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Frederick Free School, free in every sense of the word

FREDERICK — In the tradition of other free schools that came before it, the Frederick Free School opened its doors in the fall and has been growing in teachers and students ever since.

The same person, in a lot of cases, doubles as a student and teacher.

And yes, the classes — primitive skills, cultural cooking, yoga, gardening, graphic design — are free. No strings attached.

“We mean free in every sense of the word,” said Watu Mwariama, who hosts movie nights on Wednesdays.

But it isn’t just about a free classes; it’s about a new paradigm, a network of sharing.

Dylan Petrohilos, a teacher and student at the school, says he believes the breakdown of community is what’s fundamentally wrong with society.

“To build a more solid community center, you have to have stronger … networks of support,” he said. “We don’t have the big social halls. … [The free school] is about building networks of trust and bonds in this postmodern world.”

Petrohilos teaches a Web design class, and while he admits he’s not a pro, “I’ve taken classes and done enough Web design to teach a class. … I think it’s important for people to be knowledgeable about that.”

Modeled after the Baltimore Free School, Frederick’s version offers classes that recur each week and others that are one-time workshops, depending on the material and interest.

“I’m thrilled with the response,” Mwariama said. “We broaden the concept of teaching.”

In Gary Staples’ Primitive Life Skills class, he’s talked about wild edibles, making pottery from clay (which he dug from the ground the morning of the class) and building shelters.

“It helps you with skills, with the way the economy is,” said Rob Fisher, a student in the class.

Instead of going to Walmart and buying a cup, people could come to the class and make one, Staples said. Instead of buying a tomato, take Fisher’s gardening class, “instead of being dependent on people we don’t trust. Education is a community resource.”

For the gardening class, Fisher will use a plot in the Frederick News-Post community garden as a classroom, although most classes are held in Kemp Hall building at 4 E. Church St., Frederick.

Planned courses run the gamut: sailing, creative writing, knitting, cultural impact discussion, locksmithing, foraging, energy for transportation, upholstery, graphic design, screen-printing, yoga and cultural cooking.

“We all have a million skills,” Petrohilos said.

“This should be a really useful resource for the community,” Fisher said. “People can share their knowledge. Mechanics are kind of expensive.”

“When people hear ‘school,’ they automatically think they have to pay. Or we tell them it’s free and they said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and walk away,” Fisher continued. “Education is as free as having a conversation.”