Sustainability: The indispensable ingredients for establishing and maintaining a Sudbury school as a viable entity1
I. The Core Group
The seeds for having a sustainable school are planted at the very beginning. How you start, how you set the place up, are largely the determining factors in how long you’re going to stay in existence. I’m afraid that an awful lot of schools—Sudbury schools and other alternative schools as well—haven’t really appreciated this basic reality. The alarmingly high number of failed schools that have been started with tremendous enthusiasm and high hopes, and have ended up closing within the first few years, is to a certain extent testimony that some of the essential events that should have occurred at the very beginning didn’t happen. So I’m going to examine these things that are necessary from the very beginning and then, as we progress, you’ll see how they tie into keeping a school, once started, sustainable over the long run.
The most important element to begin with is a strong core group, a group that can possibly even be a group of one. I differentiate sharply between a “core group” and what is generally referred to as a “startup group”. For the core group the idea has become an obsession—a reality and an obsession. And more than that, it’s the people who have taken pains to put a lot of thought into what it is exactly that they’re looking for, and to study the available literature or models that can further their aim.
We had an interesting experience when we started. We didn’t understand the distinction between a core group and a founding group; it came to our attention by complete accident. We had a core group of about five people in late 1965 that began meeting and talking about our ideal school. There was no model we could reference that fit our idea. Of course we had read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but we also knew from the outset that we weren’t about to emulate Summerhill because of the many differences between Summerhill and the model we had in mind. We had to start from scratch, and that took a much longer time than it takes people today who have many models, and a lot of good literature, to fall back on. We met repeatedly, trying to formulate as much of the conceptual framework as we could out of our experience and out of our philosophical understanding, such as it was back then; and trying to get it into a coherent enough form that it could be translated into a practical reality.
Then one day, after we had been working as a core group for quite a while —and beginning to think that perhaps we’re on the verge of being ready to take action—a fellow showed up just as we were starting a meeting. He and his wife just appeared in our driveway at home. His name was Fred Newman, who went on much later to make a name for himself in New York as a political maverick. At the time, he was a philosophy professor in the State University of New York. How he heard about us, I don’t know; how he heard about this meeting, I don’t remember at all. At any rate, he dropped in uninvited, and we decided we’d let him stay. During our meeting he said to us: “The most important thing for you to do at this stage”—and this ran counter to our own feelings—“is to open up this group to a larger group, who will actually make the school happen. Release your hold on your dream of doing something very special, and just open wide and let everybody in the door. Then, during the process of working with them over a period of time, the ones that will actually be useful in putting the school into practice will emerge from that group and you’ll have a much stronger institution.” This sounded like it made sense. It ran against our instincts at the time because it was our own special dream, but we listened to him. Many years later we visited him in New York, and I think he was quite surprised that anything real had ever happened.
Getting back to the core group: it has to study carefully whatever is available. Books aren’t the whole answer, but books are the starting point. They give you a conceptual framework. A collection of such books can be obtained today —books that of course were not in print forty years ago—which includes the two collections of essays, SVS Experience and Reflections on the Sudbury Model; A Clearer View; Legacy of Trust; The View from Inside; and The Pursuit of Happiness. In Legacy [an earlier study of alumni than Pursuit of Happiness] there’s something special: chapters are interspersed where the whole life stories of some alumni are told. In addition, Turning Learning Right Side Up, recently publishes by Pearson as part of the Wharton Business School Series, is the first book that lays out in a coherent and extensive way all the underlying principles that are involved in our approach to education.
Today, a core group has a lot to read, and furthermore it has something else that we didn’t have. It has models that it can visit. I cannot over-emphasize the importance to the core group of visiting actual functioning models in practice. The optimum idea is to go to schools that have been in existence for some time; there are now quite a few of them. That helps focus the core group, at least initially, on exactly what they should do. It gets the model clear.
II. The Startup Group
The startup group is, of course, built around the core group, but it has to have other features to it. This is a point where, often, startup groups start going astray.
