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No Tests, No Grades: The Brooklyn Free School Makes Its Own Rules

Issue 286

The Brooklyn Free School stands out as an alternative. But can it survive?

Keating Zelenke Mar 25

During free time after algebra class, a group of boys at Brooklyn Free School crowd around a table in their classroom. They’re all between the ages of 7 and 12, and form the school’s middle cohort. 

In front of them on the table, there’s a plastic arena for battling Beyblades, little toy tops that crash into each other when you spin them. Just a few weeks earlier, these toys were at the center of a debate at the school. Some people wanted to limit their use in the classroom, arguing that the toys were disruptive or that lower-income students couldn’t afford to buy them and participate. 

After 21 years of serving families all across Brooklyn, BFS now needs some help to continue their commitment to equitable alternative education.

Instead of banning the toys, the students and staff at Brooklyn Free School (BFS) held democratic meetings to talk through the best way to address the great Beyblade affair. Eventually they came to the agreement that students could only bring in their Beyblades from home to play with and battle each other on Tuesdays. During the rest of the week, the students are permitted to construct their own Beyblades with the school’s Lego bricks.

“Other schools wouldn’t allow you to have Beyblades at all,” one student says while clipping a new piece onto his creation. “So we’re really grateful.”

BFS students work with their peers to create rules that foster a welcoming, productive environment for all, learning about democracy through action. As a product of the free-school movement, BFS, founded in 2003 and now located in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s ­Restoration Plaza, is quite literally a school by kids, for kids. There are no tests or grades, and the rules are decided through democratic meetings in which everyone — staff and students — can speak their mind. Students are also able to determine their own schedules and which subjects they’d like to learn about. 

“This is a space that allows for students to have a voice,” said Monique Scott, the school’s executive director. “It’s a place where students are really expected to have a say in their education.”

The many posters on the classroom walls include the life cycle of a creek trout, this week’s schedule, important Black historical figures — and one handwritten in marker that reads “Fundraising Ideas.” The suggestions range from holding a rummage sale to getting the attention of YouTube personality MrBeast. 

Lately, the school’s weekly meetings have been about more than which play to perform this year or whether students would be interested in adding a philosophy class. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the students, whose ages range from 4 to 17, have come face-to-face with a much more existential question: How can they make sure BFS ­survives to see the next school year?

•   •   •

Luis Moreno’s son Max enrolled in BFS earlier this school year. Max had attended a relatively progressive public elementary school prior to COVID-19, but when it came time for him to advance to sixth grade, his parents couldn’t find a satisfactory public middle school. Both Luis and his wife Begonia Santa-Ceclia are from Spain, and went through public school themselves. Having to pay for their son’s education had not been a part of their plans. 

In the past, the cost of attending BFS was as high as $33,000 per school year, but they recently lowered it to a $9,000–$18,000 sliding scale.

“I promised Max when he was very young that we would never put him in a school that is all about exams and grades, and all that,” Luis said. He and Begonia were determined to make good on that promise, and Max just wasn’t flourishing in the traditionally competitive and individualistic public-school environment. 

Max’s parents first heard about Brooklyn Free School years before while they were involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As they learned more it, they realized BFS was exactly the kind of community learning space they’d been looking for. They also found out about its sliding-scale tuition and discovered that with a reduced price, they could afford to get Max the education they promised him. Now, Luis and Begonia teach Spanish once a week as volunteers. 

Max has grown to like subjects he previously hated, thanks to the way the staff teach. “He never liked math before,” Castillo said. But within Max’s first month at BFS, “he arrived home saying he loved algebra.”

•   •   •

Relatively affordable tuition is part of the school’s commitment to social justice. In the past, the cost of attending BFS was as high as $33,000 per school year, but they recently lowered it to a $9,000–$18,000 sliding scale.

The school has been able to afford lower tuition by tapping reserves derived from the sale of the building that was its previous home. However, achieving financial sustainability remains elusive.  When it was first established, BFS was located in southern Park Slope, and wealthier families from the neighborhood essentially subsidized the tuition of lower-income families. The school later moved to Clinton Hill, and then to its current home in Bed-Stuy. As a result, the community it served changed. 

It has continued to make good on its promise to provide good, affordable alternative education to a wide array of families, but as more of these families skew to the lower end of the sliding tuition scale, making ends meet has become more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified its financial woes; as many wealthier families left New York City at least temporarily, they took their higher tuition payments with them and haven’t come back. The school’s enrollment has fallen dramatically, from around 80 students at its pre-COVID peak to the current 34. Only five of those children are in the youngest age group. 

“Now we’re in a place where to grow, we have to survive, and we’re struggling to survive to the end of this year,” Monique Scott said. “We know that we can grow, we want to grow, but we have to survive first.” She explained that because of its untraditional structure, getting grants and extra funding has been difficult — the school doesn’t have grades or test scores to “prove” its success in educating students. 

“I don’t believe that BFS will close — I’m not even putting energy in that direction.”

“We need this school to grow,” Nadia Ketoure, another BFS parent, said. “Not just me, all of us. Brooklyn, New York needs Brooklyn Free School.” Her son Seimy, who is in the same class as Max, also started at BFS last fall after struggling in public school. Ketoure said that Seimy’s public-school teachers “put a sticker on him,” casting him aside as an unruly child. She knew that wasn’t the case; he just needed a different approach than those teachers — likely already spread too thin — were willing to give.  

Seimy has responded well to his new learning environment, even chairing one of the  weekly meetings. While around 15 of the other children and staff members sat around on folding chairs, yoga mats and beanbags, he brought up each topic on the agenda, called on his classmates by name when they raised their hands, and listened attentively as they spoke. He also led conversation about a potential memorial for their recently passed class mice. 

The free-school model isn’t for all families, but it’s an option — something rare in the American school system. As both public and private schools rely more heavily on regimented days and constant testing, students who need an alternative can find it at BFS. 

“We’ve had students who have had friends die at the hands of gun violence, we have students who are dealing with different emotional needs, we have students who are neurodivergent,” Scott said. “Many of the families of these young people do not have the means or privilege to find …  the private institutions or private tutors or therapy for these young people.” 

Scott said that they are in an “all hands on deck” situation for closing their financial gaps. In addition to brainstorming fundraising ideas as a class, some of the high-school-aged students have taken to social media to spread the word about the school’s needs. Their GoFundMe page has raised $10,000 since last summer, a quarter of the way to their $40,000 goal. In November the school hosted a “Youth Explosion” night, with a $20 suggested donation, that featured musical and spoken-word performances from students. Students have also tossed around the idea of hosting their upcoming play, The Princess and the Frog, in their classroom and charging a small ticket fee. 

After 21 years of serving families all across Brooklyn, BFS now needs some help to continue their commitment to equitable alternative education. Parents like Luis Moreno and Nadia Ketoure are unsure how their families would manage without the resources the school provides them.

“I don’t believe that BFS will close — I’m not even putting energy in that direction,” Ketoure said. “This is his school.”

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