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Posted on Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 10 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Little Lake Free School will offer novel approach to education this fall

By James Dickson

Little Lake Melissa Palma and Mary Getz .jpg

Little Lake Free School founder Melissa Palma, left, and co-founder Mary Getz stand outside of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor. They plan to use the church for their school.

Angela Cesere |

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.

Student-led education

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."

A Day in the Life

"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."

Compatible partners

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


Maggi Idzikowski

Thu, Jun 24, 2010 : 12:10 a.m.

William -- I'm sorry to hear your experiences at the Albany Free School were less than satisfactory. When did you attend? Luckily for the LLFS and its attendees, the majority of students attending democratic free schools are very happy with their experiences and go on to experience success in their chosen careers. One reference for this is Legacy of Trust: (Google Books link); another is The Pursuit of Happiness: Some pertinent clips can be found here: As for LLFS's refusing admittance of certain students, their goal is to provide access to all families who wish to attend, which includes offering financial support to families in need. The admission process itself is not in place to "weed out bad kids," but rather to establish a dialogue from the very start with parents and children about who they are and what they want from their school. I'm excited about this school and what it offers to the Ann Arbor community! Melissa, Matt and Mary's passion, expertise and love for children and real teaching (not to mention low teacher to child ratio) will be a huge boon to their students next year.


Wed, Jun 23, 2010 : 10:35 p.m.

Those children are so lucky! Long life to the Little Lake Free School!!!


Tue, Jun 22, 2010 : 4:34 p.m.

William - As a "special needs" student myself, I can assure you that this model will allow children of ALL abilities to participate in a warm, exciting community. As a democratic free school everyone will be able to share their strengths in an equitable manner. For the purely academic aspects - I have worked with a variety of people (especially children) with disabilities throughout my entire life and I am very comfortable working with anyone that wishes to attend the Little Lake Free School. On a similar note, Melissa has worked in Detroit and Ypsilanti, and Matt has been doing prison work and currently works at a juvenile detention center, so we are all very aware of possible access and discrimination issues. I appreciate your concern for diversity and want to you to feel comfortable that we are constantly keeping these things at the forefront of our journey. 40 Oaks- In addition to being an advocate for people with disabilities I also have tutored in a special education classroom and worked as an assistant teacher at Annie's Children's Center. I attended the University of Michigan for Psychology and Women's Studies and then moved on to Graduate School at Eastern Michigan University where I have been exploring the social aspects of schooling in the Social Foundations of Education Masters program.

Melissa Palma

Tue, Jun 22, 2010 : 4:23 p.m.

@ William, Mary and I are in Albany at the Albany Free School for the North American Democratic Education conference and the Alternative Education Organization's conference until Sunday morning. If you email us via our website, we'd really love to speak with you and hear more of your perspective. We are here to learn more from youth, staff, founders, and parents who have started and who work in democratic free schools day in and day out. This is a part of our research.


Tue, Jun 22, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

I can't wait to see this model in Pennsylvania (where I live). How do we start to organize? Sign me up.

Andrew Smith

Tue, Jun 22, 2010 : 8:32 a.m.

Education works best when people are free to experiment with different forms of schools. This is the free-market principle. I probably won't send my child to the "Little Lake Free School," but I applaud its founders for trying a new idea. As long as there are no taxpayer dollars involved, let's encourage all kinds of people to start various types of schools. The free market principle will tell us in the long run which ones are successful.


Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 4:57 p.m.

After reading Paul Nugent's comments, let's add gross exaggerations to their marketing strategy. Care to cite those studies you mentioned Paul?

Paul Nugent

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 4:40 p.m.

If we think that nothing is wrong with conventional schooling, then a radical alternative is scary. In the big picture, conventional schooling is the radical departure from the real world, both in methodology (sit and listen) and in results (little ability to transfer skills and actually apply knowledge). Studies have shown that we remember only 4% of what we learned in school. A motivated and interested child or adult can learn anything in a fraction of the time we spend training children under compulsion.


Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 4:31 p.m.

Steve, I doubt you will get a worthwhile answer to your questions. This "fluff" story is in essence part of their marketing strategy for their school. (This is not necessarily a bad thing; marketing is a part of any business plan and this school is a business). Not having this school "chartered" allows them to be more selective of the students and families they let in to the school. Bet your bottom dollar (or 7 thousand of those dollars) that you won't see a lot of special needs students welcomed into the school. The school won't be the right "fit" for them (wink). Every response here from the founders and their supporters repeat the marketing mantra. First, deride "traditional" schools, then utter "buzz" words and phrases ("choice", "social", "opportunity", "dominant system", real-life skills"....)... You get the picture. If they are basing their school on the Albany Free School, they should do a little more research and be a little more forthright about the pros and cons. Hooray for a little straight talk... If it ever comes.


Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 11:19 a.m.

I am excited to see that the article has created such a stir! More dialogue on the topic of education and specifically alternative approaches to education is a wonderful thing! I believe in this school because it offers something new. Too many of our schools offer options that are exactly the same as the school down the road. True advancement requires innovative thinking, which is often seen as outrageous. To answer someones question about curriculum and specifically about chartering a school.... There are far fewer restrictions on curriculum in a private school. The founders of this school were very smart and deliberate in making their school private. Charter schools are governed by the same standards and expectations as traditional public schools. (Including High Stakes Testing and State Wide Expectations) Hooray for choices in education, Hooray for conversations about education, and hooray for holistic thinking in education! Congratulations to the parents who seek to find the very best fit for their child! I am proud to be associated with choice in education!

Steve Hendel

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 9:58 a.m.

This last comment raised an additional point in my mind; what happens when one of your students leaves the Free School and proceeds on to high school, college and/or the workplace? Will they not discover fairly quickly that this "real world" does not function at all like the Free School, and that essentially "doing your own thing" and taking the path of least resistance does not lead to a successful adulthood, however you define "success"? Sometimes, in school or in life, learning involves being challenged; how will your students be challenged?


Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 8:16 a.m.

I attended The Albany Free School. It was an "interesting" experience. However, it didn't quite live up to the hype, as I recall. The school had a mastery of the feel good "buzzwords"; but my experience was less than satisfactory. I found I was well behind my peers when entering high school. Of course, it was all my fault (wink wink) for, my self-directed pace was too slow. This is not to say that this endeavor won't be successful. I would advise Melissa and Mary to ditch the clichs.

Steve Hendel

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 5:53 a.m.

I am curious, and hope that one of the founders of the School can clarify this: does not the State of Michigan prescribe a certain basic curriculum for private schools, non-profit or otherwise? If that is the case, how will your School meet this requirement? Also, why did you not consider founding it as a Charter School?


Mon, Jun 21, 2010 : 2:45 a.m.

My favorite treatise on the subject of education (besides Bertrand Russell's) is Dr. Tae's excellent "Building a new culture of teaching and learning" (and not only because it draws analogies between skateboarding and the scientific method! :-) Whether or not you agree with the particular approach Little Lake is taking (or Summers-Knoll, Mack Open, Honey Creek, Clonlara, Rudolph Steiner, Community High, any of the Montessori schools, etc. for that matter), I hope everyone can appreciate the diversity of choices available in a community as dedicated to education as Ann Arbor. Besides our schools, we have such amazing hands-on experiential learning opportunities through groups like the Leslie Science & Nature Center, Hands-On Museum, Rocks & Robots, Brain Monkeys, All Hands Active, and so on. There's probably a list somewhere - if not, someone should add one at or :-)


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:10 p.m.

