Tennessee Co-Op Takes New Look at Education

The On the Road series resumes in Tennessee, with a visit to The Farm. The 35-year-old community takes a specific approach to local government and childrens' education. But it's not a commune. Most landowners work off site.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A couple of our reporters have been spending part of this summer on the road, talking to Americans about their relationship with the government. Today, NPR's Andrea Seabrook is in Summertown, Tennessee. She found The Farm, a community of people forming a new kind of government.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

The Farm is bigger than most towns here in rural Tennessee. It's three square miles of woods and meadows and little houses tucked back in the trees. It's not a commune. Almost everybody has jobs off The Farm. They call it an intentional community where some 200 people hold co-ownership of the land. That, says Philip Schweitzer, as he looks across the grounds, makes for a very different relationship between neighbors.

Mr. PHILIP SCHWEITZER (Resident): We have to make decisions about how the land will be used and how it will expand with new population. We have to raise money to build roads and handle our water system and everything else. So in a way, it's just another small town, except that we all own it together.

SEABROOK: They have their own government on The Farm. They vote on everything. And in its almost 35 years, the community has built a main store, several buildings, water towers and a soy dairy that makes tofu. The Farm even has what residents call their own foreign policy, a Peace Corps type program called Plenty International.

Mr. SCHWEITZER: And extended beyond that, it's an opportunity for us to experiment with ideas, like we're doing with the school.

SEABROOK: Like any government, one of The Farm's main functions is to run a school. In one of the classrooms, the school rules are posted on the wall. Among them, speak for yourself and seek to hear and understand. Peter Kindfield sits in this classroom. He's the principal. Before he came to The Farm, he was an employee of the New York City government. He was a public school teacher.

Mr. PETER KINDFIELD (Principal): In looking at how the school system was set up in New York, I sort of found it to be exactly the opposite of what would be optimal.

SEABROOK: Kindfield says there are certain basic principles of education that just about everyone agrees on. People learn by doing things, most often by looking at the people around them. But government-run public schools don't allow for this, says Kindfield, and they compartmentalize subjects.

Mr. KINDFIELD: You know, it's a bio class and kids end up investigating chemistry. And you have to say, `No, stop that. Don't learn that. That's chemistry. You'll learn that in another class.' And those kind of compromises were hard. And, then, `leave all children behind' came along and everything good that I'd done in 10 years, and lots of other people had done in 10 years, was sort of wiped out in, you know, a couple of months.

SEABROOK: The federal No Child Left Behind law mandates standardized testing, among other things. After it went into effect, Kindfield and his wife and two kids moved to The Farm. Here, says Kindfield, his classes have kids of all different ages performing complex tasks together, learning from each other. And Kindfield says he's not abandoning government by leaving the public schools.

Mr. KINDFIELD: My contribution to change is to show that education can be done in a way where kids are free, where relationships are mutual and where people learn through interdisciplinary projects that they care about.

SEABROOK: And this is similar to what many people on The Farm say. Whether it's through the community-oriented way of life, the soy dairy or the school, they're forming a new kind of government that they hope will be a model of change.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can keep up with the travels of Andrea Seabrook and Jeff Brady at npr.org where you'll find a diary of their trip, including Andrea's posting from the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

This could only be NPR News.

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