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Not Kidding Around

luke nasaw, 11
Rope and a Prayer: Pacific Village School student Luke Nasaw, 11 years old, scales Snake's Dike on Half Dome in Yosemite. Getting out in the real world on projects of their own design is what the school is all about.

Photo by Micah Psoner

At Pacific Village School in Santa Cruz, hands-on students have a say in everything that affects them, including what it is they study and which teachers get rehired

By Traci Hukill

SIX-AND-A-HALF year-old Amos just somersaulted into the Village Meeting. He rights himself, looks around for a moment to see if anyone noticed, and settles into TV-watching mode: legs crossed, back a little slouched, hands at rest. Except he's not watching TV. He's about to vote one of his teachers out of a job. -

It's the last week before summer vacation at Pacific Village School, and the school community--staff and students numbering about 15 in all--is tending to the business of budgets and rehiring. They vote by ballot to determine which of the teachers will return next year. Of six current staff members, only five will reappear next fall, so 11 students, ages 5­11, have assembled on the couches and carpet of the school's meeting area to decide who gets the ax. So far it seems to be falling on a man who teaches piano.

Surprised? At Pacific Village School, the students have a say in everything. They decide on an individual basis what to study, for example, and when and for how long. When someone breaks one of the school's few rules, students help determine disciplinary action, whether the culprit is 6 years old or 6 feet tall. Above all, this is an education in community living.

People here are used to the raised eyebrows this radical form of democracy elicits from the brainwashed masses--those of us who subscribe to the traditional adult/child model. As Michael, a bright and well-spoken 11-year-old, patiently informs a visitor, "Basically, at other schools, only the teachers have power. It's really just a pyramid structure. Here, the students have equal rights."

As you may have guessed, these equal rights result in a lot of assiduous study of, say, rollerblading. One student, who is about 5 years old, is studying popsicles. But, without a doubt, these students are inquisitive, articulate and happy to be here--which is not the impression that greets a visitor at most schools.

Who could blame them? The campus, set on three idyllic acres on the Westside and a stone's throw from Wilder Ranch, boasts a large garden, a couple of horses, several dogs and an open-door policy. Inside the main building are a kitchen, a reading room with a computer loft, a kitchen and an art area, plus an upright piano painted blue.

Children of all ages socialize together. One person is drawing, another is working on the computer and several more read or work with staffmembers. Most everyone is talking. It's busy, noisy, alive.

"What's your favorite subject?" someone asks a feisty girl named Ali.

"Hmm," she responds thoughtfully. "I'd say horseback riding, then gardening and after that," she giggles, "bothering boys."

Free and Responsible

ALI'S CURRICULUM is pretty standard at Pacific Village, and frankly, a lot of people are put off by it. But as director Micah Posner explains the school's philosophy, the outlines of a Utopian vision begin to emerge, with all the irrefutable truths and plausible theories that usually accompany idealistic movements.

"Mostly, our philosophy is that you are free and you are responsible for your actions. We believe that forcing someone to do something, like learn to read, erodes those basic principles," says Posner, who dresses for school in hiking shorts and boots.

Freedom, responsibility--those things sound reasonable, but when does little Susie learn to read?

When she's good and ready, says the Sudbury Valley School, the 30-year-old Massachusetts school after which Pacific Village models itself. If she's forced to learn too young, she'll have difficulty. She'll become anxious, and it will take longer.

But if she's allowed to develop at her own pace and decides to learn reading because she has a need for it--suppose she loves animals and wants to read up on tigers--well, then, that's a different story. She'll learn faster and more thoroughly, with less heartache and more reward.

Not to worry if she's a late bloomer, either. Sudbury's literature brims with reassuring anecdotes of kids who didn't crack a math book until the age of 12 and then blasted off to eventually become mathematicians. Everyone, the school assures us, learns the three R's--the difference is when and how.

Not surprisingly, Pacific Village teachers don't fit the traditional mold. Instead, staffmembers act as resources for the students, helping them achieve goals rather than directing their activities. When Robin and Luke, both 11, decided to learn rock climbing, they sought a staffmember with climbing experience to set them on their way.

Posner taught them what he knew at the climbing gym and on a few trips to Pinnacles before the two boys decided to take on a serious challenge: climbing Snake's Dike, a 2,000-foot vertical ascent of the southeast face of Yosemite's Half Dome. In the second week of June the three set out for the Yosemite Valley and scaled Snake's Dike in a marathon 10-hour day of climbing. What ordinary school experience even comes close to that?

Certainly, the school is onto something. Whether kids can emerge from such a rarefied social climate and survive in the jungle known as the Real World is a matter for contemplation, but one thing is clear: The embattled public school system loses kids every year to private institutions like this one, with broad views of what it means to become educated.

By the way, the piano teacher got to stay. Ain't democracy great?

Pacific Village School started on Sept. 9, although students are accepted year-round. The school's six staffmembers expect 18­20 students this year. The school accepts students ages 5­19, and there are no entry requirements. Tuition runs about $4,000 annually. For more information, call 429-9209.

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.

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