You Send Your Kid to Fairhaven School?
As Chesapeake Country's newest school ends its first year, it seems that being there is as tough as getting there
by Christopher Heagy
photos by Mark Burns At Fairhaven School, top, constructing the school house has as much to do with learning for students like Michael Autry, Josette Jackson and Pallas Banes as computers or books.
The last time I saw Romey Pittman was in 1992, about a month before I graduated from Suitland High School in Prince George's County. She was advanced in her pregnancy, and I had just finished my Advance Placement history exam. Miss Pittman and her husband were about to have their first child, so she would be leaving school a month early. Obvious though it was, it was difficult to imagine that she was going to have a child. I always thought she was my age. Maybe a few years older.
She was one of my favorite teachers because I loved history, and she made history interesting. Young and enthusiastic, she kept things challenging. Her class was set up in a circle, and she lectured from its middle. Miss Pittman was in constant motion, lecturing, talking, explaining and answering questions. Her personality set the tone for the class.
At the time, I had the cocky swagger of a high school senior in spring. I was going to conquer the world. I didn't realize that sometimes the world kicks back. Miss Pittman allowed my swagger, though she would poke some holes in my facade.
In a debate, she could always hold her own and would never back down. Unlike older teachers, she seemed to enjoy the repartée and could get past my immaturity. Miss Pittman was never condescending or mean, even when the discussions broke down. She seemed to understand the playful baiting of debate.
It's been almost seven years since I've seen Miss Pittman when I meet her at her new school.
I still call her Miss Pittman, but everybody else at Fairhaven School - students and staff alike - call her Romey. Old habits die hard. Her daughter, Wren, a student at the school, sits on her lap as we talk.
When Miss Pittman left Suitland High School to start a family, she knew she didn't want to teach public school again. At Suitland, she could sometimes see the minds of her students working, but too often she saw their minds shut off. The structure of the school, she believed, was stunting their growth.
"It was a trip to be the focus of everything all the time, but it was an artificial trip, it wasn't real life," she tells me now. "I would much rather have people be able to walk away from me when they are bored."
Even in this school with no classes, students are not walking away. Several sat around the table in this television/meeting room and listened in, sometimes laughing. Most of the time Miss Pittman led the laughter.
Building a Dream
Everybody talks about the weather, Mark Twain said. Nowadays, education may have eased weather into second place. The events in Littleton have intensified talk about our schools. From Colorado to Maryland and beyond, we have all been forced to new levels of thought - and worry - about the schools our children go to.
In Anne Arundel County, Janet Owens swept into office as county executive by promising more dollars for education. She is searching for the $56 million to hire teachers, repair and build schools. California has spent $4 billion since 1996 trying to reduce class size and increase student achievement. Gov. Parris Glendening has promised state money to hire more teachers. Debate over class size, textbooks and learning methods rages.
Even with more spending, school officials and educators haven't found the way to fix public schools or even figure out what ails them. Many parents want alternatives: home schooling, private schools, vouchers, experiments.
Of such discontent, Fairhaven School was born. Four years in the planning, this new school dedicated to self-determination and self-help opened its doors in September of 1998. Its founders not only created it; they built it from the ground up.
From talk at kitchen tables, Fairhaven School - one of 20 in the country following the "democratic" model of the Sudbury Valley School - grew by giant steps forward with nearly as many setbacks. With four years of planning and philosophical discussion and finally three and a half months of hard labor, the Fairhaven idealists made their dream come true.
Fairhaven had been in the planning long before 1994. In college, Kim McCaig, who would become a Fairhaven founder, read Summerhill, a study of a free school in England. Summerhill gave children the freedom to pursue what they wanted without "coercion" by adults. In "free" schools, students have freedom to decide what they learn.
The concept grabbed McCaig. A few years later, a friend told her about Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. The school stressed freedom, democracy and personal responsibility. Kim and her husband Mark studied the school. Both school teachers, they visited and believed.
