A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Philly Free School and the Brooklyn Free School

BFS students at the MET Museum. Field trips play a major role in how students and teachers conceive of learning at BFS.

I have now spent over two months at the Brooklyn Free School and have developed a clear picture of the daily goings-on. What follows is a summary of the major differences between the Philly Free School (where I worked from September-November) and the Brooklyn Free School (where I’ve worked since mid-December). I discuss these differences in further depth here.

Philly Free SchoolBrooklyn Free School
One of the few racially and economically diverse ‘free schools’, in large part due to sliding scale tuition. Families contribute between $0-$13,000/year, depending on income.Another of the few racially and economically diverse ‘free schools’, also due in part to sliding scale tuition. Families contribute between $0-$33,000/year, depending on income.
School Meeting (SM) occurs once a week. All SM members (students + staff) have equal right to propose agenda items and vote on decisions. No rule or decision is off limits; SM makes all schoolwide decisions, including hiring/firing, the budget, etc. All of the school’s rules are fashioned and can be revised in this way; these rules are recorded in written form and are always available for consultation. Many decisions are made in committees, outside of SM, but committee participation is open to all SM members and committee ‘clerks’ are elected democratically. Attendance at SM is optional, resulting in lower attendance and higher engagement.Whole-school Democratic Meeting occurs once a month. Age-band specific Democratic Meetings occur sporadically, often at the staff’s discretion. Anyone may propose agenda items, but the group decides which to discuss. Many decisions are made by adults outside of Democratic Meeting, including hiring and ‘health and safety’ policies (e.g. the cell phone policy). Most rules are not recorded in writing; many are common knowledge and some seem to arise spontaneously based on the preferences of particular adults. Attendance at all Democratic Meetings is compulsory, resulting in higher attendance but lower engagement.
By design, parents have limited involvement in the school under the rationale that adults often eclipse the power of young people. Parents do vote in Assembly on matters like tuition increases and sometimes participate in committees. Under the same rationale, potential visitors and volunteers are subjected to some scrutiny before being admitted to the community; adults who seem likely to impose domineering or ‘schoolish’ attitudes on kids are not welcomed.Parents and volunteers are welcomed into the school. Parents often linger in the school at the beginning and end of the day. They support by participating on committees, guest-teaching classes, and supervising field trips. Volunteers with diverse backgrounds are welcomed into the school without significant scrutiny into their ideologies around adult-child interactions and teach classes connected to their skills – cooking, sewing, Egyptian politics, etc.
If rules are broken and SM members can’t resolve the issue independently, they can ‘write it up’ to Judicial Committee (JC), comprised of 3 students and 1 staff. JC reviews the facts of the case and the rules. They decide if a rule was broken and mete out consequences (ranging from a warning to expulsion), but try to refrain from mediating – SM members may ask for separate mediation if they wish. Students on JC often weigh multiple considerations, including mitigating circumstances, how to disincentivize further behavior, and how to be restorative. Any SM member can be written up, but kids rarely write up adults. If relationships are breached and kids can’t resolve the issue independently, they may ask to ‘call a meeting’ on another staff member or student. These meetings are usually coordinated by a staff member and follow a mediation protocol. When a student violates a rule (e.g. cell phone policy) or does something considered by staff or others to be annoying (e.g. making disruptive noises), staff may pull them aside for a discussion. This can escalate into further consequences, but rarely does; the school community tries to avoid punitive measures. Students may ‘call meetings’ on adult staff, though this is rare.
Tasks like bookkeeping and clean-up are handled by committees, on which many kids serve. In theory, kids could perform all administrative tasks for the school. In practice, adults hold most of the committee clerkships requiring technical skills (eg. Bursar, attendance).Tasks like bookkeeping are handled by adults occupying specialized roles (e.g. Executive Director, Building Manager, Administrative Coordinator). Kids assist with clean-up under staff supervision; some staff attempt to delegate clean-up leadership to students.
There is no formal hierarchy among staff; each staff member officially has jurisdiction over whichever committee clerkships SM has elected them to manage. However, recognizing that implicit hierarchies influence staff member’s respective power, the PFS staff has begun discussing how to share power more equally.There is a fairly clear hierarchy of administrative and teaching staff. Administrative staff often pull teaching staff aside for check-ins, facilitate staff meetings, and make decisions about budgeting, etc. Higher-ranking staff often choose to share power with teaching staff – for example, by allowing them to add agenda items to staff meetings. 
Aside from minimal shared responsibility, kids spend their day pursuing whatever activities feel meaningful to them. Adults refrain from supervising or evaluating kids’ learning. If kids wish to set learning goals or organize classes, they may, but adults do not encourage these over other activities. Able to do as they wish, kids spend much of their time roughhousing, making up imagination games, watching videos, playing games like Minecraft, creating businesses, learning instruments, working on committees, exploring the city, or talking with friends. Adults gladly serve as resources when/if students ask. Adults and older kids often take on informal coaching roles when they’re engaged in shared activities (e.g. committees) with kids.Teachers arrange classes, taking input from students about preferred topics. Though they aren’t required to sign up for classes, most students do; teachers and parents encourage class attendance. Students are expected to spend most of their school hours engaged in ‘learning activities’, as defined by their adult advisor/teachers. Legitimate activities include book/ computer study for independent projects, taking classes, going on field trips, creating art, or other ‘productive’ activities. Illegitimate activities include sitting and talking about personal matters for long periods, using devices to watch videos/look at social media, sleeping, rambunctious play, or playing video games. 
Because students are not expected to perform particular academic, social, or physical tasks, there are no ‘learning disabilities’. Neuroatypical kids pursue activities that feel right to them.Kids who struggle to perform academic activities like those outlined above receive additional academic services aligned to their Individualized Education Plan, similar to a conventional school.
Adults usually refrain from trying to impart particular value systems on kids through explicit pedagogic action. Of course, in the process of building community together, cultural values and preferences are shared and debated; the nature of systemic power means that these exchanges are never horizontal, with adult and white SM members having outsized influence. Students and staff often discuss social justice themes, and some kids partake in direct actions.Social Justice is a core component of the school’s curriculum and culture. There is a mandatory Social Justice class, though some academic classes also incorporate a social justice lens into the content. Adult teachers develop classes to explicitly teach about the ‘isms’ and engage kids in activities to sharpen their social justice vision. Direct actions and social-justice related trips are publicized and students are encouraged to participate. 
A student who wants to graduate assembles a graduation committee consisting of staff and other students. The student compiles a ‘thesis’ demonstrating their readiness to graduate and move on to their preferred future (whatever that may be). The committee and an outside panel of other staff/alumni review the thesis and determine whether to award a diploma. During their time at the school, students compile a lengthy transcript consisting of self- and teacher-evaluations. Seniors receive coaching in preparation for post-high school life, with most nudged towards applying to college. Older students discuss things like writing samples and standardized test scores.
Students have free range to use all school spaces or go off-campus unless constrained by JC or their parents’ rules. As a result, students may choose to segregate by age or other factors, but need not do so. Young students often hang out with older kids and vice-versa. This allows kids to find a cohort at their same developmental level and also provides kids with opportunities to take on different roles, such as teens who take on mentoring  or care-taking roles with younger students.Students are age-segregated by floors of the building, with high school on the 5th floor, middle school on the 4th, upper elementary on the 3rd, and lower elementary on the 2nd. Kids may intermingle during select activities, such as classes that admit both middle and high school students, but they are often expected to remain on their floor. Students are theoretically allowed to leave campus at any time with parent permission, but must ask permission from their advisor.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s