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When a Private Alternative School Goes Public…


The year was 1971. A small collective of hippie civil rights and antiwar activists decided the way to change the world was to drive around downtown New Orleans in a beat up old van and pick up a racially mixed bunch of kids, two-thirds of whom were poor; and then bring them to a donated community center space and call what they did together the New Orleans Free School.

The founders never took the time to hash out a coherent educational philosophy, but they were heavily influenced by the writings of A.S. Neill, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, and George Dennison, who along with his wife Mabel had recently started a similar freedom-based alternative on New York City’s Lower East Side. There was no tuition because the founders wanted anyone to be able to attend, regardless of socioeconomic status. Instead, operating capital came from donations made by the few families with surplus income, a handful of unpredictable small grants, and constant grassroots fundraising.

The school was thriving in every way except financially, and so, when the Superintendent of the Orleans Parish Schools invited the Free School, as it was known locally, to go public in 1973, the teachers and the parents decided to consider the offer. It would enable them to keep the school tuition-free on a permanent basis, and it would also give them the opportunity to prove that the nontraditional methods being developed by the predominantly white and middle class free school movement at the time could be successfully employed in a largely non-white and poor urban school district.

It was a uniquely liberal moment in public education, with school leaders around the country avowing an openness to new approaches. The Free School emerged from negotiations with the Superintendent  with its educational model and autonomy surprisingly intact. The school would continue to be small (55 students), operate without grades and standardized tests, allow students to call teachers by their first names, and travel and make use of the city as a classroom to its heart’s content.

The only significant concession the founders had to make was to give up their shared leadership style and appoint one of themselves principal. Initially they got away with making the change in name only; but they realized with great foresight that one of them had better jump through all the necessary hoops to become a credentialed administrator in case the district changed its tune one day and tried to take control of the school by putting its own person in charge. This would become the preferred strategy used by school districts around the country to euthanize successful innovations that came to be perceived as a threat to the rest of the system.

For a while the marriage was a relatively happy one for the Free School, but the honeymoon ended abruptly in the fall of 1981 when new district leadership tried to install an outsider to put an end to the Free School’s “hippie” ways. Fortunately, by that time co-founder Bob Ferris had almost completed the process to become a school principal, and after a two-year pitched battle led by Ferris and a feisty cadre of Free School faculty and parents, the school board backed down and hired him instead. Indeed the school never would have survived without Ferris at the helm, because it would remain under siege for the remainder of its 34-year history. It was only his and the others’ unflagging tenacity that kept the ship afloat.

It is a dramatic saga, all the more incredible because it played out in the archconservative educational waters of the Deep South. The story is told in painstaking detail in Ferris’ excellent memoir Flood of Conflict, recently published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization Press.

The title of the book is a clever tip-off to the ending, with the author employing “flood” as a double entendre. There is the metaphorical use of the word to refer to the school district’s never-ending harassment of the Free School, and then there is the literal flood that sank the ship once and for all—the one caused by Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, while the Free School’s building was one of only a handful in the city to escape major damage, the school itself did not survive the ensuing reconfiguration of the school system by a state-run agency.

Actually, Free School backers could have tried to resuscitate it by linking up with the massive charter school movement that rushed into the vacuum created by the storm’s destruction. “But,” writes Ferris, “I truly had no more fight left in me.”

The school had somehow managed to preserve its open, caring atmosphere despite being forced along the way to expand to 300 students in order to be “cost efficient.” But federally mandated standardized testing had almost completely robbed the teachers of the flexibility, as A.S. Neill wrote so succinctly in  Summerhill, “to fit the school to the child and not the other way around.”

Or as Ferris put it when I interviewed him in 2003 for my book How to Grow a School and asked how the Free School was coping with the testing issue:
“On the one hand we’re fighting to preserve the beliefs we started out with and the quality of the education our students receive, and on the other hand we feel like Nazi soldiers leading children to the slaughter. The tests put the teachers and the students under so much pressure, and the teachers are forced to teach to the test. It’s not healthy, and yet it dominates what we do, because if we don’t maintain fairly decent test scores, then they’ll surely come after us again.”