In 1994, talking in their home in Fairhaven in Southern Anne Arundel County, the McCaigs, neighbor Sharon Brewer and Kim's brother Mike Dooley decided to start a school like Sudbury Valley in Southern Maryland.
Kim and Mark held open meetings about the new school at the South County Public Library. Slowly, a group of founders came together and grew.
Much of the next two years were spent trying to find a place to start a school. Three possible locations fell through for a variety of zoning and technical reasons. The possibility of renting a building suitable for a school seemed slim. Many in the group got discouraged. In 1996, Mark McCaig joined the staff of a Sudbury model school in Vermont.
Without the McCaigs, others stepped forward to keep the momentum building. Miss Pittman and Joseph Umstead - both with small children they hoped to send to a Sudbury model school - felt they could not let the dream die.
Together, Miss Pittman and Joseph Umstead started the Crossroads Educational Co-operative in the fall of 1996. The co-operative met three days a week, supplementing parents' home-schooling efforts with a first taste of freedom. Thirteen of the 33 students at Fairhaven got their feet wet in the Sudbury method at Crossroads.
In the winter of 1996, the group decided to build their own school. They bought seven acres of land in Davidsonville. The next year and a half was spent making plans, collecting materials and getting permits. In the spring of 1998, building began.
The founders planned to open the school on September 22, 1998. A huge effort had to be made to raise the school between the ground-breaking in May and the first day. To lessen costs, materials were donated and salvaged from building deconstructions. From fallen trees on his property, founder Sam Droege - Miss Pittman's husband - milled much of the wood that supplied the structure for the timber-framed building.
Over 200 people helped build the school. Over 90 percent volunteered.
By the end of the summer, an empty plot of land held a 2,400-square-foot lodge-style schoolhouse. The doors opened on September 23 - one day behind schedule.
The investment in Fairhaven School is huge - physically, mentally and emotionally. The founders believe in Fairhaven School. They send their children there every day.
photo by Mark Burns Even young students like Johanna Fitzsimmons, Erin Gregory and Thea Grusky-Foley must find - and answer - their own questions.
As Miss Pittman and I talk, a small circle of students gathers to listen in. Fifteen-year-old Will Phillips wanders into the room to watch a video about computer animation on the school's only television. After fiddling with the VCR, Will slides into Miss Pittman's vacated seat.
It's about 1:30 in the afternoon. The newness of the school day is wearing off, and Will's looking for something to do. For much of the morning, he and a group of teenagers had hung out together. They were in a quiet room listening to music and cutting up. They had already had a snowball fight in the surprise March snow, and now after lunch Will's trying to find something else to occupy his time. I'm new. Maybe I could be entertaining.
Our conversation begins simply. What's up, I ask. How are you doing? What are you going to do now?
My questions don't get me far. Will and I find ourselves trying to size each other up. When he does speak, Will's often guarded. He might suggest an idea, but he won't give full details. He has some swagger and reminds me of myself at 15. Will might not know exactly where he's going, but he wants me to think he does. Sometimes he pulls out pat answers. "Oh, I know. Fairhaven School is preparing me effectively for my future " It sounds like a response he had used before.
The one thing Will discusses freely is his bad experience at public school:
"My experiences were extremely negative. The Calvert County school system leaves much to be desired. There is a lack of caring for the education of any students by the staff. It was about getting the best attendance or getting the best grade."
Will didn't like the structure and stress of public school. He wanted a system where he could do what he wanted, when he wanted.
"I can't stress how awful I felt constantly at public school. Every morning getting up early, going to this place, same old thing every day, go over here, go over there, come home, do three hours of homework," he says.
Now what Will does all day is "mainly hang around with my friends."
"I do most of my learning at home at night," he explains. "That way I can talk with my friends during the day. I live in Calvert County, so I can't talk with my friends at night.
