Our Journey to Alpine Valley School
This guest post was contributed by Sherry Cure, an Alpine Valley School substitute staff member and the parent of two graduates.
When my children were small my mother-in-law, a public school teacher, told me about the democratic school model. She was so disenchanted with the current public school system that she said that if we were interested in starting such a school she would retire and help us. That was much more of an endeavor than we were willing to tackle at the time but it did demonstrate what she thought of the model. We glanced at the information but our children were in preschool and first grade and were doing well so we decided that things were fine just the way they were.
As the years progressed things changed. We had two very different children. One was a strong rule follower and the other marched to the tune of her own drum. Our rule follower was falling into that trap of doing what she was told by adults even if she had a different idea or opinion, never expressing her own ideas for fear of causing trouble. I could see this bright child being told that she was doing things wrong just because she was doing them in a different way that made sense to her. Unfortunately, instead of standing up for herself, she was changing to become one of the pack.
Our little drummer fought every day for her independence, and was being crushed in the process. Things as small as whether she had to make a bonnet for Thanksgiving rather than a pilgrim hat were apparently rules that could not be bent. She was spending too much time on creative things and not getting her “work” done. I loved her creativity but I was also a rule follower and felt the pressure to make her do the ridiculous amount of homework she had as a second and third grader, so afternoons that should have been spent playing and baking cookies or just chatting with this wonderful child, were instead spent in tears and frustration trying to force her to complete things for class.
We knew that our youngest was unhappy. She had spent most of the year suffering from daily stomach aches and anxiety about going to school. We had had many discussions with both her teacher and her principle with no improvements. To be honest, we thought that this was just the way things were and would continue to be. Obviously the traditional school style was working for our older daughter so we just needed to work harder with our younger daughter.
When we were midway through the girls’ third and fifth grade years things started to change. Our rule follower started to complain about her homework as well, both in it’s amount and some of the strange busy work approaches to it, rather than actual knowledge being learned, which we were having more and more trouble justifying to ourselves as well as to her. Our drummer was clearly depressed and frustrated about school entirely. It was all taking a toll on our family life. We weren’t having fun, we were just getting through each day as best we could. It was time for a change.
We had friends that had toddlers and were looking ahead at school options. They liked the idea of a democratic model of schooling and we all decided to go on a trip over spring break to visit the nearest democratic school, about 800 miles away. That school was Alpine Valley School, and that trip saved us.
We had approval to come for a visit to the school to meet the staff and students, since they had just returned from their own spring break. We sat and talked with the staff and students over lunch. We were also allowed to sit in on a session of their judicial committee meeting, the daily handling of infractions to the school laws.
I came away from this two hour visit amazed. Amazed at the confidence, honesty and imagination of the students and staff alike. Students and staff treated each other as equals, with a respect I hadn’t seen in any school environment before. There were disagreements, I’d seen a couple of cases being heard in the judicial committee, but there was no animosity in the process. It was a discussion among peers about infractions to their agreed upon laws, with decisions made and accepted as to any “punishment”. Again, it was like nothing I’d seen before.
We returned home with a new idea of how things could be for our children. We all discussed it together. Our friends decided that they would look into starting a school closer to home but they had the luxury of time before their children needed a place to attend. We wanted to make a change for our girls right away. Our girls were excited about Alpine Valley School and my husband and I decided that what we ultimately wanted for our children, above all else, was for them to be happy in life, and traditional school was not going to get us there. We decided to finish out the school year and then move to Colorado to attend Alpine Valley School. That decision changed our lives, and the way we saw the world.
When the new school year started the school hours were 8am to 5pm with students needing to be there for a minimum of five hours I think. We calculated up the earliest we could pick up the girls and I told them I would call at that time and come to get them whenever they were ready. When I called later that day they said no, they were not ready to go yet, please pick them up at 5pm. From then on they wanted to be at school at 8 o'clock sharp and didn’t want me to pick them up earlier than absolutely necessary. Holidays were awful, with lots of complaining until school started up again. They loved every minute they could be there and even tried to convince us that the school should run year round. I think my youngest even brought that up at a few school meetings.
I can’t say that first year was as easy for me. My husband was a democratic school student at heart even if he’d never attended, but the rule follower in me fought to be heard on a regular basis. What were the girls learning? What would this school mean for their future careers? Would they be happy? What would our family and friends think of our choice to follow this path? On a day to day basis I wasn’t seeing anything concrete, like grades or test scores, and it was tough to hang on and know that I was doing the right thing. Buthe changes were happening, they were just hard to spot sometimes.
Our youngest hadn’t been very responsible in the past. She didn’t often think ahead about things and that caused some trouble for her, and we weren’t sure that was going to change anytime soon, but she was still young, only nine at the time. One evening we went to dinner and while we were there she asked if she could stop by the community recreation center across the street on the way home. We asked why and she said that she wanted to make sure everything was still all set for a field trip she had organized for the next day. After dinner we took her over to the rec center. She walked up to the counter and asked if her field trip for the next day was all set or if anything needed to be done. The person at the counter told her that she should check with her teacher. She explained that she had set up the field trip herself because she wanted to go swimming with her friends and she just needed to make sure that there weren’t any last minute issues. Once she was assured that everything was fine, she then had to explain what kind of school she attended to a very interested adult. We found that happened a lot.
Our older daughter had her own growth happening but it was sometimes harder to us to see. She started taking more and more of a leadership role at school but as someone that liked for everyone to follow the rules that sort of made sense, since in this way she could ensure the rules were being followed. What we couldn’t see as much, since it was all happening at school, was that she was changing things where she thought they could be improved and standing up for her opinions in a group that included older students and adults. That all started to become apparent when she started standing up for her opinions at home. I hated these debates at first but came to realize that she had good ideas and valid opinions and this was exactly the thing that I’d wanted for her. I realized just how much she’d changed when I was at a gathering with my mother-in-law and a group of her friends and my twelve year old daughter was sitting confidently at the center of a cluster of very interested high school teachers explaining how her school worked and debating the model as it compared to the traditional school style.
Both of our girls have now graduated from Alpine Valley School. They are still feeling their way along and decided what they want to do with their lives but what I can say is that they are strong, confident people that know that they deserve to have their opinions heard, that they are as important as anyone else in this world, and know that the ultimate goal in life is to be happy. As a mother, I couldn’t ask for anything better.