My son's alternative school doesn't have grades, tests, or homework. Kids decide what they're interested in learning.

Advertisement
My son's alternative school doesn't have grades, tests, or homework. Kids decide what they're interested in learning.
Adrienne Bergthold sent her son, Jasper, to a school called the Arts and Ideas Sudbury School.Johner Images/Getty Images
  • I decided to send my son, Jasper, to a K-12 school called the Arts and Ideas Sudbury School.
  • The school is based on a philosophy that allow kids to make their own decisions about education.
Advertisement

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Adrienne Bergthold. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When my youngest son, Jasper, was getting ready for kindergarten, I was struggling with where to send him to school. I'd always viewed school as an opportunity to instill a love of learning, and I felt like public school was too stressful for kids because of all the pressure around grades, homework, and tests. Private school is expensive, and I didn't have the patience to homeschool. So I started to consider affordable alternative schooling options in our area.

I first heard about a local K-12 school called the Arts and Ideas Sudbury School from another mom I was talking to at the park when Jasper was little. I didn't think much of it until I happened to hear the founder talking about the school on the radio. The principles of giving kids the freedom to learn about what they're interested in, without the added stress of grades and tests, really resonated with me.

Arts and Ideas seemed like the right school for Jasper

I looked into it a bit more, and Arts and Ideas seemed like the perfect fit. It was only five minutes from our house, and it was much more affordable than private schools in our area. Before making a decision, I signed up Jasper for the visiting week for families to check out the school before enrolling. After a week of visiting, he was telling me about fractions and holding doors open for me.

He started kindergarten there in 2010 and graduated just last year, in 2023. From kindergarten on, Jasper had so many opportunities to learn how to live in the real world. Arts and Ideas is a Sudbury School, which is a worldwide educational philosophy that allows kids to make decisions about their own education. Along with making and enforcing the school rules together, students can choose what they want to learn about and how.

Advertisement

It's not formatted like a traditional school

At Arts and Ideas, there's no curriculum or formal classrooms. Kids learn by playing and doing what they're interested in. Rather than "teachers," the school has staff members who guide the students in what they want to learn. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, students have the freedom to play outside, work on a project, or attend workshops on topics they want to learn about, including creative writing, acting, math, and coding.

There's a bulletin board in the hallway where kids can sign up for activities to participate in. If the kids express interest in something they want to learn, the staff and students will work together to organize new workshops. Sometimes, the workshops are at school, and other times they're field trips. Baltimore and the surrounding area have a lot to offer, so the opportunities feel endless.

For example, my son was interested in cooking from a young age because his dad was a baker. Jasper was involved in the school's Kitchen Corp, which cooked hot lunch every Friday. The students would work together to find out what everyone wanted to eat, plan the meals, take field trips to get ingredients at the local grocery store, and cook in the school kitchen for all the students. Jasper got to pursue his interest in cooking, but he also learned important real-life skills like organization, budgeting, math, and teamwork.

There are no grades, tests, homework, or other requirements, which takes stress out of the equation so kids can really fall in love with learning. The only requirement is that students need to attend school for five consecutive hours, including the "core hours" of 11–3 p.m. Students are totally free to do what they want during the school day, except for a few scheduled activities, such as daily chores and school-wide meetings.

Because there are no traditional classrooms, students are with kids who are both older and younger than them all day, which I believe helps everyone learn. Younger kids can learn from older students, and older students have the opportunity to help and mentor younger ones. When my son attended visiting week, for example, he learned fractions from kids who knew math.

Advertisement

To receive a diploma, students write and defend a thesis about how they've prepared to enter the real world. My son graduated in 2023, and he's currently taking a gap year before attending college. His experience at Arts and Ideas helped him get ready for life in the real world.

But more than that, Arts and Ideas gave Jasper a happy childhood and helped him grow into a secure adult. We have so many opportunities to do the work throughout our lives, and childhood should be about joy. Because of his education, I can say my son experienced a childhood free from the stress of anything but getting to know himself.

{{}}