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by Lisa Marshall

Is a more democratic model of schooling the answer to today’s education crisis?


sk Isaac Graves what seventh grade was like at The Free School in Albany, NewYork, and

he paints a picture that would seem like a dream to many conventional middle schoolers—and a nightmare to their administrators. There were no tests, no homework and almost no schedules. On a typical day, students of all

ages would scatter around the refur- bished inner-city tenement at will, some spontaneously engaging in a game of Dungeons and Dragons in one room, while others planned a trip to Puerto Rico, learned Spanish from a fellow student, or designed a literary magazine on the computer. At weekly, democratic, all-school meetings, they voted on everything from what optional classes the school should offer to what color to paint the walls; not once were they asked to fill in small circles with a number 2 pencil to prove they were learning something. “We were, at a very young age,

in control of our education,” recalls Graves, a remarkably astute 23-year-old who now lives in Oregon and works as an event planner. “I had to figure out what I liked, what my passions were, and how to access information in a variety of ways. I had to interact with adults in a real way—not just as author- ity figures. I had to learn how to learn.” To many, the notion of a school

without schedules where kids and adults have equal say and “test” is almost a dirty word seems utterly

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unworkable in our present so- ciety, where education funding is increasingly tied to student academic performance. But 40 years after the birth of The Free School, and the 1960s “demo- cratic education” movement that inspired it, the nearly defunct philosophy appears to be making a comeback. In May, a group of edu-

cators founded the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), which, through town meetings, social networking and online education, aims to help teachers infuse more student choice into what they see as an autocratic K-12 public school sys- tem. Meanwhile, new, private demo- cratic schools have opened in Seattle, Portland, Denver, NewYork City and elsewhere, bringing the number to 85, according to the nonprofit Alterna- tive Education Resource Organization (AERO). In all, its online directory has swelled to 12,000 options, including those affiliated with Montessori, Wal- dorf, Democratic and other methods which, while they differ in curriculum, all share a dedication to a learner-cen- tered approach. By contrast, according to the U.S.

Department of Education, the number of kids enrolled in an assigned public school dipped from 80 percent in 1993 to 73 percent in 2007. “We are at a

Students practice hands-on learning outside of classroom walls.

crucial point,” says Jerry Mintz, who founded AERO in 1989. “Every- body knows there is something wrong with the current educational system, and people are now starting to realize they have choices.”

Old Factory Model of Schooling

When parents step into many public school class- rooms today, they find neat rows of desks occu- pied by children, while a teacher in the front of the room presents a lesson.

photo courtesy of IDEA

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