The six months leading up to the pandemic was one of the first and longest periods of time my teenager was ever thrilled to go to school.
Ari, who is 17, nonbinary, deaf, neurodivergent and chronically ill, attended eight schools since preschool and experienced a lot of isolation and bullying.
But in the summer of 2019, we found Three Rivers Village School [TRVS], a democratic school in Hazelwood with 22 self-directed learners ages 6 through 17.
Ari’s experience in public school was hard on them physically and emotionally, but being able to pursue their interests and make new friends was a tremendous relief.
Last spring, Ari frequently groused, “I finally found a school I really like, and it had to close down because of a global pandemic.”
My tween, Blue, 11, who has normal hearing but, like Ari, is nonbinary, neurodivergent and chronically ill, echoed this sentiment. They joined Ari at TRVS in February 2020 — only six weeks before the pandemic disrupted learning. They felt safe there and were free to learn, move and play.
Their school days are a mix of playing and taking walks with friends and staff members, Minecraft, Dungeons and Dragons, and learning to saw and hammer wood in the tool co-op.
When the pandemic took these spaces away, the school’s response was guided by its democratic principles. Through a highly participatory process, the school has kept kids learning, reopened in-person schooling for four months of this school year so far, and kept their community COVID-free.
How kids run the school
TRVS, founded in 2013, is one of a handful of democratic schools around the country and world, modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, founded in 1968. Pennsylvania has two other Sudbury schools, The Circle School in Harrisburg and the Philly Free School in Philadelphia.
Ari says democratic school is a scaled-down version of society in which, “if everybody does their part, everybody’s needs will be met.”
“It gives people the option to learn what they want and do what they want, within reason, of course,” Ari told me. “It fosters the opportunity for actual learning and personal reflection, and figuring out what things are most important to you.”
In practice, this means that kids do all kinds of things during a typical school day, depending on their age and interests. They may play dodgeball, cards or games they invent on the spot with friends, practice a musical instrument, read, paint, play video games, take walks around the neighborhood, ask a staff member to help them learn something they want to know or take a nap. They have complete autonomy as long as they follow school rules.
If they want to create or change a rule, Ari explained, they have to propose it to School Meeting, which comprises the staff and any student who wishes to attend. Each staff member and student has a vote, and consequently each has a say in how the school is run.
This governance role cultivates some surprising abilities, like the time over the summer when a 10-year-old student in a tutu took over facilitating a committee meeting from a tablet in their bedroom. We moved briskly through the agenda, reaching agreement easily. It was one of the best facilitated meetings I’ve ever attended.
When conflicts arise, or students or staff break a rule, they must go before the Justice Committee [JC].
”We have a panel, like a jury of your peers in a court case,” Ari told me. “However, instead of punishment, we focus on resolutions where the person who was written up can make it right, or give something back to the community or apologize to the person they wronged.”
In addition to periodically serving on JC, the students do chores every day and volunteer as members of co-ops formed around the art room, the tool room and other spaces. Otherwise, their time is their own.
Liora Ohms Winnie, 16, has been at TRVS for five years, since seventh grade. Chronic pain made traditional school difficult, but now they are free to take care of their comfort and needs while pursuing interests like sewing and art. But being unable to be at school last spring and over the winter has been really hard.
“One of the main ways the school is educational for kids is providing them resources for things they’re interested in and want to pursue,” they explained. “The social learning [aspect] has been big for a lot of people, myself included. And you really can’t achieve most of that over Zoom.”
Remote learning, but not over Zoom
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, and Gov. Tom Wolf decided to close schools two days later, TRVS faced an unanticipated challenge.
Jason White-Wiedow, one of three staff members at TRVS, recalled, “We were kind of scrambling in terms of, what can we put together to make some sort of offering for students?”
Staff established open Zoom hours, but few kids showed. Classes students organized before the pandemic, like the ones on American Sign Language or comic books, continued online but failed to attract much participation. One student created a server on Discord, a messaging platform popular among gamers, which helped some kids to keep in touch.
Neither of my kids wanted to socialize this way. Blue mostly played Roblox, and Ari watched East Asian soap operas while crocheting a voluminous, full-length cloak. Online “school” seemed to remind them of what they were missing rather than meeting their needs.
