What is a Democratic-Free School?

When most people think of a “school”, particularly a school for young people, the image of kids sitting behind desks with a teacher at the front leading the class (as the “sage on the stage” as they say) generally comes to mind. Somewhere down the hall from this and other classrooms is an “office” including administrative staff and particularly the school principal who runs the school, including giving marching orders to and evaluating the teachers, and dealing with student disciplinary issues that are referred to them by the teachers.

The “governance model” is presumed to be completely hierarchical. Students at the bottom of the hierarchy get their lectures, assignments, evaluation, administrative and disciplinary rules from their teacher(s). Teachers are supervised and evaluated by their school principal. The principal acts as a conduit for the educational mandates on curriculum and pedagogy from the district, which is basically implementing the curricular and pedagogical standards set by the real school decision-makers, the state legislature, through the auspices of the state board of education and other related state bodies.

What is important for people to know is that there are at least two other very different models for schools existing in the real world, that are beyond the conventional imagining of most people. The better known (and more numerous) of these other models is what are often referred to as “holistic schools”, which look more at educating the “whole person” beyond compartmentalized academic subjects, and are generally based on the ideas of a visionary educator like Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, or John Dewey. Though elements of their educational philosophies have worked their way into conventional U.S. schools, it is an interesting discussion for another time why most conventional schools in the U.S. do not fully embrace the educational visions of these great thinkers.

The road least taken (and perhaps qualifying as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of school models), are schools that include students in the schools’ governance and allow those students to completely direct their own learning. Such schools are often referred to as “democratic-free” schools, and though rare, can be found in many parts of the U.S. and in countries around the world. Though highly unorthodox they are anecdotally judged effective by most who have studied them, but the very nature of an educational content and process that can be different for every student and is not externally dictated, makes them difficult if not impossible to measure by any standard school evaluation metrics.

Here is my best shot at an overview of this democratic-free school model.

Roots of Democratic-Free Schools

The ideas of “non-coercive” and “learner-led” schools have roots in the educational philosophy of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909), and American educators Homer Lane (1875-1925) and John Holt (1923-1985).

Ferrer, who was an anarchist, founded his “Escuela Moderna” (The Modern School) in 1901 in Barcelona. The school’s stated goal was to “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting”, but also hoped to train leaders for an upcoming revolution, so the curriculum probably was closer to the contemporary concept of Critical Pedagogy than being completely “free” (decided by the individual student). High tuition fees restricted attendance at the school to wealthier middle class students, and the school closed in 1906 when Ferrer was arrested for suspicion of involvement in an assassination attempt on the Spanish king. After finally being exonerated and released from jail a year later, Ferrer wrote and published a treatise on his school and educational philosophy before being arrested and summarily executed in 1909 (without a trial) after martial law was declared in Spain. After his death, his writings inspired several “Modern Schools” in America, most notably one opened in 1911 in New York City by a group including American anarchist Emma Goldman, a school with a number of famous students and staff.

Homer Lane also picked up the torch for non-coercive education initially working as a social worker with youth in Detroit who had run afoul of the law. Lane started several schools in America and later England based on the philosophy laid out in his book, Talks to Parents and Teachers

The relationship between teacher and child should be pure democracy – the child should not be on the defensive, but should be free to ask all questions… self-government must be given, both in the team play of games and still more in team play made possible for work… We must give responsibility for, say, history and get the class to discuss the syllabus and the allotment of time to the part of it, and to assume responsibility for getting through it. (page 109)

Lane is particularly important in this narrative because he was the chief mentor of English educator A.S. Neill, who founded perhaps the most well know democratic-free school in the world, Summerhill, in 1921 in Suffolk county England. Ninety years later the school continues to be open, surviving some rough patches when the British government made moves to shut it down.

Summerhill was the prototype for other contemporary democratic-free schools, including America’s most notable, the Sudbury Valley school in Framingham Massachusetts, opened in 1968 and still going strong today. Founded by Daniel Greenberg and others, it in turn has inspired other similar schools around the U.S and in other countries as well.

