Freedom in Education: Final Thoughts on the Grassroots Free-School

Freedom and democracy: two things that are often not used in the same breath with “education”. Yet that is what the Grassroots School in Florida stands for. I wrote a series of posts about the school and its students during my visit to the school last year, where I was honored to stay with the school’s founder and his wife, Pat and Tandy Seery. Here are the posts, if anyone is interested in catching up on the many amazing adventures I had there:

Introduction to the Free-School System

Visiting Grassroots School: Day One

Visiting Grassroots School: Day Two

Visiting Grassroots School: Day Three

Visiting Grassroots School: Day Four

Visiting Grassroots School: Day Five

As a summary of the information presented in my past writing about the school, here is what the organization stands for, as expressed in the school handout:

“At Grassroots, students pursue their own learning needs in a supportive environment that is based on the twin principles of self-regulation on the individual level and self-government on the community level. This unusual educational setting was established in 1972 as a non-profit, 501 (c)3 parent owned school that honors the learning endeavor in a comprehensive, unique, and sane way.

Five basic assumptions underlie the Grassroots approach to education-

1. Feelings and emotions are as important in a person’s development as the cognitive and physical domains.

2. The mind is naturally inquisitive and that quality should be encouraged to the fullest extent possible.

3. All knowledge is interrelated.

4. Each person is unique and it should be fundamental in an educational setting to respect this uniqueness.

5. We are all responsible for, and dependent upon, each other.

There is no compulsory attendance at any class or project unless voted upon by the school community. There are no grades or grade levels, although there are projects and lessons geared for different ages and abilities. Informal evaluation goes on constantly between adults and children as well as between the students themselves.

All school rules are made in a one-person-one-vote weekly meeting, with the exception of some mandated by health, safety, or governmental requirements. Anyone involved in the school may join in this real life participatory democracy that gives adults and even the youngest children the same rights and responsibilities for school governance.”

With that being said, here are some written testimonies from past students of Grassroots. These students attended the school in the seventies, eighties, and early nineties. This was part of a project where the Grassroots staff tracked down the former students who attended the school and asked them to say “what you feel is important to say about your time at the Grassroots version of a self-regulation and self-government school, and what it has meant to you, or your reactions to it, since then”.

“It’s been ten years since I graduated, but the freedom to control my academic destiny proved to be better preparation for college and the workplace than I realized at the time. I studied English and math, science and vocabulary, but I LEARNED discipline and responsibility. Those are the lessons that have been most valuable in the classroom and beyond.” ~ Joey A. (Working in the Loan Department of Farmers and Merchants Bank)

“I have realized over the years how lucky I was to attend a school which encourages independence, creativity, and individuality. This becomes especially apparent when one looks at the public school system (or American society in general) which continually reject and destroy those qualities. Let’s be honest, grade schools are only an instrument of socialization, and Grassroots teaches children how to get along with others, to respect people and the planet, and to value themselves. I hope that by the time I have children the mainstream will have re-evaluated itself and will have become more open-minded.” ~ Jennie S. (Majoring in Pre-Law and working at a local market)

“My memories of the school… are overwhelmingly good memories. However, as I became aware that I was of the age that other kids were entering first grade in public schools, I asked my parents to take me out of Grassroots and put me in public school.

They resisted, I insisted and they gave in. I went to first grade and I didn’t fit in. I had long hair and I’d never walked anywhere in a line or had to raise my hand to ask a question or go to the bathroom. And yet, as hard as it was for me to adjust, I stayed in public school until I eventually dropped out of high school in my junior year. It was never a matter of liking it. And I never really did. For me, it was a sense of having felt out of touch with the mainstream and wanting to know what other kids were experiencing.” ~ Damien F. (Writer and bookstore employee)

“The comments made by my [college] classmates, such as, ‘When I was a kid, if I knew I didn’t have to go to school, I’d sit around all day playing Nintendo and eating oreos…’ seems inaccurate. From my own observations, I do not believe that children can lazily take advantage of a free environment for very long. When given a resource-rich setting, children eventually apply themselves according to their own interests. Carl Rogers’ writing supports this, particularly in his belief that people are continuously changing, discovering, and guiding themselves through the world around them.” ~ Amy F. (Double majoring in Deaf Education and Elementary Education)

