Is your program like unschooling?
Our program is similar to unschooling in many ways. Both value self-directed learning without the use of coercion or extrinsic motivators and both trust that children will learn what they need to when they need it. However, students who attend our program get some time away from their parents. This enables them to take on much more responsibility for their own choices. It also enables them to practice living in a democracy with all of its rewards and challenges.
Is your program like a Montessori school?
Sudbury and Montessori are similar in that children are given more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves. Both models also hold the basic assumption that people are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn. The Sudbury model, however, gives students even more freedom and makes no assumption about how individual children will learn.
What does a typical day look like?
There really is no typical day at Sunset Sudbury! People of all ages mix freely, doing whatever they want within the boundaries of safety and respect. Students and staff can be found everywhere talking, laughing, playing, and working. There may be a group of students huddled around a computer discussing video game strategies while another group is in the kitchen having lunch and planning the next field trip. Some may be coloring, painting, or making something out of clay while others are outside playing basketball or picking flowers in the garden. Always there are people playing happily and busily, indoors and outdoors, in all weather. Each day is rich with opportunity that is only limited by the students’ imagination and interests.
Is there any structure in your program?
Although students are free to do whatever they want all day long (within the boundaries of safety and respect), the community has two very important structures that make up the heart of it: 1) School Meeting – the weekly community meeting where things like rules, processes, and budget are decided democratically by the majority vote of students and staff members. 2) Judicial Committee – The student-led justice system where rule infractions and disagreements are handled daily.
How do children learn if no one tells them what to do or learn?
“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process…the independent scientist in the child disappears.” ~ John Holt
We believe that all children are born with a strong desire to learn what they need in order to become an effective adult in the society to which they are born. In fact, our species would not have survived for very long without this inner drive. Our current education system was designed to short-circuit this process in order to make people into cogs of the industrial machine. It made sense at one point in history. However, in this post-industrial, or information, age, children know that traditional schooling is a waste of time, so more and more of them are tuning out. Our community provides your child with the time and space to get back in touch with their own natural desire to learn without being told to do so.
What if my child spends all day on the computer?
It is quite possible that your child will spend all day on the computer. With all of the negative media attention surrounding screen time, it is not surprising that many parents are concerned about this. Some parents see the computer, including video games, as a mind-numbing activity that “rots your brain”. At Sunset Sudbury, we recognize that computers are the most important tools of modern society and that there are many advantages to playing with them. Furthermore, computers and gaming are very social activities in our community in which students engage with each other, learn from each other, and constantly problem-solve together.
What if my child just plays all day long?
“Play is the highest form of research.” ~ Albert Einstein
Play is exactly what your child should be doing! There is a reason that nature has endowed children with an intense need to play in their earliest years of development, at a time when they are learning the most and the fastest than at any other point in later life. Not only do children make meaning and construct models of the world through play, they also practice their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
What if my child doesn’t want to do anything all day?
“If you force kids to study things that they are not interested in, they may come to appear to be lazy.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization
Depending on how many years your child has been in a traditional school setting, they may go through a period of de-schooling when they first arrive at our program. We see this as a valuable and necessary transition time in which the student gets back in touch with themself. This may include long periods of doing nothing at all. Your child may also be testing the adults around them to see if they are serious about not interfering with their choices. All of this is completely normal and you have to be prepared to accept this as part of the process before enrolling your child.
How do children learn the basics (reading, writing, and math)?
When a child is ready and willing, the basics like reading, writing, and math are quite easily learned. Traditional schooling forces children to learn these at the same age and at the same rate, often before a child is ready or interested. Thus, the process seems to be difficult and time-consuming. The fact is that we have seen children teach themselves to read, some at the age of 4 and some as late as 12, with absolutely no instruction. By age 13, you can’t tell the difference between the child who learned to read at 4 from the child who learned to read at 12. As for math, it has been proven over and over again that all of the math content from K thru grade 8 can be learned in just 6 weeks when the child is ready for it. Imagine all of that time saved for valuable play!
For a different perspective, watch the TED video Why Math Instruction Is Unnecessary.
How do children know what they like if they are not exposed to it (with classes, etc.)?
“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget
We live in the information age, where knowledge is available at your fingertips. For this reason, when kids are free exposure is not an issue. Furthermore, because students are free to explore and interact with students and adults of all ages all day long, they are exposed to a wide variety of topics, more than they would typically get in an environment where only one person is delivering the curriculum. Students in our program don’t look at learning as a set of fixed subjects to be mastered. Instead, they follow their curiosity and interest, which isn’t limited to a classroom.
