About Chagrin Valley School

Chagrin Valley School is a self-directed education school for ages 5-18 years old and is held full-time Monday through Friday, September through May. The outdoor nature preschool is for ages 3-5 and is three days a week, Monday-Wednesday. Both have continuous open enrollment depending on availability. Part-time attendance is also an option for the school and preschool.

Please read our School Handbook for more information. Our school offers:

  • Self-directed learning
  • A four-day a week nature-based preschool
  • Democratic community decision making
  • Student run mediation & disciplinary system
  • Age-mixing which builds social skills
  • The responsibility & freedom of living in a "mini-society"
  • Field trips & special guest workshops
  • Entrepreneurial opportunities
  • Abundant free play time
  • Natural building, gardening & animals
  • Connection with the natural world
  • Part-time attendance options & very flexible hours
  • Affordable tuition & financial aid

A Self-Directed Learning School

At Chagrin Valley School there are no traditional classes, instead students may work on projects or explore their interests in a variety of ways. They may also spend a good part of their day learning through free play. Or they might participate in student committees that plan activities & determine certain policies.

Learning through play is a term used in education and psychology to describe how a child can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments all through free play. Key ways that children learn include playing, being with other people (especially children of different ages), being active, exploring & new experiences, communication with others, meeting physical and mental challenges, being shown how to do new things, practicing and repeating skills and having fun.

Just as everyone learns to walk & talk on their own, schools following this model have proven that in the right, supportive environment, one also learns reading, writing & practical math by participating in everyday self-chosen activities such as board games, cooking, party planning & construction projects.

To learn more about putting children in charge of their own learning, check out the book Free to Learn by developmental psychologist Peter Gray, or his blog Freedom to Learn. 

A Democratic School

Students and staff in our democratic school have an equal voice in deciding how the school will be run, from creating, modifying and enforcing the rules, to managing school spaces, to allocating money in the budget. All students and staff are members of the school meeting, which meets on a regular basis to create policies and make significant decisions.

Day to day operations and activities are managed by committees led by elected or volunteer clerks (student and/or staff) and made up of school meeting members. For example the kitchen committee would be in charge of managing use of the kitchen including the kitchen budget, and certifying members of the school meeting to use the space. If any person does not follow the correct procedures for use of the kitchen they may lose their certification or face consequences as determined by the judiciary committee. The judiciary committee (JC) is made up of a student clerk and student members of the school meeting who serve on a rotating basis as a jury. The JC hears  complaints and decides on consequences for infractions of school rules. Other committees include arts & crafts committee, budget committee, outdoor committee, building committee, etc.

See Sudbury Valley School or other “self-directed,” “democratic” or “free” schools for other examples.

Our Staff

Kelly Clark

Founder, School Staff

Kelly grew up spending her free time reading and exploring the woods with the neighborhood kids. She majored in physics at The University of Chicago (BA) and The University of California at Santa Cruz (MA). Kelly taught in several mostly progressive/mainstream educational environments from kindergarten through college undergraduate level. During that time she developed a variety of curriculum in science (physics, chemistry, physical science), math (algebra & statistics), food systems, and engineering/design and was constantly experimenting with approaches to increase students engagement with the material (coaching, team-work, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning and so on). After over a quarter of a century she had to acknowledge that she had failed to discover an approach that would result in authentic, deep, and lasting learning for even a fraction of the students. Rather she found that most students (at the high school level) were primarily focused on the evaluation aspect rather than meaningful engagement with the material. And on top of that they had very little free time and were highly stressed.

On the advice of a colleague, she looked into the democratic education model first practiced in the US by Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn, about the fundamental role of free play in learning, inspired Kelly to leave her job at an elite private school, to start Chagrin Valley School on her permaculture farm.

