Liberate Education: How to Start a Free School

This how-to guide was written for Shareable by organizers (especially Aaron Rosenblum) from EXCOtc, a collective of Experimental Colleges in the Twin Cities of Minnesota that share a visions of a better world, offering free and open classes, and building a community around education for social change. EXCO-TC began eight years ago and is now made up of three collaborating local organizing chapters: Macalester/St. Paul, the U of M, and the Academia Communitaria.

The Free Schooling Movement

The origin of free schools (or free skools) in the United States can be traced back to 1911 when the first Modern School opened in New York City’s Lower East Side. Inspired by the work of Francesco Ferrer and La Escuela Moderna in Catalonia, Spain, a group of NYC-based anarchists opened their school embracing an alternative learning model for youth and adults based on academic freedom, democratic organization, and socially conscious education. The first Modern School closed in 1958 but the free school movement is alive and well with 58 active free schools currently listed on the Free Skool Project Wiki.

While free schools can and should vary widely from place to place there are a few central tenets that most free schools share:

  • Organizing should be non-hierarchical, with teachers and learners sharing responsibility for coordination and decision making.

  • Decisions are made using a consensus based process.

  • All classes are free to attend.

  • Anyone can be a teacher or a learner.

Don’t see your town on the map? Do you want to start a free school in your community? You’ll want to begin thinking through the following questions.

New Port Richey, FL Free Skool weed dating
New Port Richey, FL Free Skool weed dating

People

Any free school project needs a strong network of interested people. Perhaps you already have a network who might embrace the free school concept? That's a great start, but you’ll still want to reach out to others in your local community(s) who might be interested in supporting a free school. There might be organizations already hosting free classes, skillshares, folks doing organizing work that could benefit from a free schooling venue, teachers dissatisfied with presently available learning spaces, or other community members simply inspired by the idea.

As your organizing team forms and you connect with community members, ask questions like: Who will use the free school? How will we connect with the needs and desires of these communities? What do people want to learn? What knowledge do people have to share? Your outreach should be focused and creative. This is a great time to employ the organizing strategy of one-on-one meetings, which can be an effective tool in forging meaningful, long lasting connections to a diverse range of community members. Consider hosting community events (like a DIY fest, Reskilling Festival or Learnapalooza) on a regular basis that bring diverse networks together around the free school hub.

As the EXCOtc (Experimental Community Education for the Twin Cities organizing group has evolved and changed, we continue to put special effort on hosting community forums and reflection events where participants from across the EXCOtc community can help co-create the vision for EXCOtc moving forward. At these events, we often use popular education techniques like the “chalk talk” to encourage dialogue and idea generation.

Craft zone at the EXCOtc
Craft zone at the EXCOtc

Community Resources

Free school’s recognize that there already exists a wealth of resources for learning in your community. A successful free school project will connect the dots on the community resource map, empowering community members to share what they know and learners to seek the knowledge they need. Find spaces that might already be hubs of learning like libraries, churches, universities, and other community-focused organizations like bike shops and hacker spaces that can offer space, teachers and tools. Reach out to organizers and participants in these spaces.

Decide if you want a centralized location like the New Haven Free School, a more dispersed network of spaces like EXCOtc, or perhaps some combination of the two. Find spaces that might be willing to host free school classes. Besides public locations like libraries, community centers, and park buildings which may have meeting spaces you can reserve, you might also find coffee shops, bookstores, and other businesses that would gladly host a class when they are not busy for the extra patronage or advertising. Seek out resources/class supplies that might be loaned or donated. At EXCOtc classes often happen in the facilitators’ homes or backyards. We will sometimes invest in resources for classes that tend to recur (like yoga mats), but it can be difficult to keep track of all these supplies without a consistent storage location. An online calendar can help coordinate space distribution.

As you grow, you’ll also want to consider monetary resources. EXCOtc use a combination of donation-based fundraising, small community grants, and funds from student organizations at local universities. Money is sometimes used to provide honorariums to facilitators who couldn’t teach otherwise, as well as pay for class supplies, publicity materials, and other expenses like web hosting. Your free school can run on more or less, but ignoring it altogether will likely end up privileging folks with more money who can already afford the time, space and supplies, which may also influence the kinds of students that feel comfortable participating. Creativity and flexibility are essential when it comes to fundraising and to resource mapping in general. We’ve thrown dance parties, had letter writing campaigns, and made an effort to ask EXCO participants with financial resources to donate.