A key justification for a “free” learner-driven curriculum was given by American teacher John Holt in his most popular books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, based on his unique opportunity to observe students’ learning process (during his years as a team teacher where he spent extensive time observing his teaching partner’s class). According to the Wikipedia piece on Holt…

He held that the primary reason children did not learn in schools was fear: fear of getting the wrong answers, fear of being ridiculed by the teacher and classmates, fear of not being good enough. He maintained that this was made worse by children being forced to study things that they were not necessarily interested in.

Main Features: Curriculum, Pedagogy & Governance

I generally see a school model in terms of these three aspects, essentially what is being learned, how it is being learned, and who is making the decisions on what and how and managing the other aspects of the school as a functioning entity. Again in the conventional conception of a school, curriculum is predetermined by some “higher authority” and presented to the students by a teacher in a classroom through some form or another of instructional pedagogy. The school governance is assumed to be hierarchical like a factory where the principals are the “bosses”, the teachers are the “workers”, and the students are the “product”. The unionization of many teachers reinforces that assumption because it frames teachers as “labor” and the principals and administrators above them as “management”.

But in a typical democratic-free school the components of curriculum, pedagogy and governance are constituted quite differently, and are laid out below…

* The role of adult school staff: As long as the students do no harm to others, they can for the most part do whatever they want with their time in school. The adults that staff the school (which depending on the school may or may not be referred to as “teachers”) are there to facilitate keeping this basic freedom in place and are available to the students to assist as needed. Beyond this, the adult staff and the students are both involved in running the school to the extent of their ability and interest, usually by the forming of committees and bringing the most important decisions to a general school meeting.

* Access to school resources: Students are free to spend their time however they wish and access all the educational resources – library, lab, kitchen, nature, and adult staff – available in the school. Where improper use of certain equipment or venues can be dangerous (or cause damage), students generally have to pass some sort of minimum certification (agreed to by the community) for using that equipment or venue.

* De-emphasis of classes: The classroom is no longer seen as the focal point of the educational process. Depending on the school’s particular rules of engagement between the adult staff and the students, the adult staff may suggest or even initiate classes (which students may choose to attend); but at others, like Sudbury Valley, adult staff can only respond to a request by one or more students to start a class.

* Age mixing: Students are generally not separated into age-groups and allowed to mix freely, interacting with those younger and older than themselves. This is considered much more natural than the conventional school age segregation and promotes opportunities for informal mentoring between older and younger students providing real opportunities to learn from others and/or be of value to others, and all the opportunities that presents for enhancing ones own self-esteem and self-image.

* Governance & administration: The school is run by the democratic process with all the students and adult staff as participants with an equal voice and vote. There is generally a regular all-school meeting where the most important issues are addressed and resolved. Other administrative functions are handled by committees, again including both adults and students. A key aspect of the curriculum and pedagogy is learning democracy by experience, including experiencing the rights, responsibilities and consequences as fully functioning individuals within a community.

* Hiring and firing staff: In some democratic-free schools, like Sudbury Valley, the students and current staff hire and fire staff through the school meeting. In other schools this function is performed by the adult staff only.

* Order and discipline: School rules and regulations are generally made at the school meeting. All students and adult staff are equally and personally responsible for how they conduct themselves and interact with others in the school community. Every school has some sort of agreed process for students or staff to bring alleged rule infractions or other wrongs to the general meeting or some sort of “justice committee” for adjudication and assignment of any disciplinary action. These processes can even rise to the level of a school meeting deciding to expel a student. Again, a key aspect of the learning is participation in the maintenance of order and discipline and dispensing justice as part of a “jury of peers”.

* Evaluation: Students are generally not assessed, evaluated, graded or otherwise compared with one another, but of course can ask fellow students or staff for feedback on how they are doing. The assumption is the primacy of self-assessment for a self-directed learner.