"It's a big help not having to worry about doing someone else's work and doing yours on the side. That's what it felt like at public school."
Other students spread out around us. Several are playing a computer game in one corner. Many of the students who listened to my conversation with Miss Pittman are still hanging around to see what might happen. A younger student fiddles with the VCR, much to Will's annoyance.
It's midday, and I'm beginning to wonder just what does go on at this school.
photo by Mark Burns Figuring out her future, Katie Fizdale, right, with fellow student Caroline Logan.
Freedom, Curiosity Boredom
"Our premise is that people are naturally curious," founder Mark McCaig explains. "Accepting this, we believe the best environment for a child to flourish is one that gives this curiosity as much free rein as possible. Many traditional schools feel that education is like a glass that they must fill. Students must learn the basics and pass competency tests. We believe that each individual must fill their glass on their own, at their own pace."
The founding belief of the Sudbury Valley school and the Fairhaven school is that with a little help, any student can discover what it takes to succeed in life. Students can figure out not only the answers but even the questions. Staff - there are no teachers here - and parents need only give the students the freedom to look, explore and discover these questions for themselves.
Miss Pittman and the other Fairhaven founders believe that students will follow their natural curiosity in any direction it leads. What's more, they'll learn better with the freedom to pursue whatever they want - whenever they want.
At Fairhaven, students learn at their own pace. They are not forced to read, write or do arithmetic at a certain age. Students learn these skills when they want, not when the school demands. Eventually, motivated by necessity, everybody grabs for the basics.
Freedom creates a school day that is different from any school I went to. Maybe from any school you went to, too. Students are not separated by ages. Although students of similar ages segregate together, students ages five to 18 mingle freely. There are no classes, no teachers, no tests, no grades. There is no principal, no textbooks, no classrooms, no assignments, no dress code. The students are allowed to do anything - even if that means nothing.
Students often appear to be doing nothing - or at least nothing educational. They can play games all day. Some young students choose to build with Legos or play with space ships. Teenagers often choose to listen to music, run around outside or dye their hair purple.
Sometimes students don't do anything. Often boredom takes over. Five hours - the Fairhaven school day - with nothing to do is a long time. The school hopes to use boredom as a way to force the students to figure out what they are interested in and what they want to do. Constant boredom forces the students to take charge of their education. Or at least find a way to make the day pass.
"This is hard work for young people. It sounds fun, getting to play all day, but at the same time many kids struggle. It's difficult to learn what you want and how to get it. You need to provide the space for the students to really struggle," explains Mark McCaig.
photo by Mark Burns
Teen students Adam Boerchel, Michael Autry, Eddie Petrini and Will Phillips figuring out what to do with freedom.
"It's hard to describe Fairhaven School in a way that people really understand what it is about," explains Miss Pittman. "It's so different and it's really pretty complicated. It's hard to see what goes on here."
To get it right, Miss Pittman suggests that I talk with Katie Fizdale. At 18, Katie is older than most of the other Fairhaven students. Katie has made a decision not to accept the path of many of her peers. She has not decided the direction she wants her life to go, but she is attempting to define herself.
But even in a school so small, talking with Katie is not easy. Something is always coming up. Katie has a committee meeting to attend, or friends from public school called. As the hours pass, I feel we might never get together.
Finally at 3pm, I sit down in the staff office with Katie. The narrow office is cramped with a desk, bookshelves, file cabinets and the belongings of the staff members. Sunlight pours over Katie, who has her back to the window.
Here, too, activity is constant. Someone always has to grab something, make copies or look up a phone number. Staff members are in and out, entering and leaving the conversation. Katie seems to welcome their presence. She makes jokes and small talk with whoever's in the room.
But slowly, her story comes out.
"Public school was a waste of my time," Katie tells me. "I didn't get anything out of it. I had so many bad experiences with all my teachers. Nobody listened to me. I thought, wow, there is something wrong here and I don't know if it is me."
