In the words of students

Some of the names in the following statements have been changed or omitted for privacy reasons, or at the request of the author.

The following article appeared in a short-lived, student-run newsletter at Alia.

Aliae Libertas

By Charlotte Martin, Year 11

Alia is an alternative school that gives students more basic freedom. We have only one “rule”, not to disturb any other student’s learning, which many take to mean they can get away with almost anything. The reality is that although we may have only one “rule”, we have many expectations, perhaps even more expectations than a regular school because of the absence of rules.

Rather than setting out rules, Alia’s teachers and students form informal values, beliefs and boundaries, adapting them to the values of the current members of the school. We adapt them to each new situation or incident in the school. Sometimes an event will challenge our beliefs, so, as a school, we modify the beliefs to fit future similar events.

We don’t stop people stepping over the boundaries before they do so (by setting out rules like other schools), nor do we have pre-determined punishments for certain actions. Some people take that to mean there are no punishments at all. The reality is that if a boundary is overstepped there will be natural consequences. Generally the consequence is a loss of social standing; a loss of trust. Depending on the situation, people may no longer want to lend you stuff or work with you in class or believe you when you say something. Without trust a student is respected less by students and teachers alike. That’s not to say they’re mistreated or anything, but there are consequences.

Students always have a chance to prove themselves again, but they need to convince the other students and teachers they’ve improved rather than just writing 20 lines or cleaning the bins before being forgiven.

We don’t make the judgments on behalf of students, instead we allow them to judge situations themselves, make mistakes and learn the consequences.

Alian students get freedom, but it’s tied up with responsibility.

In Philosophy class, we have looked at two concepts of freedom. The first is negative freedom. Negative freedom is not, as it sounds at first, the ‘bad’ type of freedom. It is the idea of a freedom that comes from a lack of restrictions. No laws or rules or person of authority is stopping you from doing something, so you are free to do it. The second type is positive freedom and it is the ability to do all that is available and possible. It’s sort of a difficult concept to stretch your head around, but the way it was explained to me was with an example. I was asked what would happen if I wanted to fly to the moon. Am I free to fly to the moon? Well in the first sense of freedom I am. I’m not being stopped by any law or other rule saying I cannot fly to the moon. So I have negative freedom. On the other hand, is it possible for me, at my 16 years of age and lacking in space training, to fly to the moon? The answer is no. So I don’t have the second sort of freedom (positive freedom).

These concepts of freedom can be applied in Alia:

In terms of negative freedom, we have plenty more than the average school. That is there are few definite rules stopping people from doing what they want to do, only they are then responsible for the choices they make with that freedom. Take for example a student consistently skipping class. There is no rule against them not attending, but they have to be prepared for the social and academic consequences that follow.

An example of positive freedom in Alia, that is unlikely to be found in other schools, is the ability to be heard by other students and teachers. You have the freedom to say what you think and get a fair hearing, a freedom that is less likely to be given in other schools.

Alia gives students a lot of freedom, both negative and positive, but in return for that students are asked to take responsibility and are trusted to do so without rules and regulations. To function properly our school requires an appreciation, by every student, of the freedom and trust we are being given and to respect that freedom and use it wisely.

The following was written by a student who spent eight months here while her parents were on a sabbatical:

I would like to thank Bob, the school staff, and the students for all the help, the support, the love, and the knowledge you have given me. I came to Alia with very limited knowledge of English, and you helped me learn and enjoy the language even when it wasn’t easy for me. I had such an amazing time that I will never forget, and it’s ‏mainly because of you guys!
‏I have never enjoyed school as much as I enjoyed Alia. Thanks for everything, there will always be a place for you in my heart. I love you guys, you are all amazing.

We received the following letter from an Alia graduate after her first year of university. She spent her last two years of high school at Alia.

Dear Bob and the rest of the gang,

I just wanted to say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to attend Alia. If it hadn’t been for you guys, I’m not entirely sure where I’d be, but I know for certain that I would not be nearly as happy as I am now. I consider my move to Alia as one of the best choices I’ve ever made, and will always consider it as one of the happiest memories of my (still very short) life. You guys provided me not only an education I could actually enjoy, but it also provided me with a community, a sense of belonging and some much needed chicken soup for my soul.

If you ever need any help with the school, please let me know and I’ll do all I can to help. I’m loving Uni, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today, or where I am today, without your efforts and visions … so basically, thankyou, with all my heart.

Love and tickles,
[…]

Bob received the following letter from a Year 10 student on her last day before moving interstate.

Dear Bob,

I thank you for the most important thing in my life: who I am.

Without the school you have created I would be lost. If I hadn’t found Alia I’m not sure where I’d be today.

So what I ask is to keep Alia running the way it has for me in order to make other young people like I was bloom into the amazing people they have such potential to be.

