A day at a Sudbury school does not look anything like most other schools. The school is alive with joy and activity, with dialogue and debate, with indoor and outdoor freedom, with mixed-age mingling, questioning and pondering, with teens chatting on the phone with their mentors, with measuring, deciphering, planning and implementing. Relationships are as important as books; opinions are weighed against facts; support comes from a variety of sources; everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher;
time and space are valued for in-depth discovery; freedom is within the boundaries which the students set themselves; reading is a favorite pastime; the process of finding information usually becomes more important than the information itself; respect and responsibility for one’s self are always at the top of the list. Because the building is more home-like than traditional school and the staff, more friend-like than traditional teachers, students are relaxed and comfortable to be who they are, to ask for what they need, and to enjoy every moment of school.
As with all democratic Sudbury schools, Jersey Shore Free School operates as a participatory democracy, based on the old New England Town Meeting model, giving one vote to each person, student or staff, on all of the issues of the daily operation of the school. We work toward building consensus at School Meeting because we believe that it feeds a positive community spirit. Issues presented at the bi-weekly School Meeting run the gamut from establishing policies and procedures, to deciding on field trips, to allocating money for a baking project, to initiating a class in quantum physics, to hiring staff.
The learning and responsibility that develop as children and teens grapple with these issues cannot be underestimated. Students come to value their freedom in ways that we could not have imagined and to understand the awesome responsibility that freedom entails in all situations. They value the importance of boundaries to protect the freedom of all and they traditionally hold firm on the boundaries which they have established at School Meeting. It is our experience that students clearly grasp the significance of their role in a democratic school community and they rise to the occasion whenever there is an issue on which they have an opinion.
At Jersey Shore Free School, we value relationships and the importance of learning at a young age how to have positive and successful relationships. Most businesses acknowledge that interpersonal relationships are the number one cause of problems at work. The same is true at most schools and in many families. We believe that mediation in interpersonal disputes provides one of the best forums for confidential, honest communication between the only two people who really know what has happened. Once students experience the positive interchange, often in spite of angry feelings, they learn experientially how to handle themselves better when there are disputes; they learn that relationships can weather problems; and they learn to speak from their heart and to listen from their heart when friendships are involved.
Staff and students are trained mediators who assist students in talking through their problems, coming to understand each other better, and deciding for themselves where they would like to take it from there. We use both the problem solving mediation process as well as transformative mediation and group mediation, when necessary. Any student who wishes to be trained as a peer mediator to help with this process may receive training at school.
Issues that are not able to be resolved in Mediation may be referred to Judicial Committee. It is the responsibility of the J.C., as it is called, to uphold the boundaries of the school and to enforce all rules made by the School Meeting. Any member of the community — student or staff — may ‘write up’ any other member for a violation.
It is then brought to J.C. whose work is to investigate and to determine responsibility for the violation. The J.C., in dialogue with the parties, will decide how to best help them avoid further problems and/or to follow all rules. Usually, the J.C. rotates membership, with one staff member, one teen, and one younger student serving each week.