NEWINGTON – There is a new school in town.
The Mountain Laurel Sudbury School spent its first 17 years in New Britain and recently transitioned to a new home inside the Church of Christ Congregational, at 1075 Main St., Newington. The private organization serves youths ages 7 to 19 using a self-directed learning philosophy pioneered by the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts in 1968.
“Students get to create their own curriculum,” Assistant Director Shae Nethercott explained. “They create their own schedules based on 25 hours a week.”
There are currently five students enrolled. Along with their parents, two staff members and a handful of others, they make up an assembly, the governing body of the school. This group basically determines how the school is run.
Southington resident Conner Angelone, 18, plans to graduate later this year and go on to college to study anthropology. He’s currently working on a five-page thesis and 10- to 15-minute presentation to the assembly, both graduation requirements. Members will vote on if he’s ready to become a responsible member of the adult community.
Angelone has been a Mountain Laurel student since he was eight years old.
“The school was recommended to my mom by my pediatrician, who told her I either had to get out of public school or go on anti-depressants,” he remembered. “I felt like I was being forced down a path that I didn’t want to go down, not being able to decide for myself what I wanted in my life. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Nowadays, the bright and happy Angelone described himself as “a completely different person.”
“It’s hard to even quantify what this school has done for me,” he said. “More than anything it’s given me the ability to figure out what I want to do in life and the space to explore that.”
His pursuit of anthropology stems from a general curiosity about human nature.
“I’ve had a long-standing interest in why people are the way they are and why societies structure themselves the way they do,” Angelone said.
He learned Spanish from a staff member. He’s also picking up sign language from fellow student Aurelia Terranova.
On any typical day, students could be debating politics, making art, doing research on their laptops or in the library, or even playing in the park. They may be working alone or together. Staff are always there for guidance, inspiration or teaching. The Lucy Robbins Welles Library, the town center and Mill Pond Park are all within walking distance.
“Some students create a firm schedule, while many others come in with the mindset, let’s see where this day takes me,” Nethercott pointed out. “The students are given a lot of control over the environment they’re in, which gives them a lot of maturity and a sense of responsibility.”
Proponents of the Sudbury education method are often asked how youngsters can function in a way that’s conducive to learning without adult-led discipline or structure. Those who leave public school to join Sudbury schools often require a period of “detoxing,” according to Nethercott.
“Some spend possibly a whole year just playing video games,” she said. “Then they might decide they never want to play them again. When you give people the opportunity to do whatever they want with their day, eventually they’re not just going to want to mess around.”
Terranova, 17, has been a member of the community since she was 15. She lives in Colchester. Her parents, Mark and Christine, say their daughter is a quick learner, and that held her back in traditional school.
“Now she’s able to study what she wants, how she wants, when she wants,” Mark said.
As to what the future holds, the Terranova family is looking forward to discovering it. Aurelia is exploring her interests in hopes of finding a passion.
“We’re just on the path,” Mark said. “It’s going to lead her and us in the right direction.”
The school year runs from September to June and new students are accepted year-round. Tuition is set on a sliding scale.
“We’re very good with helping with tuition assistance if the family can’t afford it,” Nethercott said. “With this model being so rare it’s really our prerogative to keep it open to as many families as possible.”
A Community Open House is scheduled for this Saturday, March 23, at 10 a.m. Members of the public are encouraged to come meet Mountain Laurel families and learn more about the school.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to develop a great relationship with the Newington community,” Nethercott said.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.