Remember when the sound of the school bell meant science projects, Valentine's Day parties and field trips to the lake? For the current generation of kids, those fun times seem to have fallen by the wayside. They're too busy preparing for the next round of testing, which is seldom more than a few weeks away.

Since the advent of "No Child Left Behind" and its focus on ever-increasing focus on standardized testing, children in public schools are bubbling in more and more multiple-choice questions at younger ages. Teachers are feeling the pressure too, with their salaries and tenure plans dependent on the results. Instead of creating traditional lesson plans, they have to shift their focus to "teaching the test."

At "democratic schools" or "free schools," students are free to determine the course of each day. These revolutionary schools are also referred to as "Sudbury schools," named after the Sudbury Valley School that was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Unlike Waldorf and Montessori schools, Sudbury schools have no central authority—so one school may operate completely differently than another. However, they all have certain things in common that draw students—and parents—to seek out their unconventional methods of education:

  • Power to the people. When is comes to deciding what to study, all students participate in making the lesson plan and classroom rules. While Sudbury schools have adult staff members who help facilitate learning, adults aren't the ones who set and enforce school rules. Instead, rules are proposed, discussed and agreed upon at regularly held school meetings, and anyone who violates one is tried and sentenced by all the other members.
  • Test-free zone. To minimize competition among students, grades and tests don't exist in Sudbury schools. Students choose which things they'd like to do and lessons they'd like to learn, and then judge how well they've performed. Yes, in some cases, a student will spend weeks or months mastering the intricacies of one video game after another, but Sudbury members believe that he's also developing reading and math skills as well as game theory and manual dexterity.
  • No segregation. Children are free to group themselves however they like, based on shared interests—a love of football, enthusiasm for debate or an artistic flair—rather than by age or achievement level.
  • Fosters independent thinking. Sudbury-schooled students learn to think for themselves, to set their own goals, and to be self-directed. These skills often serve them in good stead when they go on to pursue higher education, as they haven't gotten used to having teachers spell out their every step.

At this point, worries like "college admissions" and "SATs" are probably popping up in your head. Sudbury Valley School is the only free school that has conducted an alumni survey, and determined in 1992 that 82% of alumni had gone on to graduate from college. A further study by the Sudbury Valley School, published in 2005, took an in-depth look at the lives of Sudbury graduates, and found that most students reported a high degree of satisfaction with their subsequent career and life paths. Close to 90% went on to pursue formal ecucation, and many eventually went on to become entrepreneurs or to work in the arts. According to Mimsy Sadofsky, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, "every student who has wished to has been able to attend college... they are going on to college because they want to, not just because it is what many feel is the next step for an eighteen year old. They are going on to higher education, in general, because they have something they want to pursue that is easier to pursue in that setting."

However, Sudbury schools are not without problems, and may not be a good fit for all families. Here are some concerns

  • Democratic, but not really free. Sudbury schools are private institutions, and tend to be small, so scholarship money isn't always available.
  • Inconvenient schedules and locations. While traditional schools offer before and after-care programs for kids with working parents, Sudbury schools aren't set up to operate outside class hours. Democratic schools are also few and far between, which may be a concern if you're interested in exposing your child to a diverse student body.
  • Fewer boundaries. Another controversial issue is the "open campus" practiced by many Sudbury schools, where students are free to come and go as they please. While this may work well with older students, the absence of a confined classroom could be less safe for young children.
  • Tough transitions. People aren't free to determine how to spend their time and talents in the "real world." At some point, these kids will leave their Sudbury school and move into a more traditional educational system or workplace, and chances are, they'll require time to adjust.
  • Cliquish. When children are free to create their own society, without any of the mixing, grouping, and enforced inclusion prevalent in a standard school setting, it can happen that there are some children who may come to feel left out.

The benefits and drawbacks of Sudbury schools are important to consider when choosing the right school system for your child. Every student is different, and with so many changes to the public school system, it's good to know that a parent has options.