We’re talking about a serious enterprise here—a school. It’s going to have real, live kids in it. It’s going to have parents, many of whom are anxious parents. You owe it to those children, you owe it to that community, to have a solid group of people running it—not just people who casually say, “We get the model, we love it, we want to do this, we understand, we’ve read some material about it.” (It would of course also be desirable if they all were able to visit functioning schools, but it’s not necessarily possible for every member of a startup group to do that.)
Everybody who’s really serious about being part of founding a Sudbury school has to become as knowledgeable as the core group before going into action. That means they have to educate themselves. They cannot be just hangers-on. If they’re not willing to undergo the discipline of educating themselves about the institution that they want to start, the school won’t happen. This has to be taken seriously. You have to think of yourself as somebody who’s setting up a substantial institution. Part of the problem with people taking the work seriously is a leftover effect from the 1960’s. The odor of the ‘60s still hangs over these enterprises, which are seen as the kind of thing that people can all sort of lovingly get together and make happen, and from which good things will flow because they have such good intentions. That’s not what this enterprise is about, and the core group has to make that clear to the people constituting the startup group. A lot of people come in and say: we want to be part of it. Don’t drive them away. That’s the Fred Newman principle. Let them all in the door. But just make it clear if a person really wants to join the startup group, part of their preparation is going to be getting themselves an “advanced degree” in the Sudbury model. Anybody who says, “I don’t have time,” or, “I’m going to get around to it,” or, “I’ll read it next month,” is waving a red flag. You’ll be able to tell. In your discussions it will become obvious who has studied and who hasn’t. You should be able to tolerate, patiently, all the simple questions you’ll hear over and over again from parents, children and outsiders, and answer them graciously. But you should not tolerate that in members of the startup group. The startup group should understand the model. If they have substantial questions about it, fine, discuss them—there are plenty of philosophical issues to talk about. But people who ask questions that show that they haven’t read or understood anything—show them the door.
This work requires a deep sense of commitment to the school, not only as a serious institution, but also as an entrepreneurial one. Starting an innovative school has all of the elements of a business startup. You have a new product to offer, you think it’s a good product, there’s experience in other places that show that it works, and you’re hoping that the community that you’re introducing it to will accept it. You don’t know if it’s going to work where you are. You’re still a startup in your location even if somebody has succeeded elsewhere. You’ve got to have a spirit of entrepreneurship, that you are embarked on something exciting and new that you are committed to, which will take a lot of effort and time and heart.
By the way, entrepreneurs don’t make money in the beginning. That’s part of being an entrepreneur. Anybody who thinks they’re going to start a successful business knows that the first years are going to be bleak years financially. They know that if they are to be successful and sustainable, they have to expect that several years will pass before they see a return—which means that they have to find other ways to feed themselves. I’ve heard Sudbury school founders saying that it’s important to pay staff from the beginning. I don’t know where that idea came from. If this kind of school was mainstream, you would start with paying staff. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, there will be so many Sudbury schools everywhere that the community will just say, “Go start it, we’re paying your salaries—make it happen!” That would be great. But right now, in every single community, you aren’t going to have significant money for payroll for several years.
Then there is the matter of parents. In the startup group you will always find a significant group of parents with school-age children. The fact of the matter is that most people aren’t willing to make a commitment to an enterprise like this model unless they feel passionately about giving it to their own children. Everybody in the startup group doesn’t necessarily have children. A lot of people join because they really believe in this form of education as an ideal. But there’s no motivator like your own children. If you don’t have children and it doesn’t work out, you may be disappointed. But if you have children and you’re saying to yourself, “If this doesn’t work, my kid will end up in ‘jail’—a regular school!” That is a real motivating factor! So it’s inevitable that a high percentage of a startup group will be parents.
That has a lot of implications. The primary one is that the children of members of startup groups pay a heavy price. In a sense, they’re partially losing their parents. Their parents’ attention turns partially away from them, and towards an enterprise largely for their benefit, which they don’t have any context for at that point. It also brings into their proximity a host of other people whom they don’t necessarily want around—other kids that they may not get along with, and other adults whom they may not like. It’s really a burden on the children of the startup group parents. So while you need those parents for that unique kind of absolute commitment, their kids are going to continue to pay a price, especially through the founding period, when the benefits of the school are not yet visible. Later, you have to be able to be forthright and say, “We did this for you, but at the same time you paid a price, and we understand that. We don’t expect you to dance with joy because we made this paradise for you, because you paid a price to enter paradise. It was more like purgatory for a while—the transition to paradise.” Your children will either accept it or not, but at least they’ll understand it.
