A different angle on education

At Tallgrass Sudbury School in Riverside, the kids are in charge

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By ALAINA BUZAS

Seven-year-old Sita Whitaker is wearing a tutu and roller-skating down a recently mopped hallway at her school on a Friday morning. She isn't in class, because she doesn't want to be. And she won't get in trouble for that.

Sita likes her school, Tallgrass Sudbury, and its staff. She says they like playing with her, they help her learn to use the computer and take her off campus to get lunch. But if Sita didn't think a staff member was fun enough, this spring she could vote that person out of a job.

That's because at Tallgrass, students hold elections each spring to determine which of their four staff members stays or goes with a simple check in a box marked "yes" or "no."

Tallgrass rents space from the Riverside United Methodist Church at 82 Woodside Road. It is just one of the dozens of Sudbury schools worldwide that runs as a democracy, where students and staff have equal say.

Daily operations are handled at weekly school meetings, while discipline is handled by a judiciary committee; both committees are run by students. Issues like annual budgets, awarding diplomas and choosing staff candidates are voted on by committees that include parents and outside members of the community.

The committee chooses a staff candidate based on the number of students and school needs at the time, but students choose whether the staff member gets to stick around.

Kimberly Huizinga, 13, is in her second year as elections clerk at Tallgrass, a job she takes very seriously because she believes the staff elections work. In a few weeks, she'll create ballots and pass them out to her 22 classmates, helping the younger kids if they need it and, in the end, making sure each student has completed a ballot.

Kimberly said she considers multiple factors when she personally votes.

"I think about, one, if they're liked by people - if they're doing their job efficiently and if they like the students, especially crazy people like us," she said.

She said it's also important that a staff member can manage office duties and still have enough time to play with students.

The students and staff at Tallgrass recently discussed standardized testing, something the school doesn't have, and the impact those test scores can have on a public school teacher's career. Huizinga doesn't see the logic behind the system.

"I think basing whether or not a teacher is good or not based on standardized tests scores is kind of ridiculous, because they're not the ones taking the test," Kimberly said. "I don't think that's quite the point. It's almost backwards."

Sita's 10-year-old brother, Ruben, also a student at Tallgrass, agrees with Huizinga's views. Instead of test scores determining a teacher's future, Ruben believes students should choose who stays and who goes, like at Tallgrass.

"I don't think it's the teachers' fault if test scores are bad," said Ruben. "The principal shouldn't be able to fire the teacher. If the principal doesn't spend enough time with the teacher, they don't know what's happening in a classroom. They can't tell just from test scores."

Ruben said that when he votes, he also considers a number of factors. He said that while, of course, it's important to have staff that are "just awesome," he also recognizes he needs to be able to learn from them.

Tallgrass doesn't have classrooms. There are no rooms filled with rows of desks with a teacher's desk at the front. But Tallgrass does have a computer section, a library and a TV room, currently being used as a karaoke station.

Tallgrass also doesn't have scheduled classes, homework or tests. Instead, when a student is curious about a topic, they can ask a staff member to help them learn about it, or get more students together for a temporary class.

So for Ruben, he needs to know that his staff members can either help him learn his latest interest, a foreign language, or find the resources to learn on his own.

"Right now I'm learning Japanese," Ruben said. "That's my choice. I'm not being forced to do it."

Tallgrass staff member Larry Pavia said the spring election is about the time when he has to step back and make sure he's meeting the needs of students like Ruben.

"It's a bit of a reality check," Pavia said.

But he also said if he senses any tension with students, he has no problem approaching them.

"With this system I can ask, 'Where do we stand?' and we can talk about it," Pavia said.

This level of comfort between students and staff at Tallgrass allows for honest feedback, according to staff member Melissa Bradford.

Bradford, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, said the lack of this level of equality and respect in public schools in what finally brought her to Tallgrass. She said Sudbury schools work because of the respect they are given, something she thinks the rest of society could learn from.

"Kids are kind of like the last group in America to have equal rights," Bradford said. "They are perfectly capable of making good judgments."

For more information about Tallgrass and other Sudbury schools, visit www.tallgrasssudbury.org.

Photos by ALAINA BUZAS/Contributor

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