Schools without teachers, homework or tests may seem like the stuff of children’s dreams, while the idea of children teaching themselves how to read, write and do math problems — if they choose to at all — may frighten parents who learned those skills at specific ages and in a traditional classroom environment.
But such an educational model is real, with dozens of the schools established in the U.S. and around the world and the first in Acadiana set to open this fall.
Based on the Sudbury Valley School model founded in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1968, the Lafayette Sudbury School will operate on the idea that children best succeed through self-guided learning spurred through everyday experiences instead of rigorous classroom work.
“They are allowed to pursue their own interests all day long, because the idea behind that is we learn best when we’re pursuing something we want to pursue,” said Chantal Saucier, who’s establishing the private, tuition-based school on a 1.5-acre plot of rural land near Maurice.
Forget every idea you have about schools when considering the Sudbury model. There’s no age segregation and no set curriculum, and there are classes only if the students organize them. There are no grades, exams or standardized tests.
There are no teachers, but rather adults on staff to supervise and provide help if the students request it. And the students, ages 4-18, will each have an equal say as the adults on all decisions on the school’s operation — making rules, spending money, administering discipline, hiring and firing staff — at a weekly school meeting.
Because it’s a private school, its students will not be required to take the same standardized tests that public school and charter school students have to take, and the school’s only requirement to the state is to provide a list of students enrolled each year, Saucier said. If the students choose to attend college, they’ll be responsible for learning the subjects that will help them pass college-entrance exams.
Proponents of the Sudbury model say allowing children that freedom helps boost their confidence and self-sufficiency, and the schools’ democratic settings and egalitarian environment help foster responsible students.
Mary Sciaraffa, an assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and director of the school’s early childhood education programs, will serve in an advisory capacity for the Lafayette Sudbury School.
Sciaraffa said other more well-known alternative school models, like Montessori or Waldorf, still involve a teacher-led structure, while Sudbury schools — which follow the model of the original school in Massachussetts but operate independently — instead allow children complete control over their learning.
“It’s the intrinsic motivation that comes from the student — the love of learning because of what you’re learning. You’re in control with what you want to learn, so you gain this sense of being in power over your own education,” Sciaraffa said.
It’s an opportunity not generally afforded students until college, she added.
Because students are guiding their own learning based solely on their curiosities, there are no landmark ages established for a student to learn something — say learning multiplication about age 8 or reading and writing in the years prior.
Saucier’s 10-year-old daughter is one of two students already enrolled at Lafayette Sudbury — the school will have a capacity for about 10 to 12 students its first year — and her education so far has been Sudbury-style in the home setting.
Saucier taught her daughter the alphabet and basic phonics at a young age but let her explore on her own thereafter. She didn’t begin reading and writing until about age 9, when she became motivated to read and participate in chat-room conversations on a computer game she often played.
Saucier said she noticed when her daughter began to train herself to read and write, and within a few months, the girl showed results.
“One day, she just began texting me. And even to her it was painless, because she wanted to do it,” Saucier said.
Saucier acknowledged that most may find it abnormal for a child to first learn to read and write beyond age 6.
“It takes a lot of trust from parents,” said Saucier, a Canada native who attended public schools there until she moved to Louisiana in 1995 to pursue and earn a doctorate in Francophone studies at UL-Lafayette.
The concept of “choice” has also been introduced in the public school system, albeit a less liberal approach. Lafayette Parish school system students may attend schools outside of their zoned districts to receive specialized instruction in a number of subjects, including arts, health sciences or world languages, to name a few. But only about 6,000 of the district’s approximately 30,000 students are chosen for the programs, through a computerized lottery process. Charter schools are another example, but most give parents an option for where their child attends school rather than what they learn.
Although the original Sudbury school reports an average of 80 percent of its students attend college, it’s also hard to say what other factors may have played into those students’ successes. The schools cost several thousand dollars a year to attend, so they’re less likely to attract students from low-income families. And because parents seeking such an alternative for their children are already showing a more vested interest in education, that could play a role in their success.
But for Saucier, the model provides a foundation for the future of education — one that could potentially result in greater success for all children, regardless of privilege or standardized test scores.
“The kids are OK,” she said. “We just need to modify the environment.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.