PALM HARBOR — At the Spring Valley School, three dozen students ages 5 to 18 are trusted to do what they want. There are no classes, grades or homework. There are no “teachers,” only “staff.” Students decide when it’s time to graduate.
Democracy rules, and students’ voting power far outweighs that of the school’s four adults. The kids at Spring Valley can fire or hire staff, admit or expel students and spend its budget. If you call, it’s likely a 15-year-old will answer the phone.
When a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked to observe a day inside the tiny private school, the students considered the request and voted to allow it.
Spring Valley, like most Florida private schools, has seen an uptick in interest that’s likely to grow. Florida’s new school choice law will allot tuition money for every student seeking education outside a public school — which families are already doing in record numbers.
Spring Valley, in turn, has doubled tours for prospective families to twice a week, and an expansion of the 2,500-square-foot schoolhouse begins this summer. Students and staff voted recently to increase tuition from $4,850 to $6,717, the first significant increase in over a decade.
Yet the curious school stands out even more amid a national “parental rights” movement, which has risen alongside Florida lawmakers’ reshaping of public schools. Parents have won influence over classrooms, from books in libraries to murals on the walls. In an era of consent forms, lawsuits and school board meetings swarmed with activist moms and dads, Spring Valley parents take a step back.
They agree to let an experiment in community take its course.
“It’s something we talk about when they enroll,” said Diane Ballou, the school’s founder. “They must learn to trust the student, and the environment, to figure it out on their own. And for some parents that is hard.”
A book could be banned at Spring Valley. Critical race theory could be studied. But it would all be entirely up to the kids.
“We don’t force anything in, and we don’t force anything out, unless it comes up organically in our community, and then we address it within our community,” Ballou said. “(Students) can research anything they want, including social and political issues, and some have, but there’s no curriculum. We trust they’re all going to come to terms with whatever decisions they make.”
The school opened in 1997, modeled after the original Sudbury Valley School founded in Massachusetts in 1968. The Sudbury method, used in about five dozen schools around the world, trusts children to find their own way to learning what’s important to them. Staffers can facilitate, if a student asks, but in practice, “They usually just figure it out themselves,” said Rich Collins, a retired software developer and staffer at the school. He’d originally volunteered because a student wanted to learn programming, but lately none have.
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“My kids don’t do anything academic,” he said of his two daughters who attend Spring Valley. “Maybe some math, just to prove that they can. … I’m not too concerned.”
Collins understands people have doubts, and a million questions, and that the uninitiated might picture chaos, but curiosity, he said, is welcome.
On a recent Tuesday, this reporter parked off the circular driveway outside what appeared to be a modest, stuccoed, single-family home, except for the sign reading, “Spring Valley School, where I learn what can’t be taught.” Out back, children played under shady oaks. The front door opened into a full kitchen and a large common area with a stone fireplace where students bustled about.
At 10:30 a.m., Juliette LeDoux, 11, sat at a long table and played Kings in the Corner with Alice Collins, 10. Alice’s sister, Lucie, 13, ate a candy bar nearby. She’d arrived around 9, but signed herself out for a while to go buy the chocolate. Lucie’s plans for the day were watching “POV videos” on YouTube to learn about acting, and practicing soccer. Juliette’s plans? “This is pretty much it.”
In the media room, a boy and girl sat back to back at separate computers playing Roblox together, while a girl scaled mountain terraces in Minecraft. Two young boys and a teenager sat at computers, absorbed in a multiplayer game called Super Animal Royale, a battle royale-style shooter “featuring up to 64 adorably murderous Super Animals.”
They called out a cacophony of instructions: “I didn’t have to maneuver, you flank them!” “Let’s expand the living room!” The older boy, Karl, calculated on his phone some sort of in-game points expenditure the three were planning.
At 11:30 came the weekly school meeting, the only gathering everyone must attend. Students shuffled in, and the elected meeting chairperson, 18-year-old Christian S. Brzezinski, made opening announcements — someone had left a bathroom door closed when not in use — then took his place at a panel of other students and banged a gavel.
When students at Spring Valley don’t like a rule, they change it. There have been some hot debates over the years, like the former ban on Nerf guns that some younger students overturned, or the “no getting wet” rule, later amended to state that a student can only get wet if they’ve brought a towel. A faction recently tried to strike down the school’s no-pranking rule but failed. A compromise passed: no pranks without permission.
On this day, the new rule being considered was a staffer suggestion, prompted by a Judicial Committee the prior week. That’s the school’s disciplinary group, also predominantly students, who hear the cases of accused students.
One student had complained about another for posting what they felt was a cringey photo of them dancing. The new rule would require permission before sharing images of another student.
“All in favor?” asked Brzezinski. Hands went up, and the rule was passed.
Lucie and Sophie Baker had introduced a motion to allow them to sell fake nails. Passed.
Alice introduced a motion to allow her to answer the school’s front door. “I feel like even though I’m 10 I’m really responsible.” Passed. This prompted a similar motion from Janelle, 14. Motion tabled.
