Brooklyn Made Education: Self-Led Learning With A Slice of Social Justice

Inside a five-story brownstone in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn, NY, resides a true community of learners that do things the only way they know how; their way, with a slice of social justice. Founded in 2004 by Alan Berger, Brooklyn Free School (BFS) is an independent school with 80 students, split into lower school (ages 4 – 11) and upper school (ages 11 – 18). But there are a few caveats: from the way in which students take complete ownership of the school, to how they lead discussions during democratic meeting for the betterment of the school community, to designing their own curriculum (in which letter grades are nonexistent). Students’ fingerprints are literally everywhere.

Berger, a former assistant principal at Murry Bergtraum High School in New York, NY, shared how he conceived Brooklyn Free School:

I remember I was at an all-day training on project based learning in Manhattan in May or June of 2003, when I read an article in the New York Times about the opening of a Sudbury school in Woodstock. The article mentioned briefly the philosophy of the school and included an example from the original Sudbury Valley School near Boston of a student who for six years went down to the pond near the school and went fishing for most of the day and ended up studying/working in the marine biology field. I was just blown away by this idea [. . .] I began researching this form of education--which I didn't even know existed until this point. I joined with a group that was just assembling from an International Democratic Education Community conference that had been held in Albany that summer and was interested in starting a democratic education school in NYC. [ . . .] After a couple of months, we broke into two groups, one group was going to try to start a public democratic ed school and I was going to start an independent school.  Having worked in the NYC public system for 7 years I didn't believe it was possible to do this type of school as a public school based on the educational climate at the time.

The city hadn’t had a free school since 1975, when the Sixteenth Street School shutdown. But starting anew is part of New York way of life and it didn’t faze Berger then, who was determined to see his idea come to fruition. In 2003, having been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop for several years, he saw his opportunity, and went all-in:

I saw this as a perfect community (diverse and open to progressive alternatives) in which to gain initial support and find families interested in this concept of education. I wrote a piece for The Linewaiter's Gazette, an internal coop newspaper, and received a bunch of positive responses. We started meeting soon after at various parent's homes and the group just grew and grew.

During its infancy, Berger, who now serves as an honorary, non-voting board member as the founder of BFS, says the school experienced its share of growing pains, but also shaped its identity to become a diverse, social justice driven, and inclusive community.

“There was the challenge of acceptance of the school's educational philosophy, which was particularly difficult in the early years as the school did not yet have real student experiences to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model,” Berger says. However, the former Executive Director at BFS for nine-years found a solution. “We took trips to other schools, like Albany Free School and the Hudson Valley Sudbury School to help families and staff members see schools in action that had been operating longer than we had. We hired staff and had volunteers who had worked in free schools before and could help the existing dedicated group of founding educators and parents with the formation of our program and communicating it to our families.”

Other challenges were purely logistical. Achieving full New York City and New York State licensing and diploma status, as well as purchasing a space for the school to operate were major obstacles.

While many early hurdles were overcome, a sliding tuition scale remains a slight sticking point. Since the school is technically an independent educational institution, it relies heavily on tuition payment from families, community donations, and grants to operate.

“We never have a problem with enrollment with people who want to come to our school, but it’s hard to make budget every year,” says Hope Seery, Assistant Director at Brooklyn Free School.

Families are often forced to make difficult financial choices that are not always easy.

“To give our school the best opportunity [to thrive], we need a spectrum of families who pay all along the sliding scale, not just on the two ends of the financial spectrum, but in the middle,” says Seery. However, the real idea families need to buy into, she says, is the social justice mission, specifically, the notion that one family might pay full tuition while another family might pay a few thousand dollars. With full tuition determined by grade level and topping out at $30,000 for lower school and $33,000 for upper school, Seery acknowledges that the payment system might not resonate with all families. “Families have to feel comfortable with this dynamic. For those who don’t buy into the social justice mission, that could be a really hard thing to do.” For the 2017-18 school year, 92 percent of its students are on sliding scale tuition.

Applicants are still knocking down the door of Brooklyn Free School, eager to see how it all works. After prospective students gain a sense for the unique community via a tour, fill out necessary paperwork, and participate in a hands-on half day or two full days, determined by the applicant’s age, an enrollment counselor sits down with the family and student to determine if the school would be a proper fit for the student and vise-versa. And if a student has alternative learning needs, BFS adapts to meet said needs. For the current school year, 26 percent of its students have learning differences that would separate them from mainstream classrooms in conventional schools. Although students typically hail from Brooklyn and New York City, BFS does have occasional foreign exchange students from countries like Germany and Brazil. The entire application process typically takes two to four weeks, determined by the time of year.

Education Centered Around Social Justice

Students appreciate the close-knit school community and prominent social justice philosophy. It is the backbone of the BFS mission and it is deeply intertwined in every part of the school community. And it has since taken on a larger and more defined communal footprint in recent years.