* Graduation: There is generally some form of graduation and/or diploma available to students who wish for such, or feel the need for such a document for their further education or future job applications. The process differs from school to school but can involve presenting your “case” for graduation to the school meeting or to some sort of duly constituted “jury” for adjudication.

In summary, the curriculum is completely in the hands of the individual student. The pedagogy is one based on self-direction, plus the real experiences one has fully participating in all aspects of a democratically run community. The governance model is intended to mirror that of the adult society the students will be participating in.

Pros & Cons vs Other School Models

The arguments for democratic-free schools are based on their compatibility with a larger democratic society as well as the natural human learning process, and include…

* Allowing young people free rein to explore and focus on developing their unique talents to the fullest (particular if those talents fall outside the mandated academic learning in conventional schools) without the distraction of external learning mandates

* Providing young people the opportunity at a much earlier age to be fully functional people participating in a “real” community that includes both youth and adults

* Giving young people the opportunity to “learn by doing” to be active and effective citizens in a democratic country where active political participation is critical to the maintenance of a democracy, but has tended to wane in recent decades

* Enabling a community that includes some democratic-free schools to have a fuller spectrum of educational choices (along with conventional and “holistic” schools) to provide to families within that community

* Establishing an educational venue that, based on its use of democratic process, can continually adapt and evolve to meet the continuing needs of its students, their families and the larger community

* Creating an educational venue that is ethically consistent with acknowledging young people as full human beings with inherent worth and dignity comparable to adults, as those rights were laid out in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The arguments against democratic-free schools are generally based on the model’s incompatibility with educational standardization, plus conventional expectations and assumptions that most young people are not yet capable of directing important aspects of their own lives. Those arguments include…

* That young people do not inherently know what is best for them developmentally and need to be directed in their development by more mature members of their larger community

* That students will take their liberty as license to waste their time on activities like socializing or playing video games and not properly prepare themselves for college, jobs and other aspects of adult life

* That subjecting teachers and adult school staff to student feedback and participation in school governance dishonors and disrespects those adults as elders and proper authority figures

* That not subjecting young people to external and at times what may seem like arbitrary authority will not properly prepare them to abide by such authority in real work situations they are likely to encounter as adults

* That democratic-free schools cannot be judged on conventional school assessment metrics based on student knowledge of standardized curriculum and therefore cannot pass muster as U.S. public schools.

Advocacy & Support

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about democratic-free schools, including finding one locally to enroll a young person, or even starting one, I’m aware of at least two organizations in the U.S. that are focused on supporting this educational model…

* The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) was founded in 1989 by longtime democratic educator Jerry Mintz. AERO promotes democratic-free schools, and provides support and networking for people trying to start or manage such schools. It maintains a list of such schools in the United States and around the world. It offers consulting on democratic school process, school starter classes, and mounts a yearly national conference drawing democratic educators and advocates from around the country and from other countries as well. Attending one of their usually four-day conferences would be a great way to introduce yourself to this educational model and some of its key practitioners.

* The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) was founded in 2009 inspired by longtime Israeli democratic educator Yaacov Hecht. Its staff represents a younger generation of democratic education activists, and the organization provides an online community, consulting, advocacy, and a clearinghouse for innovative programs and resources that support democratic education. I had the privilege of participating in some of the early discussions and meetings with founder Dana Benis and other leaders of the organization that led up to its launch.

Click here to see my additional writing on “From Schooling to Human Development”.

Click here to see my additional writing on “From One Size Fits All to Education Alternatives”.

26 replies on “What is a Democratic-Free School?”

  1. I had no idea that there was a democratic free school model. I was a product of public school all the way through to graduate school. I did poorly until I got to Junior College where I started to enjoy reading and learning. I liked the way I was treated as an independent guy who didn’t need to be manipulated into compliance. The opportunity was mine to do with what I wanted.

