A Film by Mika Buser-Ferris
Here’s an article written before the school’s closure in 2005:
Finding freedom in school
By Lolis Eric Elie
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune
As the documentary “The Free School” opens, it is the late 1960s. The New Orleans Free School is emerging from this idealistic time as an alternative vision of how children can be educated in America. Founded largely by self-described hippies, the school sought to provide an educational experience that placed more emphasis on freedom than on structure. It placed more emphasis on individual needs than on the achievements of the class as a whole.
Whole new world
“The Free School” is one of the many films that will be shown Sunday as part of the New Orleans Film Festival. This year’s offerings range from “Shalom Y’all,” a documentary about Jews in the South, to “Happy Here and Now,” a “funky and futuristic” feature set in New Orleans, to “Bowling for Columbine,” filmmaker Michael Moore’s latest critique of American culture and politics.
“The Free School” stands out because it documents an attempt to create a new approach to education. Given the mounting evidence that American public schools are not fulfilling their mission, it is interesting to observe a school trying to define a different approach to that mission.
As the film documents, the school’s inception was a grass-roots effort. For teachers, academic credentials were less important than a belief in the school’s mission. For students, ability to function in a structured environment meant less than the ability to be creative.
“We were trying to achieve both: that they would be happier and that they would learn just as much as other kids,” said Martha, a teacher who, like everyone else in the film and the school, goes only by her first name.
“We lived, ate and breathed the Free School. It was our lives,” said Bob, a staff member.
“And we saw it not only as educational change, but as social change, a way to redirect America,” he said.
“The Free School prepared me for a world that didn’t exist outside the Free School,” said Saddi, a graduate. “Inside, I was friends with people of all cultures and races. After I left the Free School, it wasn’t like that.”
Decades of change
In the 30 years since its founding, much has changed at the Free School. The most obvious change has been the move from its initial location on the bottom floor of a commune, where it was housed briefly, to its current location in a more orthodox school building on Camp Street. It has gone from being totally independent to being a part of the Orleans Parish public school system. It has grown from 30 students to 300.
The school has had difficulty maintaining its independent ideals in the midst of these changes. But the school, like the film, stands out as a testament to the role creativity and innovation should play in developing alternative approaches to public education.