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Issue 34

Olympia Community Free School
By Kaci Elder

My shoulder bag is stuffed with fliers, seducing me with their pricey promises. Wrap your leg around your neck at the Iyengar yoga retreat ($280). Learn how worm poop converts food scraps into compost ($30). Bounce around in a capoeria class ($12).

The carrot dangles, but I, with an average of $2 wadded in my pocket, plod by the slickly decorated studios, scowling into the windows and feeling more than a little pissed off at the gargantuan wall that stands between me and my education. I’m likely to feel sorry for myself, lamely cram more hopeless fliers into my bag, and walk on. But others are far less lazy in their indignation.

When 50 diverse folks from Olympia, Wash., got together in the late ‘90s to discuss problems with the educational system, they turned talk into action. After two public meetings, they drafted a few skill-share lists to circulate around town: one list of skills people wanted to learn and another specifying the skills they were willing to share.

The skill-share lists evolved into the Olympia Community Free School, a decentralized learning center where anyone can teach, anyone can learn, and no one is charged a dime. Scrolling through their online catalog, I am enticed by the offerings: beekeeping, non-violent communication, understanding policing, personal astrology, computer building — even something called “Dutch Conversation Coffee House.”

Students meet in cafes, homes, parks, or at the free school’s latest digs, a 1,200 square-foot office.

“The idea was that by having a centralized space and location, we would attract more people here and attract more resources to us, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Beth Heard, the program director. “It was a little scary at first, but I think it’s really been a good step for us.”

The Free School depends on local support, which is lesson No. 1 — the community backs the school, or it tanks. Likewise, the school must support the community. Heard was at an Olympia Food Coop meeting when members worried they didn’t have the time to implement an educational program. She saw an opportunity and spoke up.

“That’s where the Free School stepped in and said, ‘That’s what we’re good at. Let us run this program for you,’” she recalled.

The food coop provides a stipend, and the school has also been buoyed financially by a few grants, local advertisers, the Friends of the Free School donor program, and sliding-scale meeting-room rentals to eight progressive partner organizations.

One grant made possible the Activist Tool Kit in 2002, a three-month-long series of classes broken into themes: effective communication, information awareness, and art & social change. More than 350 Northwesterners convened to learn to build successful movements from the ground up. The series returned the following year as the Citizen’s Tool Kit, and more grant opportunities will surface after the school incorporates into a nonprofit.

The Free School also rents part of its space to two local groups: the Olympia Ecology Center and Free Geek. The local chapter of the Portland-based Free Geek rebuilds computers and donates them to non-profit organizations and, because of their proximity to the school, Free Geek staff members teach computer classes.

Ah, but freeloaders beware — there is a catch. Though organizers are idealistic, they don’t expect freebies from the phone company. An average 200 people join the Free School each quarter as teachers or students. When participants register for a class, they’re asked to volunteer at the school, donate an item from the school’s wish list, give a little dinero, or teach. It isn’t compulsory, but if teachers and organizers are donating their skills, time and passions, then it’s only fair not to suck them dry.

This isn’t adult-only fare. One class is taught by a 10-year-old, teens teach hip hop, and this fall a survey of local youth will help shape the curriculum to appeal to their tastes.

All this is to make education accessible to all. Sound too lofty? Well, free schools have taught thousands since the counter-cultural ‘60s, ebbing and flowing with the political tide over the decades until their latest reemergence through anarchist channels in the ‘90s. A handful of examples include the Santa Cruz Free Skool (Calif.), Jamaica Plain Community Education Project (Mass.), Barrington Collective Freeskool (Berkeley, Calif.) and Ashland Freeskool (Ore.), according to a list compiled by the Santa Cruz Free Skool.

For a closer macro/micro look at the Olympia Community Free School, I phoned two of the seven core volunteers for a little Q & A session, Beth the program director and Paul Rathgeb, who publishes the school’s quarterly journal, Natural Learning.

Community colleges are relatively cheap and offer credits that lead to a degree. Why study at a Free School instead?

Beth: People come to us having all kinds of experience with institutionalized education and more often than not being disillusioned. Some people are literally scared of being in that kind of classroom setting, facing forward with the expert at the front and being in a setting where they are pitted against one another.

