Saturday, October 02, 2004

Interview: Alan Berger, founder of the Brooklyn Free School

Way back in August, I posted about a documentary that I saw about the Albany Free School. At that screening, I found out about the Brooklyn Free School, a new school opening this fall in Brooklyn. I arranged to interview the founder, Alan Berger, by email. He is on leave from the NYC Department of Education. Here (at long last) is the text of our interview. Thanks for corresponding with me, Alan!

Can you tell me a little about how you became interested in free schools?
I read an article in the NY Times about Sudbury Valley 3 years ago.

What has been the response of your colleagues in the public school system to this new project?
Most have been fairly supportive. I don't generally associate with those that would be diametrically opposed to something like this.

Will your own children attend BFS?
I have a 13 yr-old son who wants to attend, but his mom does not want him to, and he also would like to finish up at the middle school he's currently at because he wants to spend his last year (before everyone gets split up for HS) with the friends he's been going to school with for the last 8 years or more. My partner has a daughter who is 8 and wants to go, but her dad is not in favor. We're still working on him.

What was your own educational experience like, as a child?
Traditional, although I grew up in a fairly progressive town on LI, Great Neck, attended Ethical Culture "Sunday School" and a sleepaway summer camp in MA for seven summers that was a big influence on my education. The summer camp model, at least the one I experienced, is closer to my ideas of what education should be like.

What is your vision for a typical day at BFS? Will there be any structure to the day? Will any kinds of activities bediscouraged/banned - for example, video games, tv, etc.? How will teachers handle misbehavior, arguing, bullying, etc.? Will there be any age divisions?
A morning all-hands meeting (not mandatory) to talk about planned or desired activities, workshops, classes, trips, etc. suggested by any student, staff member or parent, followed by a period in the morning for group activities, lunch, and an afternoon group activities period. Once a week a democratic school meeting will be held to make the decisions necessary to run the school. School meetings can also be called by any member of the school on short notice on any day to resolve a conflict or bring up an important issue. The only banned activities will be those that are determined to be detrimental to the safety and health of the students and staff. The current conflict resolution process is as follows: students will first attempt to work out conflicts on their own; then can ask a staff member or other student to help them resolve it, and finally, if these steps fail, bring it to a school meeting. There will be no set age divisions. We will have a separate space set aside for the youngest children (4-7).

Can you tell me more about the structure of the democratic decision-making processes you are planning to implement? Will it besimilar to the Council Meetings held at the Albany Free School?

How will you introduce/teach this process to incoming students?
We have already started to do this through holding student/staff meetings at our regular general meetings and at the last few meetings we've held at the school site. We will probably supplement this experience with some handouts and videos of meetings from other schools. We may role play some meetings for the youngest children.

What kinds of families have been attracted to the BFS so far?
Families that are interested in an education that is more flexible and individually based. We started with a diverse group of parents from the Park Slope Food Coop and branched out from there. Our ethnic and socio-economic mix is very diverse. Our current population is roughly 50% people of color and all income levels are represented. About 1/3 of our families have home schooled their children at one point or other. Others have experienced Montessori and Waldorf, or some other private school, and the rest have been to public schools. We have families now from all five boroughs.

How do you envision schools like the Brooklyn Free School fitting into society as a whole? Should they be an experiment for just a few students? One option among many? A model of how all schooling should be?
One option among many. We hope that what we are doing will have an effect on traditional education, moving it in a more truly democratic and child-centered way.

One person I spoke to at the Bluestockings event (film about theAlbany Free School) said that he and his wife provide a lot of academic education to their daughter at home, since she is not getting it at the Albany Free School. He was comfortable with this. Some children will come to your school from homes where they get lots of stimulation, lots of academic support, perhaps even supplemental teaching. Others will not, and often this correlates with socioeconomic status. If you succeed in enrolling a group of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, how will you ensure that all the kids leave your school with the knowledge and skills they need tosucceed in college or the working world?
We don't profess to know what each individual person will need to "succeed" in college or the working world. Our primary goal is the social and emotional growth of each child and for each child to develop within themselves their own responsibility for and love of learning (it doesn't matter what it is that they want to learn about and we reject the paradigm that society has set up for any set curriculum of knowledge and skills). Students who have graduated from democratic schools typically have the self confidence and have learned how to learn and be their own best teacher, so that they are ready to meet any challenge that stands in their way to fulfill their own individual dreams and aspirations.

We don't equate the amount of stimulation at home, academic support, or supplemental teaching with being a happy and successful person. Nor is the goal to be striving for a higher level of socioeconomic status. The goal is to be with others in a cooperative and not competitive learning community where children and adults are free to live and learn as they wish without impinging on others' right to do the same. The goal is to give everyone the time and space and freedom to become self-actualized.

Will kids who can't get as much supplemental academics at home be "left behind," so to speak?

I read your description of what you consider "success" in the FAQs. Do you plan to collect any kind of qualitative/quantitative data onyour students' experiences during their time in your school or after leaving?

Who are your teachers? What is drawing them to teach at BFS? What kind of planning processes, professional development, etc. will teachers have amongst themselves?
They have sought us out and are interested in working in a democratic learning community. They are not traditional teachers, but are interested in the different ways that people learn and interact. One has taught at a rock and roll camp for girls, plays the drums, and loves to teach literature, another is has traveled with a math and science circus and teaches Capoeria, another is a cheese afficionado, tennis pro, and will be teaching comedy!

We plan to visit other democratic schools in the area (there are three), read and discuss some of the literature, view videos together, and have many discussions with the parents and students.


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