We've moved! • Click here for more about the Meadow!

Curious, playful, sociable, willful, planful

Last week I traveled to Philadelphia to hear a talk by research psychologist Peter Gray, founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Dr Gray spoke at Philly Free School, which is, like The Circle School, a self-directed democratic school.

Dr Gray starts from the premise that “education is the sum of everything a person learns that enables the person to live a satisfying and meaningful life.” He points out that only a small fraction of that “everything” comes from formal academic instruction.

But what really caught my attention was Dr Gray’s ideas about the “optimal context for self-directed education.” He identifies six conditions, all of them present in self-directed democratic schools, but  absent in conventional schools. Here they are:

1. The social expectation (and reality) that education is
children’s responsibility.
2. Unlimited freedom to play, explore, and pursue one’s own interests.
3. Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture. [Yes, that means computers and smartphones today! J.R.]
4. Access to a variety of caring adults who are helpers, not judges.
5. Free age mixing among children and adolescents.
6. Immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community.

Dr Gray notes that similar conditions were present in hunter-gatherer bands, and describes five “educative instincts”: curiosity, playfulness, sociability, willfulness (drive for self-determination), and “planfulness” (drive to make plans). Dr Gray’s book, Free To Learn (about which I blogged a while back), is all about “unleashing the instinct to play,” a crucial and highly adaptive trait of the human species. I can personally attest that self-directed education and the educative instincts are alive and well at The Circle School!

-Jim Rietmulder


We did it! Today, with builder Pyramid Construction’s vehicles and earth-movers in the background, Circle Schoolers ranging in age from 5 to 50+ (and then some) donned hardhats, picked up golden shovels, and broke ground on The Circle School’s new home. Construction is expected to take 8-10 months, so we’ll move in either late this school year or over the summer. We’ll be posting construction updates along the way!

Below are images captured by Pyramid’s Amy Goropoulos and The Circle School’s Shauna Yorty and Lucas Bodnyk, plus a link to video of the event that was live-streamed on Facebook. Enjoy!



Camping in the Schoolyard

J16_0790adj I’ve gone on many field trips this year, but week before last was the first time I went on a “field trip” without leaving the campus. It was in the school’s backyard, with ten students ages eight to fourteen, and two staff members.

Planning began in February, when members of the Natural Resources Group (NRG) went to School Meeting and got permission to hold a backyard campout. Our main goal was to practice for the big trip we’re planning to the West Coast in the summer of 2017 to view the Great American Eclipse. We presented guidelines to School Meeting and received permission to hold the campout one night during the month of April. We chose late April because we figured there would be a greater chance of warmer weather. Alas, that was not to be. The day of the campout was cool and rainy, and temperatures dipped to the low 40s overnight.

The campout began at the close of school with a pocket knife safety training session. Normally, knives are not permitted at school, but the NRG got special permission from School Meeting to have pocket knives during the campout. We also got special permission to build a campfire and to cook our food on a propane cookstove.


Photo by Nate Boyer

A major lesson of the evening was the importance of testing equipment before an excursion. Setting up in the rain, we discovered that our ten-person tent leaked badly. Luckily, we had a gigantic tarp in the basement that we put over the tent. The rain stopped shortly after we got the tents set up, just in time for us to build a fire to cook our dinner of hot dogs, baked potatoes, and s’mores. Students used their newly learned knife skills to whittle sticks for cooking over the fire, and we made a very satisfying dinner. Then there was much rowdy game playing in the back yard until it was dark, when everyone settled in for quieter games and stories by the fire. The evening wound down around 10:00, and we headed off to sleep.

Or try to sleep, that is. Between unseasonably cold temperatures, damp air, hard ground, and road noise from the nearby interstate, most of the group didn’t sleep very much. Nonetheless, we were up and ready to go by 6am. We cooked a filling breakfast of eggs and toast on the propane stove, washed dishes and packed our belongings, and were ready to start the school day by 8am. Whew!

For some, this was their very first camping experience. Others were seasoned veterans of camping. No matter the level of experience, we began the long road to learning how to work as a team and started to see what might be involved in a longer and more complicated trip.