And so, Ferris mournfully concludes in Flood of Conflict, “Ultimately the school district’s financial support and the bureaucratic control that came with it proved to be the drowning pool we initially feared.”

Ferris’ book is a deeply important one and a must-read. First of all, it offers a compelling demonstration of Margaret Mead’s iconic dictum about the power of a small group of thoughtful, committed people to change the world. A humane oasis in a school system renowned for its racism and incompetence, the Free School served as a nurturing haven for thousands of vulnerable children.

The book also opens a window into an exciting period in educational history when unconventional ideas and practices from outside the mainstream came tantalizingly close to making fundamental changes in the conventional educational model. And at the same it demonstrates the inexorable power of the education system to ultimately ward off innovation, stifle dissent, and maintain its status as one of America’s most protected sacred cows.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Stories such as the New Orleans Free School are inspiring and encouraging for those who recognize how much damage is done within traditional schools on the whole. I’m not sure how completely unique it was, as two of my three kids attended a school within a school in Brockport, N.Y. at about the time mentioned which was regarded as a free school and in which rules were extremely relaxed for those fortunate teachers and students. Friends of mine and I tried to open a free school in Las Vegas in that time period, but the building that was donated didn’t pass the strict fire code and the group dissolved without ever getting started.
    The word “system” is bandied about when this topic is discussed, as if there is a monolithic system with domineering bureaucrats who are more concerned with the status quo or their own careers than the welfare or development of children. This isn’t entirely inaccurate. Our systems are essentially monolithic bureaucracies and children take a back seat to tradition and innumerable constraints. However, one should realize that any such system originates and persists by virtue of two basic factors. One is the state laws that take autonomy out of the hands of parents, teachers, and children, establishing sclerotic bureaucratic institutions that are extremely resistant to change for a variety of reasons. The other is a set of myths or misconceptions relative to education and school and their conflation that are perpetuated by – you guessed it – the schools.
    I hate to be a Johnny-one-note, but free schools or any variation on that theme will always be consigned to experiments and exceptions as long as the laws remain on the books and unless we effectively debunk the myths.
    Now, people are pinning their hopes on technology. I just finished “The One World School House”, by Salman Khan, who beautifully articulates many of the fundamental ideas behind our educational problems and things that should be done to fix them. His Khan Academy has already worked wonders for many students and has served an incredible number of people around the world. This is something to celebrate. But, even this kind of innovation will be resisted by the educational establishment and it will always be marginal and confined in scope in the US unless compulsory attendance laws are eliminated and the 18th century thinking that prevails is updated in a more organized and effective manner. Our efforts via blogs and websites and projects or programs will hardly move the needle as things stand now, as much as I hate to be the wet blanket.

    October 26, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Being a wet blanket is a dirty job, Barry, but somebody has to do it. And I happen to agree with you entirely. Unless we shift the underlying mindset and structure of the conventional educational model, we’re not going to see any long-tern, widespread transformation of the system. You know the old joke:

      “How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb?”

      “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

      November 9, 2013
  2. Tim McClung #

    Another intriguing story about schools designed for children and how the public education system fights so hard against it. This is the big paradox for me. Public education is killing public education. The charter movement thinks they can do it faster and more efficiently. But as long as superintendents, principals, teachers, teacher education programs and professional development, policymakers, continue to turn their backs on the principles of student-centered and directed learning, the fight has to be taken outside the system. I have referred a young man to your book, Growing a School and your AERO class. But I told him, your message has to be that your school is for people who hate school, not an alternative learning environment

    October 27, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      That’s such a powerful statement, Tim: “Public Education is killing public education.” Thanks for chiming in.

      November 9, 2013

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