    My oldest kid made it through high school and is now attending Junior College, my son is a Freshman in High School. They both have had numerous run-ins with school administration. I think there are many factors, school structure being one of them. I have tried to take responsibility for the factors I am involved in but when it comes to the school side I usually take the stance that, yes it sounds like that was unfair, yes it sounds like that teacher hasn’t seen the changes you are clearly animating, but this is just something you have to accept and learn skills to cope with. Then I usually ad a piece about working and crappy bosses. What a dreary way to bring up kids in the industrial machine society in which we live.

    Your writing and passion are great. Keep it up. I don’t get a chance to drop by much but I think what you are doing is great. It helps me feel like there are other parents living outside blind acceptance of the systems and assumptions that dominate our day to day existence.

  2. Bob… thanks for your comment. It made my day and even my week! I can tell some folks read my blog but I get very few comments, so I really appreciate them, particularly ones like yours.

    What I noticed with my own kids, who are now young adults (ages 25 & 22), is that when I got them off that programmed path of ingrained “systems and assumptions”, that they really stopped having to be in defensive/rebellion mode and could really blossom as who they uniquely were, with the understanding that no one else (that mattered) was going to tell them how to lead their lives anymore, along with what to do where, when and how.

    Unfortunately, the dem-free schools are still rare, and you can imagine why, I’m sure. Maybe if your kids become parents themselves some day their kids will have these sorts of options for an educational environment.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. How can you promote failure as a positive and realistic learning event – when in the democratic schools you do not evaluate students? Makes no sense. There is no failure if there is no evaluation.

  4. Connie… Great question!… In democratic-free schools kids are involved in trying to run the school plus pursuing their own curriculum. All such self-directed activities naturally involve success and failure like everyone encounters in real life. Human beings are naturally self-evaluating when not constantly evaluated by others.

  5. Connie’s question seems grounded in the assumption that the only (or only important) evaluation comes from without. In my experience as a student at a college with no grades in which students did self-evaluation (and got feedback from faculty), I learned that it’s quite possible to work hard from intrinsic motivation. The mentorship I received from teachers was an important, indeed vital, part of the process, but the feedback was primarily formative (long before formative v. summative feedback was part of educational jargon).

    I wish I’d had the chance to go through K-12 in a democratic-free school: the longer you spend in typical, extrinsically-controlled and controlling schools, the more work you have to do to escape the damage such schools do, I’m afraid. I still struggle with conflicts that go back to my K-12 days when it comes to work habits, and they were lurking when I went to graduate school, back to the traditional grades and credits model. The educational experiences I look back on with the greatest fondness, however, came at a place where students played a major role in decisions about the place we lived and worked and where we had enormous say in the nature of the schoolwork, too.

  6. I think this is an excellent article that covers the Free school model from all angles. Kudos to the author. I run a program in NYC called Music House, an alternative to traditional music lessons that functions according to this model. If you would like to check it out: nycmusichouse.org

    Keep up the great work!

  7. Bob Guyer’s comment is really the pivotal difference between our current system and why the democratic-free school model is the only honest one:

    “What a dreary way to bring up kids in the industrial machine society in which we live.”

    As I read the comments and concerns of people regarding democratic free schools, I can pick out a common thread: Fear.

    “If my kids can think for themselves, how will they get a scholarship, go to college or get a job?”

    Think about that for a minute, or two or three.

    How many people went through the motions and are doing what they feel they must, calling it “duty,” and feeling jealous of the people we see who are doing what they want?

    If liberty and democracy are social goods, then why do we raise our kids in dictatorships, then kick them out into the “real world” at 18 and tell them they must now be fully functioning citizens?

    Why not start from the beginning, allowing children – who are not clean slates – to express their interests, try them out and see how much more they want to do?

    Kids in democratic free schools learn critical thinking skills every day because they must learn how to interact with each other and not let their society devolve into “Lord of the Flies.” The tool for this is called “Judicial Committee” or “JC.” This is where students present their concerns about the behavior of others, the “accused” gets his or her say, and their peers – their real peers – decide how best to correct the problem, not just punish wrongdoers. Because each student has a turn at sitting on the JC, they learn compassion for the accused, but learn also that being “soft on crime” just means that more trouble will come later.

