Sudbury students on a field trip to Solartech. (photo by Ian Loughlin)

Sudbury students on a field trip to Solartech. (photo by Ian Loughlin)

The Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Woodstock will be the first school in the Hudson Valley to go totally “green” energy-wise. As the private school on Zena Road celebrates its tenth anniversary, Solartech, the solar panel manufacturer in Kingston, is installing 230 watt panels that will encompass Sudbury’s entire 80-foot by 20-foot roof, and should cover 100 percent of its electricity needs. Solartech was looking to donate a project locally and decided on Sudbury. “We chose to give to a private school so we wouldn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of public schools,” explains Shawn Bodie, operations manager who is familiar with Sudbury since his niece is a student there. “We knew Sudbury needed cash flow since they were self-funded and they kept their tuition low to make the school affordable.” He explained that Solartech’s investment will be about $90,000 and that it will take ten years to return that investment. “It’s a grid-tied system so it overproduces during the day and uses the power at night.” Solartech plans to install the system this summer so it will be functional by September, 2013.

To learn more about it, parents, staff and a troop of kids from Sudbury went on a field trip to Solartech in Kingston last month. Despite the fact that there were more than 20 children, from ages five to 15, there was no shushing or herding or reprimands to stay behind the yellow line. The kids stood quietly and listened to Bodie as he explained how the equipment worked, chiming in occasionally to ask questions. Considering that Sudbury has the reputation of being a school with no rules where kids can do their own thing, such quiet listening was impressive.

But respectful behavior is at the core of the Sudbury philosophy, which stresses that character determines success in life more than by a specific body of knowledge.

This year marks ten for the Hudson Valley Sudbury School. In 2002, a small group of parents was organized by Jeff Collins, a software developer who put up the money to start the school because he’d moved to Woodstock and wanted his own children to attend. Since then it’s been operating somewhat under the public radar. Few people even know where it is: on a wooded 67-acre campus in the Zena area of Woodstock. The school is housed in a 5,000 square foot building, with a kitchen, library, darkroom, play room, computer room, art room and rooms for just hanging out. Despite the lack of formal classes and state testing, Sudbury has a charter from the State of New York as an accredited private school for children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

In addition to a core group of about 20 families, some of whom have been sending their children to the school since it was founded, Sudbury students reflect a mix, consisting of homeschooled children who are ready to be with other kids, some from Onteora and other — even out-of-the-area — school districts who don’t fit into traditional schools; gifted students who are bored in public schools; free-thinking families who want their children to experience an educational alternative that doesn’t involve what they believe to be sitting in rows at desks and taking endless tests at public schools; and families who can’t afford more expensive private schools. This year there are 56 students in attendance, with room for about 25 more. Tuition at Sudbury is $4,500 per year (scholarships are also offered.)

The Sudbury philosophy isn’t easy for outsiders to understand. “At the core of their approach, is that in an environment with ample opportunities, children will educate themselves through their own self directed play, exploration, and other self-initiated activities,” explains Peter Gray, Ph.D., Research Professor of Developmental Psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, forthcoming in March from Basic Books. Gray, an expert on how children learn from free play and age mixing, has studied the Sudbury model extensively. “Classes at Sudbury are offered in response to students’ requests, but no students are required or particularly encouraged to join a class. A basic premise of the school’s philosophy is that each student is responsible for his or her own education. It might reasonably be said that personal responsibility is the school’s primary curriculum.”

The Sudbury philosophy contends that the path to success in life is following your passion, instead of learning by rote. Facilities are available for learning, and if a student is interested in a particular subject the staff will facilitate learning and even enlist someone from the community to teach it.

There’s also no separation or grouping by age. Older students often teach younger ones. Much of the learning appears to occur naturally. Reading, writing and math are often learned through everyday experience, such as playing Yu-Gi-Oh cards, writing a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, or working in the school store.

But how do they learn how to read? Gray says that younger children learn from the older ones at Sudbury. “Children who could not read by themselves, could read in collaboration with others who could read (for example, when they played computer games that involved reading, or read books together); children who did not yet have the cognitive skills to play complex card games that involved math, did play such games regularly with older children who kept them on task and helped them learn the appropriate math. We documented a great many examples of such scaffolding of younger children’s activities by older ones, in all sorts of activities — physical, intellectual, social, and moral. We also observed that younger students became motivated to try new activities by observing older ones engaged in those activities, even if they weren’t interacting directly with those older students.”