What it Takes to Create a Democratic School

(What Does That Mean Anyway?)

Note: I was asked to speak, in a plenary session, at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), in August, in Vancouver, Canada. This article is adapted from that talk.

The topic that I was asked to speak about tonight was “Sustainable Democracy: Creating a Stable Culture in a Democratic School.” Yesterday, while I was here at IDEC talking to people and making other presentations, I began to realize something that I already knew but didn’t have a way of putting into context. Other people who are here have been talking to me about the same thing. The problem I and others are having is, simply, what do we mean by democracy? In particular, what do we mean by democratic schools? An especially poignant moment for me was when an acquaintance said, after chatting with the incredibly charming group from Korea that is here, that Korea is reputed to have 200 democratic schools, but there is not a single one where children are free from a pre-set curriculum. What do they mean by democratic schools?

Even within the narrow realm of schools that I’m most familiar with, which are Sudbury schools, there isn’t 100% agreement on the answer to the question of what democracy in a school means. And clearly there is far from 100% agreement here at IDEC. I realized yesterday that my starting assumptions are not necessarily even known by many people here, let alone shared. The first clue was in a session that I gave yesterday morning, called “Starting a Sudbury School.” I eventually realized that a lot of the people that were there didn’t have any idea what a Sudbury School was. Many people thought it was a session about starting any school, so my content wasn’t terribly useful for them. Since I didn’t really talk about the aspects of a Sudbury school. That might have been a more useful presentation for that audience. Later, a similar thing happened when I gave another presentation called, “When Kittens Turn Into Cats”, a presentation about what happens to people who grow up after a Sudbury education. We had an example of that sort of thing just now, when we had a group of students and alumni from Windsor House on a panel talking about life in school and after. You saw the kittens and the cats tonight, which was very nice because it’s so clear. When you see those students and those alumni, what you have to look forward to when children go to schools like ours is so palpably obvious. But once again, my audience yesterday was not totally clear on where the kittens were turning into cats, and why what I was presenting should be meaningful, at least not in the beginning. So I thought that tonight might be better if, before discussing creating a stable culture, I talked about my own ideas about democratic schools.

First of all, as I said, no one knows what the words “democratic school” mean. I could experiment by asking a few of you what the phrase means to you, but I’m not sure it would help that much because I think the ideas would all be so different that we’d just be more confused. So I’ll pretend I don’t think that you have different thoughts than me, and I’ll tell you what I think the essential features of such a school are.

First, a democratic school must embody what we call in the United States inalienable rights – they’re listed in our Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are considered the inalienable rights for American citizens. I think that a lot of the free world at this point considers these to be inalienable rights, although it is expressed quite differently in different cultures. Any government in the world, hopefully, but certainly any government of the students in a fully democratic school, is maintained and established in order to ensure those rights. In addition, systems of justice also are established to ensure that everybody in the community has equal rights. That’s not an easy jump. It’s easy to say we want people to have rights, we want democracy, but to understand exactly what the democratic government needs to do, where the government comes into play, is often hard. However, once you find a society, of whatever size, trying to live within the rights we feel all people should have, it becomes quickly clear that a justice system is necessary.

For me, democracy also implies a really solid determination to treat each human being with complete trust and respect and to ensure the dignity of that human being by not ever, ever condescending to them. I don’t think that’s what everybody means when they talk about democratic schools so I thought I’d get that idea out on the table. I think many schools and groups haven’t sorted through this, and haven’t really gotten past the, “Oh yeah democracy, that’ll be wonderful,” stage.

All that said, I want to digress a bit more before I launch into how to sustain a democratic school. I want to talk about parents for a minute. I don’t think parents who bring children to enroll, or to visit a school with an idea of perhaps being interested in enrolling, are generally looking for democracy. I don’t think that’s in their heads at all. Parents bringing in their children to consider our school are looking for an alternative to what is mostly available. They are also sometimes – but far from always – looking for real freedom. More often, they are only looking for more flexibility. Sometimes, but rarely, they are looking for respect for their child. Basically, if they have very young kids, they are seeking what we are: a place for people to build their own lives from scratch; a place where each person has no choice but to become self-actualized and competent; a place where children can be in control of their lives.

Parents of older children want something else. They usually want a refuge for their children. At no point have most of these people thought to themselves, “I want a democratic school for my children.” Far from it. They generally think, no matter what their political persuasion, that democracy as a form of government stinks. Winston Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

And it is true: nobody’s gotten any better form of government yet, but in a school the amazing things is that you can have a democracy that doesn’t stink. In a school you can have a democracy that’s really grass roots and that works very well.