“When people ask me how I did when I left Grassroots I tell them that I did have to be tutored by my parents for one summer before entering public school, and I was consistently able to make the honor roll. My handwriting and grammar and spelling are not great but it has been a welcomed trade off for all that I gained at Grassroots, such as my love of writing (I still write in my journal everyday), vocabulary, swim trips, powwow, Greek mythology, the countless number of parents and teachers that read aloud to us, tree tag, building forts, art, music, driving lessons, and much more, all leading up to a really HAPPY childhood.” ~ Adene O. (Stay at home mother of two children)

“…all Grassroots did was let me be myself, a seven year old child. All children have an innate joy for learning. All Grassroots did was encourage and help me maintain this natural joy of learning until it became ingrained in me so no amount of public schooling could kill it… I believe that outside of loving a child and making a child feel loved, there is no greater gift than teaching a child to love learning.” ~ Kip O. (Studying for a Ph. D. in Math Education)

“I joined Grassroots in Kindergarten. I obviously had very little experience with schools, and so it never occurred to me that there might be any other way to learn. The experience of being treated as an equal, of being able to make my own decisions concerning learning, was something I soon came to take for granted. It definitely made me more willing to learn.

I remember being really worried when I was getting ready to leave Grassroots and go to a more ‘normal’ school. I assumed that all the other kids woudl know so much more than me. I knew how much fun I’d been having the last six years, and thought there was no way I had learned as much as all those other kids who had been steadily working at learning the whole time. So, to prepare myself for this, I asked Pat and other teachers at Grassroots to teach me those things I had missed. The only things I could think of were long division and cursive. I spent my last month at Grassroots… well, playing. But in my spare time, I learned long division and cursive. 

Imagine my surprise when I got to the other school and realized that I was just as well off as all those other kids, and in fact, I even knew some things that they didn’t! It turned out, they hadn’t been steadily working at learning all this time either!

Yes, I had missed a few things at Grassroots. I hadn’t spent time learning the things that I hadn’t found interesting. Which meant that some of my skills were not as honed as my classmates (still haven’t learned my times tables by rote- although I have never quite known why this was so important). I had also missed out on one of the biggest things that my classmates all knew- learning was something that you didn’t want, but were forced to do. It seemed that I was one of the few people in my class at the new school that actually enjoyed it, or really wanted to learn.” ~ Dylan V. (Computer programmer for a software company)

“I think the most important lesson I learned at Grassroots was that it is okay to be an individual, and that you don’t have to ‘give in to peer pressure’ to be accepted. If people really want to get to know you, they will love you because of who you are, not who they want you to be.” ~ Madeline F. (Majoring in Spanish with an emphasis in Business and working as a receptionist)

All the other reviews of the school followed along similar lines. Any negative views towards the school usually expressed regret that the student themselves had not been “pushed” to learn more academics during their time at Grassroots, but nearly all said that despite feeling that they were lacking in that area, they were still thankful to have attended for various other reasons, such as gaining self-confidence, finding out their individual learning style, being able to pursue other important interests, etc.

The concept of freedom in a child’s education continues to intrigue me. The biggest question I have still is “how MUCH freedom is beneficial to give a child regarding their education”? Unfortunately, there are very, very few schools like Grassroots available around America, although more are beginning to emerge as parents and teachers seek an alternative to the standardized public school or parochial school systems. It is hard to compare the “success” of free-school education and the students who come from that background when there are so few of these schools. “Unschooling” is the private educational option for families who wish to offer their children freedom in education. This movement is gaining more ground in America as well, especially among home-schooling families.

While I do believe whole-heartedly in many of the principles I saw at work first-hand in the Grassroots experiences, I also believe that children do need boundaries, discipline, and training in character, morals, and virtues; I do not follow the idea that says children are perfect and have no need of a teacher in any area. So once again, how much freedom should a child have as they grow up?

Perhaps I’ll write another blog this week exploring my personal thoughts on that question a bit more. However, being almost thirty-nine weeks pregnant, I may or may not have the time, depending on when this little one decides to make his/her earth-side appearance! We’ll see : )  It is certainly an idea that will be on my mind, though, as I anticipate the education of my first child.

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2 Responses to Freedom in Education: Final Thoughts on the Grassroots Free-School

  1. robduarte says:

    This whole series of posts was great. We live in Tallahassee and this is just the kind of first-hand account I was interested in reading right now. Thanks.

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