The Philadelphia Free School – Fostering Community-Based Education

Below, I have written about the democratic model of education and the Philadelphia Free School. While I have asked experts to confirm many details, my words come from my own research and experiences. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to pursue your own research and form your own conclusions. While discussion is welcome, please note that mean-spirited comments are not acceptable and will not be posted. In the words of a fellow mother, “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” Thank you!

Philly Free SchoolI attended a meeting a few weeks ago that gave me hope for the education of my children.

Curious? Read on.

I’ve been researching the school “situation” for over a year now, trying to plan ahead for my now 3.5 and 2 year old sons. The panic started after we realized how competitive spots were in a “good” preschool, and therefore must be equally or more so in primary schools. My early research resulted in frustration and several key questions:

  1. Which charter schools and other catchments should we apply to?
  2. What are the chances of getting in via those lotteries?
  3. Should we apply to any private schools?
  4. Could we even pay for them?
  5. Do we try to move to a “better” public school catchment?
  6. Do we even agree with the structure of public education?
  7. Do I quit my job and try to homeschool?
  8. What (if any) are our other options?

I won’t say that the model I’m about to discuss is perfect for everyone. As with anything, of course it’s not. But I would wager that for many, when done well, it could offer the foundation for a rich and satisfying (i.e. successful) life.

You may have heard of the term “un-schooling.” I had, and it concerned me. I was conditioned to believe that kids without the structure of traditional “school” would run wild or be lazy. How could they possibly learn the fundamental skills needed to get by in life? Four years ago, when I started learning about the “democratic model” or “free school” I carried in my mind a picture of chaos and completely wrote it off. Then several months ago, in all of my research, it bubbled back to the surface and I revisited the concept and began to understand the true workings of the system. It only really manifested as a distinct possibility for our family about a month before the informational meeting for the Philadelphia Free School that I attended.

Recently, I’ve read comments about failed schools that were “similar” to this model, and how students there “underperformed.” While I believe some conclusions are relative to what you perceive to be the best gauge of “performance,” I also think that, as with any venture, the formation of a democratic school requires extensive research, planning and support to facilitate its success. Fortunately, there are a number of well-established free schools (for example, the Sudbury Valley School has been operating as a democratic school for nearly 43 years) that boast impressive college acceptance rates and successful alumni, even by mainstream standards.

The founders of the Philadelphia Free School have spent over a decade researching and immersing themselves in successful programs throughout the country, thus allowing them to gain the best possible understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and to plan accordingly.

A Day in the Life

ReadingMy deepest understanding always comes from experience, be it real or virtual. So, not surprisingly, much of my understanding of the democratic model came from hearing and reading stories that allowed me to experience (albeit vicariously) various scenarios as they had played out in the lives of students and teachers. One of my favorite accounts was from Philadelphia Free School co-founder, Reb Loucas, who noted that the dominant activity that he witnessed again and again at all of the schools where he had worked or visited, was reading: students reading alone, teachers reading to students, and older students reading to younger students. He told a wonderful story about a young man whom he had passed many times throughout the course of the day, and only when the student moved, around eight hours after the first encounter, did he realize that he had been sitting there for the entire time reading an SAT prep book.

Reading was and is my absolute favorite mode of learning, and a voracious appetite for it is why I have always felt comfortable with spelling, grammar and writing. It also encourages imagination, and is a solid foundation for learning about any subject. There was also a great story about digging a (very big) hole, but I’ll recommend that you explore other resources for additional case studies!


Yes, there IS a structure for child-led learning. The democratic model does not simply dump children in a school and let them fend for themselves. While the overriding theme is that of a world of children, one also finds teachers, resources, and rules.


Children look up to adults and rely upon them as figures they can trust for support, information, and guidance. Teachers at a democratic school facilitate learning.


A key element is that there should be a variety of resources available to encourage student exploration, with more being added based on areas of common interest. For example, one might find a kitchen in which to cook, a library, and rooms outfitted for technology, media, music, and fitness. In an urban setting, outside resources are also readily available.