@Whatever! Nothing personal here except that you mentioned Saline. My student was a Saline student. Despite plenty of AP classes in high school, it still teaches to the middle, with little or no variation regarding learning style. In younger grades there is probably more acceptance, and certainly help for those at the lower end, as there should be. However, when a student in high school can read and memorize a textbook, sometimes quoting back more accurately than the teacher, yet is sent home with a 3 hour assignment requiring him to regurgitate that on paper to prove it, when both teacher and student know the student knows it, something is wrong. Where's the IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) for that? P.S. Special education is funded only for students below the norm, not above the norm. Perhaps Saline could up its enrollment and revenue by actually accepting that people want a pull-out program or some other acknowledgement of high-end learning styles (allow teachers to reward the learners, not just the obeyers?), along the lines of Greenhills in AA, but without that massive tuition. I believe in public education but it should work for everyone. From our son's second psychologist visit, it was noted that he recognized a waste of his time, wasn't afraid of low grades, but kept being "intrinsically motivated to learn". Good thing he continued on in the face of apparent failure, specifically low GPA. By the time he was in an advanced English class in 10th or 11th grade, having already read every book in the curriculum, the teacher put him in the hallway for his own specialized reading schedule but wanted him back in the classroom for discussions since he "was a catalyst". He would scan the classroom book and contribute/initialize discussions. He got a C or less in that class. (Another English teacher said he made amazing connections between disparate readings - things she had not even considered.) So much for gifted education in Saline - giftedly wealthy parents, often, but true care and value for educating all students to the student's highest capability? No. My son is not a "granola chomping, birkenstock wearing" liberal arts major - he is a technical/logical type majoring in a technical area (he just happens to have great English language skills too) as you imply your child will be. So was Bill Gates, a dropout from "traditional" education. I hear he is doing quite well, despite dropping out.


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 9:24 p.m.

Thanks for publishing this very full story with photos. My friend, Josh Scully, and I set out to do the same thing several years ago, but were not able to bring it off. I am glad to see that this kind of education option will be available at last in Ann Arbor. Owing to ill health, I am not able to participate, but I would be happy to help stock this new school's library. Keep your readers up to date on the school's progress.

Melissa Palma

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 9:20 p.m.

@ Cynthia. My husband and I speak Spanish so I am sure we'll have a lot of classes and books and speaking Spanish in the school. Say a child wants to learn Russian, if I do not know Russian and the other staff and parents in our educational community do not speak Russian, then we can 1- go to the library and get audio tapes to listen to Russian, books about Russia and in Russian, and 2- find someone in the community who can come in once or twice a week to teach Russian. Then, like every other class we offer, it will be up to the other students if they want to sign up to learn Russian or not. @ Whatever. The funny thing is that I was born and raised in Saline and so am a product of that education! Hmmmm...I wonder what that says about me or the education I received? @ Autumn Craft. Thanks for the vote of confidence. If anyone would like to see more about the happiness and well being of free school graduates, go to

Autumn Craft

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 8:28 p.m.

@ Whatever!-- Why do you get the feeling that your fundamentally educated Saline student will end up supporting the free-schoolers? Perhaps because you haven't bothered to find out any facts about free schools? Their students actually have excellent records of getting into good colleges and technical schools. Please don't let your son design any bridges that he has a feeling won't fall down--get an engineer who went to a free school, who developed a passion for building bridges and was allowed to design bridges, build model bridges, read about bridges, draw bridges, learn the geometry of bridges, get an internship with someone who works on bridges, study historical bridges--all while your son sat in his seat and memorized his fundamentals so he'd do well on the MEAP.


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 6:41 p.m.

Yes - good luck with your new business. Variety, competition, choice...all are good. Oh...don't be surprised if your young customers show little or no interest in 'radical' politics. Some things, much like the plastic & posters someone mentioned, are largely window dressing for parents. Kids get it...


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 6:27 p.m.

I'm not sure if the U.S. educational system can get any worse, but why do I get the feeling that my fundamentally educated Saline student will be an engineer supporting your granola chomping, birkenstock wearing, free schooled, Ann Arbor liberal arts major with his hard earned tax money someday??? Yes I know that's a run-on sentence, but there was so much to include..... :-)

Lynne Chaimowitz

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 6:25 p.m.

Congratulations on getting this school off the ground. It reflects the true need for change in education and dedicated individuals who take the time to find solutions, rather than pointing out more problems. Best of luck.


