Joan Rubin School brings democratic learning to Boston

Cambridge resident Brooke Newman is one of the forces behind The Joan Rubin School, which would be the first Boston school to use the democratic learning model. PHOTO BY NICOLAUS CZARNECKI/METRO
Cambridge resident Brooke Newman is one of the forces behind The Joan Rubin School, which would be the first Boston school to use the democratic learning model. Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Plans are in the works for a new, nonprofit day school in the Boston area that will offer a radically different environment from the vast majority of public and private school systems. 

It will be the first of its kind to operate in the immediate Boston area.

“One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to schools. I think kids in the city need access to a school like this,” said Cambridge resident Brooke Newman, 35, who is one of the founders of The Joan Rubin School.

According to school officials, students who attend the school will not be graded, nor will they be tested or separated into classrooms. There will be no mandated curriculum. Instead students will engage in “self-directed learning,” and will vote on what they want to do each day.

There will also be no summer vacations. Students must only attend the state-required 180 days and 900 hours of learning time — but that is just about the only rule at the school.

“There is no real teaching … all the learning comes from the intrinsic motivation of the children,” said Newman.

Having attended Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, a school that practices a similar democratic learning model, Newman maintains a strong belief that Boston needs the alternative learning environment, which she believe will encourages freedom, trust and respect.

The school may open as soon as September 2014 in a yet-to-be determined location within the Boston-area. After founders select the neighborhood, they will go before that community’s school board for approval to open the school, and Newman said they expect to get it.

Founders are scouting buildings in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Once the location is determined, school officials will have a better idea of how much tuition will cost.

“We really want to make it beyond physically accessible. It should be financially accessible,” said Newman.

The school, which is named after Sudbury Valley Founder Joan Rubin, will be open to students between the ages of 5 and 19, and may take about 200 students. The age groups will not be separated, Newman said. Instead, pupils will be encouraged to mentor and learn from each other.

Although Newman has gotten a great deal of support, she has grappled with criticism.

“It’s hard. It challenging people’s notions of what learning is,” she said, pointing to what she calls “the saddest” feedback she’s gotten from skeptics. “I’ve heard, ‘Brooke, you’re crazy. Kids better get used to it,’ meaning they should get used to sitting at a desk, or having people tell them what to do. That’s sad. Is that the world we want? Not just for our children, but for ourselves?”

Co-founders will hold an informational session at the Cambridge Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 19.

More information on the school is available at www.joanrubinschool.org.

Follow Morgan Rousseau on Twitter: @MetroMorgan
Follow Metro Boston on Twitter: @MetroBOS


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