When we talk to parents, we talk about the trust, the respect and the overwhelmingly awesome responsibility of being in charge of your own time and your own education. We also explain the democratic structure, and the way justice happens, as well as the level of responsibility for their own outcomes that this adds for students, because they are also responsible for the functioning of a community, and the making of the school into a community. But democracy is never the deal-maker for parents.

What I think of as a democratic school implies complete, uncompromised and utter intellectual freedom for each human being, tied up tightly with total and uncompromising responsibility for the community. I’ll start with outlining some of the do’s and don’ts for the founding process because some of them are really important in order to sustain democracy: unless you know what you want your school to be, you can’t create it to be a unified whole. It needs to have a philosophy that is complete and congruent, one that gets translated into the institutional structure when you build a school. A founding group of a school must measure everything that they do, every decision that they make, against that ideal – the whole ideal of how a school should be, how children should be educated, how life should be for young people, so that they can grow up with the responsibility we want them to grow up with.

It takes tremendous dedication and stamina from the people who get the school going. Dan Greenberg, who is one of the founders of Sudbury Valley and the one who has written a tremendous amount about the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, gave a talk on a similar theme to sustainability at a Sudbury Schools Workshop this year. He ended it by saying “remember you’re always a startup.” What I think he meant by that was you always have to look at everything with fresh eyes and measure everything against your ideal and work hard and solve every problem as if it’s the first one you’ve gotten to. That keeps the enthusiasm fresh for everyone.

I put it a little differently usually. What I say is that you’re on the cutting edge, you are the avant-garde, and you should never forget that. Perhaps that’s the most exciting reason to create a democratic school– unless you happen to have children, which is the most exciting reason really. It sounds like it couldn’t be true after all these years. Summerhill is almost 100 years old, but it’s still just as avant-garde, just as exciting. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking now about sustaining a democratic school. There would be a formula; everybody could just follow a little list. But you can’t create a democratic school by formula. No two democracies are the same, no two sets of people are the same. The rules will be different. Different cultures have different values and these are reflected in different schools. Don’t ever forget that your work is cutting-edge, that you’re still doing work that is extraordinarily creative. It’s out there, it’s way out there. It’s what society thinks is insane but you know it is totally sane and you must never, ever agree with society or let anybody think that you think what you are doing is weird.

The founders of a school have to be ready to dedicate an indeterminate, but enormous, amount of time and they certainly have to be able to dedicate perhaps a less enormous amount of money. But first, before they do that, they have to know exactly what they’re doing. They have to decide on what they want. If it’s a Sudbury school, they have to read til their eyes fall out. But really if it’s any kind of democratic school, they have to read til their eyes fall out because there’s a lot of literature. There’s a lot of literature beginning way before the ‘60’s, but certainly increasing steadily since then, that points to freedom in education as being the thing that is most useful for people in the 21st century. So they must absorb all the literature that’s available and be prepared to write their own.

It only makes sense to even try to form a democratic school if you can fully understand and fully articulate the model you’re interested in creating. Otherwise, it will not be sustainable. Even for those who do fully understand and fully articulate it, it may not be sustainable. Other forces may intervene – like governments, which many of the schools, or former schools, represented here have been harmed by. (They talk about it a lot, and we should all pay attention, because they’ve smacked up against the government and have been smacked badly.)

So I guess what I’m saying is you need extraordinary founders, very strong in character, to found a democratic school. And the founders group has to be on the same page. The have to have a coherent idea of the school they are founding. They have to have talked it over, and fought it out, until they are on the same page. They have to view their enterprise as serious and most particularly as not crazy or a crazy crusade. Not weird. And that’s not easy. You have to be very careful even about the clothing you wear when you present your school to the public or meet the public, as well as the rhetoric that you use, so people will see you as reasonable, as possible, as within reach, so people will see that you are not on the fringe, but on the cutting edge. There’s a big difference. The founders have to present the ideas as they are – as normal, normal as apple pie or water – while still remembering that they are avant-garde. I just can’t say it enough times.

I’m going to read the little motto from Starting a Sudbury School.1 I read it yesterday but I don’t think there’s any number of times that you can hear this that are too many.

Maybe potential founders could get a taste of what it is like before they actually commit themselves to it, by going into a commercial laundromat, getting inside one of those industrial dryers, putting it on an hour-long cycle – and having it get stuck and go for a week instead.

When I look at many of the people here who have gotten stuck in the dryer for so long, they still look fine. There are a lot of us here in that situation. I can’t believe that they look so fine and I think one of the reasons is that sustaining a democratic school is vital and sustaining work also.

None of this can be done without money. You have to have the time and the money to devote to it. And there will be expenses. You need money to get the word out, to make mailings, to print posters and to rent a site so people can see that you’re for real. None of this can be done without remembering that you’re also running a business – crisply, precisely.