    Who will make better citizens: Children who have had the chance to think for themselves, direct their own learning, discover what more they need to know and who learn how to work together to make a harmonious society, or those who sit in rows, are told what to think and how to think it and have nervous fits the night before the next high-stakes test?

    I recommend visiting the site of The New School of Newark, DE for more information about why democratic free schools work. Pay particular attention to the students’ theses that they presented to the school community to demonstrate why they believed they were ready to move into adult society. (You will need to go to the search page and type in “thesis”) In other works, please try some original research rather than just accepting what someone else has told you.

    Sorry if I seem a little impatient, but I have a difficult time with the idea that we need to keep our public schools going rather than being honest and abandoning the failed system completely. How can I be so bold as to say that the system has failed? Two reasons: We are so poorly educated in how to participate effectively as citizens that we continue to elect hooligans and kleptocrats to our positions of government, and we are so poorly educated in how to participate effectively in the economy that we allow corporations to have more rights than do flesh-and-blood human beings.

    If you disagree, then we should discuss it, just like they would do at a democratic free school.

    In fact, this blog itself is proof of the value of democratic free schools: You, dear reader, came here of your own accord because you were interested in the topic. You read the post, perhaps followed the links, and maybe commented. You judged, based on your own previous education and experience, if you were going to trust what Lefty Parent wrote. You left with a new understanding of democratic free schools. You became educated, all by yourself, without anyone telling you that you should.

    Since it worked for you, why would it not work for your children?

  8. Michael… Thanks for the extensive comment!

    You say…

    Sorry if I seem a little impatient, but I have a difficult time with the idea that we need to keep our public schools going rather than being honest and abandoning the failed system completely.

    I agree with you that it’s a failed system, but I think the transition out of it to what’s next needs to be more graceful and organic than just saying for all to here that we’re just waiting for it to fail. It’s too cold. It leaves too many poor families with no options but despair.

    I think we can transform the process of human development by a slightly less draconian but still convention-shattering approach. Basically two things…

    1. Say that school is no longer mandatory, but that localities are responsible for providing adequately staffed learning centers for every young person that wants one.

    2. Make all curriculum and methodology standards optional, and only evaluate schools on their fiduciary fulfillment of creating a learning environment – with computers, work spaces, labs, etc – and adequately staffing it.

    That’s my idea for the transition.

    And actually there are some kids and their families who will want the programmed educational path like conventional schools follow now. So there should continue to be some schools that follow that path if the participants want it so.

    My take!

  9. Thanks for posting this informative account of democratic-free schools. We have a 3 year old and after looking at most of the preschools around us, we’ve already started being disappointed and uncomfortable with the “normal” teaching model. We have decided to go with a Spanish immersion preschool that follows a free-play model for now. We are very interested in democratic free schools. Do you know if they usually have any kind of language element to them? My husband is finishing up his PhD in political science and I have a master’s in art history, but neither of us has any desire to work at a university following the conventional teaching model, so we’ve been looking at alternative learning institutions to possibly teach at. What are the usual required qualifications for teachers at a democratic-free school? And if anyone knows of any other great institutions, we would love to find out more. Thanks.

  10. Courtney… a lot I can say… but it may take until this weekend to give you a proper response. You can start by checking out the Alternative Education Resource Organization site at http://www.educationrevolution.org and And America’s most successful democratic free-school, Sudbury Valley School at http://www.sudval.org and books by its co-founder Daniel Greenburg. Hopefully more thoughts soon.

    Thanks for the comment!

  11. Thanks for the informative article and discussion. I am a lefty parent and an educator, both of elite graduate students and of neglected teens in urban poverty. There is a movement to open a democratic free school in my neighborhood, so I am trying to learn.

