Freedom to Learn

December 1, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Matthew Gioia (EC09) works with students at Hudson Valley Sudbury School in New York.

At a small private school in the Hudson Valley of New York, students guide their own education.

Some spend their days creating music or art. Others occupy their time reading, playing or socializing. Older students often study whatever subjects interest them.

At Hudson Valley Sudbury School, students learn their own way.

For more than four years, St. John’s College alumnus Matthew Gioia (EC09) has been helping the school fulfill its mission.

Gioia is admissions director at the K-12 school in Kingston, New York, approximately 100 miles north of New York City. It is one of more than 60 independently operated Sudbury schools around the world.

“The school is really based on the premise that human beings, including kids, are really OK,” Gioia says. “I like to say the school is boldly and uncompromisingly pro-human. Whereas I see a lot of the forms of traditional schooling as subjugating students, our students are free. Our school provides them with a place to practice being responsible for themselves and honing and developing their own unique capabilities.”

Gioia’s interest in non-traditional education began years ago. Originally from Brookline, Massachusetts, he studied Buddhism during his undergraduate years at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and eventually made his way to St. John’s in Santa Fe. The experience at St. John’s helped him further explore his interest in Eastern culture, as well as hone his reading, writing, thinking and speaking skills.

After Gioia graduated, he stayed in Santa Fe for a year and substitute taught in the public school system. He then joined the Mississippi Teachers Corps and moved to the Deep South. The experience changed his view of traditional education.

“I began to figure out there were deeper problems and issues I had with school,” Gioia says. “It had to do with the paradigm the whole thing was based on: authority and instruction.”

Gioia began to look around for schools where that wasn’t the case. He soon discovered Hudson Valley Sudbury School, where students create their own curriculum and guide their own learning.

“I decided I wanted to be in a place like this,” he says.

Established in 2002, Hudson Valley Sudbury School serves about 80 students. While art, music, theater, photography and other creative activities abound, students also study traditional subjects.

Staff members have no formal teaching duties in their job descriptions, Gioia says, but all do some sort of instructing. They also help students with activities and projects, and act as liaisons to find people to lead instruction on other subjects when necessary. In addition, they provide examples of how to be a model and effective adult, Gioia says.

The school is run democratically. In the legal framework of the school, Gioia and other staff members are on equal footing with any student. Students and staff vote together on everything from the school calendar and budget to the hiring and firing of personnel. The format is similar to a traditional New England town hall meeting.

“It serves the school and it also serves the students to be able to participate in those kinds of decisions, and to have their own rights safeguarded by themselves,” Gioia says.

A recent promotional video, written by and featuring students at the school, shows children of all ages talking about how they have no classrooms, tests, homework or principal; they mention the school’s democratic process; they play outside, make music, dance and cook; but there’s also plenty of reading, writing and discussion.

As admissions director, Gioia is helping spread the word about the school.

“We do not merely prepare our students to make a living,” he says. “We prepare them to make a life, and a rich one at that, in the emerging Creative Age.”