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No compulsory courses, no exams, no sanctions… At La Cecilia, in Santa Fe, 500km north of Buenos Aires, students can stroll under the trees and not attend any classes. This Argentinean school, which has a hundred students, has been in existence for 23 years. Recognized by the State, it awards diplomas without regard to the dominant criteria in education.

« When a parent comes to enroll their son or daughter in school, I make it clear to them: your child could walk out of here in five years with their diploma under their arm, having spent their entire schooling sitting under a tree. » Every time Gines says this sentence, he smiles. Because the founder of the Cecilia, Gines del Castillo, knows that this will not be the case. That afternoon, around the small houses that make up the school, the majority of the students are actually outside. Some play the guitar, kick a ball, many chat. Here and there, classes are held. A daily life that has lasted for 23 years… 

« not to laugh is good ». 

« In the morning we arrive, take off our shoes, sit on the floor in the big room and have fifteen minutes of silence, » says Nuria, 15 years old, a student at Cecilia. « Right now silence is optional, so some people stay out. Then all return and we make a small assembly. Sometimes Gines talks about a theme, otherwise we are told the activities of the day. Then everyone chooses what they want to do. There are three modules and the teachers do their activities with those who want to attend. On Fridays there is the student assembly, which is mandatory because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to function well, some would be completely disconnected. ».

« It’s clear that when I first came here, I had a hard time getting used to it. It’s nothing like other schools. » Gian Luca is 16 years old and has been here for three years. His first year, he hardly followed anything. The following year he got used to it and started to follow the activities. At La Cecilia, classes are not mandatory for high school students. The basic principle is freedom. « From there, everything else builds, » Gines explains. « We want young people to be free now, and coming out of school, so that they can live their future life in freedom, as a personal decision. But for them to come out of school free, we see that it has to be practiced in school. » For this reason, Gines and his wife, Nancy, wanted to create a democratic school. This means that students are free, for example, to choose whether they go to activities and which activities they go to. 

Some students come from other schools with a difficult history in the school system. The great freedom they suddenly have is not always easy to manage. But the teaching team is confident, Gines first. « Since they come in tired from the subjects, the exams, they have a tendency to not want to do anything and to abandon all learning. But in general, it doesn’t last long. For teachers, the system is not always easy to manage either. Gines, the official director, because there has to be one, realizes this: « if students can choose what activities they go to, a teacher can be left without students. Today I was teaching a self-awareness session with two students, when I could have had twenty. Theweather was great, so naturally it felt like being in the sun. Recently, a new instruction has been put in place: « It’s okay to do nothing ». « It took a while for the students to understand that we were serious. They kept going to certain activities thinking there was a catch. Today, no. ». « Each student uses time as he or she needs it. For example, I spend a lot of time practicing my instrument « concludes Gian Luca. 

The freedom of Cecilia is played out on all levels. Some things are still mandatory, however, such as assemblies, tutoring time, classes related to health, sexuality, ecology… « But since there are no sanctions or bad grades that would make this freedom conditional, it’s more of a moral obligation, » Gines says. 

not a staNDarD student 

For the teaching team, the challenge is to find the balance between not compartmentalizing and not abandoning the students. Thus, for each class, activity or workshop, the teacher makes an attendance sheet. In this way, the educational team has a vision of each student’s pathway. If they see that a student is not attending almost any classes, or no classes at all in this or that subject, they will quietly try to find out why. While teachers will never force a student to participate, they will not hesitate to encourage it. « The teachers, they come by and they call out to me nicely: do you want to come and try today? And if I always tell them no, they don’t insist. But they often take the initiative to offer us « says Gian Luca. 

At Cecilia, there are no exams, no tests, no grades. This does not prevent Cecilia from being recognized by the Argentine State and from granting certified diplomas. Theoretically, they follow the official program. Paula arrived as a literature professor at Cecilia before she even graduated eight years ago. She had heard about the Cecilia and had gone to see on the site. Enthused, she met Gines… and entered the school. Today, she is the secondary school coordinator, so she is very much involved in the content. « What we do is we filter the official programs. Some things we take out because they don’t fit with our institutional project, others we add. We take the programs a little bit of a spin! ». There is no year-by-year program, but a five-year plan, with the idea of identifying what is most important or necessary for children to have as tools at the end of their schooling. « Each boy, each girl is going to flow between the contents in a different way. Some maybe won’t get to what I’ve placed at a certain level, some maybe will get that far, then back to another point.… We don’t think that everyone is the same and that there is a standard program that fits everyone. Every kid, depending on their background, is interested in different things and everyone is going to come out of school different. » 

Competencies in the seCoND plaN 

That the students acquire all the contents and skills provided in the official programs is far from being the primary objective of Gines, the soul of Cecilia. « We don’t promote academic learning so much. We’re interested in young people knowing themselves, their interests and their abilities. Our role is to help them get to know themselves and find out who they are and what they want to do. » When some people can’t accept the idea that students can do without math or language arts altogether, Gines’ response is direct: « No one is dedicated to everything on earth. And yet in every school it is considered absolutely necessary to master all subjects. Sometimes there are young people who are not good in math, but they are musicians. Some of the kids who came out of school are now directors, artists. Others are engineers. It’s not that we only value art. 

