Frequently Asked Questions
1. Questions about our (lack of) curriculum:
So...you just let the kids do whatever they want?
We don't allow students to harm themselves or others. The community makes rules to ensure that everyone is safe. (And of course the government sets its own laws.) But other than that, yeah, kids are free to spend their time however they want. And you know something? It works!
Can kids really be trusted to manage their own time?
You may have an impression that kids are lazy or they don't know how to make good decisions. However, to the extent that this stereotype is true, it's only true because of the way our society treats children.
Most kids never get any practice in the art of self-direction. At Sudbury schools they get lots of practice, along with a supportive environment, and it doesn't take long before they're learning all sorts of things and busying themselves with all sorts of projects.
Sugata Mitra, an educational researcher, has demonstrated the great capacity of kids to self-educate once they're provided with the right resources. Sudbury is built on that same basic concept.
what if my kid just plays games or socializes all day?
That's great! So long as kids are doing something that interests them, they are learning by definition. A kid playing video games is learning about strategy, teamwork and visual processing. A kid who spends their time talking to friends is learning how to relate to people (which is one skill that almost everyone needs when they grow up!) So long as nobody is being cruel or doing something outright harmful, then it's within the rules and there's no reason to worry.
Speaking of games, you may be thinking of kids who simply "zone out" and keep playing something even though they not really enjoying the experience. This never happens at Sudbury schools, at least not after the initial adjustment period. Kids who "zone out" do so because they're stressed and/or they don't know what they really want to do. But Sudbury provides an environment which is non-stressful, stimulating and supportive. As a result, kids develop a full awareness of who they are and what they want, and they pursue activities that truly interest them. And again, if they're doing something they find interesting, they are learning by definition.
How can you be sure that kids will learn the essentials, like reading and writing?
Because Sudbury schools have existed for 50 years in various locations, and during that time everyone has learned how to read and write. Kids learn these skills because they want to. Sooner or later, they realize that reading will help them get through life. Some kids learn when they're 6 years old, and some learn when they're 12 years old, but every kid learns before they turn 18 (provided that they spend at least a couple years in the program). And interestingly enough, the kids who learn early don't seem to have any advantage over the kids who learn late. And furthermore, once a kid decides to learn, it's common to go from "Completely Illiterate" to "Reading Full-Length Novels for Fun" in about nine months. In an environment of self-directed learning, kids learn fast. They just learn things out of order.
But What about math? Do kids learn math?
Once again, kids learn whatever they want to, and they all learn math because they want to learn math, because sooner or later everyone realizes that math is valuable.
For instance, someone will propose ordering a pizza for lunch. Kids who have done this before will discuss what sort of pizza to order, where to get it, how much it will cost, how many people are eating, and how to split the bill and make change. (If anyone needs help, adult staffers are available.) Kids who don't yet know any math will get guidance from their peers, and they'll see for themselves that math is useful. Eventually they'll ask someone to teach them math, or they'll learn it themselves from a math book.
See also this TEDx talk: Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary. (From a former math teacher, no less!)
How can I know that my child is really learning, if there are no grades?
Well, how do you know that a toddler is learning to walk and talk? You don't need a grade system; you see it for yourself! More importantly, the child is aware of their own learning process. Sudbury kids naturally talk to their parents about what they've been up to. Don't expect something impressive every day (because you can't really schedule these things), but do expect that things will work out fine in the long run.
Grades and tests just distract from the actual process of learning. They're stressful, blunt and unhelpful. Decades of experience have proven that grades are simply unnecessary. So why use them at all?
How will my child get exposure to new topics?
By living life! Kids and staff constantly talk to each other about topics of interest. Kids also have access to various books (either onsite or via the public library, which they can visit during school hours), and we provide internet access as well. Sudbury kids are known for learning all sorts of things that public school kids never hear about. So long as they have a supportive environment and the freedom to be curious, the sky's the limit!
2. Questions about the REal WOrld
Can Sudbury Kids really go to college?
Yes! Studies have shown that graduates from Sudbury schools fare just fine in the "real world."
A follow-up study was conducted of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School (SVS), a democratically administered primary and secondary school that has no learning requirements but rather supports students' self-directed activities. Although these individuals educated themselves in ways that are enormously different from what occurs at traditional schools, they have had no apparent difficulty being admitted to or adjusting to the demands of traditional higher education and have been successful in a wide variety of careers. Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefited them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values. [Emphasis added]
-From "Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education?", published in the American Journal of Education.