Two years ago, Katie left public school. She was home-schooled until her mother ran across an article about the founding of Fairhaven School. Mrs. Fizdale thought it might be right for Katie's younger brother. Katie thought it might be right for her.
"I was sick of blaming other people for everything. My teacher gave me this grade or I got this bum schedule. I was ready to take some responsibility for myself and the direction my life went in."
Katie would graduate this year if she were in public school. She has decided to return to Fairhaven next year. She feels her chains of dependency are just being broken.
As Katie says, "I feel like, when I stopped going to public school and started going to Fairhaven, that was my big thing. That was me taking responsibility for myself. Becoming the person I want to be."
Even after talking to Katie, I'm still having a hard time understanding what goes on here ...
Order in Chaos
Fairhaven School has no curriculum, but it does have a governing body. That's School Meeting, which convenes once a week to manage the daily affairs of the school. No school-wide decision - from how funds will be used to when writers like me can visit - can be made without the approval of School Meeting.
All students and staff are members of School Meeting. Each has an equal vote in all decisions. Any member can propose and rally support for bills. They can also choose not to participate. But everyone is bound by the decisions made in School Meeting.
When Fairhaven began its first school year last September, students thought since they were attending a school with no rules, they could do whatever they wanted. Some brought weapons and alcohol to school; they played strip poker; they fought and argued.
Soon the students found that even Fairhaven School must have rules. With Fairhaven freedom comes personal responsibility. Students are held accountable for how they act. The difference is that here, unlike public school, students help make the rules.
School Meeting handed down suspensions, some so lengthy that some students remain on probation.
Day-to-day problems are handled by the Judicial Committee, a rotating body of five students and one staff member that is re-selected every two weeks. Once a day, the Judicial Committee meets to hear grievances written by students or staff. The grievances are many.
The day of my visit, Judicial Committee considered what to do about a student who had shot staples in the Circle and Lego rooms. The student was charged with a dangerous activity, physical harassment, misuse of school property and failure to clean up. He pleaded guilty.
The sentence: writing letters of apology to each student and staff member and helping take out the garbage at the end of the day.
Not all violations are so dramatic. Many deal with the failure of individuals to clean up after themselves. One student was charged with continually walking through the school with muddy shoes. He pled guilty. His punishment fit in Dante's Hell. For the next week, the student had to wear his shoes around his neck when inside the school.
"Kids make mistakes or cross the line into an irresponsible act," explains Miss Pittman. "They're not used to having to think for themselves whether they are doing something that makes sense. They need to learn to internalize their self-discipline instead of being disciplined from outside."
To create self-discipline, Fairhaven School had to create bureaucracy. One sure part of every school day is endless debate in the endless battle between individual rights and the rights of the community.
"Freedom without responsibility is hard to pull off. Without accountability you get spoiled kids. School Meeting and Judicial Committee create a balance between responsibility and freedom and establish limits," explains Mark McCaig.
Figuring out Fairhaven
I'm a public high school graduate. Over the past six weeks, I have spent many hours reading about, reflecting and trying to understand Fairhaven School and the Sudbury model of education. I have thought about Fairhaven and my experiences in public school.
I have talked to founders, staff members and students of Fairhaven School. They are the strength of the school. You can accept or reject Fairhaven School, but the power of these people cannot be denied.
Last week, visiting Fairhaven again, I was struck with an undeniable energy. Walking up to the log building, I thought about all that had gone into making Fairhaven possible. I thought about the setbacks: the doubts of family and friends, the difficulty in getting permits, the physical effort of building the school, the hardship of raising money. The fact that this school stands is a tribute to all involved.
In the end, these founders - Mark or Kim McCaig, or Miss Pittman or Alice Wells - justify the school they've created. All have strong personalities. They all have a vision of the school they have come together to create. They might not always agree, but they rule by democracy, balancing individual opinions and the needs of the community. Much like the students at Fairhaven are learning to do, they discovered the question as well its answer.
