about

Key Details

  • An independent alternative school in Albany, NY.
  • Pre-K to 8th grade– ages 3 to 14.
  • Around 60 students + fulltime staff of 6 teachers, 1 cook, and 2-4 interns.
  • Sliding scale tuition based on family income.

Overview

Founded in 1969, The Free School in Albany, New York is the longest running inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. We offer a unique alternative to traditional models of education by giving children complete freedom over their learning. Students at the school, many whom have slipped through the cracks of today’s increasingly regimented school system, flourish in a nurturing environment that allows them the freedom to chart their own course of learning while fostering their emotional growth.

More Than Book Learning – Responsibility, Democracy, Problem Solving, & Relationships

At our school students not only learn the traditional academic subjects, but also valuable lessons about responsibility, democracy, problem solving and most importantly about how to relate to each other. We have always placed great emphasis on our student’s emotional well being and the fostering of loving, caring relationships. Observant visitors frequently comment on how closely connected the students seem and how carefully they look out for each other.

Truth be told, we are a community far more than a school – a safe, nurturing, open space where everyday about sixty kids ages three through fourteen, eight full-time teachers, a cook, a steady stream of interns, volunteers and visitors work, play, learn and eat together. Yes, there are certain traditional school trappings: some rooms have desks and blackboards; there are lots of shelves with books and teaching materials of all kinds in others; and throughout the building there is a state of the art computer network, thanks to Time Warner Cable and a very generous local business. Although students are organized into homeroom groups by age and have a specific teacher to check in with during the day, mixing of ages is frequent and fosters a true sense of community amongst our students.

Practicing Democracy

Here the kids also share responsibility with teachers for resolving conflicts and working through difficult school problems through our student-led council meeting system. The meetings are run by Robert’s Rules of Order and afford the opportunity to explore matters in great depth if necessary. When the issue is an interpersonal conflict, the meeting becomes a supportive circle where real emotional healing takes place. Between monthly all-school meetings and council meetings, kids at The Free School quickly become fluent with the ins and outs of real participatory democracy.

Free To Learn

At The Free School there are no grades, no mandated curriculum, no standardized tests, no homework and unnecessary rules are generally avoided. One of our motto’s is “trust children and they will learn,” and we operate from the basic belief that learning happens all the time and everyone learns in different ways. Some kids tend to be more visual and others more auditory, some learn best from books and others need to be more hands-on.

Experience has shown that when you entrust children with their own education they will learn continually, each in their own way and rhythm. Students are free to choose how to spend their days and on any given the day the building is bustling with activity. Some kids spend their days playing and hanging out with their peers while others might be found writing poetry and short stories, making movies, magazines and works of art, rehearsing and performing plays, or learning French or Spanish.

There are also daily reading and math classes for kids who choose to tackle their basic skills in a more orderly, directed way, and classes in areas like history and science based on student interest. There are a couple of other distinctive features to the school: In the spring of each year Free School seventh and eighth graders undertake a major two-week trip built around one or more community service projects. In recent years students have traveled to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina cleanup, and Puerto Rico to help clean beaches and learn about coral reef conservation. The experience represents a rite of passage for them, not only because they have to cope with being far from home in unfamiliar surroundings for an extended period, but also because they have to figure out how to raise all of the funds themselves.

Additionally, we also own two tracts of land about twenty-five miles northeast of Albany, where students go for day trips and extended stays. One site, known as Rainbow Camp, is a rambling former inn set on a small lake. Here we fish, swim, boat, take long walks in the woods, and spend overnights. The second site consists of an old farmhouse, barn and 250 acres of mostly forested land that was given to us in 1995, where we have developed a satellite program for environmental study and wilderness activities.

The Albany Free School is located in the south end of Albany, at 8 Elm Street between Phillip and Grand Street. Approximately half of our kids come from the inner city neighborhood the school is located in, and the remainder coming from other parts of Albany and from outlying suburbs and towns. The school operates by means of sliding-scale tuition and no one is turned away for financial reasons. If you are interested in considering The Free School please the next step is to fill out a short form of interest.

History

Founded in 1969 by Mary Leue, the Albany Free School is the oldest inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. It all began when Mary’s ten-year-old son became so miserable in one of Albany’s better public schools that he asked his mother if she would teach him at home instead. Soon three of Mark’s also-suffering friends joined in and with that a little school was born. In June, Mary and her four students voted unanimously to continue the school for another year, with another vote establishing the name “The Free School.” At that point Mary began visiting other free schools, such as Jonathan Kozol’s Roxbury Community School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Orson Bean’s Fifteenth Street School in New York City. She also conferred with educational filmmaker Alan Leitman and returned to Albany carrying three of Leitman’s films, which she then showed around the city to growing audiences. Suddenly, four students became seven, two more teachers climbed aboard, and the need for a building led the group to a dilapidated inner city church.

