Starting a Free School - Seattle

Series from the Seattle Free School blog.

Some time ago I posted that I would be writing up my experiences about starting a free school and posting them here. Due to time constraints this simply hasn’t happened yet, but as more and more people contact us about starting a free school in their community (how exciting is that?!) I wanted to post some information here. Tara from the Dallas Fort Worth area was one of the first people to contact us with a request for information. Her letter and my response is posted here.

Much of this is my (Jessica) personal opinion and experience. I’d love it if others from other free schools would jump in and discuss this from your end since we all operate so differently.

Tara’s Letter:
I’m in Texas and just found out about your group. I’m interested in starting something like it in my area. Is there any information or advice you could provide on how you find classroom space, cover the costs of flyers and other basic materials, etc.? Thanks!

My long winded response:
Gosh, there’s a lot to talk about.

The first thing to know is that we operate very differently from other Free Schools (if you google you’ll see the list on wikipedia). The main difference is that we’re not politically affiliated and we don’t take cash donations ever from anyone… so it’s a completely volunteer effort. To be honest I think these things have helped us get a ton of press that we wouldn’t have received otherwise and it’s also more inclusive of course by leaving it open to anyone of any political affiliation. The other schools are of course open to all, but getting folks of different political ideologies to come to an “anarchist” school might be more difficult.

On the fund raising front we could have raised funds but again, I think we get a lot more press (and thus more people knowing about the school) because we don’t and that makes us more interesting. Plus, to be frank, the idea of spending my time raising money isn’t something I wanted to do. It would have taken a ton of time away from writing press releases and teaching classes.

As for classroom space we started here in the public libraries as most have meeting rooms that are free to use if you’re not selling anything, are open to anyone and everyone, etc… basically all the things we want in classes too so it worked out well. We put out on the website that we were looking for other places to have classes and when we talked to the press we talked about how we hoped to partner with other nonprofits to use their spaces as a win win type of situation as it brings our people to their space and gets more awareness for them. It’s also part of our decision not to take donations as we’d rather people give money to orgs that help us out then us having to go out and do it and take money out of the pool so to speak.

We’re able to have free website space from google and have been using their email program as well. We’ve run into a problem with their email as you can’t send messages to more then 500 people in a day. We’re currently working on a list serve and have friends that have helped us out (just from our “we need help” part of the website and from other people we know) both to host our eventual good website and our listserve as well as a ftp site for documents. I can talk to you more about this later, but basically our website has cost us $10 at the moment and other people are donating the rest… from stuff they already had anyway.

As for flyers we don’t do ANY professional printing as it costs a fortune. We make basic flyers and have people print them out at home… the people on our email list. We send them out with our weekly email or now as we’ve grown we’ve moved to having “flyer hangers” specifically for it. Silly for us to drive all over the place and hang flyers when other people are already in the neighborhood. Of course at first we did this a bit, mainly in areas that were local to us. From there we grew up enough to not have to do it so much.

As far as basic materials teachers provide that. So my cheese making class for example. I bring the milk and everything else and make the cheese. The difference is that people don’t get samples, I take it home and eat it myself. No one seems to mind this, after all they aren’t paying for anything. And then I teach classes when I need to make cheese or have something to do with it. The same is true of knitting classes or whatever else. Students bring their own supplies and teachers bring their own supplies and no one is expected to give away anything.

In general we don’t have handouts in classes since much of it can be written up on a whiteboard and then written down by students. Occasionally we’ll have something but it’s always small and doesn’t require any expensive printing.

Basically it does cost something to run this, more because I’ve donated all the soap I’m making to shelters (or will be) but if it weren’t for that it would cost very little. For me it’s the difference of giving away money to another org or spending <$100 a year on the basic stuff I need to run this thing. We also have some groups affiliated with the local college that have printing abilities thanks to what the college provides for them. If they aren’t using what they have then they give it to us.

SFS is really a huge testament to thinking outside the box and we had tons of folks telling us we couldn’t do it the way we’re doing it. But again, I honestly think that we’re as successful as we are because we didn’t heed that “advice”. If whatever you’re thinking about doing costs a ton of money then don’t do it, you can find another way to do the same type of thing for free or very cheap.

If you decide to move forward with this please feel free to email me with your thoughts and concerns. I’m more then willing to help out as I can (from here!)


How did you start?
Basically just start. Without money there doesn’t need to be a grand scheme of how things will work. You’ll figure out things as you go based on what will work for your community.

How long were the planning stages?
Virtually nonexistent. Basically I tried to figure out if there was a free school in Seattle already, met with someone and got going. Creating a poor but functional website and setting up an email address were the first steps. Once that was done “spamming” friends, neighbors and coworkers and anyone else on my email list was next. From there I scheduled the first class (you’ll probably need to step up and teach a number of classes to get the thing rolling… people are much more confident about teaching if they aren’t teaching the very first class… but who knows you might find someone that is ready for that in your community) and sent out press releases. These releases were poorly written by me and certainly not professional. Basically I went around finding free papers, picking up a copy and including email addresses from these folks into a “press” group. Pretty simple really.

