Episode 41

Larry Welshon with his father, Don,

Larry Welshon, founder of Alpine Valley School, with his father, Don Welshon, at the original campus.

Episode 41: Starting a School

“How do I start a self-directed democratic school in my area?” On this episode, staff and founder Larry Welshon lends his twenty-plus years of experience to tackling this question and provides concrete guidance for individuals who are looking to begin the founding journey.

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This episode is also available in video format on YouTube

Episode transcript:

Marc Gallivan: (00:00)
Hello and welcome to the Alpine Valley School podcast. I'm your host Marc Gallivan. This is episode 41 of our show. You can find show notes for this episode, including a full written transcript at alpinevalleyschool.com/podcast/ep41 for episode 41. Our annual day of giving, Colorado Gives Day, is coming up and we need your help. Alpine Valley School needs to raise $7,000 in funds this year in order to keep our tuition affordable for as many people as possible. If you appreciate our school and the work we're doing, we encourage you to make a pledge online at alpinevalleyschool.com/donate. Since starting this show, we've received one question from listeners over and over again, "How do I start a school like yours in my area?" It's a difficult question and so personal to each individual's situation, but if there's anyone who can tackle this thorny question, it's my fellow staff member and founder of Alpine Valley School, Larry Welshon. I sat down with him and asked if he would talk about the challenges and rewards of starting a Sudbury school and here's what he had to say.

Larry Welshon: (01:14)
The first thing that I would say is why do you want to do it? What's driving you to do it? Have you really thought about it? And I'm happy to talk to people about it, you know, to explore the ins and outs of it. It's very hard to do. And I think all of the Sudbury schools that are in existence today struggled for a very long time to maintain their environment and their new school because it is so hard to start and it's hard to encapsulate why it's hard to start, but some of the reasons involve the very philosophy of the school. Society does not trust children. Society constantly tells us that kids have to be controlled and monitored and molded and formed by well-meaning, knowledgeable adults. And while some of that is true, the way that it manifests itself in the education system results in children who are hobbled by that, they don't get the opportunity to understand who they are and follow their dreams and passions because somebody else's dreams and passions have been placed in front of them.

So one of the first things that people who want to start a Sudbury school need to think about is, are you really ready to tackle that? Are you really ready to defend the idea that children are fully capable of leading their lives in the face of a society that says otherwise? I think a good first thing to do is to go visit a Sudbury school. After you have, you've some time to read literature about the model, whether it's online or in books, watched podcasts, watch the videos about the school, talk to your significant other about the model, really explored it for yourself thoroughly. Find a school nearby if there is one, and ask them, may I come and visit? Here's what I'm doing. I'm thinking about doing this thing. I'd like to come spend a week. And the length of the visit is important. If you're really wanting to do this, you have to be willing to commit a week. And that's a big commitment. But starting a Sudbury school is a big commitment. So I'd say start by finding a Sudbury school that you can go visit. Ask them to go visit a for a week and see how it goes. And when you're there, make sure you take the time to not only sit and watch and listen, but to talk deeply with the staff who are there. Ask if you can speak to their graduates, ask if you can speak to parents, immerse yourself in the philosophy of the school. Watch its practices, ask questions, try to understand what they do and why they do it and what they don't do and why they don't do it. And after you spent a week at a Sudbury school, you will probably have a better sense of whether or not you have it within yourself to start with. Many times when I've talked to people in this situation over the years, I will say to them, why don't you move here? And that's not simply because Colorado is the best state in the union, which is obvious, but I say it because it is so very hard to start a Sudbury school and I, you know, in the 22 years that our school has been open in the 26 years that it's been, that I've been involved in them in the model, many startup schools close within a very few years and I think a lot of the reason they close is that the founders didn't take the time to really think about and explore the implications of what they were doing. They thought it was a great thing to do and it is, but they really had no idea of the personal sacrifices that founding staff make to start a Sudbury school.

Founding a school is not simply the efforts of one person. My late wife, Tammy, was instrumental in the creation of Alpine Valley School and others were too, but without Tam's efforts there would be no AVS. When starting a school like this, it becomes a community effort because there's so much work to be done. Once we made the decision to make AVS a reality many others joined in including my dad who never really understood the model but believed it important support someone who in this case happened to be his son in an endeavor that he was passionate about. Keeping a startup school going through the years takes a solid effort and committed team. AVS has been blessed by the years of service from the current staff members, Connie Cook, Marc Gallivan and Janet Ollive who have been associated with the school from nearly day one. And I must add that former staff member, Bruce Smith now at Clearview Sudbury school in Austin was and remains instrumental in the continuation of Alpine valley school.

The experience of starting a Sudbury school for me personally has helped me understand the struggles that our students have when they are faced with the daunting idea of doing something something big, although at a different scale. What our kids are doing each day of their lives here is basically starting for themselves some endeavor, and it may not be a school and probably isn't, but they're starting something big in their lives and sometimes it's a daunting thing to do and they have no idea how to do it. And we as staff are here to support them in that. And I'll, all of our experiences as staff members helps them see that they can do things that are hard.

Marc Gallivan: (07:30)
If you want to find out more about starting a school, I've included the best resources that we know of in the show notes for this episode. You can find those show notes at alpinevalleyschool.com/podcast/ep41 for episode 41. Thanks to Larry for providing his insight and wisdom today. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Marc Gallivan, this is the Alpine Valley School podcast and we'll be back again soon with more stories of real learning for real life.