Ian Mungall

School Staff

Ian earned a BA in Communications from John Carroll University, focused on marketing communications and graphic design. He worked for a Fortune 500 company as well as PBS/NPR before living and working abroad in a new field which he has always been interested in, education. He taught at a unique elementary to adult level school in Seoul, South Korea and at an international university in Chengdu, China. During these four years spent teaching abroad he became frustrated and unsatisfied with the conventional style of schooling. He continued to learn and explore through travel, farming, and natural health & meditation programs and became increasingly interested in living a back to nature lifestyle. Upon discovering the self-directed education philosophy it resonated with him for many reasons, especially since it goes back to how most children have been raised and educated throughout most of humanity – by growing up in a supportive community environment or “mini-society.” He loves helping the school students, school & school community continue to grow & develop.


Erin Rodriguez

School Staff

Erin Rodriguez is a K-12 licensed Art Educator with over ten years of teaching in diverse settings. She earned a BA in Art Education from Kent State University, completing her student teaching in Quito, Ecuador. After graduation, Erin moved to Washington D.C. for three years, teaching and embracing her love for painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, and photography. She spent a year teaching English in South Korea before returning to her hometown of Cleveland Heights in 2010. Since then, Erin has been teaching art in charter schools across Cleveland as well as raising her son Franklin while simultaneously earning a Masters in Art Education from Boston University. She is drawn to Chagrin Valley School because of its intentional education focus and the opportunity to join a community of like-minded learners.

Jim Demko

School Staff

Jim earned a BS in Chemistry and a minor in Biology from Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, OH and spent the following 18 years working in corporate jobs. He recently escaped this corporate life, a transition which has been decades in the making as he actively cultivates an environmentally conscious and authentic life. His interests include homesteading, building, hiking, cooking over campfires, beekeeping, and generally being active outside. Jim has volunteered at the farm and as a staff member for the past year and a half, gradually getting more involved and going deeper into the democratic schooling model and the permaculture community. He is the father of two current Chagrin Valley School students and is re-learning creativity and joy from all the students at Chagrin Valley School. 

Shelly Bender

Summer Camp Director

Shelly has a long background in environmental education. She has a Masters in teaching from National Louis University and bachelors in Natural Resources & Environment from the University of Michigan. She was a science teacher in Chicago public schools for 15 years. She also ran a science internship and camp program at the Chicago Botanical Garden and currently works leading nature & science trips for students at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. She has two children of her own who love experiencing the free exploration & creativity of our camp.

Renae Lesser

Preschool Director

Renae Lesser is a dedicated educator with a passion for creating engaging, child-directed spaces for joyful play and deep learning. Renae was born and raised in Cleveland Heights but her interest in transformative education has taken her all over, from San Francisco to Istanbul. She holds a BA in Human Ecology from College of the
Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine and an MA in Philosophy and education from Columbia University in New York City. As an experiential educator in schools, museums, farms, and libraries Renae has always sought out opportunities to tinker and  experiment—and to reimagine what a “school” might look like. Most recently, she worked as a Waldorf teacher at the Urban Oak School in Cleveland Heights. Past experiences include: designing inquiry-based exhibits and programming for the Exploratorium Museum in
San Francisco; teaching art and theatre at an elementary school in Istanbul, Turkey; and facilitating philosophical workshops with groups of young people across New York City. She is also a published author and has worked as a writer and editor for numerous publications. In her free time Renae enjoys painting, hiking, traveling, and constantly learning new things. She is thrilled to be joining Chagrin Valley School community this
fall as the Director of the Outdoor Preschool Program and looks forward to a year of emergent adventures and serious play.

See our School Handbook for more information!

More Resources:

A wonderful inside look at life at a school like ours!

Another great video from Hudson Valley Sudbury School

A TedX talk by the founder of a democratic school in France

Free to Learn author Peter Gray gives a talk on the nature of learning from an evolutionary and psychological perspective, and the advantages of democratic and Sudbury type schools

A TedX talk by Jerry Mintz, a  leading voice in the alternative school movement for over 30 years

Why a democratic school? Why now? Here is a great video by Sir Ken Robinson explaining why the current education system is broken