“It was a pretty rocky start,” staffer Maggie Bogdanich told me recently. “So much of our school is about being here in person.”
The students missed being together, but the school’s self-directed philosophy works anywhere. My kids kept learning at home by pursuing their interests.
Blue and I baked bread and cooked meals together. They soon became quite independent and adventurous in the kitchen. Ari taught themself how to create digital art and two of their drawings won honorable mention in a Carnegie Library youth art contest.
My heart ached as I watched my friends struggling to get their kids to participate in virtual learning for up to six hours a day. I read their social media posts about crying in frustration alongside their kids, whose worlds had been turned upside down but were still forced to spend 30 or more hours a week doing school online.
Trusting each other
During a June all-school Zoom meeting, most of the parents, staff and kids agreed they wanted to return to school in-person, if at all possible.
The Covid Safety Committee [CSC] formed soon after. This group of staff and parents included a nurse, a daycare teacher and a medical doctor from the board of directors. It met every week to discuss guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education, the latest research on COVID-19, the number of new local cases, the dimensions of each room in the school, its ventilation and much more.
This isn’t how things are normally done at the school, which operates without parents’ input. But finding out what parents were thinking was useful in this case, White-Wiedow told me.
Students attended CSC meetings occasionally. Ohms Winnie came every couple of weeks, and Ari offered input before each meeting.
By August, White-Wiedow, in his role as school safety officer, condensed the committee’s work into a safety plan the student body approved and families signed.
Having everyone sign the safety plan was Ari’s idea. Returning to full-time, face-to-face school meant really trusting each other.
Pool noodles and park days
When school resumed, it wasn’t quite the same as before.
In addition to the temperature scans and mandatory masks, the kids had to use the space differently. They couldn’t huddle on a sofa watching a video or whisper secrets inside pillow forts.
Each room, table and sofa in the school now has an occupancy limit so students stay at least 6 feet from each other. Windows are kept open and fans are in use. This was fine in August and September but made classrooms chilly by mid-October.
Students came up with creative ways to play together, safely tagging each other with pool noodles and spending time outside. They even decided to have one full day each week outdoors. But making these decisions was a challenge.
For Ari, meetings became impossible because they can’t understand what anyone says through a mask from 6 feet away.
“The social distancing and the masks have created barriers for kids,” Bogdanich said. “It really has created a problem for pulling kids together to talk about things that need a lot of discussion… Not every student is able to really project, or willing to project, their voice.”
Even so, during those weeks of in-person school, staff and students crafted a better remote plan in anticipation of closing again. They added park days and check-ins between staff and students, plus more opportunities for remote interaction, like watch parties and a school Minecraft server.
The week before Thanksgiving, as local cases surged, the School Meeting committee decided TRVS would switch to the remote plan. “We share a building with other communities,” Ohms Winnie later told me, “so even if we ourselves are able to keep safe, you know, our congregating and being the same place every day can create more risk for other people.”
A cooperative effort
As long as the weather was above freezing, students met up twice a week in Schenley Park. When Blue went, they enjoyed seeing their friends and generally returned home tired and covered in mud.
Through weekly check-ins with students, staff gathered input and facilitated a consensus on a hybrid schooling plan that started Feb. 1. This involved a park day and rotating cohorts, one younger, one older, each attending two days a week in person. My kids were in the older group.
Blue has missed their friends in the younger group and contemplated switching groups, but the student body decided to resume full-time, in-person school on March 22. My kids were thrilled.
Staffer Mary Hart said she feels safe at school. A veteran educator, she keeps in touch with her teacher friends. She recently said that, unlike many teachers, she has felt heard and included in the plans TRVS has made.
“I felt like what came out of that cooperative effort was the best possible plan that could be put together,” she said.
Ari said the community’s buy-in is evident in this year’s safety record.
“Everybody was very responsible and wore their masks, with a few hiccups here and there, mostly with the younger kids,” they said. “But, for the most part, everybody understood the responsibility, including families who practiced safety measures outside of school. So we haven’t had a single case or exposure.”
Ari’s bottom line: “A very successful year, all things considered.”
Juliet B. Martinez is a freelance journalist on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Reach her at email@example.com or on Instagram @JulietBMartinez.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.