Kids attend school in the United States — in part, at least — to learn to become good citizens.
No method of schooling has proven to be the single best way to create good citizens, and the law allows for a variety of educational methods and models. Nonetheless, a paradox remains: a functioning democracy requires active citizen participation, yet schools have always been run with top-down management structures that tightly control student activity. Some alternative schools encourage student participation in their governance and curricular choices, but democratic free schools position students as equal partners along with faculty and administrators. As such, the students have a say in everything, from major institutional decisions to day-to-day activities.
Some democratic free schools have been around for several decades, and a few actively encourage others to replicate their models. Others steadfastly maintain their uniqueness and resist imitation, preferring to inspire people to create their own versions that suit their local populations and unique student bodies. Alternatives to School and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) both maintain lists of democratic free schools to help parents find the right fit.
What is a democratic free school?
The website Alternatives to School (which publishes and hosts resources for individuals seeking information on nontraditional educational models) defines a democratic free school as one in which “students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community.” AERO has a broader definition, and its list includes a wide variety of public and private alternatives (as well as homeschool resource centers). Throughout the discussion in this article, I will write about these schools with the first definition in mind.
Democratic free schools differ from one another when it comes to details about child development and philosophy, but they largely follow the same pattern of allowing students to choose or create their own activities, attend or forgo classes when they are offered, mix and play with other students regardless of age or ability, and participate in school governance.
Student and Teacher Roles
While these schools cast their students in a slightly different role than traditional schools, they also have different expectations for their staff: they are there to help students primarily by setting a positive example and mentoring, not by lecturing in front of a class. If asked to do so by students, democratic schoolteachers will teach a specific subject, but it’s worth noting that — as Alternatives to School notes —they tend not to call themselves teachers. This is due to the fact that kids learn “at least as much from one another — as they play, explore, socialize, and work together — as they do from the adults.” In fact, in some democratic schools, such as the Sudbury Valley School, staff are hired and fired by popular vote, with each staff member and student having one equal vote.
The hallmark of democratic schools is the school meeting, wherein students and staff determine all the processes and regulations of the school. A.S. Neill popularized this practice when he founded the Summerhill School in the U.K. in 1921. He became a counterculture celebrity and inspiration to the democratic school movement in 1960 when his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing was published.
Neill used school meetings to encourage students to work on committees and take on active roles — equal to adults — to shape and develop the school community. He also pioneered the use of school meetings to arbitrate and settle disputes, as in cases of bullying. This encourages children from an early age to take accountability for their actions, to think of others’ feelings, “to make decisions about what they want to do, and follow these decisions through to a conclusion.” (If you’re curious about what these meetings look like, you can watch one at Summerhill and one at Sudbury Valley on Alternatives to School.)
Student bodies at democratic schools can be very different from one another. Some schools, like the Albany Free School, work primarily with children from the inner city, whereas the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts caters more to middle-class, suburban families.
Is a democratic free school right for your child?
Before considering a school like this, you need to ask yourself whether this is a choice you’re making for your child or whether it’s one you’re making with your child. If you’re not comfortable giving her a genuine vote when it comes to the way in which she is educated, then you probably won’t be comfortable sending her to a democratic school.
Judging a school by visiting it is common, but in a democratic free school this can be misleading. At a conventional institution, an administrator can look at a calendar and a clock and tell you what all the students in each grade are doing. In a democratic school, on the other hand, the community decides how it will spend its time together, often on a daily basis. (Sudbury Valley, for one, prefers that prospective students spend a week soaking in the school’s environment before they decide whether it is a good fit for them.)
During a visit, let your child meet the students and adults so they can see how they interact with one another. Talk with your youngster about the school, and let her know how you feel about it, too. This will set an example for your child, and will tell her that she should have an active role in this decision.
Something that surprises many visitors is the amount of unstructured recreation time students have. You will probably appreciate democratic schools more if you see value in free play. This is an important educational component — by letting children choose to play in groups, they learn to create and enforce their own rules, which provides important lessons in empathy and self-control. In addition, mixed-age free play lets the younger students learn from the older ones, and encourages the older kids to be more mature leaders.
Most graduates of democratic schools go on to college or a career; this is a well-documented fact.
Psychology professor (and Noodle Expert) Peter Gray summarizes a study of Sudbury Valley School graduates in his book Free to Learn. He reports that nearly three-quarters of the graduates surveyed “reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice or doing well once admitted.” They go on to attend even prestigious colleges and universities, and Gray adds that many students end up doing well, even those who had never taken a formal, traditional course before. He calls graduates of democratic free schools “remarkably successful in finding employment” that both paid them well and interested them on a personal level, including careers in “business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades.”
Other studies of democratic schools, including the Hannam report from the U.K., suggest that graduates are more motivated to learn, have higher self-esteem, and feel more empowered than students who are traditionally educated. A similar study in Israel found that these kids were more interested in science than their conventionally-schooled counterparts.
Democracy is neither neat nor easy, which is why school meetings are the most important element in democratic schools. For instance, one of the problems that can occur in a democratic school is known historically as the tyranny of the majority. In other words, the opinions of the minority of students simply gets drowned out by a large volume of opposing voices.
Democratic schools are aware of this pitfall and many use these moments to explore the issues and personalities that drive such behavior during their school meetings. This methodical feature of democratic schooling, which often involves consensus-building, may not appeal to people who prefer to arrive at a solution quickly rather than through deliberation.
At their most fundamental, democratic free schools strive to use education as a means to produce good citizens. They practice what they preach, and engage students with democratic principles on a daily basis, making it a participatory experience for people of all ages within their school communities.