Welcome to South Mountain Co-op!
SMC is a democratic free home schooling co-op for ages 5-18, located in Montclair, NJ. We opened our doors in September, 2013. We currently offer 2-4 day enrollment. Our co-op day is from 8:35 am – 3:00 pm.
Our Mission Statement:
South Mountain Co-op’s approach to education is individualized and curiosity driven: students are free to explore the world around them at their own pace and according to their own interests, with the support of the adult staff and co-op community at large. Our Co-op governance is collaborative and participatory: each member of the community, regardless of age or role, has an equal say in the consensus decision-making process and running of the co-op. We are dedicated to creating and maintaining an environment of trust and respect; supporting students on their individual learning paths; and fostering strong connections to fellow South Mountain Co-op members, to families, and to the surrounding community.
What does that mean in practice?
At SMC, students have the right and the responsibility to decide for themselves how they spend their time, who they spend it with, and what and how they learn. They can spend their days working on personal projects, reading, playing, planning. taking classes or hanging out with friends. They also work collectively with other students and with the staff to manage and run the school, by attending the weekly meetings, and by participating on committees or conflict resolution meetings.
Learning and Doing at SMC
Our year is divided into series of 9-10 week sessions, with sessions separated by an interstitial week (a week that falls in between the formal structure of each session). Before and during the interstitial week, staff and students communicate with the academic committee about the classes and activities students are interested in, so the committee can come up with a selection of classes and a weekly schedule for the next session. Some classes are open to all ages and skill levels, others are designed for particular ages or may only be open to students who took a previous session of the same subject. Students can sign up for as many or as few classes as they’d like.
During the week, staff also take turns staffing different parts of the co-op space, like the maker-space or the art room, to be available to assist students with projects in those areas and to make those materials accessible to students who aren’t licensed to use them on their own. Staff also take turns operating as “floaters”, moving through the school space to help with independent projects, support student led activities, play games or read books with students, or to chaperone spontaneous field trips to the park or library.
Aside from the class schedule, which shifts from session to session, the rhythm to the week at SMC includes the Tuesday morning opening circle, the Wednesday morning democratic meeting, the Thursday afternoon closing circle.
The Democratic Meeting
The final decision-making power at SMC rests with the weekly democratic meeting. We use consensus decision making process that seeks the consent of every member of the meeting before it considers a proposal passed. If anyone, whether student or staff, has concerns about a proposal, we work together to address those concerns or to come up with a compromise that works for everyone. Consensus doesn’t always mean everyone’s in agreement — sometimes a member of the meeting agrees to let a proposal pass even if they have concerns, if they think that’s best for the whole community. Consensus encourages problem solving, collaboration, and compassion.
Any member of the community can submit an agenda topic or proposal. The Facilitator runs the democratic meeting making sure everyone gets a chance to speak and keeping the meeting running smoothly. The job of Facilitator rotates among all staff and students who have requested to be trained in facilitation. The Meeting Secretary takes minutes, and makes sure any new agreements get recorded in both the paper version and online version of the Co-op Agreement Book.
Which parts of the meeting are mandatory, and for whom, depends on what the current co-op agreements are. You can check the Meeting section of the Co-op Agreement Book to see what the current agreements are (you can find the link to that document in your welcome letter).
Every student gets assigned to a mentor when they enroll at SMC. Students are invited to meet with their mentor regularly or can do so by request when they and their mentors are both available. Mentor meetings are a space for students to talk about their goals and aspirations, about their triumphs and struggles, and to build the skills that will help them grow and succeed as self-directed learners. It’s also a space for students who may not want to speak up at the larger democratic meeting to voice their concerns and ask their questions. Mentors are available to help support students as they navigate the world of SMC, to meet with parents during twice yearly parent-teacher conferences, and to write up observational assessments for the students in their mentor groups.
Agreements Everyone Should Know!
The Welcome Wagon Committee polled the students of SMC, and came up with the following agreements that everyone should know:
* STOP RULE: If someone asks you to stop doing something that affects them, you must stop. If someone doesn’t stop when asked to, the first step is mediation by a volunteer student mediator or a staff member. If mediation doesn’t work, the next step is to either add the subject to a list of things to discuss at the next Meeting or, if the subject is urgent, to call an immediate School Meeting. If it is an item to be brought up at the next School Meeting, please don’t name names in the complaint, to avoid hurting people’s feelings.
