Wednesday morning, the weekly Democratic Meeting of the Brooklyn Free School had been called to order. In a bare-bones classroom in a Methodist church, two dozen students of various ages sat in a circle of folding chairs alongside three teachers, a couple of volunteers and Alan Berger, the school’s founder and director.
Sophie Danish-Brown, a dark-haired 14-year-old who for no discernible reason was wearing silvery fairy wings called the group to order:
“I’ve had a bunch of people come up to me and say, ‘I’m so bored, I need something to do. And I’ve felt it myself. So I just wanted to open it up for discussion, ways to, basically, alleviate boredom.”
The Brooklyn Free School, which winds up its second year of operation next month, is probably New York’s most radical learning center, where free-spirited thinking and few rigid rules dominate the system, says the New York Times. In theory, students at the Brooklyn Free School never have to touch a Number Two pencil or a standardized test. Students are not graded or ranked in any way. Their parents are most likely to give them homework for their own peace of mind.
Mr. Berger views the approach as most suited to the information-age economy:
“Kids going out with an education like this will be more creative, more inventive, and more adaptive and flexible, which is going to be a big thing as the economy changes. People with standard credentials figure, ‘I’m set.’ But what happens when your job is outsourced and you have to figure out what to do next?”
Victoria Goldman, who co-wrote with Catherine Hausman on “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools,” said:
“There’s a certain kind of student and family that will thrive in the free-school environment. The right kid will do beautifully. But if you don’t come from an intellectual home or a reading family where the parents are true professionals, this thing is not going to be good. I don’t think every kid needs to be whipped, although, dare I say, most do.”
According to the Huffington Post, It has been widely criticized. Critics say its completely structureless system won’t prepare students for the real world, and that lower income students, who can’t afford outside tutors, will miss out on essential learning. Indeed the school has seen its share of dropouts due to home schooling and the like.
Most of the students are from middle-income families, and most live in Brooklyn. Tuition is nearly $10,000, administered on a sliding scale. Less than half of the families pay full tuition, and one struggling parent just gives what they can from time to time. The school is $20,000 in debt, scraping by on grants and donations. Hence the volunteers.
Children from anywhere can apply and visit the school for a five-day orientation, and then the admissions committee (made up of students, teachers and parents) must unanimously vote to admit a child based on whether the staff and students all want the child to attend, and whether the school has the resources to work with the child.
The children decide the curriculum, the methods of learning, and so on.
One of the more debated issues was the playing of video games on school computers. Over a period of time, a few rules were agreed upon. One mandated that games be played only on particular terminals. Another limited games to certain times of day. When it was decided that study time should take priority, the student could play a maximum of three minutes before getting kicked off.
Apparently, as long as the focus is on education, anything goes at the Brooklyn Free School.