The Hippy School
by Charlie O'Hay, PFS Parent

It started with zombies. The daughter of a longtime friend had made a zombie movie, an ambitious project for anyone, let alone a teenager with only limited equipment (a point-and-shoot digital that could only take 8 minutes of video before filling its memory card). The film was to be screened at someplace called the Philly Free School. Cecily and I had never heard of it but were delighted to support our friend and her daughter by attending.

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The school’s staff—then just Reb, Michelle, Mark, and Joel—saw the screening’s potential as a way to promote the growing school within the community. On screening night, they had a cornucopia of promotional material available and were more than happy to discuss PFS’s history, its mission, and the Sudbury model from which it grew. The film was awesome, and Cecily and I took home some of the school’s materials to review. I read through the brochures and dubbed PFS “The Hippy School.”

At the time, Tori (then 5) was enrolled in a public kindergarten, but she was far from happy. Each day I’d pick her up at the bus stop, and she’d greet me with a sad face, or worse, she’d be asleep on the front seat of the bus and I’d have to wake her. She received frequent disciplinary notes from her teacher for “offenses” like talking or playing (in kindergarten!), and I’d have to sign these forms and return then with her the next day. It was quickly becoming clear that Tori had inherited my “artistic temperament” and was already chafing at the idea of being indoctrinated, molded, and processed by the public education system that I’d gone through decades earlier.  Cecily and I talked it over and decided to give “The Hippy School” another look.

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We scheduled a meeting with Reb and Michelle, and brought Tori—who instantly bonded with their daughter, Pepper, and Mark’s daughter, Maddie. I had a lot to learn. First, they said “staff” instead of “teachers.” There were no homework assignments, no bells, no mandatory texts, no report cards, and no standardized tests. And kids from 4 to 19 shared the space together. As an older dad who’d been through “the system,” I was initially skeptical about the model. But I could immediately see the change in Tori’s mood after spending just a few hours at PFS. It was profoundly clear that she needed a school that would encourage, not stifle, her exuberance, curiosity, and eagerness to explore her own interests and personality.

Tori’s trial week was late in spring, She loved it. She loved everything about it—the kids, the staff, the facilities, the way people treated one another, and the way conflicts were resolved.  We enrolled her for the following September.

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This is Tori’s sixth year at PFS, and in that time she has vastly expanded her horizons, built deep and textured friendships, and pursued interests that range from ancient Egypt to roller derby. Each day she arrives home energized and interested in life. And she looks forward to returning to school in the morning. Her reading is at or above her comparable grade level, and her problem-solving skills are excellent. As parents, Cecily and I could ask for nothing better than PFS.

Charlie O'Hay, PFS Parent, September 28th