A School Run By Students—Can it Work?

By Chris Palmer, M.A. Founder, FigureOutYourLife.com

Imagine throwing away everything you’ve known about formal education.

No rows of desks and chairs.

No set curriculum.

And students literally run the school.

Sound crazy? For most, even the idea of it is uncomfortable and fear-provoking. But it’s a real thing.

Spring Valley School is a Sudbury school in Palm Harbor, FL, and thrives on this democratic nature of a student-run school. “My daughter has grown so much,” said Eyal Gamili Holtzeker, a dad at Spring Valley School. “Initially it was a leap of faith, learning to trust my daughter to make good decisions.” And she makes lots of good decisions. And some bad ones.

“That’s where some of the deepest learning comes in,” said Diane Eckelkamp Ballou, one of the school’s founders. “Students grow tremendously through their mistakes.” The school even has a process for self-governing. They have a judicial committee that meets almost daily, where students and staff review “write-ups” that the students submit when a classmate breaks a rule or fails to act safely or respectfully.

And all the students have a voice.

They express publicly and learn to defend their positions, whether it’s a simple disagreement or something more elaborate. A four-year-old can “write up” a teenager and have his or her voice heard. Parents and students say it’s tremendously empowering. Students work out their issues without fear of disturbing a power structure. Everyone has an equal vote. Sudbury students learn reading and math and science and even go to college if they choose. They learn the way humans do naturally, not in rows and in silence, or in submission to authority. It’s an interactive community based on natural learning and trust. “It is so special,” said Holtzeker. “We all have this innate ability to learn and grow if we can trust ourselves and be trusted.” He is a great example. Holtzeker is a successful photographer who started a thriving business without learning it in a classroom. He even created a touching and compelling video that tells the difficult to explain story of the Sudbury way. “I wanted to make something that could tell their story, things that can’t really be put into words,” said Holtzeker. “There’s a beauty in trusting human beings to be the best versions of themselves. My daughter has grown so much.” And that seems to be the biggest intention: creating a space for children to grow. Spring Valley School is located in Palm Harbor, FL. You can find more information on the school and the Sudbury philosophy at SpringValleySchool.com.