Here, it’s a very safe and open environment. We have conversations with facilitators at the beginning of each quarter to really draw upon and have a forum with the participants and to incorporate their knowledge. Oftentimes, participants lead a component of the class.

Paul: Community colleges really can’t compete because our classes are free, number one, and we’re a whole different autonomous being. Someone can come in with an idea and it can blossom from there — and you’re going to have the general support you need to get you through. I came from a liberal college with the idea to start a project in the community, and that inspired me to link up with the Free School. I was able to come in here and not have any certain credentials or prerequisites. I was self-driven and I could find a support team to work with and build that vision.

What’s the value of educating each other for free?

Paul: The value of learning is not confused by commodity. There’s a tendency that money becomes this obstacle … a lot of times money sort of blurs the importance of your natural, intrinsic instinct to want to learn.

Beth: We believe in learning across boundaries, the boundaries that people might come up against in institutionalized education, like discriminating based on economics, race, age. We want to provide and support a free, open, non-hierarchal environment where people can celebrate lifelong learning.

I’m impressed with this community. This is a community of amazing resources and people with so many different skills and talents to share, and so we’re really pooling these together and supporting that age-old tradition of really learning from each other.

Free Schools are designed to educate people from all backgrounds, but in reality, is it accessible to people who can’t afford school?

Beth: One of our core staff, Kendra, offered a sign language class and she was really filling a direct community need. Some participants who couldn’t afford to take sign language classes were relying on sign language to communicate with their family members.

Though we have only just recently begun to collect statistics on race and income levels, we know from conversations with our participants that many people choose Free School because money is not an obstacle to participation.

Over the next year we will continue to develop our relationships with other groups who work specifically with people who are low income, to support their work, and create more opportunities at Free School.

Paul, you were just out “pounding the streets,” you said, finding advertisers for Natural Learning. Have the organizers debated whether to accept advertising?

Paul: I was sort of dwelling on that the other day. I teeter-totter back and forth on the fence. I haven’t found a better way, so I go to local businesses. Really, for the most part, it’s the only effective way I’ve discovered to cover the cost of printing.

I found in my experience that local businesses are open to the idea of supporting organizations that are grassroots.

What’s the difference between “getting a degree” and learning?

Beth: Getting a degree happens in a very structured environment. There are rules about how to participate and how much money to pay. After a certain point of passing enough tests and writing enough papers, you have “learned” enough to be worthy of a degree.

Learning is really happening all the time. It doesn’t happen in a particular building or on a particular day. The Free School draws attention to this lifelong learning process. There are people with amazing resources in our community. We believe that we can learn from one another. The Free School opens the opportunity for this dialogue and provides a forum for skill sharing. We encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to get involved with Free School, and you don’t have to have a degree to have something worth sharing.

Can the free school model spread, and have you been in touch with other free schools?

Beth: We’re working on building a good working model so we can share it with other people. We had someone from Bellingham who wants to get a free school going and someone from Minneapolis. Portland’s free school is trying to get going again, and we’re in contact with Santa Cruz. We just want to continue to build a strong school here so that we can share and discuss the model with other people in other communities. We know it will constantly be an evolving process.

We’ve been discussing the idea of organizing a free school conference in the summer of 2006 to share ideas with other free schools.

Any advice to get one started with little or no money?

Paul: There’s no secret recipe or formula. For those starting a free school or something similar, you want to build up a supportive base of individuals who are like-minded and have a core philosophy they want to share and then more or less taking that to the streets and reaching people through one-on-one discussion, and by hosting a meeting, posting flyers, and using local media outlets.

Beth: Relationship-building is the most important. What we tried to do in the beginning was reach tons of people and really get it out there, but I think what’s been most effective is to hone in on a few organizations, so they understand us and we understand them. That’s what developed with our relationship with the Olympia Food Coop and others. It’s that relational work that’s going to provide those people that will sustain you for a long time.  

The Olympia Community Free School can be found online at To learn more about starting a Free School, email or

Kaci Elder is a journalist, poet and new mama living in downtown Santa Cruz, California.

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