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Posted on Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 3 p.m.

New Ann Arbor school promises students environment of freedom, democracy

By Erica Hobbs

Teacher Melissa Palma says she believes students learn best when they have a passion for the subject in an environment of support and autonomy.

That’s why Palma, husband Rodolfo Palma and a group of organizers are starting the Little Lake Free School in the Ann Arbor area this fall.

“The unique thing about this school is that it produces kids who are going to be able to say, ‘I’m interested in this and I know how to learn about it,’” she said. “They’ll be life-long learners in a really different way.”


Part of the new free school's flyer.

The organizers will hold their first recruiting and informational session at 2 p.m. Sunday in the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library at 343 S. Fifth Ave. in Ann Arbor.

Partially based off the Albany Free School in New York, Little Lake Free School will be built on principles of community, democracy and responsibility where children, under the guidance of close-knit adults, are free to make their own choices on what and when to study.

“With freedom comes social responsibility,” Rodolfo Palma said. “The idea is really that the children are as free as possible.”

Melissa Palma, whose own 4- and 6-year-old children will be enrolled at the school, said creating a free school has been her dream for the past 10 years.

“As a parent and as a teacher, I wanted to create something that was more inclusive of all of the different voices and more participatory so people can have more of a say in their children’s education,” she said. “I think that the way that the school systems are set up right now, there’s very little democracy and very little voice that people can have over their education.”

Though they don't yet have a building for the school, organizers plan to accept 15 students between the ages 4 and 12 who will be taught by two staff members, including Melissa Palma, and other adult volunteers and parents.

Rodolfo Palma said students will come to school every morning with options on what they would like to learn that day, including the choice to do nothing at all.

“Usually the first month or first few weeks, students choose not to participate, then get bored and choose to learn and get excited,” he said. “They get excited about what they really want to be doing.”

While Melissa Palma and fellow staffer Matt Erickson are certified teachers, students will also have the options to learn about non-traditional school subjects such as woodworking and origami, depending on the skills and talents offered by the adult volunteers.

When it comes to state benchmarks and requirements, the Palmas said their students will learn the basics - but on their own stride.

“Kids are going to learn to read and write and do math, but it might be at their own pace,” Melissa Palma said.

Having a small class size of students within an eight-year age range won't be a problem, the Palmas said.

“We believe that having all those ages can be a real benefit because it forces the school to deal with the fact that people are all on different levels,” Rodolfo Palma said. “It’s really rare to have a community where everyone is exactly the same. The goal is to have them work together.”

Tuition for the school will be $6,600 per year, but may be reduced through parent volunteering. The Palmas said they hope to have a diverse group of students, including low-income children, and are considering offering scholarships or a sliding scale tuition to qualified families.

Erica Hobbs can be reached at


Melissa Palma

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 1:24 p.m.

The great thing about educational alternatives is that they create more choices to fit more of the needs of more students and families. As an educator and parent, I really believe in this educational model and have seen the incredible children and communities that they produce. It is a lot of hard work and intention but so worth the effort! The informational session went really well. Twenty-four people came to the library last week and most took applications with them. I really appreciate the conversation this article has sparked!


Wed, Mar 3, 2010 : 6:47 p.m.

This educational model, I think, is the most ethical and effective for pretty much any kind of student. However, as is clear from the comments, it is definitely not for all parents. Wish I could have gone to this school when I was little!

Alan Benard

Mon, Mar 1, 2010 : 9:59 a.m.

I am happy to hear that a community which trusts children and their in-born, God-given desire and drive to learn is forming here. Choices in education are important. I regret to hear that there are still many who believe that learning must occur under conditions of coercion and brutalization. They are wrong. Those who have time to comment here about the dearth of rocket scientists and industrial engineers graduating from US schools need to put that time into encouraging a child to develop her talents for mathematics and science. That's what an alternative school education did for my cousin Erika -- the rocket scientist.

Daniel Schaffer

Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 11:06 a.m.

There is an unusual book called Legacy of Trust, by Greenberg/Sadofsky, which shows the statistics of what happens to students who graduate from democratic free schools. The authors tracked students over a twenty or thirty year period. Free school students end up going to the colleges of their choices, or if they don't choose college they go into the professions of their choices. Also, a very high number of graduates end up owning or running their own businesses. My daughter goes to Brooklyn Free School, which is a democratic free school, and we have a one hundred percent success rate with kids graduating and going into their first choice of schools (and we are 60% people of color, and 80% tuition assistance). There is absolutely no proof that colleges reject students who learned how to take charge of their own learning, in fact just the opposite is true. I want to remind everyone that it is not the free schools who suffer from low literacy rates, failure in math, truancy, drop-outs, violence in schools, lack of graduation, and low college placement! Although conventional schools have some pretty success stories of their own, they have mostly failed to change the inequities in our society. The statistics on conventional schooling reveals a horrible division between the haves and have nots, and the way the Little Lake Free School is being organized will allow low income families to attend, and a lot of diversity, which means lots of different kinds of students will get a chance at succeeding in life.

