Graduate Hospital: The Philadelphia Free School Offers Students Self-Directed Education

There is no such thing as a typical day at the Philadelphia Free School, located at 2001 Christian St. Students do different things each day, whether that be practicing a song on the piano with friends, stretching and dancing in the mat room, or signing-out to go off campus to a city park. What the school doesn’t have are traditional classes or instruction.

Naia, 9, is in her fifth year at the school, and to an outsider it would seem like she spends most of her day playing.

“Sometimes, me and my friend will play with the watercolors and usually we just kind of make things up with each other,” Naia said. “Usually each day is pretty different, except the morning always starts out the same. My friend and I usually meet each other in the computer lab and then we go do something together.”

Other students prefer to add more structure to their days. Maddy, 12, has been enrolled at the school since it’s first year and has a passion for dance. Although each of her days are different, she often spends her time exercising and stretching.

“Next year I might get accepted to pre-train at the Pennsylvania Ballet, which would mean I would be there all day and do online school,” she said.

The Free School is modeled on the Sudbury Valley alternative school and was founded in 2011 in partnership with the Schuylkill Fellowship, a religious organization not affiliated with a major denomination. According to Luke Byrnes, the Sudbury Valley model focuses on self-directed education and creating order through equal democracy. Staff members at the schools are never referred to as teachers or administrators because it implies a hierarchy exists among staff, though staff do help facilitate student activities, he said.

Eric Marr is an attorney, a Free School trustee, and Schuylkill Fellowship clerk. Marr explained that exemptions to Pennsylvania curriculum law for schools that are controlled by a religious body allow the school to exist as long as it has a partnership with a religious organization.  

“Two years before the school was founded, the fellowship was founded and its charter was filed with the state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “But it was started by the same people; the same founders group that were contemplating the founding of the school.”

In the case of the Free School, the majority of their board of trustees must also be Fellowship members.

The Free School does not offer a curriculum or provide homework assignments, nor does it require that students fill their days with scheduled activities. Rather, the school offers students ages 4 to 19 materials and space for a range of activities and the freedom to manage their own time.

Tuition is offered on a sliding scale from $1,800 to $13,400 for the year, with the average family paying just $4,000. There is also a discount available for sibling admissions, as well as scholarships and programs that assist low-income families.

Each room in the three-story building — which is connected to Chester A. Arthur Elementary School through a shared recreation space — offers students different possible activities. There is a quiet library room, a sunroom, an art room, a computer lab, a music room and a kitchen. There is even a mat room where students can exercise as a way to burn off some energy. Students are free to roam between rooms as long as they comply with the rules associated in each.

Although students are free to manage their time as they see fit, they all have age appropriate individual responsibilities, such as clerkships, that help keep the school running smoothly.

“Every kid has to do clean up at 3:00 p.m.,” Niai said. “Each year we get assigned different rooms. I’ve cleaned like every room in the school. The art room is always the most to clean up, it’s always a mess.”

Along with clean up, each student is required to serve on the judicial committee where students resolve conflicts with the help of their peers and the oversight of a staff member.

Noah Mogilewski, 19, is currently the law clerk for the judicial committee and is in his third and final year at the Free School. He was voted into the position after volunteering during one of the school’s elections.

“I’m in charge of overseeing JC and assisting any committees if they have questions on certain rules, or how something could work within the law book,” Mogilewski said.

Before attending the Philadelphia Free School, Mogilewski was homeschooled because his family frequently moved for his father’s military career. When they relocated to Philadelphia, Mogilewski’s friend introduced him to the Free School.

“I’m already used to self-driven stuff,” Mogilewski said. “It’s a little different, obviously, but it’s a well put together community. We felt like that was important, and the sliding scale made it affordable.”

Mark Filippone, Maddy’s father and one of the co-founders and staff members of the school, said it is largely due to the emphasis on self-direction and personal accountability that Maddy has been able to excel in dance.