In this first year, everybody agrees that the freedom and responsibility that come with this kind of education overwhelmed many Fairhaven students. Students from traditional schools are still in the process of breaking away from the institutional structure of that setting. These students come from structure - classes, schedules, assignments, tests, grades - to an environment where they are given space, time and freedom. Until this point, the direction of their education has been determined by others. Now, for the first time, they must establish their own direction.
"Kids that came out of public school this year are not all that comfortable with making things happen on their own," explains Miss Pittman.
But Fairhaven School students are not alone. Other Sudbury students have faced similar trials making the transition to freedom and responsibility. Deborah Lundbech, a staff member at a Sudbury model school in Vermont, has written about the different stages through which new students adjust.
New students, she says, enter happy. The pressures and stress of previous schools are gone. They are free and relaxed. But this initial happiness does not last.
As time passes, students seem to shut down. They repeat the same activities over and over with little drive. Students test the boundaries of the school. Slowly they begin to think about what they really want. They struggle to figure out who they really are. Boredom is part of this struggle.
During this transitional period that dominates Fairhaven's first year, socializing and boredom are popular activities. Older students spend the day talking about music and making fun of each other. When I visited, one student ran through the halls screaming, "I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored." Later in the day, many students had the sleepy look of boredom in their eyes.
"I didn't know what to do. I fell on my face. When I got here I thought what am I doing here? What do I want to do? I still don't really know," says Katie Fizdale. Neither, it seems, does anyone else. Yet.
The students still look to the staff for entertainment and approval. They have not, the staff explain, accepted the responsibility that comes with the freedom they have.
School founders - the dozen who worked so hard to make this brave idea a reality - believe this, too, will change.
"The school will change a lot over the next five to 10 years," Miss Pittman insists. "Kids that have been at the Sudbury Valley School for a long time are unstoppable. They're powerful people who know what they want and know how to get it. That's the goal of the whole thing: to have people grow up like that and know how to make their lives into something they want."
A study called Life After the Sudbury Valley School Experience, followed 163 students who'd spent a year or more in the school. Seventy percent went to a four-year college, and 40 percent graduated. Many others continued their education at two-year colleges, art or trade schools.
Meanwhile, it takes patience, understanding and time for students to adjust to free education, Lundbech continues. They must learn the role staff members play. They must understand the part they play in School Meeting and Judicial Committee. As students get a better understanding of the school, they engage in more activities and work with a new intensity. For some students, this journey takes a few months; for others it can take a couple of years.
When the transition is complete, students choose what they want without fear. They are comfortable making decisions for themselves. They no longer look for approval.
Unlike established Sudbury schools, where a few new students might be going through this process, each student at Fairhaven is in transition. Students are progressing at their own pace, but many are still in the chaotic early stages.
Students talk about plans in general terms but have not taken the steps to begin projects. One student mentioned setting up a dark room and studying photography. When I asked her what steps she had taken, she shrugged and said "nothing yet." Older students talk about leaving the school, but plans are not concrete. For now, freedom is enough.
For many, responsibility is still too much. Older students complain about the responsibilities of the Judicial Committee. Younger students are afraid of the punishments. Students are not yet realizing what they want, let alone trying to learn how to get it.
The Fairhaven School is not yet what it will become.
courtesy of Fairhaven School In building Fairhaven School, Romey Pittman builds the future.
Not For Everybody
Fairhaven School is not for all students or for all parents. Many students thrive in traditional schools.
Others feel trapped and are dissatisfied.
For a student to be successful at Fairhaven, Miss Pittman explains, parents must accept the system. With a $4,300 a year tuition bill, parents must believe in the school enough to trust they are investing wisely in their children's futures.
"Parents have to step back and say, maybe this way might be right, instead of saying no tests, no curriculum, no structure - my kid needs that," Katie Fizdale suggested. "Think about if that is right or if it is what you have always thought - and you don't want to question what you think."
