Democratic School Spotlight: Clearview Sudbury School

unnamed

by Tom Bohman, co-founder, Clearview Sudbury School

Clearview Sudbury School  (CSS) is a democratic school in Austin, Texas that sees dignity and freedom as  essential to human growth and development. As a democracy, CSS ensures that school members’ freedoms and rights  are respected by ensuring each school member has an equal vote in setting and enforcing rules.

Our paths to understanding take many varied and specific forms, which cannot and should not be the same for everyone. Learning motivated by a genuine interest is fundamentally superior to externally motivated learning. When natural learning skills develop properly, every person has the capacity to learn what they need when they encounter that need. Students are free to choose their activities and may spend minutes, months, or years on one interest. Students are the best judges of the quality of their work and of the productivity of their time. They must retain their trust in their own judgement about the worth and quality of their activities. Failure is seen as an important and worthy obstacle, not something aversive or discouraging.

A democratic school environment is an effective means of protecting the rights of all individuals in the school. Being a legitimate part of a democracy provides empowerment and a sense of purpose. Adults are expected to lead, set and achieve goals, and solve problems in meaningful ways. By treating students as full citizens in our democratic community with equal rights as adults we encourage young people to cultivate these qualities for themselves.

The school is operated by the School Meeting. Each student and staff has one vote. The School Meeting utilizes Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct its activity. Meetings occur for typically one to two hours once a week. Here, students and staff debate and decide all matters pertaining to the operation of the school. This includes the creation and amendment of the school rules, the election of staff, the annual budget, and spending school funds.

The School Meeting authorizes a Judiciary Committee (JC) to maintain school rules. Typically, the JC has two students and one staff member. As part of the democratic functioning of the school, students are leaders in holding themselves and other students responsible for their actions. Since students have a voice in determining the rules through the school meeting, students are also given the responsibility of determining whether a rule has been broken. When the JC is asked to investigate a potential problem, they invite all involved parties to provide their side of the story.  After learning as much as they can about what happened, if the student is found to have broken the rule, the JC makes a determination on what action would best help the student learn to respect the rule and restore their standing in the community.

For Example: Let’s say the School meeting votes to set a rule that students must clean up art supplies they use after they are finished. Let’s say that a student named Joe fails to follow these guidelines and leaves a mess.   Another student named Mary goes to use these supplies and asks Joe to clean up the mess. Joe says he doesn’t want to because he is busy in a different activity. Mary can then fill out a complaint form to report the issue. The JC  then will ask Joe and Mary to tell their stories, and may call on other witnesses.  If the JC  determines Joe didn’t follow the rule, they would make their decision known and find an appropriate consequence such as having Joe clean up the supplies if possible, or they may ask Joe not to use the art supplies for a day. The experience from other Sudbury schools is that students are more receptive to feedback from their peers than adults and are more likely to take responsibility for following the rules in the future.  This type of process will be better for Joe in the long run than simple adult direction because it helps Joe recognize and internalize that he is part of the community and needs to follow the rules.  This example would also benefit Mary since she now has a stronger sense that she can act to make sure her own learning is respected. Finally, the JC members learn the value of hearing both sides of the story and determining a fair resolution using due process.

Students are also exposed to the key issues in due process in which JC participants can raise objections to JC members who might have a direct role in a particular situation; there is expectation of speedy resolution of complaints, and that JC decisions can always be appealed to the School Meeting.

Democratic schools prepare students to be adults who are able to guide their own lives and participate in their communities with the skills and ability to pursue their own interests while protecting the rights of others. The Clearview Sudbury School uses elements taken from the original Sudbury Valley School (sudval.org) to treat each student as a full citizen in the school community with equal rights to guide their own lives, the liberty to pursue their own interests, and the responsibility to ensure a positive community in which everyone’s rights are respected.

To learn more about Democratic Schools on the Alternatives To School website–including ones near you–please click here.

Comments

  1. Peter Gray says:

    Thank you, Tom, for this wonderfully clear description of the philosophy and operation of a democratic school.