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How Democracy Works at a Democratic School

What do former students think about their school’s democratic governance?

Nick Youngston/Alpha Stock Images. CC-ShareAlike
Source: Nick Youngston/Alpha Stock Images. CC-ShareAlike

A democratic school, as I and many others use the term, is one where students have much or full control over their own activities and a clear voice in school governance. The most famous and long-lasting such school is Summerhill, a boarding school in England, which celebrated its 100th anniversary a year ago. Another long-lasting democratic school is ALPHA, a public alternative elementary school in Toronto, Canada, that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. I have recently learned much about ALPHA by reading a great a new book, by Deb O’Rourke, about its history, and I may say more about it in a future post.

The long-lasting democratic school I’m most familiar with is the Sudbury Valley School (SVS), in Framingham, Massachusetts, now in its 54th year, where my son was a student many years ago and where I have conducted some research. There are now two or three dozen schools in the United States explicitly modeled after SVS and more in other countries.

These schools typically enroll students from as young as age four on through the late teenage years. Students are not segregated by age and move freely throughout the school building and campus. There are plenty of opportunities for learning, but no learning requirements or tests. Such schools are settings for self-directed education. I’ve presented evidence for the educational effectiveness of Sudbury model schools elsewhere (here, here, and here). My purpose in this essay is to describe how such schools are democratically governed.

Legislative and Judicial Procedures at Sudbury Schools

The legislative body of a Sudbury school is the School Meeting, which convenes weekly and makes all school rules. Each student and staff member at the meeting has one vote, regardless of age. None of the rules have to do with learning, as such a rule would be considered a violation of human rights at a Sudbury school. Rather, the rules are of the sort that are needed for a diverse group of people who regularly share a space to get along with one another harmoniously and safely. Typical rules have to do with putting away equipment after using it, not littering, eating only in rooms where food is allowed, keeping quiet in rooms marked as “quiet rooms,” needing certification before using potentially dangerous or fragile equipment, not harassing anyone, and, at the most serious level, not breaking any state laws on campus.

Consistent with the democratic principle of free choice, students and staff are free to attend or not attend any given school meeting. A result, typically, is that most staff members attend any given meeting but many students—especially young students—do not. Meeting agendas are posted in advance and students are more likely to attend if an agenda issue affects them personally. Some issues require discussion at one meeting before being brought to a vote at a subsequent meeting, so people have a chance to think about them and discuss them outside of the formal meeting before voting.

The chair of the meetings is a student, elected to that position, and the meetings operate in a formal way, generally by Roberts Rules of Order. The purpose of the meetings is to provide a foundation for smooth operation of the school, but a side effect is that students learn how formal democratic meetings work and how to contribute to such meetings.

If anyone (student or staff member) violates a rule, any school member can “bring up” that person to the Judicial Committee (JC), which consists at any given time of an age-mixed set of five or six students and one staff member. The JC hears complaints, tries to resolve them, and in some cases imposes consequences for a rule violation. For example, a young student who repeatedly failed to put toys away after using them might be barred from the playroom for half a day.

I have heard some adults complain, after visiting a Sudbury School, that the procedures are too formal and fail to bring in, adequately, the voices of the younger students. Some note that staff members are more vocal and influential at the meetings than are students. One observer at a very small Sudbury school observed that staff members were more influential than students at School Meetings and contended, in a published article (Wilson, 2015), that this represents a failure of democracy. Some democratic schools have adopted more informal decision-making procedures, aimed at bringing out everyone’s voice and achieving consensus, but my (admittedly limited) observations at such schools suggest that adults dominate the decision-making process there at least as much as when the procedures are more formal.

In my own view, something would be wrong if staff members were not, generally, more influential than students in the school’s democratic governance. Staff members usually (though not always) bring more experience, wisdom, and commitment to the school than do individual students. To defer to students without presenting one’s own strong arguments would be patronizing.

By observing staff and older students in the formal meetings at a Sudbury school, younger students learn how to become effective participants, and as they get older they gain greater influence. What makes the school democratic is that everyone, whether staff or student, who wishes to create a rule or make a policy change must do so by convincing the majority of everyone at the meeting. Persuasion, not arbitrary authority, wins the day. In addition to a lesson in democracy, school meetings are regular lessons in critical thinking. Students of all ages hear competing arguments and are drawn into thinking about them and making a judgment. (For an example of a fascinating debate I witnessed at one School Meeting at Sudbury Valley, see here.)