“I think what happened is that she learned what she needs to do to get proficient in what she wants to be by being here,” he said. “Since nobody was telling her what to do with time here, if she wanted to get good at something, she had to figure out how to do that. And really, how do you get good at anything? You practice, right? Over and over.”

Filippone said the school tries to maintain a hands-off approach to parental involvement to ensure privacy and freedom for each of their students.

“Parents aren’t entirely welcome during the school day,” Filippone said. “But, we’re also very aware of the fact that parents being on board with this model of education is really key to people being successful here and students being successful. So, we hold a lot of events for them each month.”

Educating people about alternative education is also a part of the school’s mission. On April 6, the Free School hosted the Alternative Education Forum at the Friends Center Quaker Meeting House on Cherry Street. The event featured representatives from several alternative schools around the city including the Philadelphia Free School, the Waldorf School of Philadelphia and Quadrat Academy.

The forum also featured Akilah S. Richards, an unschooling and alternative education advocate, who delivered a keynote address to discuss the importance of embracing change within education.

“Self-directed education says that education is the responsibility of the person learning,” Richards said. “As adults with more access and more privilege, self-directed education is about how can we support each person in understanding who they are and how they learn without getting in the way of who they are and how they learn.”

Richards said her two daughters, Marley and Sage, struggled at their public elementary school in Atlanta, Ga.

“They were thriving academically, but we could see that their personhood was being assaulted in a variety of ways,” Richards said. “Race was tied into it, being in the South. Our oldest daughter was called a ‘scary little black girl’ by another student.”

Maia Cucchiara, associate professor of urban education at Temple University, said traditional models of education, especially for high schoolers, are not always the ideal way for students to learn.

“Alternative models that emphasize beginning with students’ interests can be really great for kids for whom traditional public school feels really inadequate,” Cucchiara said.

She said it is important for there to be options other than traditional public and private schools since many kids are not able to thrive in those environments. That’s where alternative schools, such as the Philly Free School, come in.

“I think it’s more a response to a sense that what is happening in traditional schools works fine for a lot of kids, but not for everybody,” she said. “So, we need to have models that work for different kinds of kids.”

Miles, 16, started at the Free School early last year and described his public school experience as violent, where he frequently felt stressed and isolated.

“It wasn’t fun learning there because it felt really forced and rushed,” Miles said. “I was pretty depressed. Here, I feel more comfortable, free and motivated to things.”  

He also said that he is appreciative of having the time to enjoy being a teenager — a privilege that he did not experience in his previous school.

I like photography and music, but nowadays I’m mostly just trying to have fun and enjoy being a teenager while it lasts, because I don’t feel like I got to do that in public school,” Miles said.

When students enter their last year at the Free School, they must make the decision to either participate in the school’s diploma process or simply age out of the system. According to the Free School’s website, students who graduate from the Free School model often immediately enter the workforce, go on to community college, trade school or college.

Mogilewski decided to participate in the diploma process. To receive a diploma, he will have to write a thesis that will be reviewed by staff from other Sudbury Valley schools.

“To graduate in this model, we need to explain to a panel of staff from other Sudbury Valley models why we feel we’re ready to be a contributing part of society and live without the school,” Mogilewski said.

Simon Eisenstein, staff member, is a graduate from the Circle School, a Sudbury Valley school in Harrisburg that does not not offer a diploma process. He is on the thesis advisory committee for Mogilewski and another student planning to graduate.

“Right now, I’m waiting on a second draft from both of them,” Eisenstein said.  

After graduation, Mogilewski said he will be taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) while teaching Muay Thai classes. He does not yet have a major in mind but said he is interested in taking introduction to psychology, general anatomy and a foreign language.

Jason Hand, director of admissions at CCP, said as long as prospective students do well on their placement tests, admitting students with a Sudbury Valley degree is not an issue, despite the lack of a state-issued high school transcript.

For Eisenstein, self-determination after graduation is the true value of a Sudbury Valley education.

“The reason why I think it works so much is because of the emphasis on personal responsibility,” Eisenstein said. “Like, just knowing me, I don’t think I would have been ready to move out on my own at age 19 if I’d gone to public school.”

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