News and Tribune

July 10, 2013

Putting students in control: Group initiates school model conversations based on Massachusetts concept



She said continuous, state-mandated testing, confining curriculum standards and grading systems in schools frustrated her and some of her friends.

So on Thursday, Melanie Hughes is beginning the talks of an education revolution.

Hughes, and her friend Debbie Harbeson, want to initiate a conversation about bringing a school modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., to Southern Indiana. The model allows students to dictate what they want to learn and leaves the rules of the school largely in their hands.

To spark a dialogue, they’re inviting the public to come to the first of three scheduled meetings of the Sudbury School Startup of Southern Indiana at 6:30 p.m. on July 11 at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library’s south meeting room.

She said there’s no set timeline on establishing a school in the area, if they’re able to, but the goal is to use the conversations as a barometer to gauge how the community feels about the idea. 

“It’s very challenging to start a private school with this philosophy that is so foreign to what we’ve experienced in the traditional public school system,” Hughes said. “It’s hard for people to wrap their brains about putting the responsibility of the education of the child in the hands of the children instead of the system.”

If they’re successful, it would be the first Sudbury model in Indiana.

Neither Hughes nor Harbeson have school-age children. 

Hughes said after her work in elementary school libraries, the library at Indiana University Southeast and serving on the Community Montessori school board, she had taken issue with top-down curriculum requirements and how it affected children’s learning.

“It’s not about the children directing their own learning, it’s about what the legislators are dictating to them,” she said. “When I read about this, it just resonated so well because this is freedom, this is trusting children to make decisions that will impact their entire lives.”



According to its website, the Sudbury School in Massachusetts opened in 1968. Students choose what they want to learn or how much they want to play during the day. As long as they abide by the rules — set by schoolwide meetings of a judicial committee formed by students and staff — they learn on their own terms.

Students aren’t divided up by age or grade, either. Hughes said older students tend to serve as leaders and set examples for younger students. She said the result is students who grow up to be better socialized, who take ownership of their school and can adapt to learn what they need for any career path they choose.

“Children naturally want to grow up and become adults,” Hughes said. “The current system, where we balkanize kids where they only interact with children that have a birthday the same year as them, they don’t interact well with students in different age groups from them.”

Hughes said she got interested in the concept after reading a manifesto on education, “Stop Stealing Dreams,” by author Seth Godin. In that piece, he mentioned the Sudbury school, which sparked her interest.

Harbeson said after she and Hughes talked about Sudbury and read some books about different education philosophies, they visited a couple of Sudbury schools around Chicago and Colorado. Harbeson said the model gives students more responsibility, but also more independence.

“For me, the model of the school was fascinating because it was actually an organized school that was willing to let the kids be in charge, mostly in regards to their own education and their learning, [with adults] trusting that they’ll be curious and want to explore without us adults trying to tell them what they need to learn or what’s important,” Harbeson said. “That fit my personal perspective because I happen to be the parent of two kids who were educated in homeschool.”

Hughes said even if students decide to play during the day, they still learn skills through their interactions with other students and get guidance from adults on how they can learn from what they’re doing. She said to graduate from a Sudbury school, students have to put together a final thesis that’s reviewed by a school committee that demonstrates how that student is ready to move on to college or whatever the next phase of their life might be.



Along with giving presentations on what the schools are about and how they operate, Harbeson said they plan on bringing two guests to talk to the community — a graduate of a similar school and her mother, both of whom moved from Southern Indiana so the daughter could attend a Sudbury school.

Harbeson said a lot of details about bringing a school to the area are still up in the air, but she hopes to see people gain interest in the concept in their meetings.

“I have no idea whether we can get something off the ground or how it’s going to end up,” Harbeson said. “I know there are people around here who thought of it and thought they might have been by themselves, or thought it might not happen around here.”