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 5:38 p.m.

Good luck Little Lake Free School! The community will only be improved with more options for education.

Cynthia Gabriel

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 2:34 p.m.

I was intrigued by this story. We would love for our kids to go to the local public school, but for many reasons this is not the right option for us. I am still glad to pay taxes to support free education for all, however. I feel that there is way too much emphasis on GRADES and competition in our public school system. There is not enough emphasis on healthy eating and healthy food preparation (and since we eat three meals a day plus snacks isn't this more important for children to learn than many other subjects?). When I see the public school classrooms, they look crowded with plastic-looking equipment and posters. The atmosphere is not beautiful or calming. Our local public school does not offer foreign language to children in first grade, when it is easier to learn than in high school. For all these reasons, we chose a private school. I'm glad to see that there are more options for thinking parents available in our community now. I'm curious how the school will handle a child's request to learn a foreign language?


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:56 a.m.

As a parent who sent three children through public schools, I can see the need for some children to have this kind of option. Two of my three children received excellent grades. One of my children was repeatedly referred to as, "intrinsically motivated to learn; not motivated by grades". We were terrified he would not graduate from middle school, never mind high school, and wouldn't get into college. One teacher in high school said he was the most intelligent in her class, particapted freely, and would probably get the worst grade due to the mandated grading guidelines. Twice we took him to psychologists - no learning disabilities or ADD - in fact he was gifted. Despite his poor GPA at the end of high school, he did extremely well on ACT and SAT, was accepted at his first choice university, and got a nice scholarship too. Thankfully, he looks back on his high school years as valuable but others in his situation, or parents who might not appreciate that high grades do not always equal superior learning, might not have concluded that. Congratulations to Little Lake Free School for offering an alternative for students like mine.

Melissa Palma

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:36 a.m.

Kayjay, I appreciate your comment and understand your concern. This is a very different model of education than traditional schools. My belief is that children are learning all the time, whether it is playing or studying or sitting quietly and contemplating... they are always learning. I also know that if a child loves animals, for example, we can study geography and see where different animals live, we can study the anatomy of animals, we can write stories and read books and create/perform plays about animals, we can do art and even math while studying animals. We will be teaching and learning all day long. I know that our variety of classes and content will allow children to be very well-rounded...just maybe not in content that is outdated and rote. We'll offer more in hands-on activities, we will teach and learn real life skills, we will interact more with the community and invite many adults to come in to volunteer to teach a class in what they are passionate about or what they do for a living. Isn't this type of learning just as valuable as learning the states and presidents?


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:23 a.m.

I'll be sure to donate all my "radical, feminist, multicultural, fiction" books to you as your web site requests.

Melissa Palma

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:18 a.m.