Separately, a formal survey of Sudbury graduates shows strong consensus that the kids do perfectly well later in life. (Detailed results were published in the book A Legacy of Trust by Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky.) One interesting finding was that Sudbury graduates are more likely to become entrepreneurs than the rest of the population; Sudbury helps kids to be more motivated, more independent and better at solving practical problems.
See also this post on our Facebook page, which reports on the results of a formal survey of Sudbury graduates.
How exactly can you go to college if you didn't go to high school?
It turns out that colleges are really flexible about this. Take Harvard, for instance. Kids have gone to Harvard without going to high school. Kids have gone to Harvard with no prior schooling at all!
How do they do it? They send letters to the colleges explaining their unusual background. (In our case, letters could be written by Riverwind staff, at the students' request.) They include evidence of their various talents and skills. In some cases, the school will ask them to take the SATs, and then they'll get one of those "Study for the SATs" books and study it rigorously for a few months. (Sudbury kids are motivated. If they decided that they really want to go to a particular school, they'll study what they need to study.) It's also common for Sudbury kids to attend a community college part-time during their last year or two of Sudbury, just to get a feel for the routine and establish a small transcript. But they're not stuck in the community college; that's just a springboard to the major four-year school they want to attend.
Colleges want students who will distinguish themselves later in life. Self-directed people are ideal for that goal. And Sudbury schools produce intelligent, self-directed kids. In the end, it all works out!
Incidentally, some kids realize that they don't need a college degree. After all, Mark Zuckerberg was a college dropout! So was Bill Gates! If a student finds a viable life path that doesn't require a degree, they may choose to launch themselves into the "real world" directly. Experience shows that they do perfectly well later in life.
Can you show me some examples of successful sudbury graduates?
Sure! Here's a video from Hudson Valley Sudbury School:
And here's a video from Tallgrass:
The school points out in a comment:
This panel includes Tallgrass alums who have: finished a masters in Economics; gone to culinary school and finished a degree in nutrition; finished nursing school and passed the Illinois nursing licensing exam; and graduated with the highest honor at a liberal arts college.
In other words, yes, Sudbury kids do perfectly fine later in life.
Those are just anecdotes. Is there scientific evidence that Sudbury Kids do well later in life?
Yes! And it's been published in the American Journal of Education:
A follow-up study was conducted of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School (SVS), a democratically administered primary and secondary school that has no learning requirements but rather supports students' self-directed activities. Although these individuals educated themselves in ways that are enormously different from what occurs at traditional schools, they have had no apparent difficulty being admitted to or adjusting to the demands of traditional higher education and have been successful in a wide variety of careers. Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefited them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values.
Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist, has written much more about the benefit of Self-Directed Education (and Sudbury in particular) in his book: Free to Learn
Author Alfie Kohn has also written books about the school system more generally, in which he cites extensive research which most people are unaware of:
3. Other Questions
When will you open?
We're not sure yet! Right now we're just garnering support. (Feel free to send us an email!)
Will you host programs on Saturdays, so kids can still get some benefit even if they can't attend full-time?
Hopefully! Let us know what you'd be interested in and what times you'd be available.
What will it cost?
Sudbury schools typically cost about half as much as other private schools. (That's because we spend our efforts on getting the philosophy right, rather than just buying the latest technology.) While we can't say anything for sure, we imagine that the tuition will cost roughly $5,000 per year. We also plan to offer need-based scholarships and discounts for extra kids in the same family, and perhaps merit-based scholarships for kids who understand the philosophy especially well. (Note: Merit does not mean good grades. It will be based on personal interviews and letters of recommendation from people who know the child.) Further scholarships will be given out randomly. Some kids will get to attend free of charge!
For comparison, Tallgrass Sudbury School uses the following system (not counting scholarships):
Income of less than $25,000: $1,850
$100,000 and up: $8,600
What is the age range of the kids?
From 4 years old, all the way up to 18 and beyond! One of the key Sudbury Principles is age-mixing, which is the idea that you need a community of many people at different ages. Unlike traditional schools, we don't segregate kids into grades. We simply let them mingle as much as they like. Younger kinds often learn from older kids (and sometimes vice-versa!). Everyone benefits.
How does Age-mixing work? How do you ensure that the older kids don’t pick on the younger kids?
Sudbury runs on a culture of respect which applies to everyone, regardless of age. The adult staffers respect the kids, and likewise the older kids respect the younger kids (and vice-versa). Everyone has an equal vote, after all. And when misbehavior is reported to the Judicial Committee, the Committee traditionally includes at least one kid from each major age group, to ensure that no group is neglected.
