Village Free School
2017 Graduate (attended from 2007-2017)
I like to think that I’ve turned out as a free thinker. I can definitely see myself making change in the world. I feel like sitting here and hoping someone else is going to fix it is not going to get us anywhere. So, I might not know how to fix it but I can take the first step.
Facts & Figures
Graduation rate (non-standard paths)
The learner-centered movement is model agnostic. Leaders might be drawing learner-centered inspiration from Montessori, Waldorf, Unschooling or once conventional public districts, but the actual modes of implementation are limitless.
Furthering our evidence of this fact, we recently discovered Village Free School (VFS) in Portland, Oregon. VFS, founded in 2004, derived many of its original principles—Care, Freedom, and Democracy—from the democratic school movement, a movement based on “an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of [learning].”
When young learners step inside VFS, care—encompassing the broad spectrum of meeting learners where they are—is all around them. From being celebrated for overcoming learning hurdles to being supported through restorative justice practices when strengthening social-emotional skills, every learner has a personalized, relevant, and contextualized experience.
VFS knows every learner is unique and uses that knowledge to create a safe and punitive-free environment, which gives these young people the freedom to discover who they are and explore who they want to become. This freedom fosters the development of learner agency, such that learners as young as five see themselves as accountable for their growth and development. When a five-year-old learner is trusted to go to the bathroom, play with their peers, and clean up after themselves without supervision, they begin exploring other ways in which they can show off their autonomy.
Many of their ideas initially come from the example being set by older learners. Age-based cohorting does not exist at VFS, and it breaks every assumption about what “X”-year-olds are capable of. If a seven-year-old gets sick and wants to know more about bacteria and viruses, she isn’t told microbiology is reserved for teenagers. Rather, she is invited to come up with guiding questions that will lead her down her own rabbit hole of unsuspecting discoveries.
She can then take the lessons she learned and launch a health initiative that positively impacts her entire VFS community. Thanks to the socially embedded and democratic nature of VFS, the young learner can submit a proposal at the weekly All School Meeting to require her peers and adults to wash their hands after using the restroom and before eating lunch. Everyone would vote on the proposal and if it reached a majority, the new plan would be put in place.
The community at VFS “believes kids are naturally curious with a strong desire to learn.” When a learner identifies an opportunity to explore, they work with a mentor to develop a learning plan that expresses one or more of their graduation requirements—Self-Reliance, Self-Knowledge, Professional, and Service (all of which often go hand-in-hand). In the case of our young learner above, she would be able to express self-reliance in being proactive to understand her illness, professionalism in creating an official proposal to be voted on, and service in recognition of wanting to protect her community from getting sick. Wrapped in everything would be natural moments of self-reflection that would result in the continuous cultivation of self-knowledge.
VFS founders came to the education drawing board with their hearts set on creating something that matched the needs of their community. Ever since then, they have pushed toward a more and more robust expression of learner-centered learning that will take their young learners to incredible heights.
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