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Learning on Their Own Terms

But those concerns do not deter Fairhaven. Conceived by an assortment of parents who had taught their children at home and others in search of educational alternatives, Fairhaven opened in 1998 with 33 students on 12 isolated acres along Queen Anne Road in the Upper Marlboro area. It is one of more than 30 no-curriculum schools patterned after one founded in 1968 in Massachusetts -- the Sudbury Valley School.

Virginia has one Sudbury school in Lynchburg and another forming in Louisa. Pennsylvania and Delaware have one each. Others are scattered across the country and in Europe, Canada, Israel and Japan. The schools are an experiment in educational democracy. The youngest student's vote on any policy equals the longest-serving staff member's.

"Ours is a place for children," said Daniel Greenberg, 70, a co-founder of the original Sudbury school, who still works there. "We begin with freedom -- personal freedom and respect for personal rights." Education, he said, is "an opportunity for a child or an adult to develop a path toward a meaningful life. The question is: How is that done best?"

Against the Grain

Sudbury schools have drawn attention in recent years as a counterpoint to the national movement toward tougher educational standards and school evaluations.

This spring, hundreds of thousands of children in local elementary and middle schools will take standardized tests in reading and mathematics to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. Virginia will administer more tests than ever. D.C. public schools are rolling out a new test. Some Maryland schools held pep rallies to get pumped for state exams.

McCaig dismisses it all as "a Faustian dance with testing and accountability." Many private schools make the same point to woo parents disenchanted with public schools. But few offer an alternative so radical.

A bearded former Catholic school teacher, McCaig holds a Harvard University master's degree. Fairhaven's Web site describes the 43-year-old as expert in birds, shark teeth and shiatsu massage. He and his wife, Kim, 41, who once taught high school English in Anne Arundel County, helped launch the school with a $200 starter kit bought from Sudbury Valley. Their 5- and 9-year-old daughters, Colleen and Maggie, are students. A few other parents also have worked alongside their children.

These adults teach but are not teachers. They lead but are not administrators. For example, McCaig deals with lawyers and insurers. ("They think we're nuts," he said.) One day this month, he had a grammar workshop with three students and a reading and writing tutorial with a 15-year-old.

Staff member John Green, 47, led a science book club for six students that day and a public speaking class for two. Such encounters can last 45 minutes to an hour. It doesn't add up to much formal instruction. No one tracks time spent on academics. But Green said learning happens. "Sure, there is teaching that occurs here, constantly," he said. "But we don't like the word."

A pack of laughing girls bursts onto the deck. McCaig shoos them inside. "That's a class," he said. The Prissy Girls. They do girl things, whatever those might be, sans adults. "Deep play," the school calls it. Games that stretch imagination and social skills. The school puts a premium on free-flowing conversation. What gets discussed is almost an afterthought.

Danny Mydlack, a Towson University media professor, probably knows Fairhaven better than any other independent observer. He spent two years, off and on, filming a documentary about the school. He said it turned his beliefs about learning upside down, leading him to conclude that what kids learn is less important than how they learn. "Everything these kids study, they own," he said. "It's theirs. Because they wanted to."

Legions of academics, educators and public officials would debate his conclusion. But no one at Fairhaven cares.

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