Ann Arbor's Little Lake Free School will offer novel approach to education this fall
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
When Melissa Palma was seeking schools for her two children, she found plenty of options in Ann Arbor. But none of those schools, Palma and husband Rodolfo thought, were adequately focused on the development of their children as a whole, as human beings.
So the Palmas decided to start their own school, something Melissa Palma has wanted to do for more than a decade.
The Palmas, trained educators, finally took the leap after partnering with a small group of fellow educators. The Palmas plan to open the doors of the Little Lake Free School this fall.
In this case, the word free doesn't have anything to do with cost, but with a student's ability to direct his own education. Students, individually and as a group, set the terms of what to learn and when. If a student loves history and hates math, he doesn't have to do math.
Rodolfo Palma said that he "got the most he could" out of the mainstream educational system - free school staffers call it the dominant system - but that "even at its best" those schools deprived him of a more profound experience. He wanted more for his children.
"The dominant system is about setting children up for the next step. It's not really about learning," he said after a recent informational session for Little Lake.
The session that night was sparsely attended, but the free school already has 10 students registered, enough to open in the fall. Six more are applying for admission.
"I don't buy into the idea that every fourth-grader needs to learn the 50 states," said Carla Freeman, a volunteer with the school. "Every child should learn at his or her own pace."
Little Lake, which models itself on the Albany Free School (founded in 1969) and has taken guidance from other free school operators from around the country, is firm in the belief that students will choose to learn - when they're ready.
Melissa Palma was taken aback after a recent visit to a kindergarten class where the students were writing monologues.
"Monologues? In kindergarten? Why?" said Palma, formerly a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. "Nowadays we're asking kindergarteners to do things we were doing in 3rd grade. And I don't believe kids now are necessarily any better off for it."
"What if my kids want to do nothing all day?" reads a query on the frequently asked questions page on the Little Lake website.
Melissa Palma and company believe that "deschooling" is a natural part of the free school experience. The thinking is that after years of being told what to do, and when, students will take their first few days adjusting to their newfound freedom by doing nothing at all.
"Kids have a natural curiosity," said Freeman. "They won't be able to 'do-nothing' for long."
Eventually, Freeman said, the student will become bored and ask the educators what he or she should do. That's the moment instructors are waiting for, because it tells them the child is ready to learn.
"That's when we turn it around," Freeman explained. "We ask the students what they want to do, and then we help them learn it," no matter if the student's interest is the water cycle or kickball or writing stories.
The school day, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. through 3:45 p.m., will begin with a school-wide check-in. Here the educators will ask students what their goals for the day are and what projects or interests they'd like to pursue.
Next, Little Lake will have three instruction periods, sandwiched between lunch and snacks. But students won't be obligated to do schoolwork. Nor will they be prevented from turning an instructional period into a recess period - or three, if the mood strikes.
Snack time and lunchtime will be a team effort between staffers and students, with the goal of giving each child a role in feeding the group.
Melissa Palma said that students will also have a chance to grow food in the community garden at the school, which will be housed is in the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Lohr Road.
The school day will end with a school-wide afternoon check-in, during which students will discuss what they achieved that day or raise questions.
Any member of the Little Lake community, whether student or teacher, can call an all-school meeting at any time. If, say, one student punches another on the arm, the school community, not just the principal, will determine the punishment.
"Things like punishments and suspensions feel more legitimate when they come from the community," Freeman said. "But we don't think that'll come up much."
The Rev. Joe Summers, vicar of the host church, said that the partnership is partly the result of convenience - Little Lake won't need the building on the weekend or at night, the church doesn't need it weekdays - and partly a matter of compatibility.
But Summers said, more than anything, it is his belief in Little Lake's founders that led him to give the OK. Final approval for the partnership must be made at the diocesan level, Summers said, but he's not anticipating any trouble. Melissa Palma said the school and the church are planning a mixer during the school year so that both groups get to know one another.
Given the struggles many students face in public schools, Palma and company take umbrage at the idea that Little Lake is an experiment that will require a leap of faith from parents.
"Dominant schools are just as much of a risk," Palma said.
The school has no accreditation, but founders are working to achieve non-profit status for the school. There will be no formal student evaluations unless requested.
The school offers full-time and part-time options, ranging from 5 full days to the equivalent of two and a half days. Full tuition is $6,600 per year with a cooperative discount option available. Little Lake will accommodate students ages 4-12, with the goal of expanding its reach as the school grows.
The Little Lake Free School isn't for everyone, staffers say. And they're fine with that.
"We don't need hundreds of students for this idea to work," said co-founder Mary Getz, who will provide artistic instruction at Little Lake. "We just need the right ones."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.