hands. The first order of business is introducing a reporter from The Huffington Post. There is a buzz, but Lee called "order," and everyone mostly quiets. Throughout the meeting, some kids would not speak, and many chose to read or stare off into space rather than participate. "Order" was yelled often, over a rush of voices. A group of girls in a corner drew giant televisions with highlighters.
The first order of business is that the Turtles, AKA the 8- to 11-year-olds, have raised the necessary funds to create the "Turtle Times" magazine. Forty percent of the proceeds from the magazine will go to staging the all-school play. At the Brooklyn Free School, Berger said, everyone gets a role in the annual all-school play.
One lower school girl, Sasha, small with big eyes and a giant frizzy winter hat, brought up the issue of "wheels," basically whether lower school kids could bring skateboards, skates, or bikes to the park for recess.
"I have the proposal you are allowed to bring a skateboard there, but only on the basketball court and you can't use it other places," she said. The issue was that many kids without "wheels" were getting left behind.
One of the advisors, David, made an amendment to Sasha's proposal. He asked if she'd be willing to have one "wheels at the park" day, where kids can bring wheels of their choosing one day a week.
"Yeah, I guess," she replied. "Sure."
"And would you add that people need to have helmets?"
"Well that's a school rule," Sasha said. "So yeah."
"Can I propose something?" An upper school girl chimed in. "A pajama day."
"Wait, can we finish talking about wheels?" Lily requested.
"Okay, yes, " Sasha said. "The proposal is that there will be a wheels day on Friday to test out the wheels at the park. if it works, I'll be making a proposal to have wheels be allowed on Fridays."
This motion passes.
The meeting, in general, seems very exciting to a select few, and immensely boring to the majority. As it progresses, kids get more restless. One boy spends the entire meeting with his head in his hands.
The issue of "screens" is raised and many of the advisors break into a half-smile. This issue, said David, one of the advisors, has been coming up almost every week since the school was founded. "Screens" are more commonly known as computers, iPods and cell phones, and the rules seem to change constantly, he said, with some kids understanding that school is not a time to play games, and others thinking they should be allowed to do anything they want.
The argument today: upper school kids need screens to study and write their school transcripts for college. All transcripts at Brooklyn Free School are lengthy and creative, and the students work on them for a long time. Berger said the extra time allows students to focus on catering their transcripts toward their first-choice schools. But because of the absence of grades, it doesn’t work out that way. He said the creative transcripts certainly please “smaller, private schools,” but some larger ones weren't always responsive.
Still, transcripts are worked on extensively by certain upper school students with college hopes. Walter, a lower school kid with shaggy brown hair, said he thinks it "isn't fair” that upper school kids can use screens whenever they want. If upper school is allowed screens, he said, then lower school should, too.
"Do you want to use screens all the time?" An upper school girl asks him. "Like any time you want?"
"Yeah," Walter said. "Or upper school doesn't get to use them at all."
"The upper and lower should have the same sort of rules, yes," Sarah, a fast-talking upper school girl countered. "But if someone's watching a lecture or typing a transcript, that's very different than someone playing that dots game. Screens are not just screens."
The issue is not exactly resolved. It will likely come up again the following week.
An hour later, the meeting ends. One advisor said he wishes there could be some sort of fight, just so I could see how it was resolved at one of these meetings.
"The wisdom that comes out of them figuring out what to do," he said. "Why did you do this? What's underlying this? The whole school gets together. It's amazing."
Past arguments have been over gay slurs, name-calling and bullying, and were resolved through lengthy negotiations. Suffice it to say, some weeks a lot of meetings are called.
But all the kids seem used to it, even the ones who have only been there for a few months. Upper school student Sarah, a student at Brooklyn Free School for three months, said this is the first school where she's felt fully comfortable to be herself. Like Graves, the former Albany Free School student, she said being able to choose your own classes and way of doing things just made more sense to her.
"The biggest different is choice, and not being confined to 15 minutes of socialization a day," Sarah said. "I've always liked to read a lot. i was reading books in my old school that I'd read when I was 6, and my teacher was always saying I wasn't taking enough time, I wasn't trying hard enough, but I'd already read the book!"
Experts pointed to Finland as a sort of guidepost. Finnish schools are often cited as among the best in the world, and students rank highly in all subjects. There, students aren't measured at all for the first six years of their education, they're not tested until high school, they have more recess and free time, and take fewer classes. The teachers have more creativity in assigning curricula. Though there's more structure in Finnish schools, their values share a certain kinship with democratic schools.
Kristan Morrison said she thinks Americans are hungry for alterations to the system like these, but with current government views on education, it will be a while before schools can change course.
"There are still so many restrictions from federal and state governments," Morrison said. "Teachers go in to teaching because they want to be engaging, creative, and then they're stuck with all this testing."
These ideas are not lost on Berger, who has clearly taken creative, progressive education to the extreme.
"We're trying to nurture kids to stay themselves," Berger said. "That's what they need to bring to the world, to live a successful, individually happy life. There's much more power in that, and it really brings diversity to the fold."
Later in the day, Berger wandered up to the top floor, past the "gym," which is really just an emptied out classroom. He said they had an epic, all-school "Rock paper scissors" tournament in there recently. Generally, the classrooms are small, with artwork lining the walls and folding chairs and messy tables scattered around. At night, many of these classrooms are rented out to yoga classes or artists looking for studio space, so Berger can supplement the school's income.
On the top floor of the brownstone was Berger's small office, which he shared.
He leaned back in his chair.
"One of the joys of running a school like this is there are so many opportunities to get to know kids for who they really are," Berger said. "We're figuring out how to make the world for everybody, not to fit everybody into the world."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article likened U.K.'s new free schools to those in the U.S. They are, in fact, different programs.
This story appears in Issue 31 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available January 11.