The concept of free school began in England in 1921 with the Summerhill School. Its founder, A.S. Neill, believed children would develop intellectually through self-regulation. Their natural curiosities would lead them to learn what they needed to live in adult society: reading, basic arithmetic, and proficiency in the field they chose.
The movement has spread around the world, with controversy following closely behind it. Free schools gained popularity in the United States during the 1960s, but emphasized freedom over responsibility, according to some experts. Today's interpretation puts equal emphasis on freedom and responsibility, which its supporters say reflects the democratic society in which we live.
"Most children do not experience the fundamental ideals of law-abiding citizenship, due process, individual enterprise, and equal voice in governance until after their formal schooling has ended," said Jim Rietmulder, cofounder of the Circle School in Harrisburg.
Robert and Michelle Loucas, former public-school teachers and cofounders of the Philadelphia Free School, moved to the city eight years ago with the intention of opening a school similar to Circle. While there are other private alternative schools in the area, the Loucases said their school would be the first to have no curriculum.
"If [the students] had the chance to run their own school, they could certainly do better than what we were doing for them," said Robert Loucas, who has taught at free schools in Maryland and California.
He and his wife, former coordinator of the secondary teacher education program at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, said they want the school to be in an urban environment with access to all of Philadelphia. Other free schools have located in the suburbs. "If you're exploring the world," Robert Loucas said, "there's going to be a bus line or a neighborhood with crime."
The school expects to open in a remodeled building in Pennsport. Lease negotiations are not yet complete, they said, so they can't disclose the location.
He said that the school would charge between $9,000 and $10,000 in tuition, but planned to help students find funding through state programs.
For all of its promotion of democracy and self-determination, the free-school model still faces one large question: What about the kid who wants to play video games all day?
"It might be video games nonstop for four months, making the parents flip out," Michelle Loucas said.
After those four months, she explained, the child has learned three things: He can master something, he is confident he can apply this success to any other topic, and the school community has proved to him that it trusts him to make his own decisions.
To fully open in September after the pilot program, the Free School will need to obtain approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, because it doesn't follow a traditional curriculum. Robert Loucas said he hoped to have approval by that time.
Loucas said the Free School would begin its pilot program in January. He said all students enrolled in the program would receive additional schooling each weekday from a separate certified education program. The students will be homeschooled, take online courses, or be enrolled part-time at a public school so they meet their legal requirements.
Richard Schiffrin, a lawyer whose son graduated from the Circle School, said that at first he was skeptical of the free-school model, thinking, "It's not really a school."
When his son Dan reached a "crisis point" in eighth grade and refused to go back to school, Schiffrin said, he began to evaluate other options. Dan found Circle on his own and persuaded his parents to visit with him. The only problem: The school was two hours from their home in Wynnewood.
"From the moment he started, his whole world changed. He was the happiest kid you'll ever meet," said Schiffrin, who woke up with Dan at 5:30 every morning to put him on the train to Harrisburg.
Now finishing up his last year at Brown University as a literary arts major, Dan has told his father that his only regret is that he didn't start at Circle School earlier. "I really feel like it's not just your education that it changes, but it's your approach to life," Dan Schiffrin said.
"My views on intelligence have changed completely," his father said. Even after his son graduated, Richard Schiffrin has continued to serve on the Circle board of trustees and has contributed to the school financially.
While democratic schools have produced success stories like Dan's, education experts do not believe the model can be universally applied.
An important alternative
Janine Remillard, chairwoman of the Foundations and Practices Program at Penn, which focuses on teacher training, said free schools might not work for all students, although they offer an important alternative.
"We're at the height of extreme rigidity and control," she said, referring to public-school policies such as the federal No Child Left Behind act and its requirement for testing. "What schools have to offer has been reduced to very narrow skill development."
Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University, said he was not convinced.
"I'm not that impressed by the argument that traditional public schools aren't doing a good job preparing young people for the mix of self-direction and conformity that they will experience as adults," he said, noting that a majority of graduates succeed.
"Because we have parents and children self-selecting into this [free-school] choice vs. a traditional [school], it's going to be challenging to figure out the actual impact of the school on its students," Pallas said.
Trusting the child
Maddy Winters' parents said they might have considered homeschooling their daughter, who turns 4 Thursday, if the Free School wasn't planned to open next year.
Filippone said that while he has followed the Loucases' progress in the last few years, he and his wife chose to enroll Maddy temporarily in a Philadelphia School District pre-K program because of her desire to attend school.
Both parents realize that not everyone will understand their decision to enroll Maddy in the free school.
"It takes trust in your child," Marie Winters said, "just trusting who they are as a person and being fearless enough as a parent to let them go and do what they like."
Contact staff writer Liz Gormisky
at 215-854-2917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.