Parents must also trust their child.
"It takes courage to believe that children who are allowed to spend their school days without the guidance of a prescribed curriculum will in the end be ready to enter the adult world," Sudbury long-time staffer Anna Greenburg explains, in the school's introductory guide. "At the heart of our method is the assumption that one person cannot know what is best for another, so it follows that the children will find their own way without our intervention."
The theory is radical - even for willing believers.
Sharon Brewer was a founding members of Fairhaven School. She was with her neighbors, the McCaigs, when they decided to create their own Sudbury model school. She served on the board of directors from its formation until the summer of 1998.
Brewer's children, Sara and Mary, attended the co-operative that preceded the Fairhaven School. Brewer intended to become a staff member at the school. But Fairhaven School opened without her or her girls. She explains her dilemma:
"To follow the Sudbury model, you must be able to completely let go. I had difficulty swallowing the entire philosophy. I liked some of it. The democracy, School Meeting, Judicial Committee are great systems that really work. My problem was with letting my kids have complete control. I couldn't let go without helping direct the future of my children."
After four years of physical, mental and emotional investment in Fairhaven School, her decision to leave was not an easy one.
"This is a wonderful, needed alternative to the dominant educational system. I just couldn't accept the total freedom given to the students. That's what's necessary for your child to succeed at Fairhaven," Sharon tells me.
But Right for Some
photo courtesy of Fairhaven School Fairhaven founders, volunteers and students raise their school.
Romey Pittman's has been a long journey from the classroom at Suitland High School to the staff office at Fairhaven.
At Fairhaven, Miss Pittman believes she has found a great way to educate children. She has found a place that teaches respect in personal relationships, develops independence and keeps student minds continuously active.
She is happy. At Fairhaven School, she can help students develop and grow. She can work in a system she believes in.
Maybe in the process, she can help us make up our minds, too.
"I think Fairhaven might be able to have an effect on the way people think about education," she explains. "You have to question the very basic assumptions of education if you watch this kind of a school and watch kids go on to be successful after this. You have to wonder why we're putting kids through the things we put them through at regular school."
The school is open, but only the first stage of her trip is complete.
At Fairhaven, Will Phillips has found that life is good again. The structure, demands and pressures of public school destroyed his happiness and fun in life. Fairhaven has given him these joys back.
Can Fairhaven prepare Will for his future? Can Will prepare Will for his future? Only time will tell. Right now he is a 15-year-old happy with life.
He admits that his level of responsibility has not grown overnight and his curiosity is still stunted. But as he says, "I am certainly much, much happier in general than I was when I was going to public school."
Responsibility and education might come, but right now Fairhaven just feels right.
At Fairhaven, Katie Fizdale has found she needs to find out a lot about herself. But she is glad she is asking the questions.
She questions the path of her life and wonders what will make her happy. She is trying to define success and figure out a way to get there.
"When I go down the paths in my life, I will be able to ask myself the questions I need to in order to make myself happy. I am learning how to ask and answer these questions myself," she declares.
She might not know where 'there' is, but Fairhaven is helping her find the path.
The original school in Sudbury has been successful. Other schools that follow this model have thrived. If you believe in the Sudbury model, there is reason to believe that Fairhaven will produce the productive, independent, innovative thinkers and citizens it hopes to.
In the end, it's a gamble. Fairhaven's founders and its first-year students are revolting against society's definition of education. They are creating a new path. This journey is not always smooth and is never easy. Following it might not be for you. But one former public school teacher and two former public school students are willing to stake their futures on Fairhaven School.
At the end of my day at Fairhaven School, Katie takes me on a tour of campus. We trek through the snow and down to the creek. It's warm, and the ground is muddy with melting snow. After being inside all day the fresh air is welcome. It is a good way to end the visit.
| Issue 20 |
Volume VII Number 20
May 20-26, 1999
New Bay Times
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