Houston school allows students to make rules

Students get freedom, responsibility in way they learn

HOUSTON – It's been referred to as a "real world" for kids, because at Houston Sudbury School, the students make the rules.

“When they walk into the door in the morning it's up to them,” co-founder Dominique Side said. “How they want to learn, what they want to learn. They get to focus on whatever it is that they're interested in.”

Opened in January 2016, Houston Sudbury School has 22 students who range in age from 5 to 18. The school is based on a model introduced by Sudbury Valley School, near Boston, back in 1968.

The belief is to give students freedom and responsibility when it comes to the way they learn.

“Kids learn naturally and through everyday life,” Side said.

Side said the school became the answer to her oldest son's need to learn in a different type of way.

“We realized that the traditional style didn't really fit his style of learning," Side said. "He needed more one-on-one engagements and just wanted to delve more into his interests."

So instead of learning reading, writing and arithmetic through books and testing, the students learn from real-life experiences.

“When students learn about math, it's usually through the use of money, so they're going to the store during the school day, making their own transactions," Side said. "They already know about balancing checkbooks and credit and all these other kinds of things that kids usually don't learn until they're well into their (adult life).”

Houston Sudbury School operates on the democratic process. The students vote on everything.

“Each person in the school community has a say in whatever is going on, be it the rules, or being accountable for the rules and just everyday governance of the school, hiring and firing of staff, the budget,” Side said.

At Houston Sudbury School there is no set curriculum, no homework and no grades.

But founders said it is still a formula for success. Cara DeBusk, one of the other school co-founders, said their students have a stronger sense of self because of the years of independence.

“You're in charge of figuring out who you are, what you will do with your time, what you want to learn, who you want to be, what kind of person, and kids who spend their whole life growing up in that system, when they go to college, they know who they are,” DeBusk said.

Andrew Bartelt's 7-year-old daughter has been a student since day one. He said he's sold on the model because he doesn’t want his daughter to endure the pressures and stress he experienced in his high school and college years.

“I felt like since she's my child, if she needed to learn stuff, that would be a capability that she would have, but I really wanted her to maintain that vibrancy that you see in little kids,” Bartelt said.

Houston Sudbury is a private school and not accredited by the state. When students are ready to move on from Houston Sudbury School, administrators create a transcript describing the work the students have done while in school.

Dr. Nicole Walters of University of St. Thomas said there are some students who will benefit from a democratic learning environment.

“This really supports kids being very independent in their thinking and independent in saying, 'I want to do this,' and therefore, they may want to take it a step further and learn something more complex about that subject matter,” Walters said.

However, she said a democratic school is not for every child. She said parents should consider three things before they move to this model of learning:

  • What are your child's strengths?
  • Is this a place where my child can really be a thriving thinker, where decision-making is truly being nurtured? If so, how are you nurturing that?
  • What are the skills that my child is going to learn that are going to translate and transfer into the real world?


The Houston Sudbury School plans to move into a new facility in May. For more information on the democratic model used at the school, click here.