Thanks for your support, 'say it plain', and for writing this article, James. I am a certified secondary teacher and have 11 years of experience in various educational settings. I started my teaching career in 1998 working with academically struggling youth in an elementary school in Ann Arbor. Then, in 1999, I taught African American Literature at Southeastern High School on the east side Detroit. After two years of boundless inspiration from the students and constant frustration with administration and staff, I decided that I wanted to start my own that encouraged the students to have a voice in their education, one that involved parents and that valued teachers' experiences, knowledge, and passions. I wanted to start a school that was truly participatory and that nurtured the whole child (intellectual, physical but also social, emotional and artistic). I earned a Masters at U of M in Social Work in Community Organizing with a minor in Management to learn about how to start a non-profit, namely, a school. I catered every course, paper and assignment to my primary goal and took practical classes so I could learn about management, fundraising, Logic Models, organizational charts, budgeting, statistics, evaluation, and youth empowerment. For my field placement, I started an after-school teen center at Latino Family Services in Detroit. I worked as a ropes course facilitator, designing trust building and team building activities Later, I started a new Farmers Market in downtown Ypsilanti with various new programs to help low-income residents gain better access to healthy food. I taught poetry to elementary children in Detroit with a fabulous non-profit called Inside Out. I worked as a student teacher supervisor at the University of Michigan, where I supported, observed, and guided student teachers from Ann Arbor elementary schools to Detroit high schools. Most recently, I have been teaching U of M undergraduate classes on the issues of prisons and educational inequalities over the last couple years and I am a Program Evaluation Consultant for Non-profits in the area. Perhaps most importantly, I am a mother of a 4 year-old daughter and a 6 year-old son. My son is now of kindergarten age so last winter, my husband and I attended all of the kindergarten round-ups and orientations for the public neighborhood school to the private schools to the charter schools. After all of my experiences in educational settings, I felt I knew too much about what the language of the teachers meant and who our schools are producing. My husband and I were not satisfied with any of them. So I contemplated: if not now, when? If not me, who? So now the Little Lake Free School has 10 enrolled students and 6 more enrollment packets coming in. We may not be a perfect fit for everyone but I look forward to this fall when students and staff get to bring in our knowledge and curiosities and create a rich and vibrant and equal learning environment. I look forward to classes about woodworking, puzzles, reading and writing and zine making, history of different ethnic groups in the US, silkscreening, science projects, community involvement, and lots of outdoor time and plenty of field trips! I look forward to comments here!


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 11:06 a.m.

I am thrilled about this school, not just because we are starting it, but because I have seen the "best" that dominant education has to offer and seen it fail. Children get a lot out of learning geography and understanding the world, but learning capitals for the sake of rote memorization doesn't help anyone but test manufactures. Children get very important learning of out learning math, but very little by forcing them to learn only one way to solve problems. I am not as concerned with my children passing tests. I used to teach at a ACT/SAT prep center: tests are a game, not a measure of future success or of understanding. I want my children to learn things of value: ethics, self-motivation, self-reliance, and how to find new solutions to new problems. This can only be done in a loving adult environment that allows children the freedom to know themselves. This is hardly a "disaster-in-waiting". This is the type of learning that helped Edison create the first lightbulb. This is the sort of learning that allowed me to learn all the names and locations of all the countries in the world, and all the US states at age 13. I learned those facts not because it was on a test, but because I wanted to know the world around me. I still remember most of what I learned that summer of reading. However, when I was 17, I was required to learn every president in the US for a test. I passed the test, but I still can't remember the presidents like I remember the countries I learned at 13. I am eager for my children to start at LLFS, and I can only hope that all children have such an opportunity, and all teachers have the ability to have freedom in their classrooms.


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 10:43 a.m.

Not teach students math or the states and their capitols. How is this preparing a well-rounded individual? While independent class pursuits may be worthy of part of a school day, you must teach the basics or you are doing a terrible disservice to these kids. And allowing a child to decide whether to study or play? A child needs structure, not a free-for-all. We are steering clear of this disaster-in-waiting.


Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 10:36 a.m.

I have been very skeptical of this concept in the past but as I help my grand-kids with their 'home work" from time to time I am beginning to see how much effort is put into "learning things that will be of little value other than the discipline it takes to learn a particular thing. Best of Luck to the school and students!

say it plain

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 10:02 a.m.

In the article it indicates clearly that they are "trained educators", and it states specifically that Melissa Palma was a teacher for the Detroit Public Schools... I am excited about this option for Ann Arbor! I agree that we are too willing to herd our children about, telling them what to do every moment, expecting this that or the other bit of 'work' to be produced from them, at ages where play and natural curiosity should instead be celebrated and nurtured. What should be primary is their development as *whole* people, and as *social* beings who would benefit most from guidance in how to be in the world, how to be with other children, with adults, how to be comfortable and themselves. When educators are too busy lining kids up and having them fill in the blanks on worksheets or helping them write speeches in kindergarten, however well-meaning these efforts might be, we are doing many kids (even if not all of them!) a huge disservice. Good luck with this Little Lake Free School!

40 Oaks

Sun, Jun 20, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

@ James Dickson: What specific experience and training do the Palmas and Mary Getz have?