Democracy never means that everyone has equal influence. As Sudbury Valley founder Daniel Greenberg (1992, p 142) has pointed out, “Democracy rests on universal suffrage, not universal participation.” Some will always participate more than others, and some (ideally the more knowledgeable ones) will be listened to more than others.

Concerning this same issue, Jim Rietmulder (2019, p 46), a founder and long-time staff member of another Sudbury school, wrote: “Staff members often prevail in policy debates during sessions of School Meeting, partly because adults more often have relevant experience, partly because adults tend to have greater skill in political persuasion, and partly because kids tend to defer to adults. Regarding this last factor, staff members are usually sensitive to such age-based deference and sometimes back off, call attention to the dynamic, or encourage speaking up.”

In my experience there are differences among individual staff members, and among Sudbury schools, in the degree to which staff back off, and I have heard persuasive arguments on both sides of the question of whether such deference is good policy or not. Roberts Rules of Order ensure that every member who wants to contribute their thoughts has the opportunity to do so.

Former Students’ Evaluations of the Legislative and Judicial Procedures at a Sudbury School

A couple years ago, Gina Riley, Kevin Curry-Knight, and I conducted a systematic survey of former students of one school modeled after Sudbury Valley—The Hudson Valley Sudbury School (HVSS) in New York state. The purpose was to find out what they thought, in retrospect, about their experiences at the school. What did they like or not like? Thirty-nine former students responded to the survey (71% of those who could be located). The full report has been published in the journal Other Education, which you can download and read for no cost here.

One item on the survey asked: “What are your thoughts about the value of the School Meeting and the Judicial Committee at HVSS? Were they fair? In what ways did they contribute to, and/or detract from, the efficient running of the school and/or your own experiences while there?

In response to this, five of the 39 respondents did complain that staff wielded too much influence, and six felt that the judicial processes were too often unfair (treated some students more benignly than others), but the great majority viewed the processes favorably. The most common themes in their responses were that the processes were usually fair, were empowering to students, created a sense of equality among school members, and were effective in smooth operation of the school. Some noted that the procedures could be time-consuming and tedious but were well worthwhile despite that Some reported that they gained more morally from hearing what other students had to say in JC meetings than they would have through being chastened by adults at a typical school. Here is a sample of quotations from the survey responses that illustrate these ideas:

• “I may not have always agreed with every decision made, but in School Meeting everyone gets an equal vote. In JC, again, whether I agreed with the outcome or not, I still believed that pretty much everyone involved was dedicated to making a fair and just decision and upholding the laws and beliefs of the school and its students. Being on JC wasn’t always fun; in fact, it mostly wasn’t. But I appreciated the fact that the school respected and trusted its students enough to give us that freedom and responsibility. Debating fellow students and even staff members in JC and School Meeting and sometimes swaying them with my arguments showed me that my opinions and views can be valuable, something I never felt at my other school.”

• “While taking part in the School Meeting and Judicial Committee was definitely not my favorite part of the day, I feel that it was excellent preparation for living in a democratic society. It really taught me that for things to be fair, everyone's voice mattered and needed to be heard, even if I didn’t like them or they were annoying.”

• “The judicial system is what makes [the school] so special and thrive. Yes, I think everything was fair, and if it wasn’t I could make a motion to change it. The system made everything run smoothly.”

• “I liked that it gave me responsibility and made me feel accountable not just for myself but for others as well. At times it was definitely used for situations that didn’t warrant it and other times for situations that could have used a higher form of enforcement, but for the most part I found that it made me feel mature and so I learned to be mature.”

• “For me personally, being called out on my actions by a group of my peers did a lot more to shape my moral compass than ridicule from an adult ever would.”

Democracy is not easy. At the national level in the United States, we have, in recent years, seen considerable slippage in respect for and understanding of democratic procedures. Maybe if people grew up experiencing democracy in schools rather than just reading about it in an autocratic system, our citizenry would understand better and hold more dear the democratic ideals that form the nation's foundation. Perhaps democracy in schools is good not just because it respects the rights and abilities of children but also because it is the best way to ensure that they grow up knowing, really, what democracy is and why it is worthwhile.

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Greenberg, D. (1992) The Sudbury Valley School experience, 3rd ed. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.

Rietmulder, Jim. (2019). When kids rule the school: The power and promise of democratic education. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Wilson, M. A. F. 2015. Radical democratic schooling on the ground: Pedagogical ideals and realities in a Sudbury school. Ethnography and Education, 10, 121-136.