The Brooklyn Free School: A Look Inside the Progressive Education Movement

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Imagine a school where classes don’t exist, grades aren’t calculated, and tests are an anathema. A place where students are never given homework, and arrive each day prepared to do whatever they want; where teachers don’t dictate or evaluate. This place is real: it’s the Brooklyn Free School, located in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn, New York. Founded in 2003 by its current director Alan Berger, the school is built fundamentally on the principle that each child has an innate curiosity and passion for learning. At its core, the school is based on free school predecessors such as the Summerhill School in England, the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, and the Albany Free School in Albany. In its essence, BFS gives students the opportunity to pursue their own interests with the support and guidance of mentors and peers.

No matter how extensively outsiders have researched the school, it is impossible to get a true feel of the place without witnessing this philosophy in action. The Brooklyn Free School’s mission is not to be confused with the well-known Montessori style of education–it is more radical and less structured, giving students full independence. Mr. Berger meets visitors at the door of the BFS building: a narrow townhouse that seems to modestly hide the gravity of the things that go on within its walls. He proceeds to explain the daily routine, showing the visiting group around each of the five stories as if he were taking a guest around a family home. The sound of laughter and pounding feet on the wooden staircases prevail, as the younger children go out to play in Fort Greene Park. Each student is immersed in activity: one girl is carefully furnishing a miniature cardboard townhouse with handmade clay appliances; another boy is busily building a Lego rocket ship with the help of a friend.  Soft guitar chords float down from the cozy social room, where teenagers relax and read magazines. First time observers quickly realize that they are not in Kansas anymore.

It is not uncommon for visitors from traditional environments to have dozens of pressing questions as they arrive at the Brooklyn Free School. How do students know what they like if they aren’t exposed to the traditional array of subjects? Do students go on to become successful adults? How does the school ensure that students learn the basics? How do students graduate, and do they move on to college? Endlessly faced with such inquiries, Mr. Berger answers each in stride, with the school and the students as a backdrop to support his theories with actions and results. Perhaps it is suitable to begin with the components that constitute a “Free School.”

A cornerstone of the BFS philosophy is the weekly Democratic Meeting, an unorthodox methodology where students and teachers work together to plan upcoming events, resolve conflict, and make curriculum-oriented decisions. All of the over sixty students, ages 4-18, have a vote and an opinion that is valued. Beyond that, a mandatory lunchtime, and some clean-up responsibilities that resemble Work Crew, a student’s typical day is entirely free of any sort of structured obligations. However, as Mr. Berger was quick to explain, this absolutely does not mean that students simply sit around all day. The BFS schedule, mutually agreed upon in the Democratic Meeting, is full of all kinds of activities and offerings, ranging from theater instruction to a Friday field trip (the one several weeks ago was to a Pizzeria, as the school’s theme this year is “all about Brooklyn” and students were going to learn about the Pizza-making process). Daily “intensives,” run slightly more like classes, include Subway Math, Casino Games, and a study of Personal Narratives. Student-led clubs are active as well: The Odyssey and Life of Pi are two of the books currently being read by book groups, and the Dungeons and Dragons club is now operating in full swing. Unlike conventional schools, of course, all of the above are optional. Subjects taught at BFS don’t fall into particular categories; they just cover anything and everything that students demonstrate an interest in. Students aren’t separated by age, but are loosely grouped into advisory sections spanning several grade levels. And teachers, of which there are just a handful, don’t actually “teach” in the usual sense of the word—they instead act as mentors, opening the students’ eyes to ideas and helping them to learn what they love.

Since BFS has the time to delve into so many subjects, students are really exposed to much more than any student at a traditional school. They also are able to explore their interests in much greater depth, which often leads to additional crossover of topics and the desire to learn more about several subjects at once. The question of alumni success is more difficult to answer, as success has a variety of definitions and cannot be numerically quantified. In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, he emphasizes that character qualities such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control are what help children to become successful later in life, not high scores on standardized tests. This is directly in line with the mission at BFS: students are encouraged to be creative, passionate and thoughtful, they are taught to be respected members of their communities, and they are propelled to take charge of their own education. A great value is placed on character, as exemplified by the Democratic Meeting.

Still, skeptical parents and educators are concerned about the learning of the basics. “It’s out of context learning,” says Mr. Berger, “So the basics are kind of covered to the extent that they need them.” But what are the ‘basics,’ anyway? Reading, writing and math, widely considered to be the foundation of all further education, are taught at BFS as students express a desire to learn them. However, since those three disciplines are so important to everything else, students generally come across them early on in pursuit of their interests. If students are taught when they are hungry to know, the thought process at BFS goes, they will acquire the new skills much faster and will come away with a deeper understanding of the material.