All this is relevant to building sustainability from the beginning. However, at a later stage, when the school is up and running, having parents become directly involved (as staff or volunteers) has the danger of running counter to sustainability. This is because the motivation of parents wanting to come in later is a factor that is very difficult to judge. All too often, parents who want to join the staff later when the school is established are not driven by the necessity to create a place for their kids, because it’s already there. Some are motivated by wanting a tuition break. Scratch them. Some are motivated by wanting to see what their kids are experiencing: “I love my children, and I want to be around them.” That’s the subterranean homeschooler. They don’t want to keep their kids home, but they want to see what their children are doing all day. Once the school is a going concern, it’s the rare parent who actually works out as a staff member, . It happens, but it’s not common. We always tell parents who start talking about being staff at an established school: “If you’re going to be staff, your kids are going to start paying a price. Think twice!” Often that’s enough to make them reconsider, because their child is already there—it’s already their child’s school. Who needs their parents around in their school? Furthermore, having parents come in after the school is established is a destabilizing factor for other kids, because some of the younger kids would like the comfort and attention of having their parents around more. If they see that Joey has his parents around, they think, “I’d like my mom to be a staff member too.” It opens a can of worms. So I want to make it clear that there’s a distinction between parents as members of the startup group, who are essential to a school’s sustainability, and parents coming into an established school as new staff members, who are often destructive to sustainability.
Now I want to move on to the next indispensable ingredient for sustainability. Once we have a startup group committed and knowledgeable, it is important to be as confident as possible that its members are “on the same page”. People in the startup group who have doubts about the model should be told: “We have been glad to have had your participation, but you don’t belong in this group setting up the school.” The group is going to face enough battles with the outside world—with parents, with the community, with educational professionals—not to have the additional burden of fighting internal battles. So fight that particular battle before you get started. Eliminate the people in the startup group who aren’t on the same page.
That’s hard. Often they enter the group sounding like they’re committed and believing it. So it can certainly hurt people’s feelings to be asked to leave. But there are going to be a lot worse hurt feelings if you don’t eliminate them early, because then there will be an explosion. We learned that the hard way, by enduring a painful breakup within the first couple of weeks of the school’s operation. We opened in the summer of 1968 to give the school kind of a trial run (I won’t talk about that mistake!) and the breakup occurred during the middle of that summer session. I guess we were lucky it happened in the summer, because we faced a different and far more dangerous split in the fall. It’s okay for people in the startup group to have serious doubts. Empathize, feel for them, be sympathetic—and get rid of them!
III. Getting Serious
Now let’s talk about money, the next indispensable factor. There are all kinds of theories about money. When we started Sudbury Valley, all the experts said that the absolute minimum you need to start a private school of any kind is $250,000. They might as well have said two hundred and fifty million dollars as far as we were concerned, because all we had managed to come up with was forty thousand dollars. We had to make it go on $40,000. So it sounds as if we did it on the cheap. But don’t be misled, because here’s the point: you have to have enough money to do what you have to do right. That’s the criterion. There isn’t a particular fixed amount that you need. You have to figure out what you need to do in order to get the school established on a sound footing, and then make sure you have enough money to do it, however much or however little that amount is.
It turns out—and that’s the wonderful thing about Sudbury schools—that we discover that we need a lot less money in general than other schools need in order to do things right. The per pupil expenditure in our school is currently below $6,000. The average per pupil expenditure in the public schools in this region is over $15,000, and in private schools it is double that. In public schools, $15,000 is only the publicly announced amount, and does not include a host of off-budget items such as federal and state grants, and the cost of capital improvements, insurance, legal advice, and other such services. Yet our school doesn’t feel poor, that’s for sure—just look around! The point is that we—and virtually all other Sudbury schools—do things well on a lot less money. When people talk about waste in government, they soon find out that they can’t ever get rid of it. In Sudbury schools, you can get rid of it—the School Meeting does that for you. They cut the fat like nobody’s business—like you wish our legislatures did!
