Learning on Their Own Terms

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006

Between Rollerblade aerials and rail slides, Justin Reed described how he landed at a school that lets him do whatever he wants all day long.

He burned out on high-powered Eleanor Roosevelt High School in his home town of Greenbelt. Lost interest in the college track. Despised cafeteria food. By 11th grade, he was ready to drop out.

"I just really hated school, and Roosevelt brought that out of me," the 19-year-old said one spring afternoon next to an iron handrail that doubled as a launching slope. "Being told what to do and what to learn. Having to do homework. Grades. Grade levels. Everything that this school stands against."

Justin will graduate in June from the highly unconventional Fairhaven School with a diploma that may require explanation to a college or future boss. He took no tests in his three years at the private school, received no grades and had no course requirements. But he played electric guitar, read and wrote poetry, made friends and got the last laugh on lunch. "No more tater tots!" he said.

Fairhaven, in a wooded nook of Prince George's County near the Patuxent River, challenges the assumptions of every public and private school that measures success with test scores and prizes academic rigor. It is an educational anomaly in the super-competitive Washington area: The school day here is unscripted.

Seventy-two students ages 5 to 20 run the school with a staff of eight adults. Students follow no curriculum other than curiosity and whim. Sometimes they seek out a class or workshop, but they are not compelled to take English, geometry or any other subject. Often they just hang. For this, their parents pay $6,680 a year per student, less for siblings.

Is Fairhaven even a school? What is a school?

"The question, too, is what is an education?" replied staff member Mark McCaig. "What is an educated individual?"

The answer could lie in the fiction, philosophy and history lining the school's bookshelves. Or in the way children play on a seesaw, swing, stage or computer when no one is telling them what to do. Or in their own words.

"I judge whether my day is productive by how much I learn, how much I've got done, and whether I do something worth doing," said Alison Everett, 17, of Annapolis, a student there for four years. Among other recent pursuits, she played a fire goddess in a student show spun from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," studied algebra to bone up for the SAT (tests are not entirely out of mind here) and pounded tall drums with a friend outdoors.

Destiny Shugrue, 11, of Bowie, in her first year at the school, said: "I hang out, draw, go on the computer, play a few games. Just be myself. I actually read a lot. Every morning I get up saying, 'Yay, I'm going to school!' "

There is a price for defiance of academic custom. Students at Fairhaven earn no course credits toward a state-recognized high school diploma. Without conventional transcripts, graduates who aim for college rely on SAT scores, essays, letters of recommendation and interviews.

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