About Chagrin Valley School

Chagrin Valley School is for ages 5-18 years old and is held at the farm full-time Monday through Friday, September through May. The outdoor nature preschool is for ages 3-5 and is four days a week, Monday-Thursday. Both have continuous open enrollment depending on availability. Part-time attendance is also an option for the school for 3 or 4 days a week. Our school offers:

  • Self-directed learning
  • A four-day a week nature-based preschool
  • Democratic community decision making
  • Tutoring arrangements for any subject
  • Age-mixing which builds social skills
  • Field trips & special guest workshops
  • Entrepreneurial opportunities
  • Abundant free play time
  • Natural building & gardening
  • Connection with the natural world
  • 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 choose to take classes on any subject. They may also spend a good part of their day in free play. Or they might participate in student committees that plan activities & determine certain policies.

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.

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.

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, outdoor committee, building committee, etc.

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

Our Staff

Kelly Clark

School Staff

Kelly grew up spending her free time reading 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). She has been a science educator in many contexts, a museum, an elementary school, junior high, 3 different high schools (primarily) and UCSC. After reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she began to redirect her life toward relocalizing our food system through teaching and growing food. This led to her discovery of permaculture and purchasing the land that became Kelly’s Working Well Farm. The democratic school and self-directed learning educational models resonated strongly with Kelly and inspired her to start Chagrin Valley School at the farm.

Zoe Apisdorf

School Staff

Zoe, having grown up in Russel Township, a neighbor to Chagrin Falls, returned home in December of 2015 after spending three years on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. It was there that she further developed her interest in food as medicine and in working with children in a garden setting. Having farmed during the summer and fall seasons of her college years Zoe began to see how important it is to cultivate the local community around her, including the “natural” environment and the human environment. Zoe loves working with children and first developed this passion as a summer camp counselor for Falcon Camp. She believes children to naturally have  a sort of creativity and innovative imagination that is frequently lost as we age into adulthood and is looking forward to nurturing these qualities in the individuals that are joining the school and in those that she encounters in her everyday life. Zoe is a staff member of the school and also runs the outdoor preschool.

Ian Mungall

School Staff

Ian earned a BA in Communications from John Carroll University, focusing in marketing communications and graphic design. He worked for a Fortune 500 company as well as PBS/NPR before leaving Cleveland to explore the other side of the globe. 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 abroad, he continued to learn and explore through travel, farming, and natural health & meditation programs. He is happy to be back in Cleveland following his passions of sustainability, regenerative farming, education and empowering others. He loves helping the students, school & school community continue to grow and develop.

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.

See our Frequently Asked Questions 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