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A School Where One Size Doesn't Fit All

Alan M. Shusterman has collected books about education since he started teaching. He hopes to open his School for Tomorrow next year.
Alan M. Shusterman has collected books about education since he started teaching. He hopes to open his School for Tomorrow next year. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Growing up in Montgomery County, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania and getting a law degree from Harvard, Alan M. Shusterman had been called brilliant but didn't feel that great. He got a job in corporate law with a large Boston firm, but that didn't work for him, either.

Gradually, he realized he wanted to teach children. After three years introducing middle-schoolers at Sandy Spring Friends School to social studies, he decided on his life's work: starting a school like none the Washington area has ever seen.

Shusterman, 43, has assembled a board of advisers, found 15,000 square feet of commercial space a mile southeast of the White Flint Metro station and begun to recruit students for the private School for Tomorrow, scheduled to open in September 2009.

Shusterman plans to start with about 50 students in sixth through ninth grades and expand through 12th grade. He said he expects to charge about $25,000 a year in tuition, the typical amount for independent schools in the Washington area, but the schedules and lessons will be radically different.

"The model is inspired by the success of home-schoolers," he said. Students will set their class schedules, enabling them to learn at their pace and in their styles. Teachers will act as advisers, not taskmasters.

As for homework, "the one-size-fits-all [model] mandated in today's schools is largely counterproductive," Shusterman says in a slide presentation he uses to sell his idea. School for Tomorrow will have a home reading requirement and "encourage and support individualized, student-initiated homework."

Much of Shusterman's plan is inspired by John Dewey, a 20th-century educational philosopher whose devotees have called for teachers to be "guides on the side, not sages on the stage." Dewey led a movement called progressive education in which, he said, children learn best when pursuing individual projects that allow them to explore their world.

Many teachers, in both private and public schools, use project-based learning to a degree. But at School for Tomorrow, Shusterman said, every course and project will be linked to this question: What does a high school graduate need to know and need to be able to do to thrive in college, the workplace and life in the 21st century?

Old divisions are to be discarded, he said. Students will ally with teachers to decide what and how to study. Subjects such as math and science might be studied together when it makes sense. Class periods won't necessarily adhere to strict time frames as students take large chunks of time for individual or group projects. Students of different ages will work together and learn from each other.

Shusterman said he developed his ideas for the student-centered system during four years of research, which included home-schooling his daughter when she was in fourth grade in 2006-07. She and his two sons are looking forward to "going to Dad's school," he said.

Shusterman said that he has found some teachers who share his view of educators as coaches and that he is looking for more. He said he is recruiting students mostly in Montgomery County and the District but is welcoming applications from elsewhere.

The school plan says there will be "widespread use of parents and community members" who will be trained to volunteer as mentors and sources of expertise.

Like all private school founders, Shusterman is spending a lot of time raising money. Many teachers with his ambitions start charter schools, because, as public institutions, they receive tax dollars for support. But Shusterman said he wants to avoid the limitations and red tape that taking government money would put on his ability to do what he wants.

Launching an independent, private school is something few in the region have done in recent years. Elizabeth Downes, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, said that 11 schools have joined her private group in the past eight years, two of which were recent start-ups.

Shusterman said he hopes his school will set an example. It is important, he said, to serve "as a model for others with the long-term goal of causing widespread change in American secondary education, both private and, more importantly, public."


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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