Rules (and consequences) are established and enforced as part of the democratic process. Each person has one vote, and matters of rules and discipline are handled in such a way that makes each adult and child personally accountable. It took me some time to grasp how this would play out, but upon listening to interviews and reading accounts of how the process works, it makes perfect sense as a mode of teaching accountability, and involving children in a process that clearly demonstrates that actions have consequences, that to have a successful community, rules are an important part, and that there are reasons that they must be followed; lessons that are often sorely lacking in a traditional dictatorial model.


I realize I can’t write a whole post on democratic education without mentioning money. In brief, it seems to be a common goal for democratic schools to strive for affordable tuition. Speaking for our local school, as an urban version of the model, the commitment is to not only offer affordable tuition, but to offer 50% of spots to students requiring financial aid, in order to encourage economic and cultural diversity by reaching urban youth that would not otherwise have access. In this way, it’s not just another private school.

Trusting our Children

Trusting your child to direct his or her education is a lesson in letting go. As a parent, I am constantly reminded that my children, as young as they still are, are independent people. They have distinct personalities. They have interests and learning styles that are different than mine. They each require different things from me as a parent, and they constantly keep me on my toes as I strive to nurture them in a way that encourages them to be conscientious and compassionate members of society. I have finally come to a place where I have let go of enough control to realize how beautifully curious they are, and how at any given moment, they are learning something new.

One of the points that I just couldn’t get my head around was a statement about video games; That my child would be allowed to sit and play video games all day, every day, if that is what he chose to do. Maybe it was just the fact that it was “video games” that hung me up for so long, but finally, I heard an explanation that helped me to put it in perspective.

In short: When kids direct their own education, they make choices that won’t always line up with what we might want for them – but even if they play video games or basketball for a month before deciding to move on to another interest, you have to trust that they gained something important from being allowed to choose that path and experience. When left alone, kids tend to tackle an interest wholeheartedly and learn as much as they possibly can at that stage of development, whether it’s biology, Shakespeare, athletics, or video games. This instinctual approach allows them to naturally develop the skills needed to follow something through to completion, as well as gaining the tools needed to effectively research a subject. With over 40 years to back up their claim, I also know that I can trust that eventually they will always move on!

Finding Themselves

I heard a lot of talk about people “finding themselves” while in college. While not exclusively so, it’s not unusual for people to arrive at their early twenties and realize that they are just beginning to feel independent, and for the first time have enough space to consider what their true interests are, and what might come next. Not surprisingly, it is common to see young adults making poor choices and floundering. What a great source of stress for a young adult to suddenly have to cram it all in – to choose a major or career, study hard, explore extracurricular activities and experience life as a newly independent person, all in a short span of years. Now imagine having been given the space to passionately explore many interests and navigate the waters of life throughout childhood while still surrounded by your parents and a strong support system at school. Then, based on this freedom, to make decisions about where to go when you reach adulthood, even if it means having the confidence to take more time to decide. A child-led model of learning encourages exploration and independence from the very beginning, setting the stage to nurture young adults who are secure in whom they are.

This is what I want for my children.

I realize that this post is getting extremely long, and that there is more to cover related to this topic than I could ever manage in a simple blog post, so I’m going to cut it off here. However, I look forward to learning more and engaging in discussions as we continue to support our local Philadelphia Free School. In addition, I will be posting a few education resources in the resources section in the coming days.

2 Comments The Philadelphia Free School – Fostering Community-Based Education

  1. Leah

    Thanks for this post, Meg. I think I share a lot of your thoughts about this whole school thing. After observing this latest round of charter school lottery results, it has made me even more interested in learning what the alternatives are (and a wee bit panicked at the thought of going through this with E). I especially resonated with the part about trusting (and knowing) your kids- and have realized that this is not something that comes “naturally” in our current parenting (or education) culture. But it makes me want to be a better parent…and I can’t help but think that it would make them want to be better kids/students/humans as well. Thanks for letting me mooch off of your research! I am looking forward to going to one of the next info meetings…

  2. reb loucas

    Just rereading this blog entry, Meg. Our next info sessions are February 7th and 23rd, 2012 from 6-8 PM at the school… 2001 Christian. We would love to see you there.


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