So what does it mean to have enough money? Let me start at the beginning. If you don’t have enough money to buy a Planning Kit, just forget it. You don’t have any idea how many letters we get from people who say: “We’re about to form a startup group, but we just don’t have the money ($600) for the Planning Kit.” One doesn’t even know how to react to that. We don’t want to be rude, but it’s ridiculous, because that’s the literature that founders have got to understand. You also must have enough money for whatever public relations you decide to implement. If you can’t afford to buy stamps for mailings, or to rent space for community meetings—then you can’t claim to be serious. You have to have enough money on hand to buy or rent a location, because if you don’t have a place, you don’t have a school. You need a real place to point to when you’re recruiting.
Also needed is money for another item on the indispensable list: good legal advice. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this: get a good lawyer! Occasionally, some people get a pro-bono attorney. But don’t count on it. Believe me, when it comes to legal advice, you get what you pay for. Don’t make believe you’re great legal scholars. I hear this all the time: “I’ve read the laws and regulations, I’ve studied them, I’ve read them on the internet.” That’s great; I’m not discouraging that. The more you know, the more useful you’ll be to your lawyer. But you’re not lawyers. The reason you need good legal advice is that lawyers know how to read the same thing you read and find in it important things that you never saw. This is just a reality. That’s what they’re good at. They’re trained to realize that when words say something that you think mean this or that, that wasn’t the real meaning at all. And they know there are a hundred cases that show what it really means. Courts hardly care what the written law appears to say; they interpret the law—indeed, some people say that they make up the law.
This is important because you’re going to need legal advice in a hundred different ways. You have no idea how wonderful it feels to have a good lawyer on hand when the first person comes along and says, “I’m going to sue you.” Somebody’s going to say that at some point for whatever reason they come up with, and those words can be terrifying unless you have a good lawyer backing you up. If you do, you don’t need to spend much time thinking about it. You answer, calmly, “Go ahead and file the papers.” The lawyer gets the papers, replies, and you often don’t touch it again.
The next indispensable ingredient is determining your status as a school. This is a tricky one. If you want to survive for the long run, be a private school. The words “publicly financed” and “sustainable” are an oxymoron. You can be one or the other but not both. The minute you accept public funds in any for—charter, voucher, whatever—it’s going to come back to bite you, because the government is going to extract its pound of flesh.
It’s so interesting to see how impervious intelligent people are to this simple fact. The reason I feel so strongly about this is because of a very clear memory I have of the 1960 election. I was in academia at the time. We were all very involved in that election, and one of the key issues that affected the outcome was the alleged “missile gap” that President Eisenhower was said to have allowed to occur. John F. Kennedy claimed he would close that “missile gap” and make us safe against the Soviet threat. Soon after he got elected, he announced that it actually turned out that the latest intelligence report showed there was none . . . Politics as usual.
But the fear remained that we were falling behind, so we felt that we really needed to put a lot more money into education. The supposed reason we were falling behind was that the Russians were graduating 150,000 engineers every year, while we were graduating only 15,000, which was supposed to be the main reason they were going to outstrip us. It took several years for people to discover that the Russians gave the title “engineer” to every graduate of a technical high school, so the number of people who were graduate engineers in our sense was a fraction of the number we graduate. However, the early 60’s we felt we had to ramp up our educational system.
This was a great debate in academia. Kennedy was the first president to push through Congress a huge subsidy for higher education, to promote education at the university level in the sciences. His administration “guaranteed” that the money would come with “no strings attached.” I remember getting into sharp arguments with all of my colleagues, all of whom were shouting with joy at this avalanche of money that was going to come their way (and did come their way). I kept saying, “You’ll see, there are going to be strings, lots of strings.” Of course, within a couple of years, we were all dancing like puppets to the tune of a passel of government regulations. Every rule that anybody could think of, related to anything—unionization, gender, diversity, you name it—came to be attached to every single grant. So every grant-writing department of every university had to have a veritable army just to provide the paperwork the government required to satisfy its attached “strings”. In short, you have to be a private school; just get that clear in your head.
