The Free School in Albany

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Maya has been teaching in public school for five years.  It’s her first year at the Albany Free School where the role of the teacher is vastly different, shattering concepts of what a school should be.  Whereas before she was not so happy going to work, facing students who seemed forced to be where they are, now she comes to school with joy.  At the Free School, kids don’t have to attend class if they don’t want to.  Classes are optional and there is more freedom than rules.  There are morning meetings but after that, the kids choose what to do. Kids can propose any activity they want and can even teach their own class.

Brandon wanted to be a social worker but the amount of government regulations was discouraging and he discovered the Free School, a place he believed in and felt he belonged.  Earlier that day, he asked his students to teach him something useful.  One kid said that he likes playing chess because if the other person does something you don’t like, you react in the best way possible.  Another kid told a story of an MVP basketball player who said that the most important thing is being good to people. You can lose fame and wealth but whatever happens, what counts is being kind to others.

The building is located within a tight downtown neighborhood close to the Empire State Plaza so when students need to, they could easily walk to make their voices heard.  For instance, the other day, they protested against deportation.  Every Monday, the school prepares food for immigrants and refugees since Albany is an asylum city and there are programs for asylum seekers.

Older kids get to go on five-day class trips to Philadelphia, Cape Cod or Washington DC. Last year, they went to Puerto Rico and raised funds for it by selling fish fries and having cake auction.  The parents don’t have to shell out money unless they participate in the fundraisers.  The free school, by the way, is not “for free” but there’s tuition fee that is lower than what usual private schools charge.

One student moved from LA and enjoys how different the Free School is, especially how problems are solved by talking among each other, not just by getting automatic suspension.  When kids get in a fight, they talk about what caused it.  In regular school, you are sent home or placed in detention.

Diana attended this quite radical school from kindergarten to grade school and loved it. It didn’t matter if she wanted to do math or science, at the end of the day she knows how to solve problems as they come in the real world, how to stand up and speak for herself. She went to Harriet Tubman for high school which is similar to the Free School but according to her, the focus on academics is stronger.  Now she’s back at the Albany Free School as one of the teachers, work she describes as “the best job ever.”  She can’t imagine herself not being in a place like this or doing a job that pays the bills but without passion.  The other day, she took her students to the dragon steps and they wrote letters they placed under the dragon door.

The whole city is their school and it’s normal for them to go on spontaneous, unplanned walks to the parks, museum and other places in the neighborhood.  Right behind the building is a garden with chickens, vegetables and open green space quite surprising and welcoming downtown. There are rules about going out: fourth graders can leave without staff as long as there are at least three people together.  Those in the lower grades can go out only if there are with staff members.  They can ask staff if they want to go somewhere in particular.

Zach is a volunteer teacher who thinks kids who are made to sit for more than five hours behind a desk are subjected to a form of torture.  However crazily idealistic it sounds, the Free School may not also be for every kid.  One kid with mild autism thrived here and ended up learning how to read at a faster pace but his own sister struggled with and felt uncomfortable with the high degree of freedom.  There are some kids who were bullied in public school or got in trouble in their previous school but found they were accepted here.

Council meetings are run by the kids themselves and they can pass motions and decisions.  When Trump won, some of the kids felt devastated so they started a council meeting to share how people felt.  “I don’t understand why people chose a president who’s racist,” one child said.

When we visited the school, my family and I could’ve attended the dress rehearsal of Annie which was happening that afternoon but we opted to move on to our next destination. Last year, they did a production of Fantastic Mr. Fox and before we left, the kids crowded around the computer watching the show.  In the car, we settled being with them in spirit, singing “The sun will come out tomorrow. . . . . ”

Check out the Albany Free School website.1

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