"He clearly was unhappy in school, and very rebellious," Gray said of his son in a phone interview. In fourth grade, the son convinced his parents to send him to Sudbury. It was obvious early on that he was "thriving" there, but his father "had questions whether someone could graduate from such a radical school and go on to higher education."
Gray wound up becoming a developmental and learning psychologist in order to do a study of Sudbury outcomes. The results impressed him. Gray described his son as "precocious and articulate"; his problem was not with mastering the material, but with the "waste of time" that normal schooling, with its average pace and rigid structures, entailed.
But not all of Sudbury's students and alumni were precocious learners: "Some had been diagnosed with learning disorders." And while some came from privileged backgrounds with supportive parents who had deliberately sought out alternative education, other parents had been desperate. (Gray notes that most students when he did his study came from public school, not from another private school.) But most seemed to do well at the school, and alumni reported high satisfaction later in life. How was it that students who followed such an out-there program appeared to become relatively well adjusted adults? Gray began to inquire into why.
Nothing enrages parents like the idea that their kids might be educated to do or say or think things they don't agree with, by people they don't trust. Yet as different as parents might be, most could nonetheless probably agree on some things. Many would agree that schools should teach values and behaviors -- like sharing, thinking critically, or empathizing with others -- and not just specific skills. Most would approve a program that teaches personal responsibility. A pretty large number would probably also say it's important to foster creativity and allow the student to discover his or her own interests.
There are schools that purport to directly teach those values. They're called democratic schools, and most parents would never consider sending their kids to one. That's because they're run, in great part, by the kids themselves.
While democratic schools vary greatly, the basic concept is the same. When it comes to governing the school -- whether it's deciding what lessons will be taught or setting curfew -- the decision-making rule is "one person, one vote." A teacher's vote counts the same a student's, whether that student is six or 16. And since, at most schools, the body of faculty is smaller than the body of students, the kids ultimately do have it when it comes to making decisions.
Of the democratic schools that exist today, the oldest is Summerhill, a co-ed boarding school founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. It opened at a time when a lot of experiments in bohemian education methods were sprouting -- and failing -- in England. But Summerhill still thrives, with a student body of about 100 and a large international population. The school went through a rough patch in 1999 and 2000 when it was nearly shuttered due to a conflict with Ofsted, Britain's national school accreditation body, over what inspectors described as the rude and unruly behavior of students. After a long legal battle, the school was saved, and by 2007, it had been accredited for the first time in its history. Inspectors gave it a stand-out review, praising the students as "well-rounded, confident and mature."