Austin Free Skool provides free, unique classes

Aaron West

Tuition increases, financial aid and student debt are concepts that many of today’s students are all too familiar with. But for those who tend to avoid the “What I Owe” page at all costs, try this concept on for size: free education.

November marks the one year anniversary of Austin Free Skool, a local grassroots collective that has rallied around the notion that everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student and that education is for everyone. Austin’s Skool is part of a national free school movement that emphasizes these ideals and principles of self-reliance and informal learning “uninhibited by the structure and costs of other learning institutions,” according to the Austin Free Skool website.

“We want to reveal to people that they have the potential to educate each other,” said Aaron Goldman, a teacher and a student at the Free Skool. “Facilitating your own class on anything is a learning model for a lot of people. You learn really well when you’re given a reason to reiterate a subject or an idea to someone else.”

The collective contends that the blurring of the lines between teacher and student ­­— “eliminating the hierarchy,” as Goldman put it — is an effective method of learning and teaching that goes neglected in many American public schools and universities. The Free Skool facilitates that traditional breakdown by providing space and resources to anyone who wants to teach anything.

“The basic idea is that knowledge is a right,” Goldman, a fine arts senior, said. “And so we want to facilitate that in any way possible by sharing the knowledge.”

“Anything” — which in the past has encompassed classes like “crafting with found materials,” “fractals and chaos theory” and “Beer Appreciation: Part 1” — can be a daunting subject, as the Free Skool has discovered.

The collective, which is run by its members, has recently experienced a pause in the momentum it established last year. The interruption was due to organizers’ busy schedules and what Goldman referred to as a “plateau” of motivation, brought about by a lack of manpower and a couple of misguided turns the group made in regard to outreach.

Those dead-ends mostly involved collective members, whose numbers fluctuated between four and 10 people, taking on too much responsibility. Creating classes, arranging teachers, organizing a schedule and generating involvement proved to be overwhelming for organizers — many of them university students — especially considering that other free education programs, such as the Austin Yellow Bike Project, for example, already existed.

“These kind of projects and collectives in general can be difficult to get going,” Goldman said. “But I don’t think that should stop the whole project. It maybe wasn’t reaching the expectations of the members at that time, but there were a lot of high points and a lot of good ideas came out of it.”

The hiatus has given the Free Skool organizers a chance to reexamine those ideas and begin to plan for what’s next — a future that Austin Free Skool founder Katlyn Jennings hopes will focus on increased collaboration with those local groups whose interests and goals are aligned with the Free Skool’s.

Jennings, a 2005 Plan II alumna, said the idea for the Austin Free Skool sprung out of a “self-exploration” trip she made to California after graduation. While in Santa Cruz, Jennings said she really became turned on to the idea that education is a right rather than a privilege after spending time at a free school there.

“It really impressed me,” Jennings said. “It was a great way to feel connected to the community. I had pondered the question of education and how to do it for a long time, and in my own personal experience at UT I had come across some things that I wasn’t satisfied with that inhibited my own abilities to learn. When I came back to Austin, I started talking to people about free schools and generating interest.”

Ultimately, the Free Skool’s future lies in the hands of Austinites, Goldman conceded. He believes that the interest is there, but it’s going to take converting that interest into involvement that will get the project off the ground again.

“I think it’s an important project, and it succeeded in so many ways despite some of its failures that it needs to keep going,” Goldman said. “It has the ability to be more stable and hold a great deal of importance in Austin.”  

Printed on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 as: Skool offers uninhibited learning