The 63 students at Clearwater School in Bothell learn what and when they want. Critics question whether the kids will learn the things they need, but parents and supporters believe that they will.

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The music room sits empty on a recent gray morning at Clearwater School in Bothell. Four girls play cards in the “play” room nearby, and a half-dozen teenagers hang out in the “quiet” room across the way.

The crowd is in the computer room, where 20 students — about a third of this small, private school — are engrossed in strategy and shoot-’em-up video games.

That makes some of their parents uncomfortable, but it shows Clearwater is serious about giving students freedom to choose how to spend their time.

Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, Clearwater students learn to read and write and solve math problems the same way. There are no tests at Clearwater. No assignments. No classes unless students organize them.

The school’s campus is just a short way off busy Bothell-Everett Highway with its mini marts and office parks, but educationally speaking, Clearwater is about as far from the mainstream as one can get.

At a time when the federal and state governments say the nation’s future depends on improving schools with high standards and tests, Clearwater students don’t have to study anything they don’t want to, and if they choose to shoot cyberspace bad guys all day, that’s just fine.


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Clearwater School :

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“Free” schools

Clearwater is one of about 30 schools that follow the philosophy of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Such schools are sometimes called “free” and “democratic” schools, where students are responsible for their own learning and have a significant role in governing the school. They also have many parallels with “unschooling,” a movement embraced by some homeschooling families who don’t follow a set curriculum.

There used to be thousands of “free” schools back in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Jerry Mintz of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. The number has waned since, although Mintz says many of their ideas are used in public alternative schools and by some homeschooling families.

By Mintz’s count, there are about 200 “democratic” schools around the world, including the Sudbury schools, with more in the works. There are four “democratic” schools in Washington, including a new Sudbury school called Trillium, which opened last fall in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Clearwater opened about 11 years ago with about two dozen students in the Seattle home of one of its founders, Stephanie Sarantos. Enrollment jumped about five years ago to about 60. This year, there are 63 students who range in age from 4 to 19.

It moved last year from a building near Nathan Hale High School in northeast Seattle to Bothell, where its campus is a collection of classrooms linked by wooden ramps on land with a big field and stream out back. Tuition is $5,550 a year and will rise closer to $6,000 next fall. Some students are on full or partial scholarship.

Parents include several with Ph.Ds. There’s a high-school teacher, a chocolatier, a science professor, an architect, an artist, a house cleaner.

Critics question whether students at Sudbury schools truly learn what they need, and whether they are exposed to enough to figure out which subjects they might love. Even Alfie Kohn, a well-known author and harsh critic of public education, says Sudbury Valley is too radical for his taste. He prefers the Sudbury approach over what he considers public schools’ “enormously counterproductive practices like grades and standardized tests.” But he doesn’t think students learn best left entirely on their own.

“There’s a role for teachers to initiate possible avenues of inquiry, to spark interests that kids might not have had before. To coach and guide and observe,” he said. “I don’t take the view that the kids have to take the lead all the time. I think we miss a lot that way.”

Many say the Sudbury model is not — and shouldn’t be — for everyone. “It’s a great model for some students — but I would say that for every kind of education,” said Bob Howard, an associate professor of education at University of Washington, Tacoma.

The Sudbury approach appeals to those who reject what they see as “coerced” instruction that occurs when adults set the agenda. Supporters instead trust that children will choose to learn what they need to become successful adults.

“Parents are really brave to be interested in this school,” Sarantos said. It’s not easy, she said, to let go of all the usual measures like test scores and grades, and enroll children in a school that hardly acts like a school at all.

Unstructured day

The day at Clearwater begins when the first child shows up, and continues, with ebbs and flows, until cleanup time at 5 p.m. In between, it’s hard to see what academic learning takes place.

The computer room stays busy all day. Many younger students run around outside. The teenagers spend much of their day in the “quiet” room, which doubles as the school’s office. They play a board game called Apples to Apples. They talk. They draw. In the afternoon, a few walk down to the nearby gas station to buy snacks.

They have some resources available when they want them. The music room has a drum set, a keyboard, electric guitars. The quiet room has shelves filled with books. The computers have access to the Internet. There are games and art supplies and adults available to help students find answers to their questions. But staff (mainly adults who have children at the school) don’t offer help unless asked.

