Wanted: A Few Good Females

Posted by permission of Philly Free School. First published on their blog, May 22, 2015. www.phillyfreeschool.org/blog

By Michelle Loucas, PFS Staff

“We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”

-Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon during the admissions process at the Philly Free School over the past 4 years. Often parents will express interest in the school as a possible placement for their school-aged son, but will not consider it as an option for their daughter. The son is often struggling in his current school. He is too active, or too quiet, too academic, or too physical, and the conventional system is ill-suited to serve this boy’s needs. His sister, however, is often “doing just fine.” She gets good grades, or gets in no trouble, or makes friends easily, or gets along well with her teachers, or all of these. The parents, coming to see the value in a Free School education, think it might be just the thing for their son, but don’t want to rock the boat for their “well-adjusted” daughter.

This is a mistake, and not just for the daughter. Here is why.

1) The daughter is NOT “just fine.” She is sublimating her sense of self, her leadership
potential, and her critical thinking skills to fit into a system designed for economies of scale, not the needs of individual learners. She is feeding on the praise, good scores, and honor rolls of a conventional school while starving her inner creator, risk-taker, and out-of-the-box thinker.

How do I know? Because I was that girl. I nailed every test, rocked the distinguished honor roll, participated in clubs, made friends. But where was the deep learning, the hard questions, the healthy skepticism? I didn’t even know I was missing it until college, and by then, boy did I feel cheated. I was so busy meeting and exceeding the expectations of others that I never considered what it might mean to, or even that I had a right to, set and exceed my own expectations.

And the toll on girls can have subtle but tragic consequences: according to a recent study by the CDC[1], teen girls are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from depression and alcohol use problems.

jc_females-300x225We don’t want to sell our daughters short. We want them to excel, to lead, to change things for the better. Developing the personal strength and skill to do these great things takes time, and requires an education that nurtures her leadership potential from the crucial, formative K-12 years. In a May 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review[2], Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah Kolb explain: “People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose. Internalizing a sense of oneself as a leader is an iterative process.” That is, it cannot be rushed or grafted on after the fact. And while of course we want the same opportunities for our sons, these authors point out that the hill is steeper for girls: “Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority.” Accepting “just fine,” or waiting for our daughters to become leaders in college, simply isn’t good enough.

2) Society gets shortchanged. The paucity of women in leadership positions in the U.S. today is a travesty. As Barnard College president Debora Spar[3] put it at a White House conference on urban economic development in February, 2012, “Women remain hugely underrepresented at positions of power in every single sector across this country. We have fallen into what I call the 16 percent ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector, be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16 percent,” Spar said. “That is a crime, and it is a waste of incredible talent.” What inventions would we all benefit from were more women in top positions? We like to think of the US as an enlightened world leader, when in fact we rank 73rd in female legislative representation, behind Bangladesh, Sudan and Pakistan[4].rosie-300x200 What new solutions to age-old global struggles would emerge with female voices being heard, at last, in the halls of power? In 2015, we would like to think that the gender gap is finally shrinking. Sadly, the truth is that women’s advancement has
flatlined in recent years.[5] What improvements to our quality of life in this new millennium would we all enjoy, if women were in charge of the way careers and families support one another? When we settle for a conventional education for our daughters, we all lose. When we give a girl the gift of a Sudbury education, like at the Philly Free School, she gets the opportunity to define leadership for herself, and to go after it with all she’s got.

3) The son gets mixed messages. Is the Free School a real school for real learners, or a last chance ranch for kids who can’t hack it in regular school? Is his future just as bright as his sister’s, or do his parents think she is bound for big ideas, while he should start thinking about manual labor? Conversely, perhaps the mixed message is that he deserves the right to direct his own education and chart his own course, whereas she ought to accept direction by others and passively accept her place in a traditional system where the status quo continues to rule the day. Either way, the parents are missing an opportunity to show that they believe in the Free School model of education and trust their children, boys and girls alike, to create a path to achievement only they can imagine.


writing_girls-300x151The school itself will also benefit greatly from the contributions of these young women. Though the school enjoys a nearly even balance of male and female students, I believe some girls are still missing out. I hope that the parents who consider the Philly Free School for their sons will also think about it for their daughters. The sky’s the limit on where that can take us. In the words of the Bard, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

[1] Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011.
[2] Ely, Robin J; Ibarra, Hermania; and Kolb, Deborah. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers.
Harvard Business Review. SEPTEMBER, 2013.
[3] Bennets, Leslie. Women and the Leadership Gap. Newsweek. March 3, 2012.
[4] Women in National Parliaments, as of 1st April 2015. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
[5] Bennets, Leslie. Women and the Leadership Gap. Newsweek. March 3, 2012.

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Of course we all have opinions!