Noleca Radway, Executive Director of Brooklyn Free School and parent of a former BFS student, recognized early in her administrative career that social justice, while part of the school’s foundation, needed to occupy a larger and more defined space within the community.

“When I joined the community [seven years ago], we didn't really have a clear mission statement,” says Radway, who previously served as the Diversity Coordinator then Head of Enrollment and Diversity Director. “We had a document that was made by the founders of the school that laid out a vision centered around non-compulsory education. It spoke so much to what we weren't and what we didn't do, but it didn't speak to who we are and what we do do.”

“As the Diversity Director,” Radway says, “my job was to connect the dots - to make the connection between what it means to be a free school, and what it means to practice social justice.”

And Radway did connect the dots as she, along with BFS staff, families, and students, created a new mission statement, centered around social justice.

“In both [previous] roles I worked to increase the representation of people of color in our community, to clearly define ourselves as an anti-racist school, and to rework the mission statement to put social justice at the forefront. I think that when I started, social justice was a piece of the pie, now it's the whole pie,” says Radway.

And the BFS mission statement reads true, having a social justice-centered curriculum and being a diverse institution of pupils and educators. For the 2017-18 school year, 50 percent of its students are African American, Hispanic, Asian or Multiracial and 60 percent of its staff are African American, Hispanic, Asian or Multiracial.

Trust The Process – BFS Style

One intriguing concept at BFS is that students’ schedules and decisions on a variety of topics are based on the democratic process where students, big and small, have equal say. In short, any student can call a “meeting” with anyone – another student, advisor (teacher), their advisory group, or the whole school, at any time. During these smaller meetings, students are required to attend and participate.

Students have an opportunity to facilitate deeper, more impactful meetings too. Every Wednesday, students hold a democratic meeting where they raise and address whatever rules, regulations, or concerns they feel might need to be added or amended to reflect the betterment of their community. Any topic with the exception of health and safety can be raised, added or amended. Some areas that have undergone discussion include attendance, admissions, and fundraising. However, Wednesday meetings aren’t all-work and no play. They represent an open forum to share positive and uplifting communal news such as college acceptances or an opportunity discuss the annual school play (it’s kind of a big deal).

If something isn’t working, students take action. But the process is far from a free-for-all. They draw up a proposal, lay out their argument for why they feel a change is necessary, and typically present it to the school during Wednesday meeting. Once an idea is formally introduced, a three-quarters majority rule is required to fully adopt the specific change. The important takeaway, however, is that whatever decision comes from the meeting is agreed and adhered to by BFS community members, students and advisors alike.

Cheese Tasting 101 And More

Learning at BFS is anything but typical. In theory and practice, nearly anything one’s mind can imagine has potential to and often does become a course, lecture series or a simple opportunity to learn. The only drawback, if you could call it that, is that students create a list of classes that pique their interest called a “circuit” and determine what classes they’ll take on the circuit primarily based on the number of tallied votes.

Some might say these courses turn the traditional learning model on its head as they provide students with a real-life, interactive, and diverse learning environment that regularly intertwine multiple concepts like social and physical sciences, arts, math, and more. Not only do students absorb ideas using a variety of methods, but they retain and demonstrate these learned concepts and skills on a daily basis, ultimately discovering their world through a “social lens.” Students are also awarded freedom to lead classes, if they so choose.

“Social justice lenses are put on everything,” says Seery. “You don’t teach social justice unless you practice it. And you don’t practice social justice unless you teach it.” This is certainly evident in the diverse and creative course creation.

Some recent courses at BFS include astrobiology, salsa rueda, astronomy, American prisons, Tibet 101: politics and history, neighborhoods of New York City, horror writing, the civil rights movement in its own words, yoga, a school production of Hairspray, and yes, even cheese tasting. But learning knows no borders here. Students also have the ability to learn through independent study, activist and non-activist centered internships, and can even “drop-in” on a class based on topic interest.

They can take on leadership roles, serving as Chair on multiple committees like Prom, Music, Hiring Committee, Yearbook, Technology, and more. In essence, students facilitate their communal learning from top to bottom and exercise control and responsibility to create the school community they desire.

Learning at BFS is all-encompassing and communal, even aspects of social justice. “It’s about how it’s taught, not about what is taught that draws the attention of people,” explains Seery. “We examine the bigger picture. If something is too simple, let’s dig a little deeper to complicate it.”

Being a school heavily centered on social justice, Friday is typically designated as a day where students invest themselves in the community outside BFS. Whether visiting a museum, discovering the latest science-fiction release in a bookshop, touring the fire station for a younger student day-trip, or offering their services at the local soup kitchen, students’ actions are felt beyond the local community. For older students, Fridays are often spent at internships either with or without an activist-tilt. Students have interned at a broad spectrum of organizations and facilities in and around the city like the New York Aquarium, Students for a Free Tibet International Headquarters, and local bike-repair shops and bakeries.