* NO INSULTS: At SMC we treat all people with compassion and respect. We do not use personal insults nor do we use language that targets any particular gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other group of people. This is temporarily known as the No Insults Rule until the next meeting.
* Monday Opening circle and Thursday closing circle: We start the week with an opening circle in at 9am (to include ice breakers, setting intentions for the week, etc.) and end the week with a Thursday afternoon closing circle/check out at 2pm (reviewing and reflecting on the week). These are both mandatory .
* CONSEQUENCES: We will use a voluntary resolution group when someone breaks an agreement. The group is empowered to set consequences, but the group is intended to focus on non-punitive conflict resolution first. We can also form a group any time there is a difference of opinion on how to interpret an agreement. This group requires 5 members, a combination of staff and students. Anyone who wants to be part of the group may be.
* CLEAN UP FOOD: After eating, clean up after yourself, seeking assistance as needed.
Mediation and Small Resolution Groups
At SMC, we believe that children are people, and that most people are doing the best they can with the skills they have. We also believe in treating all people with compassion and respect. Because of this, we emphasize mediation as the first response if there is a conflict between students or if someone breaks a school agreement. During a mediation session, all students involved in the conflict have the right to have an ally in the room with them, if they’d like — someone who is on their side and who can help them communicate their needs and their perspective on the conflict. The mediator will help students use active listening and other conflict resolution skills to work out their conflict. Students are strongly encouraged to get involved with the mediation committee and to pursue training as school mediators.
If someone breaks an agreement, or if a conflict cannot be resolved through mediation, then a Small Resolution Group may be convened. This is a group of at least 5 members of the community (students and/or staff) who work together to set consequences for a broken agreement or an ongoing conflict. The focus should be on non-punitive consequences; ideally ones that help students build the compassion, communication, and self-regulation skills they need. Participation in Small Resolution Groups is voluntary.
If a situation is urgent or affects the whole school, any member of SMC may call an Emergency Meeting. Emergency Meetings are mandatory. Emergency Meetings have the power to pass agreements, which will then stand until they can be ratified or amended at the next weekly democratic meeting.
Families at SMC
Our families are an absolutely essential part of the success of SMC. We rely on SMC families to volunteer at school, to join the committees that do the work of keeping the school functioning well, and to help create and nurture an extended community that will support all our students as they find and pursue their own goals and dreams.
But the most important thing SMC families can do is to trust the kids. Learning is primarily internal, and it belongs to the student. It doesn’t always look like what we expect it to, it doesn’t always follow the trajectory that our own learning did, it doesn’t always lend itself to being put into easy, familiar academic boxes. At a Free School, authentic learning certainly doesn’t always lend itself to the sort of easy bragging over Sunday dinner that traditional classroom grades can. Sometimes that learning looks like play, sometimes it looks like dawdling and daydreaming, sometimes it looks like hanging out with our friends playing computer games. Experience as well as the most recent research into how humans learn show us that, yes, even when it doesn’t look like we expect it to — in fact, perhaps especially when it doesn’t look like we expect it to — learning is always happening.
We know SMC families are coming from a place of trust and respect for the right of each student to choose their own goals and priorities. But we also know that even the most enthusiastic free school parent can have moments of “wait, this isn’t what I thought this would look like!” and “oh man, what do I say to Great Aunt Matilda at Thanksgiving?” The best thing that you can do is to familiarize yourself with the theory and practice of what learning can look like at a free school, to build upon the communication and decision making skills your child is learning at school, and to get to know the other SMC families (because they’re great resources for answering your questions about being a Free School family, but also because they are some of the most delightful, interesting, compassionate people we’ve ever met!).
Throughout the year, there are many opportunities to do exactly that!
Brew Ha Ha – Drop off and Drop in for a meet and greet!
There’s no time like the first day of the year to get to know other families, find out about some of the happenings during the year, and look for new opportunities to get involved.
Back to Co-op Night – Come see what we’ve been up to in the first weeks of school and what our plans are for the new year, meet the staff, and talk to experienced SMC parents about what it’s like to be a co-op family.