Friday, May 15, 2009

Finding or Starting Alternative Schools

There are so many choices for alternative schools and it can be difficult to understand the goals and philosophies of each one. The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) is a tool for finding alternative schools in your area, learning more about each of the alternative schools under its umbrella, or starting your own alternative school. I recently spoke with Jerry Mintz, who heads up this organization.

What is the mission of Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)?

I had been starting or running alternative schools for 25 years and then 20 years ago I founded Alternative Education Resource Organization. The mission is to help people find learner-centered education and to empower learners to control their education. We work with alternative schools, homeschools, etc.

What change would you like to see as the result of your work?

It is important for students and parents to know that they have choices, sometimes that is not always apparent to them. There are lots of alternatives around, including 12,000 schools in our database. If you don’t have any in your community, we help you start one. We help people start homeschool resource centers.

You have several kinds of schools that belong to AERO that share some common ideals, like Waldorf, Montessori, Democratic/Free Schools, Reggio Emilia, etc. What do these schools have in common?

They are all learner-centered in their approach. It includes some magnet and charter schools too. We set up a directory called “Handbook of Alternative Education” as well as an “Almanac of Education Choices” to help people navigate all of the options out there.

What is the ideal learning environment?

It has to be learner-centered wherever you are. It is not the physical environment that is so important; it is the psychological environment that matters most. Giving kids real freedom is the most important thing. Freedom does not mean do anything you want. It is taking responsibility for your own life and being aware of other people’s freedom and their limits. It is an interactive process to find out what freedom is.

How does AERO answer the question of balance in the lives of students?

In two ways: the emotional/physical/academic balance is built right in to alternative education by its very nature. The student takes time to nurture each of those needs as he or she sees fit. The other aspect of balance is that alternative schools are not elitist. Unlike many private schools there are sliding scales at the schools. We have kids with a wide variety of backgrounds.

How does AERO help students find their element or passion and their own sense of motivation?

If you grew up in schools where you had to make decisions all the time you have an idea of what you want and how to do it and you are already doing it. It’s quite different when you go to other schools where other people are telling you what to do all the time. Those people are far less prepared to handle independence and far less likely to know what they want, what they are interested in, and how to pursue it.

Standardized education comes from the industrial era where each widget had to be exactly the same. Is it necessary that we are all educated in exactly the same way, at the same time?

There are two paradigms. The basis of one was (and is) that kids are naturally lazy and need to be forced to learn. On that basis they are given homework, competition for grades and all sorts of pressure because we don’t trust them. Modern brain research shows that that is wrong. Kids are natural learners – that is the second, more accurate paradigm. If you really believe that (not just say it) everything has to be entirely different. Other things flow from it. You wouldn’t want to have kids required follow someone else’s rule and lead. The teacher is there to help kids find the things they are interested in pursuing.

What if Johnny doesn’t WANT to read or can’t do math?

That question comes from the first paradigm. The hardest thing for people to do is to trust that kids will learn. They need to remain open and confident in themselves as learners. No one should have to learn certain things at certain times. One example I can share is about this kid who was homeschooled and working as intern at AERO starting at 14. He was a very accomplished learner, including speaking fluent Russian and becoming a very talented guitar player. At 16 he was taking college courses and he discovered that in order to go community college, he needed to pass an algebra test. He had never studied it before, but he decided to study it to pass the test and he spent a week on that effort, even teaching others. He aced the test. This gives us a time ratio of something like 52:1 comparing the time spent at traditional public schools compulsorily studying algebra to the time it takes to learn it if you are motivated to know it.

How can teachers take on more of a role of facilitator in the educating of students?

They can do this first by being part of an alternative school. It looks nothing like the standard teacher lecturing. In a lot of schools the staff wander around as their help is needed. It varies. Lots of it is spontaneous.

How has your work progressed so far? What is in the works for this group?

Our mission is the education revolution, but we are far from it. We would like to see these ideas spread far and wide. AERO is a small non-profit, so it is hard to get the resources to do this effectively, though we are getting better and better at it. We’ve started 35 schools that we know of, have on-line school starters, and a list serve for school starters. You will find a list of our schools and these tools on We have our 20th Anniversary conference coming up June 25-28 in Albany, New York. It is a very unique conference that includes students, teachers and parents with roles for all of them, including some students as keynote speakers. Patch Adams will be there, Debbie Meier, who started alternative schools in Boston, a man named Four Arrows will talk about indigenous education, homeschooling, and Pat Montgomery who started alternative education.

For more information on the conference and alternative schools visit the AERO website at

No comments:

Post a Comment