Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School

Santa Barbara boasts a variety of schooling options, both public and independent, to ensure that every learner can find the place that best fits their needs. Santa Barbara Free School presents students with an opportunity to direct their own learning through democratic, community-based and experiential programs.  

What does your organization offer to Santa Barbara parents?

Santa Barbara Free School is a private day-school for teens, offering our community’s first student-led curriculum. We’re a launch pad for scholars, creatives, and athletes who are held back by conventional schools ― a “startup accelerator” for teens. Our classes, offerings, schedule, budget, and policies are all created by consensus. We offer a platform of deep and joyous learning where independent young people graduate better prepared than their peers for a changing world. 

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School

What are the costs associated with your services?

We are a tuition-based program with an indexed, or “pay what you can afford” system. The maximum yearly tuition is $15,000, though many of our families pay less. Tuition covers all expenses, including our dual-enrollment program, field trips, and materials. No accepted student is turned away for lack of financial resources. 

What are the unique benefits of your services?

We’re Santa Barbara’s only democratic school. At our weekly School Meeting, almost everything is decided through consensus voting. We hand the responsibility of creating our budget, schedule, and activities directly to our students. That trust and responsibility means our students are deeply invested in the program they create.

We stand out for our flexibility, embracing different learning methodologies to match different learning styles. Critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are baked into the structure. Each student meets weekly with a chosen mentor to reflect on goals, connect with resources, and plan for the future. That reflection helps mindfully incorporate the personal and professional skills like goal-setting, time management, organization, leadership, and teamwork that develop naturally in our program. 

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School

Our College Cooperative is a program of dual enrollment with SBCC. Students can earn college credit by taking classes with their S.B. Free peers. The most motivated can graduate high school as a junior in college. For others, it’s a chance to get collegiate experience with peer support and direct mentorship, all within the culture and structure of S.B. Free. 

Our flexible schedule, optional Fridays, and 10 a.m. start time appeal a lot to teens. As does our downtown campus where students with off-campus privileges can explore and practice independence. We’re a safe, fun, and inclusive culture where young people of all identities can thrive. 

Who is behind your organization, and what is their background and experience?

The founders, Madeline and Jesse, have years of experience in education. Madeline taught in the public schools of Carpinteria, while Jesse moved from computer security to the nonprofit educational sector and homeschool teaching. They are supported by a board of advisors, current and former Heads of School with decades of experience in self-directed, democratic, and transformative education. 

What is self-directed education? How is the curriculum created?

Student-led learning is the future. In essence, students set personal goals for their education, different for each individual. They are empowered with peer support, direct mentorship, discretionary budget, experienced teachers, and high-quality resources.

Semesters start with brainstorming. We gather around shared interests and ask, “Should it be a teacher-led class, a student-led cooperative, a research group, a seminar series, or a personal project? If it’s a class, should it be in-person, off-campus, online? At middle, high school, or college level? Who do we want to learn from, and how should the class function? What are our goals for learning?”

Then students piece it all into a schedule. Every week, we check in with the classes and co-ops to reflect on their process and progress, and to share what they are learning!

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School

What is a typical day like at Santa Barbara Free School?

At the start of the year, we spend a lot of time in group bonding, brainstorming, and many planning meetings. With a blank schedule and open budget, there’s a lot to figure out! It’s a magical time. After a few weeks, our schedule comes together.

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School

Take a Monday, for example. Students arrive at 10 a.m., well-rested and ready for the day. A history class is scheduled, “American values from 1776–2023.” Then students convene for a Music “Jam” Class or an SBCC course. 

During lunch, you’ll find students relaxing on campus, going out to grab a bite, or skating around the block. Project time means work on a digital model, drawing in a sketchbook, sewing a dress. 

The AI Research Group meets for a lively discussion before we head to a local makerspace for wood and metalworking. It’s a packed schedule, but one they created for themselves!

How do you ensure that students are receiving the fundamentals of education that will prepare them for college?

Every day, S.B. Free students practice essential college skills like independence, goal-setting, and resource acquisition. They build impressive transcripts full of college credit, leadership roles, and unique accomplishments.

But true preparation for college and the working world isn’t the ability to cram for a test or memorize formulas; it’s the self-possession and experience to know what you want and how to get it. By embracing now the freedom and responsibility that they’ll later find in college or a career, our students make meaning out of their lives and learn to navigate a changing world. 

Who guides students through the self-directed learning process, and how is it facilitated? The students guide us through their self-directed learning process! We’re expert followers; we lead from the back. Our role as educators is to bring our experience, tools, and framework to help students dive into their learning. To contextualize and connect students’ immediate interests with their broader path. 

What are some of the off-campus field trip experiences you offer?

Our school is immersed in the city. We spend part of every day out in the community at makerspaces, the library, the Rock Gym, private art studios, volunteering, shooting photos, biking and skating, and so much more. Our doors open right onto State Street. 

The students are in charge of Field Trip Fridays, and we have a series of off-campus exploratory weeks in between semesters! Last year, we toured departments at UCSB, had a family campout and climbing excursion at Malibu Creek State Park, hiked local trails, took biking tours, visited local museums, and a lot more. 

Is there anything else you would like to share about Santa Barbara Free School?

It’s time to reimagine education. In your conventional school, teachers have to be it all ― coach, cheerleader, boss, prison guard. We dispense with all of that. At S.B. Free, students ask, “I want to learn this. Can you teach me?” That changes everything.

Santa Barbara Free School
1330 State Street, Suite 101
(805) 723-0530

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Free School


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