What students learn often isn’t evident until after it’s happened, staff members say. So it can appear to occur overnight, like a child who wasn’t reading seen curled up with a book.

They don’t dispute that reading and writing and math are important; they just think they’re learned best — and fastest — when a child chooses to learn them.

When staff members do observe a learning moment, they don’t try to direct it. One 4-year-old, for example, recently studied a sign on a table that says “No standing. No climbing.” Shawna Lee, one of the school’s founders and staff members, heard him say that the first two letters of each phrase were the same, but the third was different.

Lee realized the boy was starting to learn to read, but said she refrained from saying what a teacher might, such as “Do you know what that letter is called? It’s an ‘n.’ “

“He’s already started to figure it out,’ she said, “and I didn’t want to interrupt that process.”

“Deceptively hard”

When asked what they like best about their school, Clearwater students say the freedom to do what they want, when they want. Even if that means they might not learn everything students at other schools do.

“I won’t say I’m amazingly good at advanced calculus,” said Josh Pidcock, 19, who’s been at Clearwater since he was 12. “I’m not the most studied reader either. I’m OK with that. I figure I can learn that in a college atmosphere much better.”

Attending Clearwater isn’t always as easy as it might look, they say.

“It’s deceptively hard,” says Ian Freeman-Lee, 15, a quiet, thoughtful student who has never attended another school. He says he’s gone through times when he’s bored all day. One such stretch — he thinks he was about 10 — lasted months, maybe close to a year.

But the school sees that as part of the growing process, too.

Students at Clearwater “are a lot more mature because a lot more responsibility is placed on you,” says Corey Campbell, 18, one of Sarantos’ sons. Some students have left Clearwater, he said, because they couldn’t handle setting their own learning path.

Tiffany Denchfield, who transferred from a public high school last spring, said she started out doing nothing, too, but Clearwater “teaches you how to get up … and do something.”

Denchfield’s mother, Pamela, says her daughter is finally happy after years of misery at public schools, where she found the homework boring, and the social scene challenging. The move was easy for her daughter, she said, but harder for her.

“I’ve had to revisit a lot of assumptions that I had about childhood in the United States, about what a child has to go through … what my child had to go through because I went through it.”

Measuring success

Most of the students at Clearwater started when they were young, so only a handful have reached graduation age. So far, five have graduated by writing a paper explaining why they’re ready to become responsible adults. That’s the school’s one learning requirement, and it must be approved at a school meeting.

Two of the graduates are now attending community college, and one is enrolled at Earlham College in Indiana. Two others are working. One student left without graduating, Sarantos said, and is in a job-training program.

Three more are set to graduate this year. So far, Campbell has been accepted at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Before he applied, he organized a math class at school to prepare for the SAT and studied on his own.

But Clearwater doesn’t measure success by college acceptances. Sarantos says she fully expects students to do well academically because she’s confident they can learn the skills and knowledge they need. To her, education is about taking responsibility for your life, and learning to live in a democracy. At Clearwater, students start doing that from the day they arrive.

Everyone has a vote

The one planned activity on this Clearwater day takes place after lunch. It’s the weekly school meeting to discuss policy and rules of behavior, and requests for privileges.

Before the meeting starts, Sean Carney, 16, the school meeting leader, writes the agenda in pencil on the back of the envelope. Whoever shows up participates, and today the group includes most of the staff, many of the teenagers, and several younger students who have requests on the agenda. Everyone gets one vote, so students are in the majority.

Over the next hour, the group considers a ban on popping microwave popcorn in the “quiet” room — the objection is the smell, especially when it burns — and a new “touched-it-last” rule, which would mean whoever last touched a piece of trash, even if tricked into holding it, must throw it out. That one goes down by a large margin.

Mostly, however, the group weighs requests by students of various ages for increased privileges. Younger ones want permission to go to the field or the creek beyond the fenced part of the yard. Staff members question them closely about whether they know the rules, such as not getting wet. Some requests are approved, but the boy who can’t remember the rules is told to return next week once he’s learned them.

On the last request, a small girl in a pink leotard who’s been playing around the fringes of the meeting raises her hand to vote “yes,” then again to vote “no.” Since Clearwater is a democracy, and all students have rights no matter how old they are, both votes are counted.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or