Aarti Subramaniam

Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 6:17 a.m.

Research on small democratic free schools have shown that students graduate knowing themselves, what they want to do in life and how to get there (see Sudbury Valley School Press publications). Democratic free schools have the highest levels of trust and expectation of students than any traditional school model. They are responsible for their own learning - and they are responsible for maintaining a thriving and inclusive learning community through democratic process. What other curriculum could be quite as rigorous in preparing for life during and after school? And what better context to practice setting your own learning and life goals, managing your time, group decision-making and conflict resolution than in a small school community where the staff know the students well enough to provide them with individualized support throughout.

Paul Nugent

Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 10:37 p.m.

If there is any area in life that deserves freedom, it's in the area of learning and thinking. As Einstein said, "it is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."

Shella Zelenz

Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 6:52 p.m.

There is much education that needs to be done in the public regarding democratic education. I have personally taught in the traditional classroom as a certified teacher, and I've done extensive research into democratic education for my doctoral dissertation. I have attended many conferences where I've interviewed schools from all over the world regarding their democratic methods, their success rates, their failures, and their challenges. Statistically, these schools are more successful than the traditional public school model. Additionally, our current push toward standardized examination creates an entirely different kind of learner - the kind who learn to memorize facts to take a test, but have absolutely no applicable skills to benefit them in their adult lives. Democratic schools are all about application, reflection, implementation, and creative innovation. These students learn how to operate democratically, unlike their public school counterparts who are treated how to behave under a dictatorship. Public school children have absolutely no say over their own bodies, their minds, or their daily routines. They are automatons - is that the kind of society we need? We need students, who upon graduation already KNOW how to operate democratically - to be successful contributors in our democratic society (no I do not mean political party). Perhaps the concept of independent thinkers should be reconsidered. Our country NEEDS independent thinks, problem solvers, and creative innovators. That is the kind of students who come out of democratic schools. These methods have been utilized in many countries world-wide for over 90 years. This is not a new method. It is a tried and true, successful method to educate. I am very excited to see such a school implemented here in Ann Arbor.


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 3:56 p.m.

This concept might work very well for someone who has ADHD and is also gifted. Oh the possibilities!


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 1:35 p.m.

Throughout primary and secondary school I did just enough to get buy. That was mostly my choice, school was a place to hone my social skills, not my acadmeic skills. I also attended open classrooms in Ann Arbor during elemntary school.Later on I had to play catchup on the academic end. I waited a few years after high school to go to college and really had to learn the things I shut myself off to. Point being, trying to find a happy medium that applies to all kids when they are going through school is pretty difficult to say the least. Please get rid of the MEAP!


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 11:59 a.m.

Why pay $6K plus so they can do as they please, they might as well stay home. Imagine the realities of life.

Amy Lesemann

Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 11:57 a.m.

1. My daughter attends Community HS. She does NOT choose what to study and when to study it. If she did, she'd take NO math. I know this kid. But she needs math, and she would regret it down the road. 2. As a teacher who was told at one point to teach w/out grades, the kids were very excited by my innovative projects...until they had to work to learn some things that were really, really challenging. The heck with that! On to something NEW! They flit from new thing to new thing, never finishing. Some who are innately self disciplined (often the variously gifted) do flourish. But the kids who really struggle? who need structure? My kids in the Independent Learning Center beg for due dates!

Eric P

Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 11:11 a.m.

Diagenes said "BC John, Community High is a great example of why we have too many social workers looking for government jobs and not enough engineers." Care to back that up with some numbers? Or how about some facts?


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 10:08 a.m.

Open schools and free schools are related but not the same. To over-simplify, free schools give kids the option to do nothing, or to only do one thing all the time. Open schools give kids lots of choices, but in the end they have to participate and they have to learn a variety of subjects. Don't know about college, but the high school grades for kids from Ann Arbor Open are really good.


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 8:56 a.m.

Good luck on your venture. Innovation in education is needed at all levels. As I am sure you are aware children do not know what they do not know and often need to be motivated and challenged. BC John, Community High is a great example of why we have too many social workers looking for government jobs and not enough engineers.

birch creek john

Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 8:31 a.m.

Way back when Community High was begun and sitll an alternative school I was an employee there, and this new school sounds a lot like what we were trying to do then. Good luck to them. What's this nonsense about low college acceptance? The best schools in the country salivated for our students!


Sat, Feb 27, 2010 : 2 a.m.

sounds like alot of hippies will be sending their kids there....i wonder how many will actually graduate....

Maggi Idzikowski

Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 9:57 p.m.

treetowncartel, sounds like you needed some more democratic free schooling yourself. =)


Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 9:53 p.m.

Isn't this just the open school concept? I always liked the option of doing nothing at all.


Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 5:04 p.m.

The new school sounds intersting, lovely... It seems similar to the on-campus learning at Clonlara:

Erica Hobbs

Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 3:31 p.m.

Thanks, we've fixed the error.


Fri, Feb 26, 2010 : 3:08 p.m.

I'm guessing you mean "autonomy," although my own taste runs more to autocracy. And autospell, probably.