    The next question that I have is, “What is the societal purpose of education?” I think that people’s response to a governance model for a school is very heavily affected by how they might answer that question. And yet, I am not sure I even know what my answer is? Does the propagation of social norms enter in? Is it absolutely forbidden? Does personal achievement outweigh social progress? Who can measure either?

    Thanks again!

  12. Great questions Adam! I think the discussion of your questions, between students, parents and teachers would be a great start to any school situation, and lead to a candid discussion of the rules of engagement!

    So is the purpose of education indoctrination or human/societal development, or some of both? I tend to think it should be the latter. What’s the point of even living if you are not moving the needle forward on the development of your species! But I understand that the relatively privileged adults want to rein in young people so as not to challenge the hierarchy of the adultist “haves”.

    Would love to continue a dialog! Where’s your neighborhood?

  13. My neighborhood is the area around the University of Chicago on the south side of Chicago. The area is usually called Hyde Park (technically there are several neighborhoods). There are huge problems with the school system here, and throughout Chicago.

    I very much think that a democracy has to fund education, and that the justification of that expense is for the benefit of the society, not the individual. Ideally, it does both! and I think there is plenty of evidence that it can work that way.

    Many voices in the debate seem to suggest that public education is primarily for the advancement of the individual children, often job skills. Thus the idea that if my particular child doesn’t use the public system I shouldn’t have to fund it. Or, if I don’t have children, why do I have to pay? As we lose sight of the social good of an educated population, and look to the personal advancement of individuals, we undermine the entire system.

    This has happened to an almost terminal extent in Chicago. As far as I can see, we are still headed in the wrong direction, here, and it is likely to take generations to repair.

    To me, the ideals of democratic-free schools are all expressed in terms of the individual development of the children, rather than the benefit to society more broadly. How do such schools support social progress?

  14. Adam… IMO conventional standardized instructional schooling, as designed by people like Horace Mann in the early 19th century based on the model perfected by Prussia, was designed to be the proverbial “melting pot” that would remove the foreign-ness from people and turn them into like-thinking Americans. That said, schools were run by experienced or “principal” teachers and were focused on this civil mission.

    But as they say, “the business of America is business”. So this institution of mandatory standardized taxpayer funded public schooling, as a powerful normative tool to manage the development of the bulk of the young people in our country, was essentially taken over by the business community in the early 20th century.

    Ignoring the wisdom and efforts of progressive educators like Maria Montessori and John Dewey to chart a more humanistic education course intended to spur human development and prepare our young people to be active citizens in a democratic country, business efficiency and training workers for American industry trumped this more progressive vision for state funded schools.

    I would argue that our public school systems today are still run on that business model and are focused on training compliant individual workers and consumers, rather than active citizens who understand how to participate effectively in the democratic process.

    Given that world view, it is democratic-free schools that represent a model closer to the legacy of Montessori and particularly Dewey. DF schools give young people the opportunity to enter into meaningful collaboration with each other to manage their school and use the tools of democratic process to do so. The result are more engaged and capable young people that aren’t waiting to be told what to do to get their own individual grades and their own individual blessing to enter the workforce.

    Whether the curriculum of a school is totally student-directed (or as they say “free”) or follows more prescribed academic or holistic bodies of knowledge, young people would still be best served by playing a real role, along with their teachers in running their schools. In today’s world of increasing educational standardization, regimentation and top-down control of schools, neither teachers or students have much say in educational governance, and basically follow orders from above. Orders mostly originating from the corporate foundations that are the tail that wags the public education dog, and has done so for nearly a century.

  15. Thanks! I see your point regarding how a different school model could engender citizenship and the skills of a democratic society. I am biased, but the D-F school model seems great, and much better than the current morass. I suspect that it would be a much better system for efficiently mass producing good citizens.

    We have a huge “getting-from-here-to-there” problem in education reform. The D-F model is highly reliant on engaging some significant portion of the participants. Like the few charter schools that have achieved success, the system won’t work when imposed on people (especially teachers) who do not want it to work.

