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Natural Awakenings

Democracy in Action: Educating Students to Think, Create, Initiate

Aug 01, 2010 05:01AM ● By Lisa Marshall


Is a more democratic model of schooling the answer to today’s education crisis?


Ask Isaac Graves what seventh grade was like at The Free School in Albany, New York, and he paints a picture that would seem like a dream to many conventional middle schoolers—and a nightmare to their administrators. There were no tests, no homework and almost no schedules.

On a typical day, students of all ages would scatter around the refurbished inner-city tenement at will, some spontaneously engaging in a game of Dungeons and Dragons in one room, while others planned a trip to Puerto Rico, learned Spanish from a fellow student or designed a literary magazine on the computer. At weekly, democratic, all-school meetings, they voted on everything from what optional classes the school should offer to what color to paint the walls; not once were they asked to fill in small circles with a number 2 pencil to prove they were learning something.

“We were, at a very young age, in control of our education,” recalls Graves, a remarkably astute 23-year-old who now lives in Oregon and works as an event planner. “I had to figure out what I liked, what my passions were, and how to access information in a variety of ways. I had to interact with adults in a real way—not just as authority figures. I had to learn how to learn.”

To many, the notion of a school without schedules―where kids and adults have equal say and “test” is almost a dirty word―seems utterly unworkable in our present society, where education funding is increasingly tied to student academic performance. But 40 years after the birth of The Free School, and the 1960s “democratic education” movement that inspired it, the nearly defunct philosophy appears to be making a comeback.

In May, a group of educators founded the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), which, through town meetings, social networking and online education, aims to help teachers infuse more student choice into what they see as an autocratic K-12 public school system. Meanwhile, new, private democratic schools have opened in Seattle, Portland, New York City, Denver and elsewhere, bringing the number to 85, according to the nonprofit Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). In all, its online directory has swelled to 12,000 options, including those affiliated with Montessori, Waldorf, Democratic and other methods which, while they differ in curriculum, all share a dedication to a learner-centered approach.

By contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of kids enrolled in an assigned public school dipped from 80 percent in 1993 to 73 percent in 2007. “We are at a crucial point,” says Jerry Mintz, who founded AERO in 1989. “Everybody knows there is something wrong with the current educational system, and people are now starting to realize they have choices.”

Old Factory Model of Schooling

When parents step into many public school classrooms today, they find neat rows of desks occupied by children, while a teacher in the front of the room presents a lesson. When the bell rings, students file into another room, where the same scene plays out again. That structure, according to education historians, is no accident.

With the Industrial Revolution underway in the 1800s and waves of families moving from rural settings (where life followed a seasonal rhythm) to cities, education pioneers faced a formidable task. “Civic leaders realized that people were not well prepared for this new lifestyle of working in a factory,” explains Ron Miller, Ph.D., a widely published education historian.

“Public education was designed with the idea that people had to learn how to follow a set schedule, follow orders and come up with a product in the end. The day was broken up into time periods with a bell, because that was what factory work entailed.” Miller observes that the system served its purpose well. “The U.S. became a tremendously productive industrial society.”

But by the 1960s, some critics began to point to what they saw as a glaring hypocrisy: America claimed to be a democratic society, yet our youngest citizens were given no voice. In 1968, a group of parents in Sudbury, Massachusetts, founded the Sudbury Valley School, a K-12 learning center where adults were literally prohibited from initiating activities while kids chose what to do, where and when ( One year later, a homeschooling mom named Mary Leue opened The Free School in Albany ( By the 1970s as many as 800 democratic schools were in operation. While pioneering models like Sudbury Valley and The Free School have survived and flourished, Miller says the larger movement became usurped by the 1980s trend toward more standardization, with most democratic schools shutting their doors.

Now, growing discontent over standardization has inspired a revival.

“The public school system tends to operate under the paradigm that kids are naturally lazy and need to be forced to learn, so they need homework and testing to be motivated,” says Mintz. “Advocates of democratic education and other learner-centered approaches believe that children have a natural passion for learning and are good judges of what they need to learn. Our job as educators is to provide them resources.”

Renewed Democracy in Action

Rebirth of the democratic school movement can be credited in part to Alan Berger, an idealistic New York teacher who, after reading an article about the 1960s Free School movement in 2002, was inspired to open the Brooklyn Free School in the basement of a small church. Today, the school is thriving, with a diverse student body of 60, a new five-story brownstone to call home, and a sliding scale that lets children of all economic backgrounds participate in an education they largely create themselves.

On a typical morning, students gather in the music room for impromptu Beatles jam sessions, do yoga in the hallway, scrawl art across a designated wall, or curl up with a book in the well-stocked library. Some attend optional math and writing classes. For others, the year’s lesson plan evolves more organically out of a larger goal. For example, in preparation for a school trip to Tanzania, some students studied Swahili, African cuisine and the region’s history.

