Published: March 23, 2017
Imagine attending an elementary or secondary school where the students have as much of a say as the teachers. No more “because I said so,” or a mandatory syllabus, or needing permission to do something as simple as use the restroom.
Playing video games in school won’t send you to the principal’s office, and there’s no need to wait for a bell to ring to go to lunch. These are but a few things that make Ben Page’s The Open School—the first and only free democratic school in Orange, Calif.—stand out from many.
Ben Page, a Pacific Oaks graduate with an M.A. in Human Development, enjoyed his own public education but found the contemporary public school system to be rigid and authoritarian. Even during his time at Pacific Oaks, one of his most notable takeaways was the “ego-less teaching,” as he calls it, in which the professors not only listened to the students but also considered student knowledge as valuable an asset as that of the professor.
“I model a lot of my interactions with kids based on things that I learned at PO,” Page says. “I found that the way the instructors created an environment where the learner was in charge of their learning created a lot of fruitful development. This process became a methodology for working with kids at The Open School. I didn’t get a degree in teaching because I didn’t want to be a teacher; my degree in human development gave me the skills to interact with self-directed learners and generally to work with children without all of the adultism and the adult bias that generally comes into the educational sphere.”
Page now self-identifies as a “co-traveler” of The Open School students, though he did previously test out the waters of substitute teaching in traditional schools. But throughout his experience in the traditional and progressive school systems, he felt that respect for children was often lacking, a core value that he picked up at Pacific Oaks, especially under the mentorship of Dr. Olga Winbush.
“I remember those schools feeling like authoritarian states, and it made me realize how different public schools are today than when I attended them,” he says. “After that, I subbed in a progressive school for a couple years and I kept asking myself, ‘What’s so progressive about this?’ It seemed like progressive just meant that people were nicer but it was still authoritarian at heart.”
From that point, Page embarked on researching alternative ways to teach, focusing heavily on democratic schools and free democratic education, Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy, and the flagship model Sudbury Valley School. After visiting Sudbury for a week and seeing how the school was run, Page used that experience to help define the goals of The Open School.
With the help of the original founder Cassi Clausen, who donated half of her home for a school campus, the team started the school in 2015 with nine students. Now in their second year, The Open School has found a new home on a larger campus and currently has 15 students, ages 5 to 13.
The Open School gives children more freedom to learn the things that they want to learn without feeling outside pressure to learn certain topics or skills on a set timeline. They still learn to master basic curriculum in reading, writing, and math. It just might be that those lesson plans can come in unconventional packages.
“We’ve got this girl that hates math, but she loves baking,” Page says. “When she bakes, she has to learn math. She’s working on fractions, percentages, doubling the recipe, multiplication, and division. If you tried to get her to sit down and do a math problem, she would dig her heels in and say, ‘Absolutely not.’ But this way she’s getting it through something that she considers pleasurable; this is called collateral learning.”
Students who may be interested in learning about other career fields have also been able to get their feet wet through “world-schooling.”
“World-schooling is basically the idea that the world is a classroom, and anytime you go out into the real world you’re learning,” Page says. “So that could be something more traditional like a museum or it could be something like exploring the park. Kids are on committees and corporations, and they’re in charge of budgets and finance for these projects. They decide where to go and often handle all the planning, fundraising, and logistics.”
And sometimes they find that their dream jobs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
“I had one kid that wanted to be an actor. So we were filming this video and we’re on the sixth take of something. He goes ‘This sucks. I hate this.’ I said, ‘You realize this is what actors do? This is the job.’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, I thought acting was like you come on set and you do one take and it’s perfect and you’re gone.’ No, no, no. That’s not the real world. Part of world-schooling and part of the whole philosophy of The Open School is that we don’t want to create a school that is unlike reality. We want the school to function in the same way the world works. It doesn’t make sense to educate children for any other world than the real one.”
Unfortunately, sometimes the world may not be so kind to those who are different. One student who has Tourette’s came to The Open School after having a challenging time adjusting to traditional schooling. In the first two weeks at The Open School, he only played video games and other students left him to his own devices. Slowly but surely, he finally came around after realizing he was in a less judgmental environment. With the freedom to enjoy skills that the student already wanted to learn, even if widely considered recreational, the student’s social skills continue to improve among both staff and his peers.
Part of The Open School’s uniqueness is their Civics Board, a judicial framework made up of a rotation of one adult and three students that allows the community to weigh in on policies and rules together. And if a student doesn’t agree with a resolution developed by the Civics Board, he or she has the opportunity to appeal the decision in true democratic style.
“[The Open School] is as inclusive as I can possibly imagine, but I believe it’s also the hardest school in the county,” Page says. “That’s because you actually have to know the rules. There’s no adult looking over your shoulder and making sure that you do the right thing. You have to be responsible enough to choose that, and so you get rewarded with freedom. The freedom doesn’t just come. You have to show us that you can be responsible. We consider self-discipline to be far more valuable than a discipline that is imposed.”
In Page’s world of camaraderie between students and adult staff, he keeps his own Human Development learnings and skills in mind as a co-traveler.
“Something that I loved about Pacific Oaks was that my professors were not full of themselves,” Page says. “They didn’t have these giant egos that said ‘I’m an expert, and you’re all here to learn from me.’ Pacific Oaks was all about saying ‘We all have valuable life experience. Let’s share it with each other.’ And that’s how education should be! That’s why I valued Pacific Oaks, and it’s what I try to bring into my school every day.”