Once you settle on being a private Sudbury school, the next step is to incorporate. If you aren’t a corporation, the founders are personally liable for everything that goes on in the school, while a corporation insulates you from personal liability (except for non-payment of taxes). Then get tax-exempt status. Those forms are awfully easy to mess up if you don’t have a lawyer. A lot of people try to do that themselves, but they are playing with fire—it’s the IRS you’re talking about! Don’t mess with the IRS. Give the job to a lawyer. Tax-exempt status helps you, because then you can deal with issues of real estate taxes in your town or county. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily win, but you’ll have something to work with.
Next, establish a tuition policy. Do that early; don’t stumble into it and then change time and again. Whatever policy you make, you’re going to be subject to pressures right from the beginning to change it, so be clear about what you are doing. If you say, “We’d like you to pay tuition in advance, but we’re not quite sure, we’ll see how it works out,” you’ll never hear the end of it. If you want to establish a tuition aid policy, work it out in advance, so that when you’re ready to recruit and actually start the school, you’ll have a clear statement to make to prospective parents: “This is how it works.” You’d be amazed at how many startup groups don’t do this. Having a tuition policy gives the impression of professionalism right from the start, and also decreases tremendously the pressure for special treatment.
Establish an intake policy. Don’t wander into it by trial and error. Figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you going to require an interview? A visiting week? Anybody should be able to call up and be told what the enrollment process is, precisely.
Do you see the picture that’s emerging as I list the indispensable factors? What’s emerging here is a picture of an entrepreneurial startup company, with its vision clear, with its goals clear, with its operation figured out. It’s not a fly-by-night outfit. It’s for real.
What is the minimum number of enrolled students needed to open? When can you say, “We have enough to launch the school?” Years ago, before the first other Sudbury school opened in 1991, we felt that about 50 was a good number, based on our own early experience. If somebody said, “How about 10?” we would have answered, “Ten? That’s a school?” You know something strange? It turns out that ten really does work. I’m continually amazed by this.
Then schools started opening and we would visit them. We would go to a school where we knew in advance there were going to be ten students, and we wondered, “What are we in for?” Then we would walk in and think, “Omigosh, we’re really in a Sudbury school! There are ten kids here, and we feel at home.” It’s amazing. That is the transformative strength of this model. Ten self-directed kids can make a Sudbury school. So there is no minimum number; you simply have to decide on what your minimum will be. Some groups are uncomfortable with ten, and need much more. But make the decision and then stick to it, through thick and thin. If you decide on ten, and then happily open with 25, but as a result of early divisions in the community and attrition you fall back to ten, don’t wring your hands. Remember your original decision. Say to yourself, “We still have ten. We’re going to build from that ten.” If it falls to eight or seven you have a right to wring your hands and consider that it may be time to close. But the point is that this is a crucial decision, an indispensable decision, and it’s related to sustainability because sustainability means being able to ride the ups and downs. If you don’t have your minimum clear right at the outset, you aren’t going to be able to ride the downs with a clear head.
Next, set a firm opening date. Don’t say that you’re “planning to open, possibly, in September.” Nobody is going to sign up for that. We said we were going to open with a summer session in July, 1968. I’ll never forget it—we didn’t have a single person signed up by the end of February! March 1st was the first day someone (other than children of the startup group) signed up. We suffered agonizing doubts. We were opening in July, nobody’s signed up, and it’s the end of February! The fact that people knew we were going to open for sure on July 1st, no matter what, was crucial in attracting people. Set an opening date, and stick to it. Of course, that’s related to your minimum number for opening, because if you set an opening date and you’re firm on it and you have a low enough minimum number, then the likelihood is you’ll start.