To sustain a democratic school you have to find a way to be legal in whatever government you live within. You have to be able to create a literature that, along with other pieces of literature you decide are important to your group, is used to represent you everywhere – to the public, to the government agencies you brush up against, to the realtors you’re working with so they know what kind of people you are – strong, firm, articulate, idealistic. And once a school opens, the money that comes in will go to endless public relations activities to help it grow – to expenses that are not negotiable like utilities or rent. They’ll be unlikely to go to staff salaries, heaven forbid.

The staff of a new school are very likely to be the founders. That’s another thing a founder must be totally prepared for. People think staff should be paid and it’s a really nice idea, but forget about it. After the school opens the founders cannot drift away. They can’t be background people. They have to continue to be foreground people. They can’t depend on hired adults who have not been thinking about the model and internalizing it for a long time to keep it going. The school will be too fragile for years and years so they have to be prepared to devote years and years.

What the school itself needs to become a democracy and sustain itself over the long haul is to make sure that the power resides in the people who are there day-to-day. The power has to stem from a legal framework, documents that have been drafted with attorneys, by-laws. There has to be a strong adult presence, but not to tell kids what to do. Rather, to model for kids what grownups are like. The adults have to be articulate and unafraid to take harsh stances and do the right thing and to speak for the right thing. There have to be adults who have a strong and unified vision of what the school will be and are going to make sure it doesn’t drift away from that if they can help it. And once again, these must be adults who never condescend to students. Adults who are not afraid of creating a democratic structure while waiting for students to be interested in helping them with it.

These adults have to set up a School Meeting structure and make sure it’s serious by treating it with reverence. They have to have clear operating rules of order. They have to have meetings where only the Chairman is addressed; where there are no personal attacks, and no cross-conversation, and no disrespect. The School Meeting has to have the purse strings and this is hard. It wasn’t that way during the set-up period, and in fact it wasn’t necessarily very democratic during the set-up period, because the only people that you wanted in the set-up group were people who knew they wanted the same thing. Democracy in a start-up group can keep a school from forming, because people could move in with other ideas and take over. It was run like a business during set-up, and it has to be run like a business afterwards, but a democratic business. The loss of control that the founders feel when that happens is unnerving.

The School Meeting is where the buck stops, and where everything must be considered. Everything that has to do with institutional structure and rules stems from the School Meeting. The School Meeting must also be totally professional. Probably the first School Meeting Chairman of any school is a staff member. We at Sudbury Valley have year-long terms for School Meeting Chairman, which is a long time, and many schools don’t have that kind of term, but the truth is the person who is the School Meeting Chairman has to be making a serious commitment because s/he is really the CEO of the school. The tone of the early Meetings must be set by the adults. This is no place for namby-pamby adults. Kids are learning from the way adults conduct themselves every day in the School Meeting and all the rest of the time, too. They see one’s humanity, one’s warts, and one’s strengths. They learn to debate from watching the grownups set examples, to be strong and to be idealistic. No one should ever debate at anything that is not their personal best. There’s no point in it. Kids should learn from the best people the school can get; the adults are models. Students will buy in to their roles as they realize it’s useful to them. Maybe they want something, maybe they want space, maybe they’re worried about their rights being protected and they’ll start making rules and policies and set up structures. The staff has to wait for that. Meanwhile, the administrative set-up of the school does stem from the School Meeting and from people who are selected to do various jobs. Part of that happens because people form special interest groups.

A school has to have a judicial system that’s taken seriously. There are going to be problems between people. It just happens. That’s the way life is. It’s important to understand the elements of a fair judicial system. Since most of us are goodie-goodies who don’t do that many things wrong, we rarely brush up against the law. Also, though the legal systems in our countries may be designed as fair, it doesn’t always look all that fair to us when we see it happening, and it seems very convoluted. The founders themselves have to understand what a fair judicial system is and they have to be able to help the School Meeting form one. I personally feel nothing is more important than this. The judicial system is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where the things that restrict people’s freedoms have to happen, because unrestricted freedoms might be infringing on the rights of others, or be unsafe, or illegal, or destructive.

A fair judicial system is one that allows a person to be free, that protects freedom because it guarantees that freedoms won’t be restricted unnecessarily. But it’s also where you give up some of your freedom for the common good, and that hurts, so there has to be a reason for it. Therefore: It’s vitally important that the judicial system stem from the School Meeting, where students become aware of the relationship between restricting freedom and maintaining freedom through community laws.

Designing the legal system, discussing each piece of it, is a big part of the curriculum of a new school. That’s an education in democracy that you can’t purchase for any price anywhere and those kids who are in new schools know it. The founding kids are pioneers, no matter how many other democratic schools there are. They’re still pioneers because they’re doing it their way.