    If we believe in school reform for the benefit of society, then we need to be looking for models that work when people are coerced into participation. School choice harms society as a whole, and fails to deliver models of public school reform precisely because the attendees of alternate schools (and their parents and teachers) feel lucky to be there.

    Reformers within the public system should sell the benefits to the individual students, but reformers outside the system need to explain how their suggestions will help society as a whole, rather than further degrade the current system. I feel that many of the alternate school initiatives are ultimately selfish, and continue the long American project of separating the children of the “haves” from “those children.”

    In Hyde Park specifically, I am struggling to see the benefit of teaching children of privilege how to form community with other children of engaged, well-educated parents, beyond the clear benefit to our well-established privileged class. Is this really a progressive project, or do we really want it to count as one, since it is better for our own children?

  16. Dear Sir,
    Having read your article regarding democratic school, I have few more questions like

    Taking into account the present circumstances of our own country and educational system, and assuming that we are in the role of a school leader,
    o Do you think we should work towards making our school more democratic?
    o If so, how will we can exercise our leadership role in seeking to bring this about? whats factors can hinder in making a democratic school?
    as You have already mentioned the forms a democratic school but are these desirable?, if so, what is desirable and feasible in concrete circumstances?

  17. Ruh… great questions… here are my thoughts…

    Taking into account the present circumstances of our own country and educational system, and assuming that we are in the role of a school leader,

    Q: Do you think we should work towards making our school more democratic?

    A: Yes. I think any school, regardless of whether it has a fixed or flexible curriculum and whether it is instructional or more experiential IMO can benefit from letting the students participate significantly in the real governance of the school. If the goal is to build engagement of the students in the learning process, it is a time honored approach among adults at least to give them a say and a vote in how things are done.

    Q:If so, how will we can exercise our leadership role in seeking to bring this about?

    A: As adult school staff, parents and other community members we can urge our state and school districts to allow individual schools to have more autonomy and flexibility in how they run their programs, while making the argument that in a democratic society, our young people need the opportunity to practice the democratic process, not just learn about it, and what better place to do so than in the community institutions (schools) where they spend so much time.

    Q: whats factors can hinder in making a democratic school?

    A: Increasing standardization of school curriculum and regimentation of the learning process that is mandated by a faraway hierarchy of experts and state bureaucrats, a governance model that does not allow students or teachers to even communicate directly with the real decision makers.

    Q: As you have already mentioned the forms a democratic school but are these desirable?, if so, what is desirable and feasible in concrete circumstances?

    A: I would say in any community, and you can look at each school as a community, you want an effective model of governance to engage as many community members as possible in the decision making process and buy-in on those decisions made. The forms of democratic schools that are desirable are any and all that have a vibrant process that engages students and staff in the ongoing health of the school community. If say the student role in school governance is cursory or peripheral, then that would be less desirable in my thinking. In terms of concrete circumstances, what would be desirable are regular opportunities for students and staff to interact as a “circle of equals” and discuss the day to day workings of the school as a community. That would include an agreed on regular opportunity to air and resolve grievances. It would include the opportunity for students and adult staff to participate in committees than manage every aspect of the school.

  18. I believe in educational revolution. I was taught. I learned. I teach. I did not learn what I wanted in elementary school. I fought to learn what I wanted in high school. After “proper” disciplinary measures were taken by my parents, the school, and the society at large I conformed. I worked then and now within the confines of the “traditional” reward/punishment structure in order to survive. Internally I rage at the wasted lives of the youth I serve and know without question the percentage that will rise or fall, not based on anything more than economy and conformity. I have the school of my heart in my head and would love to create it in reality. But, I am tired of fighting against the machine. To even create such a school would require jumping through the fiery hoops of bureaucratic, top down, conventional rules and regulation. The financial limitations of achieving my school lie not so much in how to fund the start-up but how to allow any child the opportunity to participate regardless of financial circumstances. When only the elite have choices it is not true democracy. In order to really be a democratic-free school, then the school must be free to everyone.

