by Stephanie Sarantos

Reprinted with permission of Stephanie Sarantos, author, and Polishing Stone Foundation. Originally published in The Polishing Stone, Issue #14 / Winter 2006. Copyright © 2004–2006, The Polishing Stone.

Like most 17–year–olds, my oldest son stays up late. Unlike most 17–year–olds, he recently spent many of those late–night hours studying math in preparation for taking the SAT. Until about four months prior to the test, he had never formally studied math – he had never needed to divide fractions, had never heard of quadratic equations and knew nothing about graphing parabolas. Now, he feels at ease with most aspects of pre–college math and struggled only with the most difficult test questions in his SAT practice book.

My youngest son, who is five, seems to see the entire world as a math problem and delights in the quantification of all things. His focus is on “extreme” counting, from one to one hundred, to infinity, googolplex and beyond. He loves to invent number problems and answers. He also has a strong sense of subtraction and addition – operations he finds extremely important in shopping, board games and all things competitive.

Student playing Magic, the card game.

My children are educated at The Clearwater School, in Bothell, Washington, where I am also a staff person. (Adults at Clearwater are not called teachers in order to emphasize that we all teach and learn from each other.) Students learn by pursuing what they are most interested in with unchecked passion and purpose. They have the freedom to determine how to spend their time each school day. With this freedom, they engage in the activities they find most useful and intriguing. They can study math all day long or not at all.

Clearwater follows the Sudbury model of education created by the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1968. The model asserts that children learn best when allowed to pursue their own interests according to their unique developmental timetables and internal motivations. No curriculum, incentives, tests or grades are ever imposed, and evaluations are used only at student initiation. There are now over 30 Sudbury schools throughout the world where children educate themselves by spending their days doing things they love.

The success of the Sudbury model is demonstrated each time students learn to read, spell, add, subtract, draw, race, knit or play chess at their own initiative. Students also experience personal “failures” – losing board games or running races, abandoning stories they lost interest in writing or discarding drawings that do not match mental images. These “failures” actually reveal another side to success. Clearwater students do not get an “F” or “D” when they fail to attain their goals; they get a chance to try again – to begin writing a new story or developing a better chess strategy. They grow to understand, firsthand, the relationship between personal effort, accomplishment and learning.

Student–initiated learning looks more like play than study. In fact, play seems to be the most essential ingredient in education at all Sudbury schools. Visitors first notice a level of childhood exuberance that is usually limited to preschools. Five–year–olds spend their days on slides and hanging bars, playing dress–up and sharing lunch. Twelve–year–olds play football and soccer for hours on end. Board games, computer games, novels, music and art are abundant. Teens talk all the time about silly and serious topics, debating hair color and philosophy side by side.

Clearwater students’ sense of self–confidence and composure is striking. Adult visitors to Clearwater are often greeted by four–year–olds and fourteen–year–olds who look them in the eye. Those who closely observe and listen also notice a quality of intellectual deliberation that is typically associated with graduate schools. For example, students debate the politics of capitalism during a game of trivial pursuit, teens discuss the theories of personality development while watching four–year–olds argue, and six–year–olds apply principles of social justice in order to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Student doing gymnastics outside.

Students who experience individual freedom naturally develop a sense of personal responsibility. Each time students decide what to do next – eat lunch or climb a tree – they build a foundation of practice and experience that gives them the confidence and skill to take responsibility for their education and their lives. Their responsibility also extends outward to the school community. Students and staff work together to govern the school and maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect. All individuals have equal rights, and everyone’s voice is valued and considered in decision making.

Clearwater’s structures of governance include a weekly School Meeting to determine rules and policies, Daily Meetings to address conflicts and enforce rules and multiple committees that are authorized to manage specific aspects of school. Students may assume responsibilities that contribute to the school’s daily operation, including chairing the weekly School Meeting, maintaining the computer room, caring for animals and developing and overseeing the cleaning procedure. Through managing the issues that arise in daily life, students learn the mechanics of citizenship.

Those new to the model sometimes question whether students will also acquire essential skills and a well–rounded knowledge base. In fact, students tend to be highly knowledgeable and work hard at difficult and unpleasant tasks, even though they are not “required” to do so. They adeptly meet requirements presented by other educational settings and employers.

The Sudbury Valley School recently completed an extensive study of former students that provides qualitative and quantitative evidence of the success of the model. Graduates tend to see themselves as creative individuals who feel successful and happy about their lives. They pursue a full spectrum of diverse careers and interests; 45 percent of those surveyed were self employed or owned small businesses; 82 percent of graduates go on to higher education. In addition, colleges and employers view a Sudbury–style education as an asset and a predictor of success. College entrance officers want to recruit students who show motivation, critical thinking, independence, responsibility and creativity – hallmark characteristics of Sudbury and Clearwater students.

Students working on solar panel project.

The Sudbury model is gaining increased recognition as an essential alternative to traditional education, but the approach is not suited to every child or every family. One of my roles at Clearwater is to help families determine whether Clearwater fits their educational goals and values. For many parents, the most difficult aspect of the school is that children are granted freedom to determine their own activities. Inevitably, children will choose to spend time doing things their parents would not choose for them – whether playing video games, eating candy or reading comics. I refer parents who seek more adult–directed learning to other progressive schools that offer enticing, creative curriculums, yet actively direct students and evaluate their progress. Students pursuing a rigorous course of defined academic study typically gravitate toward more structured college preparatory schools. Only occasionally have I encountered students who are not able or willing to assume the personal responsibility that Clearwater requires.

Parents who choose Clearwater are asked to trust that their children are highly motivated and capable of making decisions that will determine their education and the course of their lives. Education here is most successful when parents are aligned with the school’s philosophy and are able to support their children. In this trusting environment, children prepare for successful and fulfilling lives and have fun in the process. Clearwater students are self–confident, intelligent, quick–thinking, responsible, creative people who know how to solve problems and work together. I am grateful to be a staff person at this school where individuals of all ages are engaged and excited to grow and learn.

In addition to the education gained as a mother, staff member and cofounder of The Clearwater School, Stephanie Sarantos holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and a BSN in Nursing Science. Contact her at Stephanie Sarantos or

The Polishing Stone magazine is published by the nonprofit Polishing Stone Foundation and offers ideas for enhancing quality of life. Presenting whole–food recipes, tips on natural health care, gardening, home remodeling and environmental products, as well as essays on relationships, parenting and community and investigative articles on social and environmental issues.