Gines, and the whole team in general, is aware that such an organization of learning and education raises doubts. But they know what their results are. « It sounds like it can’t work, but out of our school come kids who go to college if they want to. And sometimes these are kids who, when they came in, weren’t even thinking about finishing high school. » Aldana, for example, has been at Cecilia for a year. She came from a demanding school, where she had difficulty keeping up and fitting in. The idea was to come to the Cecila for a year to get up to speed and then continue on to the other school. « I went in and I liked it, I decided to stay. And in a few years, I’ll be preparing to enter Unified. » When students reach the fifth grade [dernière année du secondaire en Argentine]The educational team asks them if they want to study at the university. « If they say yes, we try to see what would interest them, we advise them and based on that, we prepare them, for example in mathematics if the student wants to be an engineer, » details Gines, himself an engineer by training. 

Several tools are there to teach students about themselves. The self-awareness class, among others, allows students to talk about whatever topics they feel like. Tutoring is also a space for students to know what they want and to understand their own behaviors. In general, the word is central to Cecilia. The teachers do not hesitate to stop and talk to the students. For Gines, discussing is entirely part of the education they offer: « In our school, we talk all day. Except at the beginning of the day when we stay in silence for 15 minutes to relax and get on the same page. The rest of the time, we talk, we communicate, in a constant back and forth. So when there’s a question, a problem or even if it’s just two people sitting on the grass, well, we converse. » 

The Friday student assembly is the official time for collective dialogue. But it is not uncommon for issues to arise that need to be addressed urgently. In these cases, a meeting is held with the student(s) concerned or with all students. Nancy explains their philosophy: « the fact that we don’t have disciplinary action means that there is some sort of commitment on their part as well. Because it’s a back and forth, when something happens, there’s no punishment, we just talk to them and they can understand. 

From the backyard of their house… 

Twenty-three years ago, when they started the school, Gines and Nancy never imagined that they would one day welcome 100 students. « The reason we started the school is Fernando, » explains co-founder Nancy. Fernando is their fourth son. « When he was born, we decided we weren’t going to send him to school. We were very critical of classical education, which represses and reproduces the culture without allowing for change. So one thing led to another and we came up with the idea of creating a school ourselves. Nancy and Gines joined forces with other like-minded parents. In 1991, they bought a piece of land in a semi-rural area, settled there and opened a kindergarten class… with two students. At the end of the year, they are fifteen. 

« One thing we were sure of, » Nancy recalls, « was what we didn’t want. And of the fact that we cared about the school being recognized.  » After a long mobilization, the province’s Ministry of Education recognized their legal status. Each new school year, another level is created, with Fernando at the head. Today, Fernando works at La Cecilia, teaching photography, computer and technology workshops, and he is also part of the school’s driving team. He’s not the only one who’s been there from the beginning. When Gines and Nancy created the school, Valeria, a young kindergarten teacher who had just graduated, also threw herself into the adventure. A different kind of school speaks to her. She soon abandoned the paper decorations and decorated the classroom with flowers from the garden. Today, she is still passionate, and still a teacher at the Cecilia. 

… to a free school 

« We had some funny goals, like creating a new culture, hence the name ‘New Culture School. But we continue to believe that a new culture will come from education. If we change people, society changes ».says Gines. In order to keep her freedom, Cecilia asks for a paid registration, in a country where education is free. If the members of the Cecilia remain clearly marginal in the Argentine education, several schools begin to come to draw some pedagogical or democratic elements from it to incorporate them in their own system. 

Cecilia is not really just a school. Gines is not afraid to assert their commitment. « We have a strong interest in social change. We believe that competition is not about people. That the human being is collaboration. And we try to analyze all this in social science classes, for example, not from an ideological point of view but from a human point of view. We are trying to undo this vision of the world that we are sold as normal.. At a micro level, they are very careful about competition within the school, which they openly consider a capitalist value that does not correspond to their vision of the human being: no report cards to compare, a person in charge of monitoring if competitiveness or aggressiveness arises when they play soccer… 

The adult team is passionate about educational issues. They all want to be in constant motion, not to be stuck in a model of education that would no longer evolve. For this reason, they do not have a written version of their pedagogy, « because it would be structuring us in something that (must) change all the time, » explains Fernando. « We’re always changing our organization, the transit itself of the school. Depending also on how the children react, what comes out of them. The core of the school itself does not change. Freedom, self-knowledge, understanding of the other, truth are values that are and remain central to Cecilia. But the actualization of these values on a day-to-day basis is constantly changing. 

Edith Wustefeld and Johan Verhoeven 

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