Now I would like to talk for a few minutes about what I feel the features of a judicial system are because I think new schools in particular have to understand why they shouldn’t shortcut them. To do that I have to look at Sudbury Valley’s judicial system. I have seen other schools with good judicial systems that weren’t exactly like ours but they match the main criteria of ours. They protect the system of due process. Nevertheless our system is the one that I know in my bones and love dearly and I’d like to talk about it for a minute because I think that creating a good judicial system is the most important part of sustaining a democratic school.

First of all, as rules are passed by the School Meeting, they have to be assembled somewhere into some kind of lawbook. At some schools the lawbook has very few rules. The truth is that “always do everything right and never do anything wrong” is a perfectly good rule and should cover all circumstances; or the Golden Rule should cover all circumstances. But we’re all a little too human for those to be enough. Our school has a lawbook that contains several pages of rules governing behavior. Some are pretty esoteric ones. We have a popcorn rule that says you can only have popcorn indoors if it’s in a sealed container. We have a popcorn rule because we had too many popcorn messes and people were tired of it, so eventually we outlawed popcorn, and then we took a step back and allowed it to come to school if people would eat it outside (which you can do for, oh, maybe a month or two of our school year). Lovely weather where I live. The popcorn rules came about because of common sense, and evolved because of better common sense.

The people who make the judicial system function at Sudbury Valley are called the Judicial Committee. We have two clerks who are the administrative people on the Judicial Committee. They’re students, and they’re elected by the School Meeting four times a year. It’s a hotly contested position. It’s also the hardest job in the school. You have to have meetings every single day at 11 o’clock and you have to meet until you’ve done everything you can do for the day. And sometimes that’s til 11:30 and sometimes it’s til 12:00 or 12:30 and sometimes it’s til 3:00 or 3:30. So clerks have a huge responsibility – looks great on a resume, looks great on a college application!

And then there are five students who are picked by lot so that they represent kids of every age and who serve for a month, whether they like it or not. And there’s an adult staff member who serves once every couple of weeks, so the adult is the one that’s always sort of new and isn’t part of the ongoing relationship in the JC. That’s fine because it keeps staff who are very outspoken and opinionated from having too much influence. The Judicial Committee considers written complaints – only. When it assembles at 11:00 everyone finds out what complaints have been written. The clerks decide what to do first. The investigations are carried out really carefully. Sometimes it’s about running in the hall, and there are two or three people involved. You call them all in and you ask them, and they say, “Sure, I did it,” and they get sentenced. But sometimes it’s something that is serious and you investigate it very carefully, one person at a time and take notes even.

After the JC feels it knows what’s happened in any given case, a report is written and voted on. On the basis of that report, charges can be filed but only charges that are actual rules that can be pointed to in our lawbook. You can’t charge somebody with doing something that you sort of wish was a rule. You can change a rule, or make a new one in the School Meeting, but you can’t change it on the spot in JC. You have to change it much later. A person can plead guilty or not guilty. If they plead guilty, they’re sentenced on the spot usually. People accept their sentences and they move on. If they plead not guilty, they can have a trial. That doesn’t happen for a few days. It gives them a chance to decide whether they’re really guilty or not. Sometimes justice is served by a trial, sometimes it isn’t. We don’t have very many trials.

Not every school has sentences. We feel that the sentence has two purposes. One is paying your debt to society, but the other is putting the incident behind you. I don’t think sentencing should be abolished, but I do think that it’s not the sentencing that’s the most important thing in changing the behavior of those kids who tend to misbehave, which we always have plenty of. The most important thing is hearing a group of people of all ages calmly and dispassionately listening to a case, no matter how trivial it is. It makes people feel, “Oh, maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all,” or at least it makes them feel like they don’t want to be sentenced anymore.

What does it mean for your life if you grow up as part of a democracy that has been sustained? It means you know you’re empowered. It means you know how to behave. It means you know how to be serious when you need to be and have a heck of a lot of fun when you don’t. It means that you inhale a sense of values that will serve you well for the rest of your life and make you a valuable friend, employee, student, parent – you name it.

To sum up sustainability in a democratic school I’m going to go back to something I didn’t talk much about today. You have to keep it going by constant recruiting and public relations. You have to create beautiful and informative web sites, and your own literature. And you have to remember at every moment that you’re creating forever and ever a beautiful institution that gives children responsibility and treats them like human beings. It’s a very rare thing still. That means you’re on the cutting edge, and being on the cutting edge is never easy. It’s cold, it’s hostile out there, it’s lonely. You’re the subject of constant attack and yet it’s quite exhilarating. Your ability and the ability of the other people in your school or group to remember these things and to always work at the top of your abilities is what sustains the school.


1. Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky, Starting a Sudbury School: A Summary of the Experiences of 15 Start-up Groups, Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA 1998.

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