Today I was engrossed in contemplating how difficult it is to tell the “bad guys” from the “good guys”. I have had that trouble since I was a little girl watching cowboy movies. It wasn’t that I didn’t have some clue that Roy Rogers, or the Lone Ranger, was always going to be the good guy. It was more that I had trouble telling who was fighting on his side and who was fighting on the other side. After all, they all wore boots and hats and chaps and spurs and vests!

As I got older I avoided war movies that were mainly about combat. I couldn’t tell which people to root for. Once again, they usually had very similar costumes.

It grew more and more troublesome as I (oh so gradually) became an adult and started actually trying to figure out what I thought about issues both moral and political – and sometimes even what the difference between those two were. This was all in spite of being brought up in a household where daily life included ferocious discussions of politics, world events, the economy, elections – all the things I am lucky to have been exposed to, from a pretty good-sized group of intelligent adults for whom my family’s home in Houston was an interesting place to be. They came with a large variety of accents – a dozen parts of Europe, New York, Philadelphia, or none (as in “Texan”!). What they mainly had in common was the lust for an intellectual fray, and the experience of the first half of the incredibly violent 20th century behind them. I can remember heated arguments that I heard, and felt sympathy to both sides of, that would end with friends of my parents stomping out in anger (only to be back in a few weeks, or less). I thought all families lived like ours. But even though I grew up seemingly genetically pre-disposed to form strong opinions, it was always hard for me to figure issues out. Never do I jump to conclusions about important things, although I certainly can identify important things and turn my mind to them.

So where did I end up? In a place where, while I don’t have to express political opinions about the world at large, I am constantly challenged about right and wrong, about the moral and the not quite so moral. Even about whether to write a complaint about a minor rule breaking or just let it go. Because that is the nature of Sudbury Valley. When I say it is an intense environment to prospective parents, they just kind of look at me. I know what they are thinking: they think it is a place where no one has to challenge themselves and where probably people don’t. They are wondering if anything besides winning a game of Scrabble or four-square could possibly be intense. They think that being on the Judicial Committee – if they can even imagine such a thing – is all about crime and punishment, when it is really about figuring out knotty situations, getting them straight and deciding what to do next. So they totally miss the point.

The point is that children have the best chance in this environment to figure things out. They are never told what to think or what to do. (Sometimes they are told what not to do.) Their heads are free. They can develop, in a place where the decisions are not necessarily easy, but not as convoluted and impossible as in the world arena, the ability to set their own moral compass, to become confident in their own ability to make choices about everything in their day – watercolor or acrylic; chocolate bar or cookies; read a book or play basketball. All of this prepares them to make decisions and have good judgment when they sit on the Judicial Committee. Which is, in fact, real world decision making, but in a context we can all appreciate. Decision making at SVS is (according to our alumni!) the best training for a meaningful life, for continuing to figure out knotty situations. It was what I needed to always practice, and what I wanted my children to experience.

People often ask about our democratic process. They worry that their children may have to vote – may have to express opinions not quite like the majority, may not be able to vote differently than their friends. May have to skulk away a loser. But in fact, it is the most wonderful thing. Sometimes I “know” I am right and I vote my way and discover (not a surprise after heated debate) that no one else agrees with me. I love that right to be wrong! I love that no one jeers at me when I am a minority of one. Generally, we try to keep working until there is some general agreement, but we never insist upon it. We talk, in the Judicial Committee, in the School Meeting, and in all the other meetings of school organs, until we are blue in the face ironing things out. That is why it is okay to be the lone “no” (or “yes”) vote. Because you know everyone has heard you and thought about what you have said. And you can be totally comfortable with the outcome. No one ever walks out of a meeting (well, hardly ever) muttering about what idiots the other people were. We work until we get as close to agreement as we can. Then we vote, because we know that everyone has said what they want and been heard. What a powerful right to give a child – the right to sometimes win and to sometimes lose, but know you have been heard. It is heartbreaking that most of the children in the world never develop the confidence that vigorous debate gives us at SVS.

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Visiting Fairhaven School

During February break, I took the opportunity to visit the Fairhaven School in Maryland, one of our sister schools. I am so glad I did! It brought key aspects of our work at Sudbury into sharp focus for me, and I returned to our school energized and elated. Here are some of my impressions, and some of the lessons I learned from my wonderful visit.

The morning after a long ride through snow, sleet and rain, I woke up early, in the dark, with a start. I’m nervous: What will my visit to Fairhaven be like? Will I find the school alright? Will people be nice? I hope they’ll like me!

I am instantly reminded of how similar this is to when I first visited Sudbury, and how this is what it must be like for other people when they come to visit our school too – prospective students, their families, staff members from other schools: very exciting, and a bit nerve-wracking. How important it is to be welcoming and NICE to those who come to our doors! First lesson learned from visiting Fairhaven, before I’ve even gotten there.