How do children set goals for themselves?
“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn
Even though adults may not notice it, children set goals for themselves all day long. When they are young, the goals are usually small: they may want to make a birthday card for a friend, they may want to learn how to play a video game, they may want someone to read a book to them. Some goals are larger, like proposing a new rule or planning a field trip. In our program, children learn how to accomplish these goals for themselves. They become skilled at creating their own reality by doing things on their own or asking others for help. As their confidence grows, so do their goals. The important thing is that students don’t rely on anyone else to set goals for them.
My child follows an online curriculum. Does that work with your program’s philosophy?
“Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing it takes in.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
Some people immediately see the social value of our program and think they can fill the perceived academic void by having their child follow an online curriculum at home. An online course is fine if it truly is your child’s choice. However, any type of academics or extra-curricular activity that is forced upon your child is contrary to our program’s philosophy. It sends a mixed-message to your child that our program is for playing and the “real” learning takes place at home. This not only adversely affects your child but the entire learning community.
How will I know my child is learning if they are not being tested?
“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~ John Holt
A big leap that any parent must make before enrolling their child in our program is the willingness to trust them. You must trust that they will learn what they need to in their own way and in their own time. Once you shed the notion that real learning can be measured, you will begin to see your child in a different light and trust your own instincts about whether or not they are growing.
How does your program measure growth or evaluate progress?
“Nobody grew taller by being measured.” ~ Roland Meighan
Staff members in our program strive to be non-judgmental of students and their interests and skills. We enjoy celebrating successes, but we do not compare students nor assume to know what is best for them. Instead, we encourage students to trust their own assessment of themselves and of their efforts in meeting personal goals and challenges.
Discipline & Safety
Is your community like “Lord of the Flies”?
“We have a cultural notion that if children were not engineered, if we did not manipulate them, they would grow up as beasts in the field. This is the wildest fallacy in the world.” ~ Joseph Chilton Pearce
This is many people’s initial reaction to hearing that children “rule” at Sunset Sudbury. The truth is that most children value the sense of order that exists in our community due in large part to our student-led justice system. Everyone gets the message that freedom does not mean license and that with freedom comes an enormous responsibility.
What are the rules and what happens if someone breaks them?
Our law book contains all the rules of the community, as well as procedures for handling rule infractions. The rules are decided democratically by students and staff as the need for them arises. In general, the rules provide for the protection of individual rights while maintaining an atmosphere of safety and respect. Anyone in our community can “write-up” anyone else in the community. Once per day, a student-led judicial committee gathers to investigate all complaints and determines sentences as needed. Our experience is that students find the system to be the fairest way of handling discipline.
How does your community handle bullying?
Like at most other schools, bullying is taken very seriously at Sunset Sudbury. But unlike most other schools, the adults don’t automatically take care of it. Instead, we encourage students to use the student-led justice system. This is very empowering for the “bullied” student, who learns to take care of him or herself against any bully in the future and is less likely to see themselves as a victim. And it is often a transformative experience for the “bully” who gets firm but respectful treatment from his peers.
Is it safe to let a young child play with a teenager?
Parents of younger children may wonder why an older child would want to play with a younger child, so when they hear about it their initial reaction may be fear and doubt. This is normal given mainstream education’s practice of age segregation. In the conventional schooling environment, it is not “cool” for older students to associate with anyone younger than them so any student who does so is seen with suspicion. But age-mixing is one of the most natural things for kids to do. Not only is it safe, it is one of the key ingredients that make the Sudbury model so successful. Young children learn so much from older students, and older kids become more confident and more responsible when they can freely mix with younger kids.
Why don’t you have teachers? What is the role of staff?
“What I have learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even imagined.” ~ Hanna Greenberg, founder of Sudbury Valley School, in The Art of Doing Nothing
The adults at Sunset Sudbury chose not to call themselves teachers because everyone and everything is a potential teacher. We do, however, recognize our special role in the community. Staff members are ultimately responsible for the survival and smooth functioning of the program. On a day-to-day basis, staff members focus on holding the space in which children can be free within the boundaries of safety and respect. Although we practice non-interference as much as possible, we are always available to help students if and when they ask.
How is your program different from daycare?