The difference in development between older kids and younger kids is actually an asset. Kids naturally learn from other kids who are a few years older, since the older kid has more knowledge and experience but they're still similar enough to be relatable. (The book Free to Learn, by developmental psychologist Peter Gray, explores the research on this subject.) The presence of older kids also provides a defense against bullying. If you're being bullied by someone your own age, you can always find someone older and wiser to defend you (and to help you take a complaint to the Judicial Committee, if necessary). And of course the oldest people around are the adult staffers, who have been selected for the job precisely because they know how to maintain a safe community.
The traditional school system segregates children by age, and this is so common that many people assume that it's necessary. They assume that children of diverse ages could not possibly interact. But Sudbury has discarded that assumption for more than 50 years now, with very positive results. Our founder has personally volunteered and interned at Sudbury schools, and he’s seen kids of various ages interacting with ease. It's actually quite striking how emotionally mature the kids become in this environment; he’s had surprisingly intelligent conversations with 10 year old kids. (One 10 year old kid told him that, when he met some 10 year old kids from a traditional school, those kids seemed weirdly immature in comparison.)
Age-mixing is a vital part of Sudbury. We know it works because we’ve tested it.
How exactly does the democracy work?
The day-to-day governance is handled by a group called School Meeting, which consists of every staffer and every student. Everyone has exactly one vote, regardless of age. (Even the four year old has a vote!)
School Meeting typically gets together once a week. (The name of the group is School Meeting, and the event where the group gets together is also called "a School Meeting".) People can also petition for an Emergency School Meeting if the need arises.
The meeting has an elected chairperson who follows Robert's Rules of Order. There's also an elected secretary who takes down the minutes of the meeting. There's a short agenda of topics, and everyone has a chance to speak and vote on items of interest. Substantial rule changes usually receive two readings, which means that the measure is proposed one week and not actually voted on till the following week, so everyone has a chance to think about it.
School Meeting makes decisions on what rules should exist, how to enforce the rules, how to spend the budget, and whether to accept prospective new students.
There is also a group called School Assembly, which consists of every member of School Meeting plus all the parents and guardians. This group meets once a year and decides the cost of tuition, among other things. (Since parents are paying tuition, it's only fair that they have a chance to vote on how much it should cost.) But most matters are left to School Meeting.
In practice, the meetings tend to be short, intelligent and calm. We have only as much bureaucracy as is actually required; we don't bog people down with pointless red tape or whatever. Of course once in awhile there may be a large debate about some particular issue (especially when the school is still new and we haven't figured things out yet), but even the big debates tend to be respectful and earnest.
If you're worried that it all might go wrong in some way, look to the example of successful Sudbury schools. If you're wondering how kids could ever be mature enough to run a functioning institution, remember that Sudbury itself encourages the necessary maturity. These aren't traditional kids; they're Sudbury kids. Their experience with Sudbury provides them with the tools they need to make good decisions.
Furthermore, there are several "backstop" features that prevent a lot of hypothetical worst-case scenarios. Among these are the fact that participating in the school is entirely voluntary. Thus, if someone feels unhappy, no one can legally stop them from simply dropping out and trying something else (such as public school or homeschool). Parents have the legal right to remove their child of their own accord at any moment. And of course the government makes other laws too, regarding health codes and fire codes and such, which School Meeting cannot overrule.
What is the "open campus policy"?
Once a kid is certified on safety, they're allowed to leave the building during school hours. (Certification involves proving that you know your way around the neighborhood, that you know how to be safe, how to interact with strangers, etc..) You have to sign out before you leave, and you have to carry an ID and a cell phone (and we need to have each other saved as contacts). In other words, you have to be safe, but once you're safe you're free to wander around without supervision.
This is a wonderful aspect of Sudbury, because it allows kids to get out and see the real world up close. They can learn how to navigate the local library or bookstore. They can get a snack at a local cafe, and see for themselves what it's like to operate in that environment.
Schools should not be prisons. So long as you're safe and responsible, you can leave whenever you like.
Why did you choose the name "Riverwind"?
Rivers and wind both suggest freedom. We want to give people the freedom to soar, to make their own decisions, and to truly be themselves.
Is this a religious school?
No. We are non-religious, and we welcome people from all faiths and backgrounds.
Is this like a Montessori school?
The Montessori model allows kids to choose from among a limited range of options. Sudbury allows kids to choose from among a much, much larger range. So you might say that Sudbury is like Montessori on steroids, plus it's democratic.
How does this compare with homeschooling or unschooling?