When asked about what surprised Berger during his time when involved in daily activities, he notes simply, “How involved and enthusiastic students can be when they are really motivated-intrinsically, to learn something.” In other words, students at BFS are fully aware of and seize opportunities.

“I was interested in learning to cook as a practical, everyday skill,” 2017 BFS graduate Anna Leidecker, wrote in one self-evaluation for a cooking class, part of her graduation requirement. “I see it as a step towards being an adult, and becoming more self-sufficient. It is a way that I can take charge of my health, as well as a practice of time and money management.”

Leidecker, a Tibetan-American from Berea, KY, and strong advocate for her identity, had attended two years of traditional high school prior to enrolling at BFS, and felt as if she had to choose between something she wanted to do like attend affinity group and something she had to do like nourish her body.

“What makes the social justice aspect of [BFS] so incredible,” says Leidecker, “is that it’s present and it’s not in competition with real learning and academics. It’s valued as a real and crucial part of learning.”

In her graduation essay, a component each student must complete in order to graduate, Leidecker wrote about how her experience at BFS had impacted her life:

“I am able to balance my strengths and interests with areas I need to develop. I experienced the joys and responsibilities of that, much like real adult people in the real world. This education model taught me to have confidence in my ability to create things, and put them into practice. And when there is a young Woman of Color with that kind of confidence, anything can happen. [. . .] I was able to connect to others who shared my struggles, and share with those who don’t. Social justice at Brooklyn Free School connected me to a passion, and at the core of that passion was my desire to connect with and care for others. The community of BFS puts tremendous effort and attention to detail in creating a safe space. This safety is what allowed me to shed some of my internalized oppression, my fear and pride. Allowing vulnerability is powerful. I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable at BFS many times.”

These sentiments were likely what Berger strived for when he birthed the school. When asked about the most rewarding part of his job when involved in day-to-day activities, the former school administrator notes, “I found it most rewarding to see students finally drop their defenses and be able to truly be themselves. It was also very rewarding to watch them begin to take agency and leadership in democratic meetings and in pursuing their own interests through a wide variety of means.”

Letter Grades Need Not Apply

Brooklyn Free School doesn’t give letter grades and that’s okay. Students still graduate. Each student must announce their intention to graduate a year in advance and has a committee comprised of fellow students, advisors, and outside proponents who guide them toward their objective and serve as a soundboard, if necessary. Other graduation requirements include the previously mentioned reflective personal essay and defense of this paper which is more like an MA defense. On graduation day, students earn a Brooklyn Free School Diploma certificate and a New York State Diploma certificate.

One may think a lack of letter grades would hinder BFS students who desire to continue their pursuit of higher education. One could argue, however, that not having letter grades might actually enhance a student’s chance of earning a college acceptance letter.

“It helps them rather than hurts them,” Seery says. “When admission officers review transcripts, advisors might get a call from schools saying they didn’t receive a student’s transcript. Well, in fact, yes, they did. It’s a portfolio.”

The appropriate information college admission officers seek is all there, it is just in an alternative format. Instead of traditional academic transcripts filled with standardized testing numbers (which some students from the school opt to take), BFS students package a diverse portfolio often ranging from 10-30 pages in length, comprised of in-depth and reflective student self-evaluations, advisor assessments, multiple internship experiences, and more. In short, a student’s portfolio demonstrates the unique, well-rounded, motivated, solution-finding, and self-aware individual as a whole person.

And this method has worked well. Graduates have been accepted to a wide range of higher education institutions like Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence College, Berklee College of Music, Fashion-Institute of Technology, and Rochester Institute of Technology. Since BFS’s founding in 2004, 46 students have graduated, including nine in the Class of 2017.

How might students transition from high school to higher education, if it is indeed a route they choose?

“I’m a bit nervous to make that transition [to college], but I do think the skills I learned at BFS in terms of meeting people, communicating to people clearly what I need, and asking and clarifying questions about what they need from me . . . transfers over even to the big university-style education,” says Leidecker, who this fall is attending William E Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College.

Another former student who graduated in 2011 is creating a video-game, an idea and career path that first originated during a summer class on independent gaming at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY, and furthered at BFS.

With a traditional education system seemingly unable to rebound from its decades-long slump, we might consider using an alternative model. As the United States becomes more culturally diverse and technology driven each day, and the need to solve global issues remains paramount, isn’t it time that we think about altering our approach in how we educate the next generation? Schools like Brooklyn Free School build the necessary foundation and allow creative freedom to flourish so that students might solve tomorrow’s problems today. Yesterday isn’t today. And today will be different than tomorrow. The only constant is that we’ll adapt. We always have.

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