Fifty Years, Front and Center!

Sudbury Valley has just begun the 2017-2018 school year – and an exciting one it is! This will be our 50th year of operation, the half century mark for what was once a “far-out” experiment. Born in the tumultuous 1960s, SVS was destined to outlive virtually every other attempt made at the time to radically change the concept of “school”.

It is worth pondering what differentiated our school from the others – why we survived when other well-intentioned people did not. More than that: to our ongoing astonishment, we have served as an inspiration to a great many others all over the world who have sought to establish similar institutions, and have become a byword among educators of all persuasions as a gold-standard model for the radical transformation of schooling.

Why did this happen?

The brief answer lies in a simple phrase: “Expect excellence”. From the beginning, the bar was set high throughout all the activities of the school. Here are some examples of the areas affected by that aim:

Clarity of the vision. We made sure to have a clear idea of our basic goals. We committed ourselves to the realization of a specific set of ideals, all quite familiar to everyone in the surrounding adult environment: that every person in the school community, regardless of age, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to governance through the consent of the governed for the purpose of protecting those rights. We felt that the clarity of the school’s vision had to match that of the country’s vision, and that this vision, limited to a small fraction of the general population when it was first announced, had to be expanded to embrace the last excluded group today: children.

Continuous efforts to elaborate the practical implications of that vision. All too often visions fail to be implemented due to the inability to translate them into day to day actions. History is replete with examples of lofty ideals dissolving under the pressure of the often unpredictable chaos of everyday existence. There have to be institutional mechanisms to continuously examine the practices in place, monitor their compatibility with the vision, and adapt them, where necessary, after careful consideration of all the attendant factors.

Ongoing articulation of the school’s philosophy and practices. The only way to assure the development of a sustainable culture across time is to articulate its content. Putting the complex issues that define the life of the school into words is an ongoing challenge, given the difficulty of communication and the elusive meanings of words. The only way to prevent a culture from melting into an inchoate form is to keep at this task, and involve as many members of the community as possible in it, so that there is a common understanding of its essence.

Insistence on all activities, without exception, being carried out at the highest possible level of expertise. This is not always possible to achieve, but it is always possible to hold up as an aim. Records are clean, financial matters are handled professionally, office administration is smooth and efficient, activities representing the school are carefully vetted, the school buildings are clean, the campus maintained aggressively. Since all of these can easily lapse into mediocrity and even negligence, it takes a great deal of work and resolve to keep them going as they should.

Throughout the 50 years, we have expected excellence. The expectation has guided us unfailingly, and is, I believe, what has brought us to this point. It, more than anything, has fostered a continuously supportive community, inspired by our vision and our efforts to make that vision real.

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