On an average Tuesday at an old craftsman-style bungalow in Independence Heights, you can find an eclectic mix of kids playing. A group of girls, ranging from 8 to 10 years old, sits around a small table, engrossed in a drama involving dozens of little figurines, each with its own name—one’s called Raspberry; another, Green Tea Latte—and the girls are explaining the backstories of all the characters to a newcomer. Meanwhile, in a back room that smells distinctly like teen boys, several of them are deeply focused on their computer screens, playing Minecraft.
It sort of feels like someone’s home, where the neighborhood kids have convened to play and have snacks. But the house is no after-school hangout. It’s Houston’s first Sudbury School, and it offers neither classrooms nor subject lessons. Although there are shelves stacked with books, there’s no one to make the kids—who range from 5 to 18, and aren’t separated into age groups—read them. Instead, what they do is completely up to them.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, like Montessori?’” Dominique Side, the cofounder of the Houston Sudbury School, laughs. “We are way far from Montessori. There are no suggestions, there’s no judgment. If they want to spend the whole day playing Minecraft, as long as it’s not infringing on someone else, they are free to do that.”
The model is pretty out-there, particularly in the hyper-competitive private school sphere. The first Sudbury school, located near the Massachusetts town of the same name, was started in 1968 and based on the idea that “any school purporting to educate children to become adults who can function productively in the American socio-political environment should mirror the basic structure of that environment”—i.e., true democracy.
There are now more than 60 such schools around the world. They have staff instead of teachers; each student and each staffer gets one vote; and everything, everything, is up for a vote. At the Houston outpost, there’s a thick document of school rules, the details of which are hammered out and fine-tuned during weekly meetings. There’s also a daily judicial-committee meeting, where students consider infractions against their peers, from leaving their belongings out, a no-no, to hogging the shared computers.
The 23 students are extremely diverse, both racially and economically, and there are two trans kids. Cofounder Cara DeBusk says that’s because the model attracts those that don’t quite fit in traditional settings. “Parents say, My kid is miserable, and this isn’t working for us,” she says.
DeBusk, who taught photography and other subjects at Episcopal for 16 years, was “unschooling” her daughter—a child-led form of homeschooling—when, researching ways to foster independence as a parent, she discovered Sudbury. In 2015, she teamed up with Side and started the school, where both send their own children. When we visited, they’d already outgrown their first building in Independence Heights and were set to relocate to a bigger space in Acres Homes.
The model creates self-starters, DeBusk insists, and kids learn through play. If they want to delve into a certain subject, she’ll find materials for them—many of the older students are doing a self-paced driver’s-ed class, for instance, and they also seek out SAT preparation. And though Sudbury students’ college applications are a far cry from the GPA-and-test-score-heavy standard— “we prepare them a transcript, although it doesn’t assign subject matter”—DeBusk says that the vast majority do pursue college.
Yes, the program may seem like a big gamble from the parents’ perspective, but if college is indeed the goal, DeBusk says that being a Sudbury graduate actually can provide a leg up. “Colleges like diversity of thought. There are millions of kids with the same grades, same philosophy, same experience,” she says. “Sudbury kids have a unique experience.”