The last thing I want to point to as an essential ingredient to opening is recruitment. You have to go out and beat the bushes for people. How you do it depends on where you are. If you’re in West Virginia, in mountain country, you have one way of promoting your school, if you’re in the middle of Boston, you have another way of promoting your school. It depends on what people in that area do, what they read, what they listen to. If they listen to a country music station, buy ads on that. You might make mistakes too. Our demographics at Sudbury Valley favor people who listen to WBUR public radio, and we’ve spent many thousands of dollars advertising on that station, each time convincing ourselves it was a good idea because of the overlap with our population and theirs—and gotten zilch out of it. They listen, but they don’t hear. So that didn’t help us too much. PR is a large part of what you need the money for; you have to be creative in how you spend it.
One thing to beware of during that recruiting effort is the community of homeschoolers. Often they say, “We’re not the usual homeschoolers; we’re ‘unschoolers.’ We let our kids do anything they want, just like your school. We have Sudbury Valley at home. This is just what we want for our children.” The fact that they want to have their children under their scrutiny 24 hours a day—that doesn’t count. Often, when I talk in public, the audience can’t quite figure out why unschooling is not just the same as SVS. After all, the kids supposedly do what they want. But that leaves aside the factor that when the children say they want something, the parents jump right to it. That’s a major part of unschooling. At SVS, we don’t do everything “right now”; we wait for some pro-active initiative from students.
But it’s more than that. I tell unschoolers, “Do you think you’re not influencing your kid? When you, yourselves, talk to your dad or mom and you tell them something—even if they’re very liberal and accepting—if they raise so much as one eyebrow when you are talking, does that do something to you?” Then, they begin to get what I’ve been saying. Your kids can read you through and through. You can tell your kids, “Do what you want,” but you inevitably send so many signals as to what you wish they would want, that they end up just happening to want it—and you don’t even realize your influence. Most unschoolers are unaware of this; they’re really innocents. But if you are starting a Sudbury school, you had better not be unaware of it. They’ll eat you alive if you build your school around them. A good way to test their suitability for your school is to say, “You know, parents aren’t welcome to hang out on campus. You have got to leave them here. You can’t observe what they’re doing all day.” Many will respond, “Okay, I’m out of here.”
Indispensable thing number twelve to opening and sustaining a school: Open! One word: open! That goes a long way.
Now comes the hard part. You’ve laid the groundwork for sustainability; now comes the test. First of all, you have to have the backbone, resolve and energy to endure the almost inevitable splits. The phone does not ring off the hook every day with parents saying, “Thanks for having the school. Goodbye, that’s all I wanted to tell you.” Don’t expect constant expressions of gratitude, even from highly satisfied parents. But you’ll get a lot of complaints! Be ready for that, have the backbone and energy to endure it. That is not a light thing that I’m saying; that’s the central point of sustainability. This can wear you down. If you’ve got spinal problems, get them treated, do whatever you have to do, fix your spine. You’re going to need it.
V. The Long Run
There are some real tricks to sustainability. First of all, because you’re not making any money, you’re going to have to use mostly part-time staff. That’s inevitable. You can try to get some full-time people—this is an entrepreneurial issue, as we saw—who are committed to the model one way or another. But you’re going to have to settle for a lot of part-time people who have to have other jobs. Don’t hire them for less than three days a week if possible. Hopefully they can manage to work elsewhere for an income some or all of the other four days. There’s a possibility for continuity and staff overlap with three-day part-timers, which is why you want to aim at three, not two.
Spend on growth, not on staff. We didn’t really start paying staff anything until 1986. A little bit here and a little dribble there. There was a big change in 1986 because of what we did in 1985. In 1985 the total amount of money we had in the bank was $50,000. We decided that we were never going to grow without extensive PR, so we voted to commit $20,000 of that money to PR—and this was before we were paying staff. By next year our enrollment had increased so dramatically that we could start paying salaries to staff. By 1991 we were able to institute a salary scale. All this took this a tremendous act of faith in PR.
