Making Free Schools Reliable Tools Not Just For The Privileged: Part 2 (More Questions and Solutions)

August 6, 2008 at 7:17 pm 1 comment

So, I’ve been having some trouble writing this specific post – not because I don’t have anything to say, but because there’s so much to discuss on this topic, and I just didn’t know where to begin. Because of that, I’m not going to try to address everything regarding these issues just with one post (I think that would be foolish to attempt, anyway). Instead, I want this to become an ongoing discussion on this blog. Last week, I asked: “[H]ow can free schools (or the acts of unschooling and free schooling) be developed so that they are not just useful for the privileged – and be made accessible and useful for all people?” I also asked what issues of privilege do free schools face. Commentors (commenters?) had some wonderful feedback and brought up some great points. Here are some highlights:

Lydia said:

in answer to your question, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the most obvious- making the free school actually free of cost. but also making them seem really legitimate. maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like a person of a higher class might not hold something like a diploma in as high regard as a person of a lower class, maybe because they don’t need it as much to access things like jobs or status.

Grace brought up:

I would say that there are a few obstacles to implementing free-schooling programs in communities that are under-privileged (I hate that word). The biggest obstacle to free-schooling in general (as far as I can tell from my conversations) is a lack of confidence and trust on the part of many parents. They either lack the confidence to facilitate such an educational choice, or they lack the trust that would let them allow their children to pursue their own education. Most parents just don’t believe that self-education is something that will happen without prompting (usually in the form of cajoling and/or blackmail). […]

I guess my first thought would be some kind of collective/communal alternative education center. Sharing solves a lot of problems. People could donate some of their time and money, and by pooling resources their children could opportunities for free education. The first obstacle would be convincing people that their children could truly benefit from such an education, as compared to the more usual school approach

Cvslevy had this to say:

I want to second the idea that lack of confidence by parents is a major challenge— especially in poor and working class communities. As someone who has spent time working with adult education on the West Side of Chicago, I know this well.

What these parents have observed and experienced is that for their children to overcome the burdens of race and/or class , they need to become better educated and work harder than their counterparts in more affluent communites who have the whole range of options in front of them.

For white and/or more affluent people, the opportunities are there for the taking. That is part of what is meant by “privilege.”

It appears that there is a general theme for today: People from privileged backgrounds already have loads of options open to them, and a degree (high school, college, etc.) is not necessarily a deal-breaker for them to get the kind of job, experience, or life they’re looking for. A diploma, “official” education, or a degree is the norm and their world of options are not necessarily limited by not getting these. This is not true for folks who are not of the same privileged background. The large numbers of people who are oppressed via either institutionalized and cultural racism, class barriers, sexism, and all the other oppressions that are so (historically and presently) ingrained into our systems of living, governance, and development do not have the same access to such “standards” of the privileged (the diplomas and degrees).

Why would they want to free school, unschool, or so on when basic measures of equality are not even being met for them? Already, many in their communities do not receive diplomas or degrees – or must struggle against opposition at every corner to get them (and once they do get them, their struggle does not end there) – but not by choice: but because they are denied the same equal and equitable access to these tools which would help and allow them to seek out the careers, jobs, lives, experiences, and choices that they might desire (things that the free schooling movement is dedicated to). In an oversimplified form, this is what it can come down to: people from privileged backgrounds can afford to free school, unschool, or so on and still have a large world of options available to them. People who are not from the same privileged backgrounds are not granted these same choices – the system will decide where there place in society is for them.

The free schooling movement’s largest problem is the same one that the standard educational system faces: making learning experiences and opportunities (and the choices that are available to them afterward) equal and equitable for all. That is the issue I will begin to address here.

(Again, I want to emphasize that what I’m about to say is not the end-all solution. It is just the beginning of an ongoing discussion that will be taking place on this blog.)

I want to first point out that there are free schools that have accomplished this. Take for instance The Albany Free School. In fact, the book about the history of the Albany Free School (Making It Up As We Go Along) was one of the first books I ever read specifically about free schools. The Albany Free School is set in the inner-city portion of Albany, NY – which is not necessarily known for being an affluent area. However, since the 1970’s, it has provided a free school environment for all people in the area – privileged, poor, white, people of color, boys, girls, and so on and so forth. I have never visited it, but it is one of the best examples of free schools providing equal and equitable learning experiences and choices for people of privileged and non-privileged backgrounds that I have read of. More historically, there was also The Modern School Movement which lasted from the 1910’s to the 1960’s. These are just a couple of examples – but they give us precedent that such goals can be achieved.

But, what are some specific ways that free schools can help (and also win the trust of) people from non-privileged backgrounds? There are two ways that I’m going to address in this post. The first is for free schools to actively work on social justice issues that specifically effect people of color, immigrants, women, poor, LGBTQ, and all folks that face structured inequalities within communities. The second is for free schools, while providing free schooling opportunities, to also address the issues of standard education inequalities.

