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Many give 'free schools' a look

No grades, tests, and attend class only if you want

NEW YORK -- One recent day at the Brooklyn Free School, the "schedule" included the following: filming horror movies, chess, debate, and making caves for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Not that the students had to go to any of these sessions. At this school, students don't get grades, don't have homework, don't take tests, and don't even have to go to class -- unless they want to.

"You can do basically anything at any time, and it's just a lot more fun because sometimes when you need a break at regular schools you can't get it," said Sophia Bennett Holmes, 12, an aspiring singer-actress-fashion designer. "But here, if you just need to sit down and read and have time to play, then you can do that."

"Free schools," which had their heyday decades ago, operate on the belief that children are naturally curious and learn best when they want to, not when forced to. Today, the approach is getting another look from some parents and students tired of standardized testing, excessive homework, and overly rigid curriculums.

"Every kid here is definitely motivated to learn something, there's no doubt in my mind," said Alan Berger, a former public school assistant principal who founded the Brooklyn school in 2004. "Our belief is that if we let them pursue their passions and desires, they'll be able to get into it deeper. They'll be able to learn more how to learn."

Hundreds of free schools opened in the United States and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. Most shut down, but some, such as the Albany Free School and Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, have persisted. Overall, it's unknown how many free schools operate today.

The ones still in operation often use a "democratic" model, giving students a say in running the institution.

At the Brooklyn Free School, much of that decision-making occurs in a mandatory weekly gathering called the Democratic Meeting. Here, students air grievances, pose challenges, propose rules, and set policy. Even the youngest children have a vote equal to staffers.

The school -- granted a provisional charter by the state to run as a private educational institution -- occupies two floors of a Free Methodist church.

Students are required to show up for at least 5 1/2 hours a day, partly so that the school can meet legal definitions, but what they do with their time is up to them. The student population -- 42 students, 5 to 17 years old -- is diverse racially, economically, and in terms of ability, and the students are not separated by age.

On any given day, a student might be playing chess, reading a book, practicing yoga, or helping mummify a chicken.

Even among some champions of alternative education, free schools are considered a bit too radical.

"You don't throw the baby out with the bath water," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a leading advocate of charter schools. "You don't get rid of all structure and standards if you want your child to be able to deal with all different settings."

Others say free schools could gain popularity if the emphasis on testing and regimented curriculums keeps up.

The Brooklyn Free School isn't free in the financial sense. Tuition is $10,000 a year, but many parents just give what they can.

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