Plans are underway for the South Mountain Co-op, an independent K-12 school, to open this fall in Essex County. The school is based on the Democratic Free School Model, which emphasizes individualized education, supports curiosity driven learning, and ensures collaborative and participatory governance. In keeping with this mission, students and non-students will have an equal say in the decisions made about the school.
The educational philosophy at South Mountain Co-op is described as “joyful, self-directed and collaborative,” and many of the characteristics associated with traditional schools will not be found at South Mountain Co-op. For example, a scene of children sitting at desks with a teacher lecturing at the front of the room will not be found at South Orange Co-op. Instead, children are free to pursue their individual interests, which might include reading, playing games on an iPad, or painting scenery for an upcoming play performance.
The four founders of the school are Abram Karl-Gruswitz, Angela Wolff, Elizabeth McCarthy and Liliana Gomez, who are all parents and either homeschoolers or educators who have worked previous in democratic free schools.
The founders are hosting a series of informational meetings to introduce the community to the concept of democratic education in general, as well as to explain more about the South Mountain Co-op itself.
At the community meeting I attended, the four founders spoke on a panel with Lucy Albright, 14, who lives in Montclair and previously attended the Teddy McArdle Free School and is now currently being unschooled. Lucy has worked closely with the founders on many aspects of South Mountain Co-op, and was instrumental in shaping the school’s Mission statement.
A few facts about South Mountain Co-op from the meeting:
- Tuition has not been determined yet, but it is expected to be between $10,000 and $16,000, and will be on a sliding scale, as ability to pay should not prevent a child from attending the school.
- The school needs a minimum of 15 students to open, and the founders believe this seems likely based on the initial response from the community.
- The school will serve students in grades K-12.
- Students will be grouped based on interests and other criteria, and not strictly by age.
- Students will not receive grades, nor is their an emphasis on testing or meeting specific educational “benchmarks.” Students will create a portfolio of their work each year.
- There will be a social worker available for student issues and conflicts.
- Staff ratios will be approx. 1:7, and the staff will be comprised of founders and parents, as well as sourced from the community, paid and unpaid, depending on what types of instruction are desired by the students.
- There are no required parent volunteer hours, but parents are welcome to be involved in the school, both during school hours and at other times as well. There is the possibility that parents can work for the school (both in and out of school) in exchange for a tuition credit.
- One to three years prior to graduation, students will consider what they want to do next and how to prepare best for this next stage, whether it is college, starting a business or something else.
- The school’s location is still to be determined.
The next informational meeting will be on Thursday, March 14, from 7 to 9 pm at the South Orange Public Library, 65 Scotland Road, South Orange. Children are welcome to attend, and older children and teens are encouraged to participate and to ask their own questions about the school.
Additional meetings and events will also be scheduled throughout the Spring.