Other then that things happened as they happened. With no money to raise, no board to answer to and no metrics required to prove our success things happen when they do. Do things in a way that makes logical sense to you. For me, being a computer worker in a town of computer users the website and email was most important. It could be that having classes is the way to start depending on the size and needs of your community. Eventually people will want someplace to look to find out more and thus a website is a good thing to have early on.

And, how did you gain community support?
Social networking basically. I emailed my friends and begged them to pass it along. We use facebook and other tools to spread the word. Newspapers picked up on it and we got a ton of press early on (most likely because we don’t operate with any donations). We hung flyers around and that helped spread the word. We also looked at other places to post, like craigslist, etc and pushed out the word there. Basically things grew organically and at a steady pace. The only time we had a serious jump in involvement was when we made the front page of the local section of the Sunday Seattle Times. Our enrollment in our email list bumped up over 100 people in less then 24 hours thanks to that press.

I was wondering if you had any advice for somebody trying to start such a school in their community?
There are a ton of considerations to think about… will you take money, will you be politically affiliated? The biggest thing to think about for me was that I didn’t like the idea of raising money for something that wasn’t even in operation. Something about that just felt wrong to me. The idea of simply doing without seemed far more exciting then the idea of raising money, becoming a 501c org, registering with the government, etc etc. In reality raising money actually costs money most of the time because it takes a lot more time and energy and thus often requires a paid position. Plus, for those of us involved the idea of not raising money made Seattle Free School a fun challenge and a great learning experience. Most of us have or had worked in some capacity for a regular nonprofit. We know how raising money works or how it doesn’t. What we weren’t sure about is if it could be done without money. Turns out it can, definitely, and perhaps with greater success then if we would have gone the other way.

Politics for us was something that we left out to be as all inclusive as possible. While we all personally have our thoughts on politics there was no reason to limit people based on that idea. It could of course be said that people who chose not to come to a class because the politics are self limiting and yet we all have been in situations where we might not want to affiliate with a specific group even if a presentation seems attractive. In this case the message is sent just as well by sticking strictly to the mission of the free school, sharing information and doing it for free. For many this is a radical idea in and of itself. And for many this is simply the way things have been done for ages. That’s the beauty of it… it can appeal to everyone so why not keep it as open and inclusive as possible?

How many people do you have helping to coordinate the free school as far as volunteers go?
I do most of the running of the school on the administrative end… posting classes, updating the blog, sending emails etc. Of course every teacher is a volunteer and they all help flyer for their classes at least. Dani is also a founder and helps with posting on other sites (craigslist etc) as well as helping with events etc. We’ve tried to be very inclusive of volunteers but so far it’s been difficult to find a good way to split responsibilities that doesn’t just wind up creating more confusion and work. Also, since I spend quite a bit of time on the computer for several of my jobs it just makes sense for me to be answering emails and doing whatever computer work is necessary. Eventually I’m thinking we’ll need to split things up among a larger group as I think about heading out to other adventures but how to best go about that in a way that makes good, clean, logical sense and doesn’t make us all nuts trying to figure out what’s going on has been tricky thus far.

How do you manage without any money?
I think the better way to think about this is to ask what you need money for? Space can be found for free at libraries, local community centers, other nonprofits, etc. It takes work to find these places but many of them know that in this economy having people come and learn about them while they’re learning about other things is very beneficial. Start small on this. I spent way too much time trying to find space that so far we haven’t really needed. The library and one other location actually serve our needs well. The occasional coffee shop rounds out our space requirements for now. We’ll have more need in the future (I’d hope!) but that can happen when it’s necessary rather then in advance.

You can print out a few on your printer. You can bug your friends and family and others to print out a few of these. Printing out 5 flyers in black and white costs virtually nothing for anyone so why raise a bunch of money for this when you can do relatively well for a few pennies from various people in your network? Plus since these people are probably distributed around town you solve the problem of having to get flyers to people to hang.

Haven’t needed it despite being told that we would. The more you spend on marketing the more people will know about you quickly and the more you’ll struggle to keep up with the growth. Growing slow has huge benefits if you don’t have deep pockets to hire developers and others to help you.

My friend in Paris is hosting the site for free. That being said there were plenty of people that were willing to host a website. While you’re still running a free site (from googlepages or one of the other free website places) this is irrelevant but eventually you may want another better site. This only became important as we got bigger. All this being said there have been several community members who have offered hosting space. We’ve also received lots of free tech help from folks in the community. There’s a ton of open source people here (and everywhere) and most of them love the idea of a free school. Finding help is easier then you might think.

As for the website design our local community college came to us and asked to do the new website design. Amazing really. There are other resources but most likely you have someone that could design a site for you for free. Don’t do this right away… struggle with a free ugly product for a while. You’ll learn more about what you want and don’t want and be able to request what you need when the time comes for something better.

I’m not sure what else you’d need money for…. people can bring their own supplies to classes and sometimes instructors will bring their extras (what knitter doesn’t have a bunch of yarn they aren’t really going to use?)

Some of these things cost a bit of money from me but its way easier to spend $100 a year or so then raise money so I don’t have to spend this personal cash. The only real cost that I can think of that is directly Seattle Free School is the $10 domain registration fee. Really that’s about it as for legit costs.