Broward News

No Homework or Grades at Fort Lauderdale's Sunset Sudbury School

Youngsters attending a remarkable school in Fort Lauderdale are free to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want.

If they stretch out on the floor and draw all afternoon, that’s fine. If they’re inclined to watch YouTube videos, it's OK with the grownups. Perhaps they’ll gather some fellow students and write a play, work out a dance routine or bang around on a set of drums.

Sunset Sudbury school in Fort Lauderdale is embarking on its sixth year, still following an intriguing student-directed educational approach that was established in 1968 by Sudbury Valley School in New England.  

“Kids love it,” said Dionne Ekendiz, who was part of the team of parents who launched the South Florida version. “They don’t want to leave school.” 

About 40 similar Sudbury-style schools are functioning in the United States and around the world, including Israel, Denmark, and Japan. Spring Valley School in Palm Harbor, Florida, is also in the mix.

Ekendiz, an MIT grad with a degree in mechanical engineering, is a Sunset Sudbury parent and a staff member. The adults are referred to as staff members, rather than teachers. Everyone, including the students themselves, is a potential teacher.

She steps out of the way and allow students to pursue their own passions and interests, without interference. Unless specifically requested, there are no formal lesson plans, no tests, and no homework.

It's an approach, Ekendiz said, that empowers students and promotes resourceful and happy individuals. "They know themselves really well," she said. "They know how they learn, what motivates them, what are their true interests, and they are not afraid to fail and not afraid to ask for help." 

Michelle Hunt is a parent and former Broward public school art teacher. Now, she's a staff member at the school. "I've also been a graphic designer and filmmaker," she says. "I taught for five years, and of all the jobs I've had, teaching blew my mind with how depressing it was to walk in every day because nobody wants to be there." She felt the entire structure of the public school system was hopeless.  

But at Sunset Sudbury, the school website explains, there is no typical day:
"There may be a group of students huddled around a computer discussing video game strategies while another group is in the kitchen having lunch and planning the next field trip. Some may be in the art room, coloring, painting, or making something out of clay while others are outside playing basketball or picking flowers in the garden....Often there are groups talking, and always there is someone quietly reading on the couch."
Says Hunt: "We don't judge any single activity as good or bad, so if a kid wants to play video games, we don't say, 'That's bad.' As an adult, you know you learn more when you're interested in something."  At the building that the school rents, there's a big indoor studio for dance and games of tag, and a nearby park that kids can walk to. 

Sometimes, structured activities happen — at the kids' request: "Children ask for help: 'Can you give me a class on this?' I've given art classes. Math's popular. We make sure the parents aren't pushing them and it's their desire. Right now, we have a lot of musical instruments  and music classes — they'll learn and then come out class and go teach other kids. But we never initiate it. We always support it, and we never initiate it.  With my daughter, I wanted her to be internally motivated. As a schoolteacher, I couldn't believe the level of responsibility put on me for 150 kids. Nobody took personal responsibility."  But at Sunset Sudbury, kids take responsibility for their own learning. "If you like, it, you pursue it." 

That philosophy also plays out in behavior management. Kids are given "freedom with responsibility," Hunt says. because they're not supervised, they are held to a higher level of personal responsibility. They have to respect each other and treat each other well. I don't tell kids what to do unless there's a safety issue. If there's conflict between kids, we write up a form and "court" with two students and one staff [as judges] - everything is tried."  

Video of Sunset Sudbury shows children doing everything from math worksheets to video games, going to the beach and taking care of a turtle.

Phenomenally, the school says it's quite immaterial whether kids meet learning benchmarks at certain ages. The school contends children are capable of learning to read on their own, or learn eight years of traditional math in just six weeks:
The fact is that we have seen children teach themselves to read, some at the age of 4 and some as late as 12, with absolutely no instruction. By age 13, you can’t tell the difference between the child who learned to read at 4 from the child who learned to read at 12. As for math, it has been proven over and over again that all of the math content from K thru grade 8 can be learned in just 6 weeks when the child is ready for it. Imagine all of that time saved for valuable play!
The main Sudbury school in Massachusetts has proven that, Hunt says. Typically, kids take years to learn math because they feel resistant to it. But "when you're ready for it, the information comes in much easier."  

She says teenagers who transferred to public schools took a little time to adjust but transitioned well, and many went into gifted programs at their new schools. They have a great chance at getting into college, also, she says. Whereas public schools typically "teach kids to be successful the mainstream way" — competing against each other with grades and test scores and community service hours — that "it's refreshing to a college board" to see applicants coming from Sudbury's non-traditional learning environment. 

At Sunset Sudbury,  students  ages 4 to 18 may enroll anytime during the school year, and occasional open house events showcase the school to interested families. Now, about 15 youngsters ages 5 to 12 attend the school. School hours are 9:00 to 3:30, though kids can roll in as late as 10:30. Tuition is $7,500. Sibling discounts and part-time options are offered.  For information, log on the Sunset Sudbury website or phone 954-404-7785. 

Online reviews for the school are from 2011, but pretty glowing, with one commenter reporting that "I feel so lucky that we have a local Sudbury school, and Sunset Sudbury is as good as it gets." Another parent reported, "It would seem counterintuitive that children not being forced to study would learn incessantly, but it's true. My son's reading and mathematical ability at age 7 astounds me, as he is teaching himself new words and new concepts from his own books, unprompted. Most importantly he has learned to be an independent thinker. A neighborhood incident with a 'bully' was quickly quelled as he stated simply that 'I decide what I will and won't do. It doesn't matter what you think or say, I am my own person.'"    

Then again, not every person who has tried the Sudbury model came away happy. Says one dad who claims to have sent his son to the school in Framingham, Massachusetts: "In between the five hours of daily Minecraft, my son was exposed to kids watching horror flicks."

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Patti Roth