Now we are planning another practice trip for this summer, this time for three days. We’re working on getting Field Trip Committee and School Meeting permission to drive to the Finger Lakes Region of New York, with a day trip to Niagara Falls and Eternal Flame Falls. As with the backyard campout, the goal is to help us get ready for the Eclipse Trip in 2017.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re very excited about it. Stay tuned for more of our adventures!

-Ann Sipe

Field Trip to Another Democratic School

Last week I went on a school field trip. Unlike the majority of field trips this year, the planning for this trip didn’t unfold over the course of a few hours or days. This trip was weeks in the planning. Also, unlike most other trips this year, which have been within a few miles of the school, this trip took us 117 miles away. We drove in two cars to the Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro, MD.


Circle Schoolers visiting Fairhaven School

Having exchanged a number of emails with Fairhaven over the last six weeks, they were expecting us and gave us a warm welcome followed by a guided tour of their two buildings. We were then set loose to explore and visit.

Collectively we observed how they run their Judicial Committee and School Meeting, tried out their swing set and see-saws, got a guided walk through the woods to their stream, learned how to sign up for and use one of their computers, ran around outside with new friends, compared notes of how we handle keeping our respective buildings clean, heard how they evaluate and hire staff, shared amazing and bizarre Judicial Committee stories, perused the posted information on their bulletin boards (they’re planning a prom!), learned what their Tribal Death Clerk’s duties are, talked and talked and then talked some more.

We left for Harrisburg and home in the late afternoon, stopping on the way at a farm-to-table restaurant found online beforehand.  We arrived back at school after 8pm, tired and happy.

At our next day’s debriefing we agreed there wasn’t a thing we wished we had done differently in planning or implementing the trip. We came home full of ideas of things we’d like to try at The Circle School – with getting a swing set at the top of the list – but also we returned with a newfound satisfaction with many of our existing practices and resources. In the end, while we noticed many differences between our schools, there were even more similarities and our visit was collegial, comfortable, fun, and inspirational.

Now we look forward to planning a similar welcome to our Fairhaven visitors in the next few weeks!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Tribal Death Clerk, an elected official, is responsible for proper burial of dead animals occasionally found in the Fairhaven woods.

-Beth Stone

The Noble, Humble Rag

ragJ13_3662I am inspired to write a bit about the noble, humble Circle School rag.

Rags at The Circle School get used for everything from sanitizing doorknobs to soothing minor burns. They are implements of routine cleaning, but then they are also sporting goods (for Capture The Flag and Tribes), napkins, pillows, handkerchiefs, doll clothes and blankets, and dozens of yet-to-be discovered uses. They get left out in the rain, buried in the sandbox, and fatally tangled in the laundry. It’s a hard life for the rags, but one of deep service, service that is sometimes under-appreciated. A few rags suffer the ignominious fate of being thrown away instead of going into a dirty-rag bin. But veteran students know how crucial the rags are to the school’s daily function. They know that “There are no more clean rags” is the sound of a crisis erupting in slow motion. It doesn’t happen often.

Rags are symbolic of much that I love about The Circle School: rags are efficient, superior to paper towels in absorbency and cost; rags are thrifty and good for the environment – washing rags saves lots of paper towels and are a great way to reuse decommissioned bath towels; rags are multipurpose; rags are colorful – a motley collection of patterns and styles, each contributing to the carefully-organized chaos that is a folded rag bin; rags are a wonderful example of organic complexity – the rag laundering system involves at least five different chores operating independently in just-in-time fashion to get the dirty rags collected, washed, moved, dried, brought back up, folded, and distributed. Every day. It’s amazing.

Most of the rags go through the laundry five days a week, week after week, slowly being converted to dryer lint one laundry cycle at a time. It reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit, you know, the part where the Skin Horse says “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” I like to imagine the rags slowly becoming Real Members of the school community, until more than half of their original material has ended up in the lint trap, and they are so threadbare as to have holes in the middle, and are hardly better than a paper towel for catching spills, scarcely more than lint themselves.  But by then they are every bit as soft as baby rabbit fur, and I feel sad when I throw them away.