One of the philosophies that free schooling is based on is the idea that learning primarily happens by doing. Thus, for a free school to actually learn about social justice issues (and actions and solutions), it must actively participate in combating institutionalized and structured injustices in our society. There are several ways that free schools can do this: either to start organizing on their own, to follow the lead of and support already established social justice organizations or groups, and to actively encourage community members to become involved in such actions. While I think providing workshops, classes, discussions, and literature about social justice issues is important – I want to forewarn against free schools only taking this measure. Again, I think these are EXTREMELY important but I personally believe that only taking classes, workshops, etc. about social justice issues can often be a guise for not becoming actively involved (also a way to learn) in addressing and fighting social inequality. Free schools must help organize events, programs, actions, and etc. that address social justice issues and they must coordinate with already existing social justice organizations and groups. Of course, this is a thin line to tread because free schools must not become involved in places they are not welcome or impose themselves and their views on those they are attempting to be allies with. They must work up the trust to become welcomed participants in the fight for social justice. Additionally, free schools attempting to work on social justice issues should not bounce from issue to issue with no consistency. Nothing screams “social justice playground for the privileged” like bouncing from issue to issue and having a social justice issue flavor of the week – these free schools should be reliable, trust worthy, and dependable allies.

In addition, free schools should work on issues that are specific to the individuals of the free schools and the communities that they are a part of. Working to directly improve the lives and communities of individuals that free schools are directly related to will help demonstrate how free schools can be reliable and helpful tools for those who are not from privileged backgrounds. Additionally, by combating (and hopefully succeeding against) social and structured inequality, free schools can begin to help tear down some of the walls that keep them from being true alternatives to all people.

The second topic that I wanted to address here is the need for free schools to help fight against standard education inequalities. I think this can easily be done by free schools with one important measure: to open their doors (and actively reach out) to people who are participating in the standard education system (high school, trying to get a GED, college, etc.) – and all people who may want to use its resources. There are many, many ways that this can be done, but I’m going to name just a few examples to start off with. Are there folks who are looking to get a GED? Organize free GED-preparing classes, study groups, tutoring, and so on. Are there immigrants in the region who are struggling not to be invisible and ignored (or attacked), but language barriers are keeping them at a disadvantage? Offer free group or one-on-one tutoring in English (while of course working against anti-immigrant sentiment). Are there non-privileged folks who want to stay in school to get a diploma/degree, but are struggling with a subject (or subjects)? Do outreach to help them find people who are willing to offer free tutoring, mentoring, or free school classes in the subjects. Why not provide “after school” or “outside of school” or weekend learning experiences that get people involved in fighting inequalities in their community – and do direct outreach to the folks who need it the most? Also – make sure the free school isn’t isolationist! Make direct contact and develop relationships with organizations, businesses, groups, and so on to get them in contact with folks from non-privileged backgrounds and get them jobs and internships that they may want. This is just the beginning of a list, but I think it demonstrates the point: it is okay for the free school to be a supplementary resource and tool for those people who are not from privileged backgrounds (and really, for all people). Such people may want a standard education and a diploma/degree, and free schools should help them in their endeavors – that is how free schools can be reliable tools for all people. Free schools should recognize that different people have different needs and wants, and it should be the free school’s goal to help all people learn in anyway that it can.

Note: I’m not saying all people from non-privileged backgrounds reject the idea of free schooling, but that this is one way to build trust in communities about the mission of free schools. Free schools should try to do outreach to all people the same, and maintain their views that the standard education system helps foster inequalities in our society – while recognizing that it should be everyone’s choice how they want to learn, and free schools should offer what they can do to everyone. Inequality in education can be addressed by both offering free schooling alternatives and by assisting those who want to use free schools as supplementary tools. Additionally, free schools should offer options at night and on the weekends – so that people who work/go to a standard school can have equal access to them.

Undoubtedly this is all a lot of work – but I’m not saying that free schools should try to take on every single one of these tasks immediately. Becoming overworked can cause unreliableness. Instead, free schools should work on each one of these tasks one at a time (or at whatever pace is doable) – until it can do the tasks reliably and add onto them. It would be counter-productive for a free school to become overworked and thus unreliable in its goals to help people from non-privileged backgrounds.

Again, this is just the beginning of the ongoing discussion on this blog of how free schools can be made reliable tools not just for the privileged. Please add your own questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, advice, ideas, and so on.


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, General Free Schooling. Tags: , , .

“Open Source Learning” (and The Anti-Textbook) Audio Links for 08/08/08

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Grace  |  August 7, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Wow! These are great ideas Brian.

    I agree that in order for a free-school to be available and attractive to all people, it needs to maintain a certain balance with its objectives. On the one hand, it needs to be an incubator for the members of the community who already believe that alternative education is viable and important. Yet, it should also be a safe place for the people who are not necessarily so ideologically inclined to find support and assistance in their own educational pursuits.

    The GED idea is a great start, and offering courses catered to immigrants is important. These activities would really back up the importance of social justice that you’re trying to impart to the members of the community.

    I still wonder about the best way to break into these communities, and build a foundation for a close relationship with the community members. It seems like just planting yourself in the neighborhood would not be enough, but I’m not sure how you would go about creating those ties. I think you’d have to find a partner who lived in the community/communities that you’re targeting.

    Hmm. I can’t wait to read other people’s thoughts on this subject.


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