Frequently Asked Questions


What is a Democratic Free School?

In a democratic free school young people are fully valued, respected and recognized as being self-directed learners, with the capacity and motivation to assume responsibility for their education, and participate in the governance of their school.


Is there evidence that this approach to education works?

There is strong psychological and neuroscientific evidence that empowering people to make their own decisions about their activities, such as their learning or work, leads to higher satisfaction and better quality results. To posses this empowerment in a space where one also feels highly valued and senses strong feelings of fairness and security, contributes to our ability to access our full cognitive resources. In other words, the same kind of education that can provide more personal satisfaction and sense of being valued is also the better approach for learning more effectively and expanding of our cognitive skills.

South Mountain Co-op is based on the principles of child-centered, compassionate education where students participate in the governance of their school. Similar local schools include: Jersey Shore Free School in Little Silver, New Jersey; Brooklyn Free School, and Albany Free School in New York State; and Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. The Sudbury Valley School has done extensive research of its former students which demonstrates overwhelming positive evidence of personal growth, as documented in numerous, lengthy testimonials (Legacy of Trust, Life After the Sudbury Valley School Experience, 1992). Students who have experienced democratic free education for any significant period of time clearly articulate how invaluable this educational experience has been to them in the pursuit of an occupation, higher education, or other life choices, providing strong evidence that this approach works (Pursuit of Happiness, Sudbury Valley Press 2005).


How does the school ensure that students learn the “basics?”

Children are naturally curious and will seek out the information and skills they deem necessary to pursue their interests. This means our children will naturally seek out human relationships, play, creative expression, economics, technology, etc. Essentially, all the diversity of things that make our world go round will spark curiosity in them, leading them to construct their personal understanding of the world. Learning the basics is a child’s independent journey towards adulthood.

South Mountain Co-op seeks to provide a safe and nurturing community, where students’ voices are fully heard. We believe that a safe and supportive community that respects the autonomy of students to make decisions about their school, their time, and their education, is also conducive to helping students learn, and eventually master, many basic and advanced life skills such as reading, arithmetic, writing, conflict mediation, facilitation, public speaking, housekeeping, cooking, baking, gardening, web design, graphic design, etc.


If the students aren’t “exposed” to knowledge, how will they find out what they like?

The notion that if students are not required to take certain subjects, that they will not be exposed to important information is simply not true. Children are innately curious and are exposed to a tremendous variety of information on a daily basis from their family, friends, schoolmates (younger and older), staff members, media, and the world around them. In a free school environment students do significantly more exploration of a greater variety of topics and subjects than they would ever be exposed to at a traditional school.

Once students find a particular area of interest, they are not limited by whether or not there is a course offered on that subject, nor are they restricted in the amount of time and effort they can expend learning about that interest. Subsequently, they are able to delve much more deeply into that area, thereby obtaining significantly more knowledge and understanding than would be possible in a traditional setting. Best of all, these opportunities nurture their curiosity and creativity: they’ll want to learn more and create more because they’ve had the time to mull over ideas and information.

Staff members at the school strive to offer a wide range of classes and activities, in subject areas requested by students or otherwise. Finally, students are not limited by the constraints of SMC staff nor the confines of its walls: the school seeks to foster ties with local organizations, professionals, craftspeople, etc. for in-school visits and workshops, as well as mentorships, internships, and apprenticeships; and, students and staff have the freedom and opportunity to take trips to locations of interest around town and into New York City.


How do students get into college?

Supported by our staff, students document and evaluate their personal growth in their yearly transcript and portfolio. Students wishing to attend college may choose to focus on specific coursework required for admission into a program or seek out internships, trips, or projects that will prepare them for the experiences and studies they plan to pursue. By way of personal essays, interviews and the work and experiences they’ve set out for themselves, and by taking SATs, etc., students can demonstrate their competence and preparedness for college admission.


How do the different age groups mix?

Age mixing is integral to the success of the democratic free school model. We find that young children ask older children to read to them, to explain things, to teach them skills in a particular subject; and older children explain things to younger children, mentor them, and play or interact with them in ways that nurture the young and build emotional skills in all students. Furthermore, the older students take pride in being able to work with young children. It is not unlike a very large family.


How does the school evaluate student progress?

We feel that report cards, grades, rankings, or any type of comparative, competitive, or value-based evaluations simply don’t present a sufficient picture of the students’ growth and development. We prefer to use a purely descriptive, non-judgmental observational process to document all aspects of a student’s life and work at the school. These observations by the student’s advisor, along with those of the rest of the staff, are combined into a descriptive review of a child wherein we seek to more fully understand and get to know that child and discuss with them ways to foster their growth and development at the school.


What is the role of parents and guardians?

Parents and guardians are very important to the school. The school will have the greatest amount of success if the parents and guardians of students share in the school’s philosophy and if they support students in ways that align with the values of democratic, consensual decision making. Parents and guardians are also encouraged to take an active role in the school by volunteering to lead activities, teach classes, attend field trips, or to serve on or assist school committees.