Imagine a school where children and teenagers are accorded all the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship; where students truly practice, rather than just read about, the principles of free speech, free association, and freedom to choose their own activities; where students vote on the rules that affect them, and serve on juries to try those accused of violating those rules. What better training than this to prepare students for democratic citizenship?
Many people are skeptical that such a school could work. They wonder whether children and teenagers, given such power, would make reasonable decisions, either for the school as an institution or for themselves as individuals. Yet many such schools exist, and by all reasonable measures, they have proven successful. Some of them have existed for decades, and they serve students from as young as four, all the way through the teenage years. Such schools have produced many hundreds of graduates, who have gone on to success in all walks of life.
How Democratic Schools Operate
A democratic school, as the term is used on this site, is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities and associate with whom they please. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not. Most such schools accept students across a wide range of ages (commonly age four through the late teens) and do not segregate students by age, so that students can learn from interacting with others who are older and younger than themselves.
“A radical change is going to be needed to get a learning system fit for a democracy. It needs to get away from domination and its endless stream of uninvited teaching. It needs to recognize that, in a democracy, learning by compulsion means indoctrination and that only learning by invitation and choice is education.” Roland Meighan
The staff members at a democratic school are there to help, not direct. They are the adult members of the school community. They bring to the community their experiences, wisdom and long-term commitment to the school and its students. In some democratic schools, the staff are hired and fired by a procedure in which each student and staff member has one vote, so that those who do not serve students’ needs can be voted out. Staff members teach, in the broad sense of the term, but generally don’t call themselves “teachers,” because there is recognition that students learn at least as much from one another—as they play, explore, socialize and work together—as they do from the adults.
Democratic schools are governed democratically, usually at weekly school meetings at which each student and staff member has one vote. The school meeting typically legislates all rules of behavior at the school and works out procedures for enforcing them, typically involving a jury composed of school members of all ages.
In short, a democratic school is a democratically governed setting for self-directed learning, in which students have the advantage of an age-mixed community of friends and colleagues with whom and from whom to learn.
Videos Showing How Democratic Schools Operate:
Here are a few excellent videos that describe and depict the operation of democratic schools.
Videos About the Sudbury Valley School
The Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Mass., is one of the world’s oldest and most fully documented democratic schools. It has been operating continuously since 1968, and many other democratic schools around the world are modeled on it.
- Introduction to Sudbury Valley
A three-minute video in which students discuss their experiences while viewers see slides showing student activities.
- Sudbury Valley School: Focus and Intensity
This 13-minute, professionally produced video focuses on how students learn at the school.
- Sudbury Valley School
- This nine-minute introduction, originally prepared by the UK Department of Education for their “Teachers TV” series, includes an interview with educational philosopher and school founder Daniel Greenberg.
- Sudbury Valley School Meeting
A four-minute video showing how the school meeting operates.
- Sudbury Valley Judicial Committee
This six-minute video gives viewers an idea of how the school’s jury system operates.
A complete set of 32 videos on Sudbury Valley, including speeches by alumni, can be found here.
Videos About Other Democratic Schools or About Democratic Schooling in General
This 21-minute film by Arvind Gupta is about the famous Summerhill School, a democratic boarding school in England, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921. Summerhill has served as an inspiration for most of the democratic schools that have opened since then.
- Voices from the New American Schoolhouse
This is a 10-minute trailer for a longer film about the Fairhaven School in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. It features students talking about their experiences.
- Democratic Schools
In this 30-minute video, staff members from democratic schools around the world describe what they mean by democratic education, and viewers also see scenes of students. To start the video, skip to about the 5:45-minute mark.
- Make Your Voices Heard: Discover Democratic Education
This inspirational, 2.5-minute, cartoon-like film, produced by IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) is more about the failure of conventional schooling than about democratic schooling. It presents the reasons for considering democratic schooling.
