– Mark Twain
Recently a new associate of mine, Dana Bemis, forwarded me an email from a listserve run by the International Democratic Education Conference, or IDEC. The email was basically a go-around between folks on whether or not there are actual democratic state-run schools in the United Kingdom. The basic conclusion is that no, there are none.
After all of my searching with SoundOut, all the work I’ve done with schools in the U.S., I am completely sure that there are absolutely no public schools that are democratic schools in the United States. Sure, there are several that come close – painfully, excitably close – but they are not the whole enchilada. I’ve written before about the NOVA Project in Seattle, which is closest to embodying a democratic ideal. Dana reminded me about a school I met in Colorado last year that is also an alternative public high school, like NOVA, and is extremely close to embodying democratic ideals. George Woods, the pioneering principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio, has strove to create a public democratic high school – and is credited by many as being there.
I don’t mean to steal his thunder, or the pioneering work done by any public school that is underway. But none of these schools are inherently democratic. They simply cannot be. Two years ago I had a long conversation with Jenny Sazama and Karen Young from Youth On Board about the inherently oppressive nature of schools, and basically it boiled down to one painful reality: All public schools are compulsory, therefore they can’t be democratic.
The existence of a simple dictum that mandates attendance undercuts the reality of liberal democracy, which depends on notions social justice and representative democracy; further alienating public schools from the possibility of being democratic are the ideals of direct democracy, which needs the willful participation of every citizen.
So the answer is no, Virginia, there is no such thing as a public democratic school.
Here are some schools that come close:
- Social Justice Academy, Brooklyn, New York City, New York
- Bay Area School of Enterprise, Oakland
- NOVA Project, Seattle, Washington
- Federal Hocking High School, Federal Hocking, Ohio
- New VISTA High School, Boulder, Colorado
- Eagle Rock School, Estes Park, Colorado
- Sudbury Model, across the U.S.
- Summerhill School, Suffolk, United Kingdom
- Clearwater School, Seattle, Washington
Here are some great projects that try so hard to embrace democratic idea
- Harmony Service Learning Demonstration Project
- What Kids Can Do Students as Allies Project
- SoundOut’s projects
And you can always find more information at the SoundOut website, and I would also recommend the Alternative Education Resource Organization. Look with me, and please open my eyes and tell me it ain’t so. I’ll share more as I find it.