Editor’s note: Dionne Ekendiz founded the Sunset Sudbury School in South Florida. In her own words, here’s why she did it.
I always wanted to become a teacher and make a difference in the lives of children. I truly believed in public education and wanted to be part of making it better. But like many “smart” students, I was dissuaded from that career path, especially by my math and science teachers. They encouraged me to do something “more” with my life, so I went off to MIT and pursued a degree in engineering. After 12 years as an engineer, computer programmer, and project manager in the corporate world, I finally had the confidence and courage to make a change. Others thought I was crazy to leave a great career, but I was driven to pursue my own passion.
I entered a master’s of education program and sought to get the most of my experience there. When I heard about a professor who was conducting research in the “best” public schools in the area, I volunteered to be his graduate assistant. This took me into the schools twice a week. I loved working with the students, but there were things I didn’t like about the environment. One of the most disturbing was how teachers and aides would yell at students to “stay in line” and “don’t talk” in the hallways. Those were the times that schools felt most like prisons to me. But still, I believed a good teacher could learn to control his/her students in a more humane way, so I didn’t let it bother me so much.
A year into my education program, I gave birth to my first child. Watching her grow and learn on her own, especially during her first years, made me see the true genius inside her. Indeed, it is a genius that exists in all children. She was so driven to master new skills like walking, talking, and feeding herself. I was always there with love, support, and encouragement, but my instincts told me to stay out of her way as much as possible and let her own curiosity guide her. Because of my own experiences with schooling and well-meaning teachers, I was determined to let my daughter make her own choices. I knew that with curiosity and confidence intact, she could do and be anything she wanted to.
It slowly dawned on me that everything I was learning about teaching was contrary to the philosophy I was using in raising my own daughter. The goal of teachers, in the traditional setting, is to somehow stuff a pre-determined curriculum into students’ heads. Some teachers do it more gently than others and make it more fun, but the result is the same. Teachers must stifle their students’ own interests and desires to meet the school’s agenda. Simply put, regardless of how nice a teacher is, s/he must coerce students into getting them to do what s/he wants them to do. What I was once willing to do to other people’s children, I wasn’t willing to do to my child. That was a huge wake-up call for me.
I began researching the different models – Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio, progressive schools, etc. – but they all felt like kinder and gentler forms of the traditional model. Sure, there was more choice and respect for students compared with the more traditional models, but the coercion was still there. Then I stumbled onto the Sudbury model, where students are free to follow their own interests all day long. What? Kids do what they want all day long? But how do they set goals for themselves? And how do they know what they want to do? And how do they know how to prepare themselves for that?
Even with so many questions, something about the Sudbury model resonated deep within me. I read everything about it I could get my hands on. Slowly, the questions disappeared. I realized that they came from my own insecurities about learning and didn’t really apply to my daughter. I mean, she sets goals for herself all the time. They may not be very big goals, but she’s still quite young. She always knows what she wants – and how to get it too. Almost all children do, as any parent who is driven crazy by begging and whining can tell you.
I was convinced this was the answer for all children, and that others would think so too once they heard about the Sudbury model. Maybe we could slowly apply Sudbury principles in public school classrooms and show how it could work. Everyone would surely see the light and we could finally fix public schools. I was excited to share my new discovery with professors and fellow graduate students, some of whom were already working in public schools. Well, I wasn’t prepared for their reactions. Most thought I was crazy and some were outright hostile. I thought it must be because I wasn’t explaining the model properly. I got better at countering people’s doubts, but all I got was more hostility and a few personal attacks. It was hard, but it was also a great reality check for me. With all the resistance I was feeling, I gave up dreams of making a change in the public school system.
I was still determined, however, to have my daughter attend a Sudbury school. There was only one in Florida at the time, in the Tampa Bay area, but there was no way my husband was going to move there. So I told him I would have to start a Sudbury school in South Florida and he would have to support me. He half-heartedly agreed. By chance, Sudbury Valley School was having a conference for Sudbury staff and start-up members that summer. I dragged him along to babysit my then two-year-old.
The conference lasted three days. I was blown away by everyone’s commitment to the ideals the Sudbury model represents – freedom, democracy, respect, trust, responsibility – and by their commitment to keeping their schools open, often at great personal costs. By the last day, I was even more committed to opening a Sudbury school. Unexpectedly, as we drove away on that last day, my husband, who is a man of few words, turned to me and said, “Ok, I don’t understand how that school works, but those were the most mature teenagers I have ever met. That’s exactly what I want for our daughter. You have my complete trust and support in opening your school.”
So here I am now, sitting in the school office at the end of our third year while everyone else is out on a field trip. It’s been a turbulent yet wonderful five years since I began this journey. I’m happy to say we have a solid group of families who are committed to the school and its ideals. I now have two daughters attending. They are bright, caring, articulate, confident, curious, and responsible members of the school community. All of my hard work and sacrifices, and those of my family, have been completely worth it.
I know my two co-workers feel the same way.
After 15 years in film production, graphic design and fine art, Michelle entered the teaching profession because she loved children and wanted to give back. She was excited to begin work as an AP art teacher at a Broward County magnet school, but soon became disillusioned. The students lacked creativity and the motivation to stretch themselves. Art was supposed to be an avenue for free expression, but they just wanted to know exactly what to do to get the grade. They struggled particularly with open-ended assignments, more so than much younger students. Michelle began to realize the system had crushed them with years of mandated curriculum and a focus on grades – things external to the student. When her daughter was born almost five years later, she searched for a school that would allow her daughter to stay in touch with herself and remain internally motivated.
Liz worked in various roles at elementary schools in Palm Beach County for six years. She was sensitive to her students’ individual needs. She often gave them the space and flexibility to follow their interests. And of course, they loved her. But her principal didn’t appreciate her style and began to micro-manage. Liz took a break from teaching to stay at home with her second child. Meanwhile, her first child began to have difficulties with the amount of structure his teacher was imposing. She found herself having to “repair” him each time she picked him up from school. Being away from the classroom gave her a new perspective. The system was breaking her son’s spirit; she knew he needed a school that respected his unique learning style.
All three of us wanted something different for our children, for all children, but we knew we would never be able to change the system in time for our children to enjoy it. None of us could have imagined how hard it is to start and grow a school, especially one so contrary to mainstream attitudes. Not only do we have to support our students in following their passions and expressing their needs, but we have to support their parents who constantly deal with criticisms from well-intentioned family and friends. All of this is worth it, however, when we look at what amazing people our students are becoming.
The traditional education model is increasingly becoming obsolete. I encourage all teachers and parents to keep looking for the right option for their children. And I encourage them to create their own schools if they can’t find one that aligns with their principles and values. I truly believe real change can only come from the bottom. From us.