Thanks
♥ from Ella

The following letter is from a student who graduated from Alia in 2005.

Dear Bob etc.

I just wanted to write a letter to let you know how much I appreciate all that you and Alia did for me as a person and as a student.

When I came to the school in 2003 I’d had such a hard time at my previous three schools that I felt Alia would be my last hope. I was so disillusioned by the useless conformities of such things as uniforms, detentions, etc. that I’d experienced with the other schools. They seemed to serve no other purpose than to squeeze us all into a mould, to make it easier for the teachers to teach us as a group. So often I would finish my work early or, find the work we were doing too easy, and the teachers had nothing to offer me in terms of further learning. I would just sit there aimlessly until the end of the period only to do the same thing in the next class. When I would approach a teacher about not being challenged by the curriculum they had no idea what my problem was, seeing as I was getting top grades. None [of] it made any sense to me and no one was willing to explain to me why things were the way they were.

But Alia changed all of this. From my first day walking into the school grounds I knew things were going to be different. As is tradition at Alia, we all gathered for a meeting in the Great Hall. All of us that were new were introduced to the group and, though I went red from embarrassment, it also gave me a very warm feeling. The meeting consisted of important announcements, any concerns people (students or teachers) wanted to raise and a lot of storytelling about people’s holidays. I felt so comfortable and a part of something.

I spent my last three years of high school at Alia College. Almost from the first day I began getting involved in things such as organising musical productions, school camps, etc. I felt so liberated by the freedom and trust we were given by the teachers to pursue our own projects. But this is not to say that the freedom didn’t come without responsibility. I remember once a friend of mine was organising a camp and it came to the day that we were meant to be leaving. There were approximately 50 students with their luggage and parents milling around in the car park waiting for the buses which were already late. When the bus did finally arrive we realised they’d sent something not sufficient to take all of us. Me and my friend ran inside and, with the receptionist, began calling bus companies frantically to see what we could rustle up last minute. Eventually we organised something and were off to camp only about 2 hours later than planned. We never screwed up the buses again for the whole time I was at Alia! This was just one experience that shows we were given the room to learn from our mistakes the hard way, not unlike adult life. In the end the teachers were always there to back us up and offer support but it was very important that in some ways they kept their distance and didn’t baby the students so that we were able to learn some life lessons earlier than most.

Throughout my time at Alia … I had a lot of family issues. I feel that having been at Alia during this period was very important. A lot of children/teenagers see their parents go through divorce but I feel [my] experience was in some ways a little more difficult than your average. The first year I was having these problems at home I was at my third high school. I did about 4 months of counselling with the student counsellor there and what did I gain? A bunch of pamphlets and phone numbers. The only reason I kept going was because it was slightly better than the classes where I was learning nothing. I can’t even begin to explain how different Alia was in this respect. It truly felt as though I was surrounded by a group of wise and generous friends who I knew would always listen when I wanted to talk. Often I would spend a whole lunch time speaking with a teacher about these things, definitely not something in their job description. A few times I cried but I wasn’t at all embarrassed, there was no awkwardness between teacher and student. I guess for me this exemplified another very valuable trait of Alia College. I realised from my very early days there that for the teachers on board they were not there simply to “do their job”. They came to school with an open mind and open ears and were always willing to try something new or do something extra to help a student achieve all that they were capable of. This is something I have never seen or heard of from any other school.

And I haven’t even got to the learning [side] of things! Classes at Alia were so invigorating and engaging that many of us would go early and finish late because we got so caught up in them. This was especially the case for me in math where Bob taught me. I had never been particularly good at math. That is not to say that I failed but, at my other schools, I had passed by learning the formulas instead of gaining a genuine understanding of the material. When I’ve spoken to students of other schools, 90% would say that that IS what math is. But here, once again, is where Alia differed. Alia’s main goal was never purely for its students to get good scores, but for them to actually learn something. This may sound like a silly distinction, that these two should go hand in hand, but believe me they don’t. Bob and I spent countless hours outside of class time going over and over things in a million different ways because he was determined for me to see the logic and practicality of math. He would always relate it to a real life situation which made a big difference in understanding a page of numbers and formulas for a student whose strength has always been the humanities. … He invoked in me both a passion for learning and the realisation that nothing is impossible, as long as you want it bad enough.

… I achieved an ENTER score of 92.25 and also gained some valuable life lessons and a group of indispensable friends. Alia is an example of [one of] those few institutions left that is able to cater for both the individual and the group and I feel that, in all parts of life, this is very important. Once I have my career established and a stable enough income, I plan to donate as much spare money as I can to Alia to further its mission in the education system to do things differently and get it right.

I am very happy for this letter to be read by any prospective student as I only want Alia to continue to grow.
Yours faithfully,
Danielle