Knot tying at winter skillshare carnival, EXCOtc
Knot tying at winter skillshare carnival, EXCOtc

Access

In the case of EXCOtc, our free school started as a direct response to increasingly inaccessible spaces of higher education. With barriers like language, citizenship, money, and cultural capital, the university has become a learning space that excludes many, prioritizes dominant narratives, and supports a specific type of learner. As your free school forms, keep central the idea of access. Who do you hope will access your free school and how can you help facilitate a learning space that moves beyond the exclusivity of the university?

Consider potential barriers like language (offer classes and produce outreach materials in multiple languages), physical access (are your class spaces wheelchair accessible?), mental access (do your classes support different learning styles?), and material resources. Where and when will classes happen and how will folks get there? Are they in spaces that someone from a different community might find intimidating or inaccessible? Are they at a range of times that don’t assume a nine-to-five work schedule? Is your outreach strategy getting to the primarily offline populations? Free schools should be spaces that support access for everyone to the possibilities of radical learning.

One big access issue for people with children is the expense of childcare. For events, we always make sure to offer meaningful childcare (that means people to supervise with some planned activities) and state that clearly in the publicity for the event. We also try to provide childcare at meetings and classes when requested. In the past, we partnered with a local radical childcare collective whose members would provide childcare for classes whose participants had requested it. Kids are also welcome to teach and attend appropriate classes with parental supervision. The best part of being accessible in this area... kids make most events/classes/meetings more lively!

Wilderness survival skillshare at Ann Arbor Reskilling Festival
Wilderness survival skillshare at Ann Arbor Reskilling Festival

Communication

A free school being a decentralized network, you’ll need to maintain a variety of methods for communicating. Your organizing team should plan to have regular meetings which allow others to easily join in on the work. At some point, you might consider having smaller working group meetings centered on specific areas like publicity, facilitator support, event planning, and community outreach. In addition, you’ll probably want to maintain an organizers listserv or online group. Google groups are very effective and allow for shared documents, email, listservs, and more. If you’re trying to break the google bubble you might also find riseup.net or ning to be useful tools.

Its even more important to have effective ways for communicating with the public to recruit class teachers, promote your classes, and strengthen the free school’s community. You’ll want a website where folks can find you (consider free blogging platforms like wordpress or open source web development tools like drupal) and a listserv to make announcements (try mail chimp). You might also consider using social media like facebook and twitter to spread the word. Whatever your digital presence don’t forget about good old fashioned communication with posters and personal connections. Consider making an online or printed class calendar to promote new classes, host community events, or team up for a phone drive to call past participants. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth to help promote your free school.

Make a special effort to clearly communicate with and support the facilitators who will be leading classes. They’ll want to know what expectations the organization and the participants will have of them. Hopefully, you’ve recruited some folks who may be teaching for the first time or who might be unfamiliar with the environment of a free school class. EXCOtc regularly hosts facilitator orientations where we discuss potentials and pitfalls of an EXCO class, popular education techniques, anti-oppression in education, using the website, and more. Facilitators are also assigned a contact person from within the organizing team who is available to support them with any issues or questions.

Southside Free Skool communication board
Southside Free Skool communication board

Moving Forward

At this point, you have a solid team of organizers, a web presence, and some upcoming classes, workshops, or an event to promote. As your free school reaches out to more people it is sure to encounter unexpected problems along with exciting possibilities. Here’s a few things to keep in mind as a free school evolves:

  • Stay flexible! A free school should respond and change with the needs and desires of of its participants (teachers, students, organizers).

  • Free school is not the school you are used to! This can be a blessing and a curse. One problem we see is lack of consistent attendance. Instead of trying to fight this, we work with facilitators to adapt by offering shorter length classes, communicating clearly with participants, and keeping things fresh and exciting so people want to come back.

  • Sustainable organizing! Running a free school can be a lot of work, and it can be overwhelming to do alone or with a very small team. Don’t neglect the need to recruit new organizers, delegate tasks, and allow people to try out different organizing roles.

  • You are not alone! There are lots of other free schools out there all with their own wealth of experience and wisdom to share. Most free school organizers are more than happy to share advice and give feedback on any issues you may have. There’s even a free schools listserv.

Don’t forget, a free school should be fun and engaging! Embrace possibilities as they arise to keep things fresh for everyone. Happy learning!

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