Video Conference with Spring Valley School

A great big THANK YOU  to Corri and Diane Ballou for taking time out of their Sunday last week to answer questions and share their experiences as a student and founder of Spring Valley School. Their Sudbury school has been successfully operating for 13 years in Palm Harbor, Florida and serves as sister and mentor to Sunset Sudbury School. Here’s a quick taste of what happened at the meeting, for those of you did not make it to the live video conference last Sunday.

This meeting focused on the experiences of 11-13 year old students. Corri (13 y/o) answered the question of what a typical day looks like for her. She shared with us that she is currently the Chair of the Judicial Committee, a role that rotates every 2 weeks to different students at her school. She is also teaching a class on the Holocaust to 3 other students at school. Corri explained that she usually spends time the entire week preparing to teach this class that takes place once per week.

An audience member also asked Corri what she would do if she needed help in mathematics, abstract or geometry concepts. Corri and Diane both looked at each other and smiled. Diane was a math teacher prior to starting the school and has taught math classes for students at Spring Valley, when they requested it. In fact, in about 3 months time Diane was able to teach all of the basic math concepts for K – 8th grades to small groups of students. This is what can happen when students want to learn and are able to get the individualized help they need. Diane went on to explain that if a staff member or online resources are not enough to answer a student’s questions, the school will hire consultants to work with students. On many occasions, this need has been filled by parent volunteers at Spring Valley.

Much of the rest of the conversation centered around the parents. Diane said that,

in order for kids to be successful in a Sudbury school, parents must agree to let kids go. The letting go process can be very difficult for parents. It is hard for parents to accept that they have no control over the kids activities and let children learn through play”.

We talked about the importance of offering parents support with ample opportunities to talk to staff and to each other. This is something we, at Sunset Sudbury School, are trying to make sure happens even before our school is officially open.

One participant asked Diane to share what was the biggest reservation expressed by parents that enrolled their kids at her school. Diane responded that even when parents have a thorough understanding of the model, there can be moments of discomfort. One example is when a child doesn’t learn to read by the expected age. Diane herself experienced this fear with one of her own children did not show an interest in reading until after she was 9 years old. Diane admitted to moments when she worried, but waited and trusted that her daughter would eventually find that interest. Diane said that her daughter had developed an unorthodox way to learn to read. She could decode new words by sounding out the letters, but only if she did this by starting at the end of the word and worked backwards. Diane is sure that if her daughter had been attending a different school, she would have been labeled with a  learning disability. She finds it amazing the way that when we allow them to do it, the kids find their own strategies for learning. Her daughter began reading at age 9 and is now (2 years later) reading, and most importantly,  enjoying books above her typical grade level. She is currently reading The Spiderwick Chronicles.

We are working on setting up an in-person visit to our school from Corri, Diane and others at Spring Valley. Keep an eye out for details on that event. We end this article with one of our favorite quotes from our conversation with Diane.

“Learning is not something that happens to you, it’s something that happens from the inside out”

If you have any suggestions for future information events, please let us know.

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Sunset Sudbury School featured in the Miami Herald

Earlier this summer, our founders group was contacted by a reporter from the Miami Herald, Patti Roth.  Patti had heard about our efforts to start a school and was interested in doing an article about us.  We met with Patti as a group and each of us spoke with her individual to answer her questions.  We were excited for the opportunity to get the word out about our school to our community.

The link to the article on the Miami Herald website is no longer active.  So, we have provided it here.

Freedom at the Heart of this New School

Students will choose what they want to learn at a school being planned by a small group of South Florida parents who want to model it after a ‘democratic’ school founded in New England in the 1960s.
by Patti Roth

Several South Florida families are working to launch a school that gives students unconventional freedom.

At this private school, which organizers want up and running by next year, youngsters pursue their own interests — learning what they want, when they want and how they want.

It’s a philosophy that organizers agree sounds far-fetched. But they like the theory and the way it’s working at some similar schools around the world.

”When you’re driven to learn something by your own desires, you learn it,” says Kathy Williams of Hollywood, mom to Joshua, 6, and Benjamin, 3. “I just think when children are left to learn what they want, they’ll be more inspired.”

The plan here is based on Sudbury Valley School, established in 1968 in New England. Enrollment at the Framingham, Mass., school is about 180 students. About 30 similar schools exist elsewhere in the world, each functioning separately. Among them is Spring Valley School in Palm Harbor, north of Clearwater. That school, with 23 students last year, opened in 1997.

The idea behind Sudbury Valley School, which accepts students ages 4 to 19, is that people are curious by nature. Students initiate their own activities. The school runs democratically, with all youngsters and staff members receiving a vote. Students are not required to study any pre-set lessons.

”They come to school and figure out what they want to do and do it,” said Mimsy Sadofsky, one of Sudbury’s original founders. “Kids who go to school here leave extremely confident and competent of their ability to find their way.”

Dionne Ekendiz of Plantation is among the parents who think Sudbury’s academic freedom makes sense. She’s enthusiastic about it for daughter Leila and wants to enroll her in the South Florida version – called Sunset Sudbury School — when the little girl is old enough.

”I don’t want anyone telling her what she has to learn and then sitting in judgment about her work,” said Ekendiz, who has a master’s degree in education. “I want her to keep in touch with her own interests and inner strengths.”

Some of the South Florida parents planning the nontraditional school say they originally wondered if the Sudbury Valley style went too far. But the more they read about it, the more they liked it.
”Basically, it’s trusting that the child is going to want to learn,” said Idelma Quintana of Hollywood, a former elementary school teacher who is mom to 5-year-old Ian.

Quintana said adults in the program, referred to as ”staff members,” might offer a lesson or demonstration on a specific topic — and it’s up to the students whether they want to participate. At some schools, students interested in a particular subject might vote to hire an instructor if none of the regular staff members are suitable for the topic.

Another key element is the democratic approach to running the school. Students and staff members vote on various aspects of how the organization is run, from policies and purchasing equipment to hiring and retaining staff members.

Debbie Marin of Hollywood, mom to Munirah, 6, was among those initially skeptical of giving students so much independence. Now, she’s a strong supporter and thinks academic freedom would be great for her daughter.
”It’s her education,” Marin said. “It taps into her desire to learn what she wants, to learn when she’s ready to learn it.”

Marin said that when she attended traditional school, she remembers doing well if she was interested in a topic. But she also recalls being bored, sitting at a desk, staring out of the window. She also sees value in the mingling of different age groups, rather than separating students by grade.

Williams of Hollywood believes the Sudbury model functions similar to the way life functions. Throughout life, humans generally learn what they need to know, along with what they’re personally excited to learn, she said. Her enthusiasm for the snowy slopes, for example, prompted her to learn to ski. She believes that through Sudbury, her boys are going to be able to pursue their passions and learn what they need.

”I don’t know if they’ll ever learn the Pythagorean theorem,” she said. “And I don’t think they’ll be hurt by it if they don’t.”

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