The thought of children playing all day without anyone forcing them to sit at desks may conjure up images of a daycare. But because students at Sunset Sudbury are not told what to do and are certainly not entertained, they must constantly decide what to do with their time. Freedom is not as easy as you may think, especially for older children who are not practiced in it, and responsibility is even harder.
Transitioning to a non-Sudbury environment
What happens when children transfer to another school?
“When kids are constantly having to make decisions [in a democratic school], they begin to know who they are and to know how they feel about almost everything. When these kids go into an authoritarian situation, they do not feel threatened about losing their identity; they see the situation, instead, as a game that has to be played in a certain way.” ~ Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization
We have had several students transfer from our program to a more traditional system. One was required to take a test to determine appropriate grade level and did so without a problem and two others were placed in their age-appropriate grade and excelled. In all cases, parents and teachers were surprised at how well these students performed. This is not surprising to us because we know how demanding a Sudbury program really is when it comes to personal responsibility and self-regulation. In any other program where someone tells you exactly what is expected of you is easy in comparison.
How do children get into college? And will they be ready?
Today’s higher education landscape is rapidly changing and there is now a wide array of options available. We encourage students to research and pursue the option that works best for them in reaching their goals. Many students do choose to enter traditional 4-year colleges and universities. The history of Sudbury graduates is that 80% get into the college of their first choice. They do so because they stand out to any admissions counselor in that they usually know what they want to study and can articulate why they chose this institution over others. Once they arrive, they have already had so much experience with freedom and choice that they are more prepared for college life than many of their peers.
What happens when children get out into the real world?
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~ John Dewey
A 45-year history of graduates from Sudbury Valley School has shown that the vast majority are living lives that are congruent with their values. In other words, graduates know themselves, know what they want, and know how to get it. Sudbury graduates don’t just settle for a paycheck, they seek out meaning in their work and in their personal lives. They are happy and content with the life they create for themselves. Sudbury students are also particularly prepared for a fast-changing world in which self-initiation and lifelong learning is a must.
Will my relationship with my child change?
“We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.” ~ Alice Miller
Your child may mature and grow in unexpected ways while enrolled in our program. That is the beauty of Sudbury schools! As with any other relationship in which one person is changing, the other may have to make adjustments as well. You can expect your child to demand more autonomy and respect at home. If you are open to making changes in the way that you relate to your child, then your relationship, and your child, will blossom.
If my child becomes a Sudbury student, will my role change from parent to friend?
“If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.” ~ John Holt
It is true that the staff members at Sunset Sudbury treat students in an egalitarian style, without condescension or coercion, and have an equal voice to all other students in the running of the community. This doesn’t mean that your child will stop appreciating the wisdom of experience, provided that it is not forced upon them. The reality of the matter is that parents will continue to make the big decisions in their children’s lives. We believe that parents should be sensitive to that and treat their children as respectfully as possible, much like you would treat a friend.
We don’t have a democracy at home. Does that work with your program’s philosophy?
We recognize that parents make the biggest decisions in a child’s life. Not everything has to be put to a vote, but the more your child feels control over his or her own decisions and the more his or her opinions are valued at home, the better this program will work for your family.
Is there a specific “type” of child that would benefit more from a Sudbury model school over a conventional school?
Sudbury schools have welcomed every ‘type’ of child – from the highly academic student to the traditional school ‘drop-out’. Students who are best suited for Sudbury type schools include: bright, highly motivated kids who want to surge ahead and challenge themselves; kids with unique learning styles who want to move at their own pace; kids who are ‘different’ in some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness; social kids who want to be part of a democratic community; little kids who are passionately engaged in exploring and creating; high-energy, restless kids who want to be active; frustrated kids who are sick of schooling; shy, sensitive kids who want to pursue their own interests; and self-directed kids who are ready for responsibility.
Do you accept children with autism or other special needs?
Prospective students will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As with all of our students, a decision about whether Sunset Sudbury is appropriate for a child would depend on the child’s ability to learn to take responsibility for their actions. Our program is not equipped to handle a student who experiences severe difficulties in learning independently or in self-correcting negative behaviors.
Are there scholarships available or financial aid for low-income families?
We recognize that due to the uncertainty of today’s economy, some students will only be able to enroll with some financial assistance. As of April 2019, we are proud to announce that Sunset Sudbury is now a provider of the Step-Up for Students Scholarships (FTC, FES, Gardiner, McKay & Hope). If you are interested in these scholarships, we recommend applying as soon as possible, as the spots fill up quickly!