Because of this natural attrition (promotion?) at the end of the rags’ useful life here, every so often someone cuts up some more bath towels (donated by school families) into stacks of new, freshly minted rags. I guess if we’re waxing poetic we might imagine it’s a bit like the first day of Navy Seal training for the rags. They sit ramrod straight in perfectly-stacked formation, proud of their pristine cotton loops and full-bodied form, ready for hard duty, a duty they may not survive, but each knowing they will end up heroes either way.

Do you have some old towels that would be heroes? That have what it takes to become Real? That long for a new life as part of the noble legion of Circle School rags? Promising recruits are accepted year-round.

-JD Stillwater

Circle School Graduates in College

84% of Circle School graduates enter college

84% of Circle School graduates enter college

Today The Circle School releases a study of its graduates, casting the school in a very favorable light. Our graduates go to college at high rates: 84% of those who were here for 4 years of high school, and 91% of our “lifers.” Nationwide the rate among same-age peers is 60%. Our graduates also earn more Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees than their peers. And 21% are currently pursuing degrees that aren’t even counted in this study.

In the world of education this is great success,


Circle School graduates earn more degrees

so why do I have such mixed feelings? More about that in a moment.

Clearly The Circle School has excelled in these customary measures of success. How does this happen, in a school with no compulsory curriculum, classes, tests, grades, or homework? How does this happen with students from across the socioeconomic spectrum?

Here’s how I understand it. When adults are not forceful or frantic about pressing academic studies on children, when school instead

College Attendance by Household Income

More college at all income levels

immerses kids in self-direction, community, and democracy, at least two relevant patterns tend to emerge. First, children and teens develop their agency and self-responsibility, leaning into life like welcome adventure, a birthright not to be passively deferred until someone pushes them into it. Second, the social value and natural appeal of traditional academic pursuits tend to emerge and flourish, untainted by the bad taste of coercion. Building a satisfying life becomes everyday practice, and college is often on the path.

Household Income Profile- Region vs The Circle School

Circle School families span the income spectrum

So why are my feelings about this “success” so mixed? I love that some Circle School graduates — many, actually — are scholars pursuing their dreams through college studies. And I’m pleased for The Circle School to deepen its acceptance and credibility in the world of traditional education.

But in bragging about this aspect of The Circle School’s excellence, I don’t want to endorse the narrow, inadequate, unhelpful obsession of public policymakers with curriculum, academic studies, testing, and grades. Academics and college are important facets of life, but they are not what The Circle School most values. As the study says, The Circle School’s primary aims are about children’s personal fulfillment and engagement in society. “We would rather be judged by our graduates’ self-actualization, life satisfaction, achievement in self-chosen domains, and productive engagement in culture, community, society, and technology.”

I want every child to have ample opportunity for the happiness of a satisfying life filled with meaning and purpose. I don’t want children to postpone pursuit of that sort of deep happiness until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I’m pleased now to show that kids can live their lives as kids, today, every day, practicing life at school, and still grow up to go to college.

-Jim Rietmulder

NOTE: You can download the full report (15 pages) here: Circle School Graduates in 2015: College Attendance, Academic Degrees, and Occupations.

Fanning a Flame at Millersville University

Jim R Alt-Ed keynote 04-07-2015After 30 years of answering questions about The Circle School, new ones don’t come along very often. Last night I answered a new one. At Millersville University‘s Alternative Education Forum, I delivered the keynote address. The event organizer, Dr. Scott Richardson, invited me to speak on “Why Alternative Education?”

I’m often asked to explain how The Circle School is different from other kinds of schools, but now I was called on to discover meaningful commonalities. What could Montessori, Waldorf, and democratic schools have in common? Why are those shared features important? And what is alternative education anyway? It was a fun and fruitful exploration. I discovered three useful ideas and called them the common idea, the funny idea, and the deep idea. You can watch the talk here: [I’ll post the link when it’s up], or you can keep reading for an abbreviated version.

The common idea is simple: education is alternative if it’s not mainstream or conventional or standard. In this meaning, alternative education is important to society because it (a) creates possibilities for the future of education, (b) offers variety in schooling methods, to accommodate variety in children and in family values, and (c) tends to seed society with diversity in perspective, avoiding the dangers of narrowly standardized worldviews.