The move accomplished two things: they could afford the $100 a month rent and the location ensured that the school would be racially and socio-economically diverse. What followed was a wild and tumultuous year, with parents battling over educational philosophy and practice, with kids from opposite ends of the spectrum thrashing out their own issues, and with several city departments (building, fire, and education) vying to shut down this radical storefront institution.

Two important developments came out of that initial year of constant trial and error. First, teachers and parents hammered out, in a series of intense sessions, the policy that only those actually present day-to-day in the building could determine the school policy. Others were welcome to attend meetings and to advise and suggest, but that would be the extent of their power. This absolute internal autonomy remains an operational cornerstone. Next, in order to empower the kids to participate in school governance, and to give them a way to nonviolently work out their differences (which were many in that initial period), Mary and the other teachers instituted a “council meeting” system, whereby anyone with a serious problem could call a meeting at any time, with everyone dropping what they were doing and attending. Meetings would be student-led and democratically run by Robert’s Rules of Order, and provided a safety net for everyone, ensuring that freedom didn’t turn into license.

A fire during the following summer forced the school to seek a new home. This time they were able to buy an old parochial school building on a different edge of the same neighborhood. Over the next several years Mary was also able to acquire seven other run-down buildings on the block for an average of $2,000 each. Here Mary was acting on the advice of Jonathan Kozol, who strongly advocated that free schools develop some sort of business enterprise so that they wouldn’t be tuition dependent and therefore accessible only to middle-class children.

Staff, parents and a host of volunteers then spent the next ten years slowly rehabilitating the buildings apartment by apartment, which were then used to house Free School teachers, interns, and families, and to generate much-needed income for the school. By the fall of 1973 the school was burgeoning with thirty kids, six full-time teachers, and a host of interns and volunteers. Students came from both inner city and uptown neighborhoods and from suburban and rural towns as well.

The extraordinary diversity of the student body became one of the school’s strongest assets. It was an intense place to say the least. Because the pay was miniscule, a number of the teachers were attempting to live together semi-communally in school-owned housing. The students’ emotional struggles tended to bring up teachers’ unresolved issues. The need for some sort of forum outside of school where the adults could resolve their conflicts and deepen their communication with each other became clear, and so Mary started a teacher support group, which has now been meeting continuously since 1974.

By the late-seventies a core group of committed staff had coalesced and began putting down roots by buying their own homes on the block for the same low prices that Mary had paid for the Free School buildings. Already equipped with the necessary rehabilitation skills and tools that they had acquired while fixing up the school buildings, they devised a cooperative system for helping each other with their houses. At the same time teachers started to have children of their own and also to share childrearing responsibilities. The high level of cooperation resulted in a deepening sense of connection and gradually led the group to begin referring to itself as “the Free School community.”

With the school on a firm footing, Mary conceived a number of satellite projects aimed at addressing the needs of community members. One she dubbed the “Money Game,” which is part credit union and part cooperative investment group. Members are able to earn a much higher return by pooling their money and can also utilize the fund’s assets to make loans to each other at much lower interest rates. Partially in response to the arrival of so many community babies, Mary, with assistance from Betsy Mercogliano, founded the Family Life Center in order to offer perinatal support to pregnant couples, parenting support to parents of young children, and to teach self-help medical care. The center had an immediate synergistic effect on the school and the community, with the outreach services of the center drawing in many new families. The Family Life Center is still thriving today serving families in search of alternatives to the current medical models of care. Later, Mary and Nancy Ost, who had previously run a natural foods store in Albany, started up a coop in the basement of the Family Life Center building, providing easy access to organic foods at wholesale cost. At the same time several community families collaborated on a small organic farm with goats, chickens, honeybees and large gardens on nearly an acre of vacant land on the block that they purchased together.

In the early 1990s the Native American rights activist Hank Hazleton gave the school 250 acres of semi-wilderness land so that it could establish a wilderness learning center and forever-wild sanctuary. After Hank’s death, the school purchased his small house across the road, where a Free School family has created a small subsistence farm and runs wilderness education programs for children. Both school and community continued to thrive. At present, the school’s enrollment stands at about sixty-five, with approximately sixty people or so making up the Free School community.