Students at Sudbury schools, staffers said, are far more likely to become artists or entrepreneurs than, say, scientists. The school’s four most recent graduates include one current college student, a bartender, a nutritionist and one who’d planned to pursue truck driving the last time staff checked.
One could criticize the Sudbury method for failing to ensure that students learn the basics — a popular New Republic article from 2014 highlighted a 16-year-old’s unfamiliarity with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — but Sudbury’s proponents say no one needs to know everything, and students will eventually learn some things as adults, when they need to. The age-old lament, “Why do I need to know this if I’m never going to use it?” meets its validation here.
Brzezinski wants to be a pilot, and occasionally has spent school hours in a virtual-reality flight simulator brought from home. He is considering graduating this semester, if he feels like it, and wants an entry-level job at Delta, which offers employees a path to become pilots after two years.
He started at Spring Valley at 4 and said he learned to read and write through the chat functions on video games. The most he’s studied at school, he recalled, was when he needed to build a fence around some protected beach dunes for an Eagle Scout project. On this Tuesday, he planned to spend his school hours watching YouTube videos on game theory, then “hanging out with my buds.”
Had he missed anything important without teachers’ prompts or lesson plans? He shrugged off the notion. Put on the spot, he could name the Axis powers from World War II (he likes documentaries) and the three branches of American government (learned it for merit badge work).
His perception of traditional school was that it was a bit ruthless, and arbitrarily overstructured, and certainly not for him. “I’ve seen on TV and in movies what it kind of feels like.”
Mila Holtzeker Gamili scrunched up her face and shook her head when asked about traditional school.
“There are no good outcomes from forcing,” she said.
Holtzeker Gamili, 14, has attended Spring Valley since age 8, after her family moved to the area from Israel. A lover of music from the 1960s and ‘70s, she sat in the lounge noodling a Beatles song on acoustic guitar.
“I’m already an artist,” she said, “but I want to be an artist.”
She’d learned chords from another student, an older boy, which she pointed to as a helpful situation that might not happen at a traditional school. She’d been helping a much younger boy with basic math.
Holtzeker Gamili is up to algebra, something she asked a staffer who taught public school math to help with. “I had the choice not to do that, but I’m doing it because knowledge is power, and maybe college applications and stuff.” She mostly spends her school days drawing or socializing, or on rare occasions, reading.
What did she worry people might think of her school? “That they’ll think we’re lazy here,” she said. “When you learn something you want, the outcome is good.”
The school day wore on. Kids practiced a TikTok-esque dance routine. They shot hoops and played on a swing set indefinitely. Some kids spend all their time on a computer, while others spend their entire day playing outside. “It’s natural,” Rich Collins said. “I saw them out here the other day having a deep strategic conversation about a game they’d made up.”
Other examples the students and staff gave of things they’d learned or witnessed being learned included: event planning (via organizing the school dance), graphic design (tickets for said dance), teamwork (video games), communications (crafting official school emails to send parents about yearbook photos) solving Rubik’s Cubes (YouTube), and the creation of a fantasy world called Starry Caverns, a cave system filled with bioluminescent life (many, many hours of sketching).
Students and staff struggled to give many examples, either because there weren’t that many or because they don’t worry about quantifying knowledge that way.
“We don’t really think like that,” Rich Collins said.
There are a surprising number of rules, committees and “corporations” — Media Corp, Library Corp, Kitchen Corp, Art Corp, games, theater, elections, admissions, decorations and about a dozen others. The community elects chairs, who propose more rules and certify other students on things like using the microwave or answering the phone.
When it came time for the Judicial Committee at 1 p.m., a small group gathered in a sunny classroom.
One student read the evidence: “Cash was caught on top of Jayden.” Both boys were charged with horseplay.
They briefly made their defense. Jayden claimed to have been “just laying down chilling” in the media room when Cash jumped on him. Cash tried to call a witness, who could not be found. Ultimately, both admitted to violating the rules and received a sentence of no game room for the rest of the day.
Shortly after that, in the main room, someone yelled, “Helping Hands!” and a group of students sprang into action wiping, scrubbing and sweeping, as another student director inspected their work with a checklist.
“You need more rules,” Alice Collins said, “when you have more freedom.”
Sophia Aston, 17, went to a traditional school until she was 11. It was midafternoon, and she sat in the art room, an enclosed patio, slicing wine corks with a box cutter to craft a rug. She mentioned the school’s No. 1 rule, the preamble to its rulebook. Students and staff brought up the preamble often. It states that all community members are “responsible for the general welfare of the school, through actions that contribute to preserving the atmosphere of freedom, respect, safety, fairness, trust, and order that is the essence of the school’s existence.”
Aston worried readers of this story would assume school there was far too easy.
“That’s not true,” she said. “This is a community, and it takes a lot to build that.” Then some younger girls asked her for help with art supplies. A director for Art Corp, Aston sees her responsibilities to the Spring Valley community as almost sacred. “See how we were just interrupted so I could pour paint? I can’t just tell them no. That’s not how this works.”
Still, it seemed a lot of freedom to figure out, on their own, how to spend every day of a school year lasting nine months.
A teenage boy announced, to no one in particular, “I’m leaving.” And headed toward the sign-out sheet by the door.