Traditional homeschooling is simply school at home, with a pre-arranged curriculum. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling without a curriculum; kids are free to learn whatever they like. We find that unschooling is superior, but it has the drawback of lacking community.
Family is great, but most people want to reach out and find a wider group to interact with. Unschoolers typically spend a lot of time on Facebook or whatever, trying to coordinate everybody's schedules so they can show up at the same place at the same time. But in a Sudbury school, everybody automatically shows up at the school five days a week, and from there it's much easier to coordinate activities.
We also provide a safe environment. Parents who are working, for instance, may not want to leave their child home alone, and may not feel that homeschooling is an option. But with the Sudbury model, they can simply drop their kids off at school and pick them up at the end of the day.
is this intended for a particular kind of child?
Because Sudbury schools are so rare and so small, people tend to assume that they're "specialty" schools that only cater to a specific population. But we believe that the Sudbury philosophy can accommodate almost everyone. If all the traditional schools were magically replaced with Sudbury schools overnight, the results would be wonderful for nearly everyone involved.
We welcome extroverts and introverts, kids with good grades and kids with bad grades, gifted and non-gifted. (Though even "non-gifted" kids tend to discover remarkable gifts in a Sudbury environment!) We do require that kids follow a few basic rules and treat other people with respect, but we're generally willing to accept "bad kids" who got in trouble at their previous school. We find that many "bad" kids are simply frustrated at the way they're treated in the traditional setting, and they quickly calm down in a Sudbury setting. (Of course, we're also willing to take "good" kids who never broke a rule in their life.)
If there's one group of kids we serve best, it's the free-spirited kids who chafe at the traditional structure of school. But then again, isn't that everybody?
How Do "Sudbury kids" differ from "traditional kids"?
In the beginning, Sudbury kids are just normal kids who happen to go to a Sudbury school. But because our philosophy is so revolutionary, Sudbuy kids do grow and develop in a different way.
Based on our experiences with both groups, Sudbury kids are:
More mature in the sense of taking responsibility, and at the same time less self-conscious about having fun and being silly
Less likely to get into petty disputes with peers
Less likely to say the same annoying thing ten times in a row
Much less likely to bully others
We've heard from kids who transitioned from traditional school to a Sudbury school, and they report wonderful progress. Depressed kids have escaped depression and found meaning in life again. Bitter kids have become happy and engaged. Bored kids have become much more alive and active. Kids who were bullied are glad to be in a community where bullies don't exist. It's amazing!
Are there any downsides to the sudbury model?
There is one downside: Because so few people have heard of Sudbury, Sudbury schools tend to be very small. This means that students have fewer peers to interact with than they would have at a traditional school. On the other hand, quality is better than quantity! Sudbury schools allow kids much more time and freedom to interact with the peers that are available, and as a result many kids find themselves happier in the world of Sudbury than in the world of traditional school. Plus, they can still keep up with their traditional-school friends in the afternoons or on the weekends. Sudbury kids can also get involved with large group activities (like sports and musical theater) via community organizations that accept kids from multiple school districts.
Having said that, yes, some Sudbury kids choose to return to traditional school because they miss their old friends. We support them in that choice. And in the meantime, we look forward to the day where Sudbury (or something like it) is the default rather than the exception. When that day comes, Sudbury schools will be much more common and much more populated, and we won't have to contend with the problem of being small.
Is this a year-round school?
Most Sudbury schools follow the traditional school calendar, with a large summer break. The main reason for this is that some kids have siblings who still attend public school, and it's easier for the family if every kid has a similar schedule. But we often hold weekly meetups during the summer, to give kids a chance to hang out and keep in touch.
Is there some sort of "national Sudbury board" that manages all the sudbury schools?
No. Each Sudbury school manages itself, and the word "Sudbury" is not trademarked. (In fact, it's a geographical term. The original Sudbury school named itself "Sudbury Valley School", simply because it was located in the Sudbury Valley of Massachusetts.)
Sudbury schools do not have jurisdiction over each other. (Though we're generally on friendly terms, and we share a common philosophy.)
Do you serve children with special needs?
That can be decided on a case-by-case basis. Please email us for more information.
why is this whole site written for an audience of parents? don't you realize that kids might browse this site too?
We do realize that, and we're sorry if we hurt your feelings. The thing is, convincing kids of the value of Sudbury is pretty easy. Convincing parents is the hard part. The law says that parents get to choose which schools their kids will attend, and typically parents pay the tuition fees, so we have to do our best to convince parents that this is a viable option.
Where can I learn more?
Thanks for reading!