The funny idea is that education is alternative if it is guided by coherent philosophy and theory. Wait, what? Shouldn’t all education be so guided? Yes, but government-run schools (enrolling nearly 90% of America’s children) don’t really work that way. Government-run schools implement a politically viable configuration of programs negotiated by politicians, legislators, government agencies, and interest groups. I’m not finding fault with any teacher, administrator, or school. That’s just how public government runs. Philosophical coherence is unlikely. In short, the funny idea isn’t.

The deep idea is about the models and metaphors of education. In agrarian times and places, the guiding metaphor was Fill A Bucket: teachers pour knowledge into students. A century of science debunked that idea. Knowledge is not a substance and cannot be inserted into a child’s mind. Now we know that knowledge is constructed by the knower — the outcome of an internal process. The child must be engaged.

The metaphor of filling a bucket was replaced by another: Light A Fire. You’ve heard the William Butler Yeats quote: “Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail.” A skilled teacher artfully excites student interest in a curricular objective, supplies the necessary materials, and leads students to construct the prescribed knowledge and insights. Then the teacher repeats the process, lighting another fire for the next curricular objective. And so on for 12 years through a chain of curricular objectives that are deemed an education.

You already know the problems with that. Too often, the student’s fires fizzle. Too often, the teacher burns out. We got the fire part right: the importance of children’s spirited engagement. What we got wrong is thinking the teacher has to ignite it. Children are born with fires ablaze — passionate and persistent in pursuit of their universal agenda: strive, thrive, and grow. It’s the sustainable energy of education.

Alternative education is playing around with a new metaphor: Fan A Flame. The fires are already burning. Alternative education (or much of it) seeks ways to engage children’s nature, to make it a more integral part of schooling.

Fill A Bucket, Light A Fire, Fan A Flame. Do you see the trend in these metaphors for the teacher’s role? With better understanding of human development, the focus is shifting from the teacher to the child, from exterior to interior, from top-down to bottom-up, from command-and-control to individual agency. This trend parallels larger social transformations from farming economy to manufacturing economy to knowledge economy. Fill A Bucket was the dominant metaphor in agrarian times and places. Light A Fire is associated with industrial economy. Fan A Flame is more recent, emerging with the knowledge economy, and maturing with Facebook.

Beyond those teaching metaphors is the dominant metaphor for schools themselves, an industrial metaphor. Schools are factories. Children are raw materials. Teachers are machines. Raw materials are processed through grades of refinement, and subjected to quality control testing along the way. What’s the final product? Standardized young adults who meet predetermined specifications — interchangeable, like manufactured goods.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the mode of thinking that prevailed in the Industrial fervor of the 1800s and early 1900s when today’s school systems and structures were laid down. This was the vision for American education. The vision is changing, but the structures and methods remain.

We are each uniquely equipped from birth, and trace a uniquely personal trajectory. We are self-authoring, and education is an authoring process. Alternative schools are showing us how to place these new understandings at the heart of education. That’s a flame worth fanning.

-Jim Rietmulder

Gratitude to the following for their valuable insights in response to my pre-event queries: Dr. Eugene Matusov (University of Delaware), Melissa McIntyre (Susquehanna Waldorf School), Dr. Thomas Neuville (Millersville University), Brooke Armstrong (Arts & Ideas Sudbury School), Dr. Scott Richardson (Millersville University), Mary Cae Williams (The New School of Lancaster).

The Commons Area — The “Heart” of the School

The latest renderings from architect Rich Gribble show some interior views of what the "Commons" could look like, our large "town square" room in the heart of the school.





How did we get from the sketches shown in the last post to these detailed three dimensional renderings? Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the architectural design process over the past few months.


February 14, 2015
FROM: The Circle School
Contact: Jim Rietmulder 717-564-6700 jim@CircleSchool.org


The Circle School of Swatara Township announced today its plans to relocate to an 8-acre site a mile away in Susquehanna Township, and launched a capital campaign seeking public support.

