No Tests, No Homework

At the Brooklyn Free School in New York, students can have a snack, practice yoga, play chess  --  or do almost anything else  --  anytime they want.
At the Brooklyn Free School in New York, students can have a snack, practice yoga, play chess -- or do almost anything else -- anytime they want. (Photos By Bebeto Matthews -- Associated Press)
Monday, February 12, 2007

Think about your typical school day: reading, math, maybe a geography quiz. Raise your hand. Sit down. Stand in line.

At the Brooklyn Free School, a typical day could include horror movies, chess and making caves for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Not that students have to go to any of these sessions. At this New York school, kids don't get grades, don't have homework, don't take tests. They don't even have to be in class.

"You can do basically anything at any time, and it's just a lot more fun because sometimes when you need a break at regular schools you can't get it," said Sophia Bennett Holmes, 12, an aspiring singer-actress-fashion designer. "But here, if you just need to sit down and read and have time to play, then you can do that."

Free schools, popular decades ago, operate on the belief that kids are naturally curious and learn best when they want to, not when forced. That old idea is getting a new look from parents tired of the required tests, homework and rigid schedules in public schools.

"Every kid here is definitely motivated to learn something," said Alan Berger, who started the Brooklyn school in 2004. "Our belief is that if we let them pursue their passions and desires, they'll be able to get into it deeper."

A similar school, Fairhaven, opened in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1998. "We assign as much responsibility as freedom," staff member Mark McCaig told KidsPost. The message for the school's 75 students: "You are responsible for your education."

Hundreds of free schools existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Those still around often give students a say in running things.

At the Brooklyn Free School, much of that decision-making occurs in a mandatory weekly gathering -- yes, the school does require some things -- where students air grievances, pose challenges, propose rules and set policy. Even the youngest kids have an equal vote. One agreed-upon rule: no sword-fighting inside.

The school's 42 students, ages 5 to 17, are required to show up for about 5 1/2 hours a day. What they do with their time is up to them. The school costs $10,000 a year per student, but many parents pay only what they can afford.

Not everyone is a fan of free schools. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, worries that they might not prepare students for the real world. "You don't get rid of all structure and standards if you want your child to be able to deal with all different settings," she said.

But Randy Karr is happy with the changes she has seen in her son, David Johnston. David, 12, disliked his previous schools, where "a lot of it is being still, being quiet, not talking to your neighbor, not moving around too much," she said. At the Brooklyn Free School, he helps run a class and carries a notebook in which he jots down what he's learning.

Classmate Victoria Rothman, 17, who used to attend public school, enjoys spending much of her day studying music, but thinks the flexibility at the free school could hurt younger kids. "They're definitely going to have a hard time with college, where you have to sort of do that sitting-down-and-shutting-up thing," she said. "There are kids who sit here and play video games all day. I'd put a limit to that."

-- Associated Press

© 2007 The Washington Post Company