A Little More Perspective

This letter arrived over the weekend. Occasionally I get requests to speak my mind, in order to assist someone else who is on the verge of making a decision. Generally I find, that the decision has already been made. But the person just needs a little more perspective. With the writer’s permission, I am sharing the message, as well as my response.


I am researching Manhattan Free School as an option for my son for Fall 2012.  He will be 5 in November.  He is currently attending UPK program in the NYC public school system and although he enjoyed it, the experience was a tough one for me.  I don’t really want to go on and on about it, but basically it was a busy body teacher  who seemed concerned at two school conferences that my son couldn’t cut in a straight line, couldn’t write his name,  and skipped 13 and 15 when counting. Even though she said she wasn’t worried (she totally was) she seemed even more concerned that I wasn’t worried.  My son is the youngest child in the class and right now his favorite thing in school is gym (which they only get to do once a week).

Would like to hear any first hand experience you are willing to share.

Thank you for your letter.

My experience is with Brooklyn Free School which my wife and I were a part in helping to start. After 7 years, I have learned a great deal. But the main thing that is needed in participating in an educational approach like Democratic Free schooling is the development of trust.

In my opinion, public school is so out of control in its understanding of children as people. The concern that a 4 yr old would omit numbers while counting or not cut straight should be the tip off. It seems that in Manhattan, the expectations are even higher. Why is he not Mozart already?and if he is one of the younger ones, they seem not to adjust their expectations of him. A few months at that age are milestones in development. So they are already setting him up for self doubt.

From a democratic free school perspective, he is allowed to be himself. Learn at his own pace. Have time to develop social interactions, and begin the process of becoming empowered by the conditions that allow him to have a voice in his own existence.

My son went to a Pre K before joining BFS because he was still too young. I knew what we were getting into, so I was not shocked (they gave 4 year olds homework!). At one of the teacher/parent conferences the teacher reported that my son would spend the whole day building stuff. She seemed concerned that he did not explore the other activity areas. I looked at her and said “What is wrong with that?.” These teachers are not trained to think off program. They have a narrow view of what track a functional child should fit into. If he falls outside that narrow track, there is something wrong with him. He is either marginalized, or medicated depending on how difficult he becomes for them to deal with. Jerry Mintz, of AERO has said that public school is attempting to “cure boyhood.”

As for Manhattan Free School, I cannot say much. I know Pat Warner and have met some of the teachers and students there. Pat is a very dedicated individual, as are her teachers. BFS has occasional visits and we do meet up at conferences.

You should know that by joining a Free School, you are becoming part of a community. A community that needs constant care and involvement. I have come to enjoy my involvement and work on behalf of the school and the movement of alternative education. I feel that children may be the most important resource we have, and it is through ignorance that we are ruining it, just like we are ruining everything else.

What I have seen in my son and his friends is the development of a unique intelligence. One in which they develop their own interests. How those interests lead them to new discoveries. And how what they learn seems to stay with them. Also, from my observations, they accept each other for their own individuality. There is a zero tolerance for bullying and I have seen them work out their differences in ways that can teach you or I a thing or two.

I have also been interested in how this type of education begins to have an effect on the parents as well as the teachers. When we become a part of a community like this we all enter a process of unlearning. We let go of the fears and doubts that were passed onto us. The expectations of early reading, or the current obsession with math. Different children learn in different ways. Where else would you find a school that values social interaction, team work, play, and having a say in the decisions that run their school as a means of learning?


5 Comments on “A Little More Perspective”

  1. dianezee says:

    excellent response to her letter

  2. Felix D says:

    I would think long and hard and gather much more information before I put a kid in that school. Look at this – it’s a report from some documentary makers about the dangerous lack of supervision they saw when they tried to film at Manhattan Free School:

    • bzeines says:

      I have read this article. It was from two young filmmakers who went into that school with an agenda. What they observed was out of context. The perspective of this blog comes from observation. BFS is a bit more established than Manhattan Free School. These schools are not perfect. They are a work-in-progress. But for me they are a vast contrast to what I see happening to children across the broken school systems that litter this country. I am not sure what your direct experience is, other than reading inflammatory articles. Journalism can slant any way it wants to.I tend to slant my posts around the things that I believe in. Most of it comes from direct observation. That is one voice in the ocean of crap that is slanted on the behalf of a system that continues to fail our society in every way possible.

  3. Felix D says:

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these people did go there “with an agenda,” as you put it. If they were able to film the following things as they occurred, it’s hard to see what wonderful things could’ve happened to put a neglect of small children’s safety in context. Could you specify precisely how it was “out of context?” Or does that just mean it didn’t praise MFS enough elsewhere enough to suit you ? The teachers and students were holding a meeting and let these small kids play unsupervised. Do you think you’re going to excuse that – caught on tape – by fulminating against rigid public schools ?
    Admit it: they caught a slice of life there and you can’t acknowledge how bad that is.
    For those joining us, here’s the relevant quote from the link above:

    We turned the camera away from the meeting and focused it on the hallway where kids (who looked to be five or six) were rollerblading around. Later, while the meeting was still in session, we heard loud music coming from another room. We followed the music and found the same three young kids jumping around on the windowsill and straddling a (hot?) water pipe.

    The teacher who was in charge of supervising them realized we were filming and came in shortly after. She told the kids to get down and gently reprimanded them for acting inappropriately. Her exact words were: “If I am going to the Democratic Meeting, and you guys are going to do this, then I have to have a person here at all times…”

    Moments later, we wandered into another room to find a youngster, who was no more than five, playing with a Swiss Army knife. Only after he had put the sharp blade in his mouth, and then returned the knife to a drawer, did someone learn what he had been doing. Once again, realizing we were in there filming, a teacher rushed in to see. Once again, he was gently reprimanded. The knife was not taken away or re-housed somewhere he could not access it so easily.

    • bzeines says:

      Anything is possible. If indeed rollerblading and knife wielding were taking place, I would have to agree with you.

      “Supervision” though is not a Free School idea. It would take the form of “observation” rather than being in command.

      In truth, I cannot defend MFS, because I have never been over there to see how they operate. But I will say they are a work-in-progress, and if there are problems, then the parents, students and teachers of the community have the ability to get together and address them, because these are not only safety issues, but insurance issues. And an accident would impact a struggling school. Democratic Free Schools are community efforts and live on the edge. We do our own fund raising. Nothing is given. and to take a fledgling school like this and write a damning article about them is irresponsible journalism at best.

      The two women who wrote the article, from what I have read, and heard, were denied access by the student body vote. My impression is that they were there to find fault. Not take an objective viewpoint which is what a documentary filmmaker strives for.
      Their article had all the jaded signs of two entitled girls, lashing back because they did not get what they wanted.

      At Brooklyn Free School, I have always seen an adviser present when little kids are playing independently of the group. Little kids are never left unattended.

      The mother who wrote me has the opportunity to judge for herself. These schools encourage family involvement. That is why I can speak the way I do. I take the time to observe the school in action. If there is a problem, I bring it up with the director.

      If your view of this very credible approach to education is swayed by this very partial article, then I will let it be. Being that I was not present when the writers saw what they saw, I am not sure if they are being completely honest. My feeling is that they are not. I know the teachers at MFS and the director and they are very dedicated people.

      So I will leave it at that.

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