90% of the school’s students have already made individual contributions to the campaign (in addition to 100% of trustees and 100% of school staff). An 11-year-old girl makes milkshakes for sale at school twice a week, and donates all of her proceeds. Three boys (ages 13, 13, and 14) are doing other students’ daily chores for $1 apiece, and donating their proceeds.

The Circle School’s democratic program calls for architectural features that are unusual for schools, such as an absence of classrooms. A “courtroom” accommodates hearings within the school’s judicial system, and a large “public commons” facilitates sessions of the school’s democratic governing body and interactions among students of all ages, 4 to 19.

The school’s government includes legislative, judicial, and executive branches, similar in function to Pennsylvania and national government. The school’s program of self-directed education requires that the space be adaptable over time, dictated by majority vote of the “School Meeting”, to accommodate science experiments, reading, discussion groups, changing technology, quiet study, social interaction, free-market commerce, music and fine arts, card playing, hanging out with friends, and much more.

Founded in 1984, The Circle School is governed by students and staff together. The school has outgrown its current facility and will build an expanded facility for increased enrollment. The new campus will incorporate high-efficiency heat pump technology, LED lighting, solar tubes, recycled materials, flyash concrete, clerestory windows, minimal site disturbance, and other sustainable features.

The school’s coming “Meadow Campus” is designed by architect Richard Gribble of By Design Consultants (Camp Hill). The builder is Pyramid Construction Services (Wormleysburg). Groundbreaking is planned for late spring, with construction scheduled to take about seven months.

ATTACHED: 3-page PDF with site plan and two renderings by artist/architect Richard Gribble

Jim Rietmulder
The Circle School

The Evolution of Our Design

Wondering how you go from an idea of a new school to making it a reality? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about our design process.

Part I: Research & Preparation

  • By April of 2013 the Property Search Committee had progressed far enough to warrant formation of the Building Design Committee (“BDC”), even though a property had not yet been found. We asked in the school’s newsletter if it “seems a little crazy to start designing a building when we don’t know when (or even if) we’ll find a campus? We’re hoping if we can find a suitable site, with the help of friends of the school, we might be able to move in the fall of 2014, so we’re doing as much internal work to prepare as possible.” Well, we didn’t quite make that deadline, but you gotta love the optimism!
  • The newly created BDC, consisting of 9 students & staff, got straight to work. Blank newsprint was hung in various places around the school with headings like “What do you want in a new school building?” The list grew to many pages of small print, and included “Death Games Arcade,” “more trees” and “more small rooms.” The BDC also met with each corporation to solicit lists of features they wanted (and didn’t want) in rooms that might be optimized for their activities, and suggested they create sketches of the ideal setup.
Conceptual 3-D model by Maureen Krauth. Click to enlarge.

Conceptual 3-D model by Maureen Krauth. Click to enlarge.


  • In May (2013), parent Maureen Krauth was inspired to create a 3D computer model of a school to show just one of the infinite possibilities of our future school and to get the creative juices flowing for students and staff. Maureen gave a presentation at school and talked about basic elements of design.
  • Over the next year, the BDC worked extensively to develop a document to facilitate rapid communication with architects. The committee went through the lists of ideas it had collected many times, categorizing items not only by type and kind, but also by priority: “Essential,” “Prefer,” “Dream On” and “Do this with laws, not facilities.” It also put up several big invitations to sketch ideas for the new building. Many discussions concerned “adjacencies”: which functions must be near or adjacent to other functions, like a bathroom near the playroom, and a place for shoes near where people come in from outside.
  • The final version of the committee’s document was passed along to Rich Gribble of By Design Consultants late in the summer of 2014. It detailed goals and ideals for every room proposed for the new building, listed pertinent adjacencies, spelled out priorities (needs vs. wants vs. hopes), and even included sample drawings done by students and staff.
Sketch by student Chandler Scott-Smith

Sketch by student Chandler Scott-Smith

A "paper doll" room exercise by the BDC.

A “paper doll” room exercise by the BDC.

Sketch by staff member Ann Sipe

Sketch by staff member Ann Sipe

Tune in later to learn how our architect Rich Gribble tackled the task of turning 19 pages of ideas into a structure!