“There are just so many things that I love here,” raves student Erin Huang Schaffer in a new documentary about the school called The Good, The True and The Beautiful. “I love making art, and drawing, and I’ve started making stories… I’m just finding out so much about the world.”

Thousands of miles away, at a new democratic preschool called The Patchwork School, in Louisville, Colorado, the same principles apply to even the youngest learners. On a recent day, a group of 5-year-olds held a vote and elected to spend the morning crafting miniature cardboard cities. Then their instructor, a precocious 5-year-old named Evan, led the way to the workroom, passing out paints, scissors, Popsicle sticks and glue as an adult watched quietly nearby.

“Everyone here has a voice,” affirms Patchwork co-founder Elizabeth Baker, who was homeschooled in a democratic fashion herself. “If we can validate who they are as people now, they can go out into the world with confidence that their thoughts and opinions count.”

But, will they be prepared for that world?

Will children, given the freedom, choose to learn basic skills like reading and math? What will this revolutionary breed of students have to show a college entrance board if they have no test scores? And how will kids schooled with little structure and no hierarchy thrive in a professional world with so much of it? Skeptics abound, and they have pounced on such questions.

Meanwhile, informal surveys of democratic school graduates have yielded mixed answers.

For his new book, Lives of Passion; School of Hope, Rick Posner, Ph.D., surveyed 431 alumni from the democratic Jefferson County Open School in Denver (one of the oldest public alternative schools in the country) and found that 91 percent went to college, 85 percent completed degreed programs and 25 percent earned graduate degrees. Many lauded their K-12 education there: “Because of the school, I am much less influenced by the need to conform and I’m not afraid to take risks,” said Adelle, a 1986 graduate who went on to become a project manager for an entertainment company.

Other comments were less glowing: “I found that I had to scramble to catch up with my peers; the school failed to provide me with even the most basic mathematical skills,” said Mary, a 1991 graduate. Kristin, from the class of 1997 added, “When I was applying to colleges, I wished that I had some documentation other than self-assessment; I think this hurt me.”

But still other democratic alumni contend that the struggle is only temporary and—in hindsight—well worth it.

Meghan Carrico, 47, attended a democratic school in North Vancouver from age 8 to 13. She told Natural Awakenings she did fine academically when she transitioned to mainstream public high school but found it “boring and socially barren” with teachers who didn’t appreciate her tendency to question authority and venture beyond the status quo. She dropped out in 11th grade, then dropped out of a community college for many of the same reasons.

“If I contradicted the professor, I got a bad grade,” she recalls. Ultimately, Carrico made her way to the highly progressive Antioch College in Ohio (one of 815 colleges now willing to consider students with no high school test scores) where she ended up with a master’s degree in leadership and training. She also landed a job that she loves teaching in a democratic school.

While Carrico relates that her own early schooling may not have prepared her to fit in to a mainstream classroom or top-down workplace, it absolutely prepared her for a changing world in which factory jobs are dwindling and people must think outside the box.“People who are really successful in the world today are not waiting around to be told what to do,” she comments. Instead, “they are actively creating social networks and seeking out knowledge on their own; these are the very things they learn from kindergarten on in democratic schools.”

College success and career paths aside, Miller believes the best way to determine if democratic education is working is to pay a visit to a school and ask the question: “Are they excited about school or not?”

On a recent May afternoon at Colorado’s Jefferson County Open School, students lounged on puffy couches or sat on the steps with their principal, whom they casually called Wendy. The school year was officially over and warm weather beckoned, but they were in no rush to leave.

To Anna Reihmann, 17, a graduating senior who has attended there since pre-school, excelled academically and is headed to college next year, it was a particularly bittersweet day. “I have learned so much about who I am as a person here. It has always felt like home,” she said that day. Then she uttered the three words that many parents and teachers say that they don’t hear often enough from students these days: “I love school.”

Lisa Marshall is a freelance writer in Lyons, CO. Contact her at [email protected].

Helpful Resources

"Montessori really is a 'no child left behind' teaching philosophy. If you are ready to keep moving, you keep moving. If you aren't, you can stay on task until you get it."

- Tanya Stutzman, whose six children have attended Montessori Schools in Sarasota, Florida

"The reading, writing and academics all come out eventually, as day-to-day living required that they learn them."

-Wonshe, who "unschooled" both of her sons in rural Virginia

Waldorf understands that there are many ways for a child to epress oneself - not just through words and academics, but also through creativity.

- Patrice Maynerd, who enrolled her son in Waldorf education at age 3.


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