Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Starting a Free School

Some time ago I posted that I would be writing up my experiences about starting a free school and posting them here. Due to time constraints this simply hasn't happened yet, but as more and more people contact us about starting a free school in their community (how exciting is that?!) I wanted to post some information here. Tara from the Dallas Fort Worth area was one of the first people to contact us with a request for information. Her letter and my response is posted here.

Much of this is my (Jessica) personal opinion and experience. I'd love it if others from other free schools would jump in and discuss this from your end since we all operate so differently.

Tara's Letter:
I'm in Texas and just found out about your group. I'm interested in starting something like it in my area. Is there any information or advice you could provide on how you find classroom space, cover the costs of flyers and other basic materials, etc.? Thanks!

My long winded response:
Gosh, there's a lot to talk about.

The first thing to know is that we operate very differently from other Free Schools (if you google you'll see the list on wikipedia). The main difference is that we're not politically affiliated and we don't take cash donations ever from anyone... so it's a completely volunteer effort. To be honest I think these things have helped us get a ton of press that we wouldn't have received otherwise and it's also more inclusive of course by leaving it open to anyone of any political affiliation. The other schools are of course open to all, but getting folks of different political ideologies to come to an "anarchist" school might be more difficult.

On the fund raising front we could have raised funds but again, I think we get a lot more press (and thus more people knowing about the school) because we don't and that makes us more interesting. Plus, to be frank, the idea of spending my time raising money isn't something I wanted to do. It would have taken a ton of time away from writing press releases and teaching classes.

As for classroom space we started here in the public libraries as most have meeting rooms that are free to use if you're not selling anything, are open to anyone and everyone, etc... basically all the things we want in classes too so it worked out well. We put out on the website that we were looking for other places to have classes and when we talked to the press we talked about how we hoped to partner with other nonprofits to use their spaces as a win win type of situation as it brings our people to their space and gets more awareness for them. It's also part of our decision not to take donations as we'd rather people give money to orgs that help us out then us having to go out and do it and take money out of the pool so to speak.

We're able to have free website space from google and have been using their email program as well. We've run into a problem with their email as you can't send messages to more then 500 people in a day. We're currently working on a list serve and have friends that have helped us out (just from our "we need help" part of the website and from other people we know) both to host our eventual good website and our listserve as well as a ftp site for documents. I can talk to you more about this later, but basically our website has cost us $10 at the moment and other people are donating the rest... from stuff they already had anyway.

As for flyers we don't do ANY professional printing as it costs a fortune. We make basic flyers and have people print them out at home... the people on our email list. We send them out with our weekly email or now as we've grown we've moved to having "flyer hangers" specifically for it. Silly for us to drive all over the place and hang flyers when other people are already in the neighborhood. Of course at first we did this a bit, mainly in areas that were local to us. From there we grew up enough to not have to do it so much.

As far as basic materials teachers provide that. So my cheese making class for example. I bring the milk and everything else and make the cheese. The difference is that people don't get samples, I take it home and eat it myself. No one seems to mind this, after all they aren't paying for anything. And then I teach classes when I need to make cheese or have something to do with it. The same is true of knitting classes or whatever else. Students bring their own supplies and teachers bring their own supplies and no one is expected to give away anything.

In general we don't have handouts in classes since much of it can be written up on a whiteboard and then written down by students. Occasionally we'll have something but it's always small and doesn't require any expensive printing.

Basically it does cost something to run this, more because I've donated all the soap I'm making to shelters (or will be) but if it weren't for that it would cost very little. For me it's the difference of giving away money to another org or spending <$100 a year on the basic stuff I need to run this thing. We also have some groups affiliated with the local college that have printing abilities thanks to what the college provides for them. If they aren't using what they have then they give it to us.

SFS is really a huge testament to thinking outside the box and we had tons of folks telling us we couldn't do it the way we're doing it. But again, I honestly think that we're as successful as we are because we didn't heed that "advice". If whatever you're thinking about doing costs a ton of money then don't do it, you can find another way to do the same type of thing for free or very cheap.

If you decide to move forward with this please feel free to email me with your thoughts and concerns. I'm more then willing to help out as I can (from here!)

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