In a school with no requirements, questions about diplomas and college abound from visitors. In order to graduate from BFS, students must declare their intention to move on at least two years prior, so that they can spend ample time preparing a presentation and assembling a committee of mentors. The presentation covers what the student has learned at BFS, plans for the future and reasons for taking the desired next step. After hearing from the student, the committee votes, and three fourths of the votes are needed to graduate. Most students are approved by their committee, but those that are not awarded the votes are simply given time to reflect and revise their presentations. And most decide to go on to college, which means that they do have to take the standardized college admissions tests. Mr. Berger acknowledges: “We understand too that there are a lot of things [students] are going to have to just get through…They’ll take SATs, they’ll take RCT’s here, and there will be some prep for that… they just have to do certain things to get the diploma, get that out of the way so they can be free to learn what they want.” Do students actually get in to college? “Most students get in to the colleges of their choice, because schools want to diversify their campuses,” he explains. Certainly, a background as a Brooklyn Free School student would look very interesting to a college admissions office. According to Mr. Berger, students adjust well to the college curriculum, as they have already honed their interests and are practiced in the art of setting their own educational courses. It is unclear, however, just how well students handle deadlines and set schedules.

As BFS celebrates the differences in each child, its staff also acknowledges that its revolutionary curriculum doesn’t work for everyone. Some students thrive on structure, or are so used to it that their time at BFS is not as productive as it could be. The school specifically does not accept students over 15 years of age, as they would already be so used to traditional education that they would not be able to adjust. Even so, students who transfer from other schools usually take what Mr. Berger calls a “detox” period: they become overwhelmed by all the free time they suddenly have and spend a month or two just sitting in the social lounge or playing games. Before too long, however, he sees them become gripped by a desire to learn, and they feverishly take charge of their education.

The Brooklyn Free School may seem like a beacon of hope in an era of increasingly standardized, creativity-crushing educational darkness—or as “One Man’s Solution to the Educational Rat Race” as Tara Bahrampour described it in her New York Times article about the school. In essence, can Progressive education survive in this era? Furthermore, can this approach diffuse into other academic environments? Although Friends Academy tends to follow a more traditional route, Mr. Morris has done a lot of thinking about Progressive education. “As an approach to learning it makes infinite sense,” he says, noting the collaboration that goes on in environments such as the Brooklyn Free School and pointing to the fact that students are connected to real-world experiences. However, he also emphasizes that a Quaker school naturally has some Progressive elements: “With Quakers, everything still starts with queries, or inquires, like [at] Progressive schools.” While more school districts seem to be implementing numerically driven methods, Mr. Morris believes that “the pendulum is starting to move back in the other direction,” towards Progressivism. “We are trending in the direction of some of the more Progressive schools,” he says, explaining that “some teachers are frustrated” with the structure and demand of AP courses.

Some students are frustrated as well. In typical high school classroom that is not on an advanced track, it is common to see a good majority of students dragging their feet, completely bored, or entirely disinterested and disengaged. Participation can be minimal at best; nobody seems to care. Coming from this atmosphere, the Brooklyn Free School is a world away—a good majority of the students cannot contain their excited exclamations as they work on a new project or tackle a new challenge. It would be unfair for Friends Academy students to anticipate that this kind of radical, free-for-all learning will make an appearance in this area anytime soon. Although Mr. Morris continually works to adapt the school’s curriculum to modern demands and methods, “I think in this climate of the North Shore of Long Island it would be difficult [for a Progressive school] to be successful,” he concedes. The region is just too competitive and traditionally focused.

Although Mr. Berger does believe that his brainchild is a representation of schools of the future, he realistically concludes that such extreme conversions will take decades to be accepted by the public. The focus of society at this point remains grades, scores, GPAs and class rankings. Mr. Berger stresses the enormous effects of college decisions on all other levels of schooling: as long as colleges don’t change their criteria for accepting students, high schools won’t change either, preventing shifts for elementary schools and so on down to the earliest stages of childhood learning. For now, schools such as the Brooklyn Free School will remain isolated Petri dishes of Progressive experimentation, serving as points of contrast for traditional schools and as topics of debate for educational theorists. Small as they are, these schools certainly prove their importance. If nothing else, they exist to test the minds of conventional educators; always forcing them to ask themselves if the methods they have chosen to support are indeed the right ones.

 

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