When we hosted our first outside evaluation committee in 1972, the headmaster of Governor Dummer Academy was the chairman of the committee. Governor Dummer Academy is the oldest private school in Massachusetts, and one of the most conservative. This gentleman was enchanted by the school. One morning, as we were walking down to the main building from the parking lot, he looked at the building and saw that there was some repair work taking place on the roof. I said, “We’ve got to keep the school’s roof from leaking, and we want to make sure that we can still keep our beautiful slate roof.” He turned to me—I’ll never forget that moment—and said, “That’s the difference between your school and mine. In my school the roof could collapse, the building could fall apart, but the staff would insist on getting paid their salaries. In your school, the first commitment is to keeping the school whole and a going concern.” That’s the kind of tribute you want people to pay your school, because that shows that you’re committed to sustainability. That shows that you intend to stay around for the long haul.
Members of the start-up group inevitably are going to be the first staff. Keep studying, keep discussing, keep developing the model among yourselves. Work on it. Don’t stop talking about it once the school opens and you see the ideas in live action! And don’t panic—that’s the most important thing at that point. Panic means a little bit of compromise. You’re either a Sudbury school, or you’re not a Sudbury school. There will be pressure. After all, all you have to do is tell people that you will conduct a reading class and a math class every day for an hour, and after that they’ll be free to do what they want. Just guarantee that, and your enrollment will quadruple—but you won’t be a Sudbury school. Don’t panic. That’s key to sustainability. Anybody who’s running a business will tell you that.
My final point is really the heart of the whole subject. The thing to remember is that you never stop being a startup. You’re always going to be entrepreneurs. You’re continuously developing the model to remain on the cutting edge, and as a result you always keep the character of a startup.
There are some wonderful examples from the world of business of people who do and who don’t continue to treat themselves as startups. Kodak is a perfect example of a great startup that forgot that it was ever a startup. It became an established company when the cutting edge moved on, it acted as if it never even heard of digital photography until it was too late. In many ways you’re seeing that happen to Microsoft, whereas Google has retained the atmosphere of a startup. To be sure, Google has become huge, and has a market value of billions of dollars. But it still acts like a startup. It’s always moving onto some cutting edge, and if it should stop, it will wither away and die.
Sudbury schools are, and always will be, on the cutting edge, always developing new perspectives on the model. I have participated in almost every School Meeting since the school was founded forty years ago. That’s a lot of School Meetings. That’s a lot of hours. I have never been bored in any School Meeting, because there is always a part of the discussion that is fascinating, and no one ever knows where it’s going to come from. Suddenly a philosophical discussion begins about something that we realize we’ve missed—something about the model and its application that’s significant. We invariably learn something new from the discussion, and we walk away exhilarated. That’s the point. We’re always getting new perspectives on realities; there are always innovations.
Money for corporations is an example of how the school has continually innovated. In the beginning, the School Meeting had provide seed money for them. I don’t remember who started it—I think the Cooking Corporation was on the leading edge, or the Music Corporation—but over the years a culture has developed that if an interest group wants something that costs money, it doesn’t need to go to the School Meeting. You find ways to raise the money.
Our diploma procedure is another instance where we constantly had to innovate and improve on the procedure. We’re now in our sixth or seventh iteration of a diploma procedure. We think now that we may have gotten it “right”—that means it may last three or four years.
Sustainability means never losing the feeling of being entrepreneurs in a startup even when you’re finally paying salaries. Google pays salaries, but they still have the culture of an entrepreneurial startup. And that’s the key to sustainability. The minute you feel relaxed and complacent, you’re in trouble. One of the original twelve-member startup group, who was hardworking and contributed a great deal to establishing the school, turned to me one day during our second year and said, “I really don’t have any problem working as hard as I can for these first two or three years, because I know that after that things are going to settle down, and it will be easy sailing after that.” I remember saying to him, “Never gonna happen!” That’s the point. That’s a mistake that it’s easy to fall into. A school might get through the agony of the startup, of putting things together, and then they feel, “Okay, now we’ve got our school going and we can take a deep breath and relax.” Then, when things start going sour, they forget the essential thing: their school is still a startup, and should always be. Never lose sight of it. If you remain a startup, you’ll remain for a long time.
That’s the key to sustainability.
1 Edited version of a talk given on July 13, 2008 at the 2008 Summer Conference for staff and startup groups of Sudbury schools. The full talk is available from The Sudbury Valley School Press on a CD.
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