    Switching gears, in response to making the transition, I would suggest begin at the beginning with the youngest students and grow the school with the students until you finally serve all ages.

  19. Teresa… thanks for your comment and sharing your story! It is a huge challenge to try and develop more of these alternative approaches to education!

  20. Hello Cooper,
    You have mentioned important issues on democratic school model. I think this model should be implemented in the current school settings. Schools, especially in America are comprised of students from different cultural backgrounds. As teacher leaders, we need to create an open platform in which we can interact with students freely in order to understand there interest. Having a democratic approach towards students will assist us in coming up with differentiated instruction and backward design that are tailored to meet the needs of every students irrespective of their cultural background.

  21. Eneida… so glad to hear from a teacher supporting this sort of approach! Would love to hear your thoughts on whether at least a movement towards more democratic governance, including students, could realistically happen even if we continue for now with a very standardized curriculum and pedagogy imposed from state capitols. Your thoughts?

  22. Cooper, yes such a movement may happen. We need to make our students understand and articulate issues not recalling for assessment purposes. That is why I support democratic governance that will ensure equal contribution from teachers, students, parents, and the community in general.

  23. Thank you for this article. It is very helpful. A democratic-free school just opened in my neighborhood. I have been yearning for something other than the standardized, zombie-making educational choices currently offered. However, there is a community there. The d-f school near us does not have any holistic curricula or prescribed academic bodies of knowledge. It truly is democratic-free. My fears in sending my son to a democratic-free school are: a) I don’t know if I have tough enough skin to completely walk away from my own community (friends, peers, etc) who are completely invested in our current model of public education b) what if he really does just play video games until he is 18? (He is currently 10 years old.) c) what about algebra, calculus, foreign language, creative writing? Perhaps sending him to Montessori at a young age would have paved the way for this more easily than coming straight from a public school to d-f. I would probably prefer something in between, but there is nothing else in my area. Can you please address these issues? Thank you!

  24. Amy… thanks for your comment! Your questions are good ones and typical of a lot of people. Questions our kids’ mom and I wrestled with ourselves. I’ll compose a reply and respond soon!

  25. I just stumbled upon this post while researching democratic free schools & have read everyone’s comments.
    My question is almost exactly the same as Amy’s (above) with the differences that our local free school has been in existence for many years. Also, I have been homeschooling my 10yo son since first grade, but it’s been pretty structured even at home, though we move at a slower pace and only “work” 2-3 hours a day. The problem is, this my typical “school at home” approach has not been a good fit for my son. I watch the light go out of his eyes every time we sit down to “do school,” and I hate it! He is a vibrant, happy young man (when I’m not trying to educate him). I knew ther had to be a better way.
    At first I began to research unschooling (which I do like for homeschool), but when I found a local free school, I thought my son my might enjoy the camaraderie that a community would provide.
    In your reply to Amy, you said you would compose a longer answer to her question. If you replied to her privately, would you please post that response? I am very interested to read it! I’m biting my nails over this decision. My husband is being incredibly supportive. He’s a small business owner, and I think entrepreneurs understand bucking the system better than most. But we live in a capitol city, and while everyone in my extended family and friend circles support homeschool (with an emphasis on “SCHOOL”), they don’t understand our interest in unschooling or free school.
    Yes, I am an adult with the ability to make decisions regarding my family & children, but I would really love to hear more about your personal experience.
    Thank you!

  26. Beth… sorry to take so long to respond but I don’t get many comments on my pieces and I did not notice yours until now.

    My wife and I did not have a dem-free school in Los Angeles that we could send our own kids to, so we ended up unschooling them during their teen year, which was a very challenging experience but worked out well… they are now 27 and 30 and very happy and successful adults.

    I will email you to see if you want to discuss further!

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