Dr. Pat Montgomery, our school’s founder and champion of free and alternative schooling everywhere, recently sat down with us to answer a few questions. She presented at the eighth annual AERO (the Alternative Education Resource Organization) conference this month in Portland, Oregon, the theme of which is “Transforming Education and Our World.” Dr. Montgomery will be speaking with Sandy Hurst about international exchange in education. The title of her talk is “A Tale of Two Countries: Japan and the U.S. and Their Alternative Schools/Programs”.
For 22 years, AERO has actively promoted the concept that children are natural learners, and that they need an educational system that recognizes this rather than treating them as individuals who need to be forced or coerced into learning a standardized curriculum. AERO survives on grants and donations, using its resources to revolutionize education and empower learners. Dr. Montgomery has a long history of involvement with the organization.
Q: Tell us a little bit about how you became involved in alternative education.
A: My husband, Jim and I wanted childhood experiences based on natural child development for our children. Schools offered experiences based on adult needs and designs, not on a child’s needs and designs. So in 1967, we started Clonlara School for them and for whomever else agreed with this concept and would enroll their children. Our campus school grew from its initial 8 enrollees (ages three and four) to 114 enrollees five years later. Out of that campus school grew a second program, Clonlara School Home Based Education Program (1979).
Q: How did you become involved with Japanese schools?
A: In 1978 I started a national organization, the National Association of Alternative Community Schools (NCACS). Schools and programs with similar philosophies and practices joined the group. Around this time, John Holt was in the process of changing his thinking on free schools (as alternative schools were then known); he favored home education instead.
In 1981 a book was published in Japan: Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Tetsuko is an artist herself, and she credits that fact with her having attended a free school as a young child in the early 1940s.
She was enrolled in a conventional school near her home when she was six years old, as was customary. At the close of that school year, her teacher told Tetsuko’s mother not to bring her back for the new school year. She had failed first grade. Why? Because she persisted in doing things that aggravated the teacher and disrupted the entire class again and again. Things like opening and closing her desk. (She explained to her mother on the very first day of school that she got to sit in a desk that opened up and down; not in and out like the drawers at home. The teacher told her that students should only open and close their desks when they had something to get or return, so she made sure that she had to fetch an eraser or a book or whatever in order to enjoy this wonder.) Worse than that, she stood up from her desk and walked to the window without being given leave to do so. Even worse, she spoke from the open window to strolling musicians outside and to workmen. The teacher rendered her incorrigible.
Her mother searched long and hard for a school for her ‘wayward’ child. She found Tomoe School, crafted out of several beached railroad cars. The Founder wanted to have a place where children’s natural development was honored, where they were free to grow without interference with their need to play and explore, much like Summerhill School in Leiston, England started in 1921.
Hokkaido Shimbun, the Sapporo newspaper, sent a reporter to the United States to visit free schools (1982). He visited Clonlara and twelve other similar schools throughout the U.S. A publisher in Tokyo read the series of articles the reporter produced for the Shimbun and offered to publish them as a book. In 1983, Diakichi Suzuki, the publisher invited me to Japan to address various audiences in cities and towns all over Japan, sharing my Clonlara experiences. Over the years, I was invited about 10 times to do the same. Clonlara developed many ties with numerous groups and individuals there. We were in the catbird seat to observe the blossoming of free schools all over that country between then and now.
Q: Why do you think that intercultural exchange is so important for the education of young people?
A: I don’t only think it; I have observed firsthand for over 52 years the understandings, the communications (even without good grasp of a language), and the cooperation possible when people of all ages interact with one another as ‘family’.
Q: What have you learned about free and alternative schooling from the Japanese? What about from other countries, such as Spain and Germany, where Clonlara School currently offers specific study programs?
A: I have seen Japanese people work against great odds to realize their hopes for a change in the system of education extant in Japanese culture even today. For example, it was only possible for a person or group to start a school anywhere in Japan if they had 1000 students enrolled; nevertheless, people like Keiko Okuchi started Tokyo Shure in the early 1990s with 12 children, one of them her own son.
Clonlara’s work in Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, and other countries has been focused on promoting home based education. Working with families and conventional school folks and lawyers and courts in those countries took me back to the harrowing struggles of home education in our own State of Michigan and across the U.S.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Clonlara School, or about the conference?
A: AERO is a thriving group of national and international parents, teachers, students, and school administrators. Its conferences provide an excellent opportunity for people, young and older, to compare game plans, learn from one another, and grow in child-centered practices that serve kids so magnificently. I am pleased to be a part of it.