Then I check my e-mail and Kim, one of Fairhaven’s founders, has already written to me at 5 in the morning to let me know that the school is closed because of the continuing terrible weather. I’m suddenly sad. Another lesson learned from Fairhaven, before I’ve even gotten there: it’s a real bummer when there is no school.

And: there are some amazing folks keeping this school going! Kim continues to impress me. Not only has she told me that the school is closed, but also, as I’m going to find out later, given me excellent restaurant recommendations. Over the following two days, she will – aside from running a school together with the other amazing people there – help deliver a baby, teach Yoga, cook me dinner, and take the time to talk with me at length and in depth about Fairhaven and Sudbury education. And I think we were just getting started.
But before all that, with the school closed, I have time to explore the area and figure out where Fairhaven actually is. I find that there is more space between things here than back home in Framingham, and a lot of these things seem to be churches. Or farms. Or shopping centers. I see a few flat, blocky structures, and those are schools. Gulp.

What a relief then to turn onto a side street, drive through a woody area, and see, up on a little elevation, what looks like a giant tree house: that’s Fairhaven!

I’m even more excited to come back to visit the next day. And still a bit nervous.

If my arrival the next morning would have been a hospitality test for Fairhaven, they would have passed it with flying colors. Becka and Richard, the first two people I meet, are really welcoming, demonstrating to me the power of being nice – and professional – in action.

If it seems that I am harping a lot on “being nice,” there is a real point I want to make here: I’m familiar with how much energy it takes to keep a school running, how many tensions need to be kept in balance, how many demands – administrative, judicial, emotional, philosophical, and so on – need to be dealt with constantly and usually at short notice, and I also know what kind of energy it takes to tear yourself away from this body of live activity that you are part of, to look up, smile at visitors, and to assume the very different function of being a conduit between them and the school. Being kind, welcoming, and professional to a curious visitor can be very hard work, and it’s terribly important. Slacking in this area is a hard thing to recoup from. Who would want to send their child to a school where people seem distracted and perhaps even annoyed at being disturbed? And how hard will it be to set the boundaries between school and home straight if a visit is not professional?

Becka handles the paperwork with me and we quickly start talking about the library, an area she manages. Similar to our school, bookshelves are everywhere, and the questions of how to acquire books, what to get rid off, and how to organize books, are familiar: do people really touch the older books, the ones with the dull covers, the frayed edges and the yellowed paper? Shouldn’t we get rid of them?

Perhaps, but the next day I see a student carrying around a book just like that: a dull, well worn and yellowed copy of Sigmund Freud’s writing. Hmm. Somebody wasn’t deterred. Maybe let’s not throw things out too fast.

Because Becka is called away (people here are very busy, just like at home!) Richard continues to show me around: There is an old and a new building, computer room, art room, music rooms in the making – things are both similar and different here. Where our building is quite New England, granite, and historic, Fairhaven is “New” Maryland, built by a group of founders mostly out of recycled wood and glass, reminding me of buildings I have seen in nature conservancies and parks, very much in harmony with its stunning natural surroundings. The impression of a nature conservancy or natural park proves to be not entirely wrong: the school’s grounds include not only woods and a large grassy area, but also a stream carrying fossils. An interesting entry in the Fairhaven Lawbook concerns carrying fossils away from school grounds (only allowed with School Meeting approval), and Mark, one of the school’s founders, and Jessica, a student, show me amazing examples of fossilized shark teeth, vertebrae, and shells.

I realize I haven’t said anything about students yet! Obviously, the best things have to be kept for last, and here they are, the most important part of any school, the students. Fairhaven students look you straight in the eye, are unafraid, and happy to engage with you in conversation – only, of course, if they are not deeply engaged in something else at the moment, which they tend to be a lot.

As a visitor to Fairhaven’s Judicial Committee, the School Meeting, a Theatre Corporation meeting, and sitting around the kitchen table, I found openness, fast thinking, wit, and self-command everywhere. There is a straightforwardness and ability to articulate oneself here that I admire and feel extremely comfortable with. It is these qualities in students that most impressed me at Sudbury Valley too, when I first visited, and it is the most compelling argument to me for our educational endeavor. Being unafraid to think, speak, and do, comes from being members of a community in which your voice and your actions matter in equal measure to everybody else’s, every day, all the time. And where you can think and do what you want to, freely.

I mentioned in the beginning that I came back energized and elated. I can only describe this elation with an image. Visiting Fairhaven was like looking at the many pieces of SVS education in a kaleidoscope: it’s all familiar, but, with a little twist, suddenly also different, and oh, so beautiful.

Thank you everybody at Fairhaven, for allowing me a glimpse of the beauty of our common goals!

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