Articles About How Students Learn in Democratic Schools
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What Children Get in Democratic Schools (Mothering Magazine)
- Education: Class Dismissed (Psychology Today magazine)
- Sudbury: The Unschooling Schools (blog post)
- Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School. A research article, from the American Journal of Education, about the educational roles of age mixing at Sudbury Valley School.
Essays About Democratic Schooling from the “Freedom to Learn” blog on PsychologyToday.com
- Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley
- The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education
- Freedom from Bullying: How a School Can Be a Moral Community
- Our Social Obligation: Educational Opportunities, Not Coercion
Books About Democratic Schooling
The classic on this subject is A. S. Neill’s, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960), about the school he started in England in 1921.
Other books, mostly about the philosophy, practices and experiences of the Sudbury Valley School, can be found at the Bookstore page of the Sudbury Valley School’s website. A classic that served as a manifesto for the school’s founding is The Crisis in American Education. Among the other most popular books, which depict life at the school, are Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School Experience, and Kingdom of Childhood.
Evidence for the Educational Effectiveness of Democratic Schools
Democratic schools don’t test students, because they hold that each person’s education is unique and personal, and that the very act of testing interferes with self-motivation and self-direction. Students who wish to apply to a selective college or university, however, commonly study for and take the SAT or ACT as part of their application process, and follow-up studies of graduates suggest that they have no particular difficulty doing this. The best evidence for the educational effectiveness of democratic schools comes from the testimonials of the schools’ graduates and from systematic follow-up studies of graduates.
Three quite thorough follow-up studies have been conducted of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School, which is the largest (and one of the oldest) democratic schools in the United States. The first of these studies, conducted by Boston College researchers, was published in 1986 in the American Journal of Education and is available here. Two other studies were conducted more recently by the school itself and have been published by the Sudbury Valley School Press: Legacy of Trust: Life After the Sudbury Valley Experience and The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni.
Taken as a whole, the studies show that the school’s graduates have been highly successful in their higher education (for those who chose that route) and careers. They have gone on to all walks of life that are valued in our society and report that they feel advantaged because of the sense of personal responsibility, self-control, continued zest for learning, and democratic values they acquired at Sudbury Valley.
More evidence can be found in a set of 14 short videos called The Lives of Alumni, based on talks given by Sudbury Valley alumni as part of the school’s celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2008. They feature a variety of people, who have gone on in various walks of life, talking about their experiences at the school and their experiences since graduation. (To see the video, click on the arrow in the top row of videos here.)
A couple of other research studies have documented a relationship between the opportunity for students’ democratic participation in school and their attitudes toward themselves and toward learning. One of these, known as the Hannam Report, based on a survey of 12 UK schools by former school inspector Derry Hannam, suggests a positive effect of student involvement in school governance on self-esteem, empowerment and motivation to learn. Another relevant study, here, was conducted in Israel and shows that the decline in interest in science that occurs regularly in conventional schools did not occur in democratic schools.
A List of Democratic Schools in North America
A democratic school, as the term is used on this site, is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities and associate with whom they please. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not. Generally, evaluation is in the form of self-evaluation by the learner herself. Most of these schools accept students across a wide range of ages (commonly age four through the late teens) and do not segregate students by age, so that students can learn from interacting with others who are older and younger than themselves.
Below is a partial list of democratic schools in North America. Each organization listed on this page is a “school” and recognized as such by the locality in which it operates. They are not homeschool resource centers, parent cooperatives, unschooling groups, North Star models or other variations of alternatives to compulsory schooling. Those important alternatives can be found elsewhere on our site.
If you believe that your school is in accordance with our aforementioned definition, please contact us.
2132 Hamilton Ave, North Vancouver, BC, CANADA, V7P 2M3
Alpha II Alternative School
1141 Bloor St W, Toronto ON, CANADA, M6H 1M9
6625 North 1st Ave, Tucson, Arizona 85718
Leeway Sudbury School
3660 Madison Ave, San Diego, CA 92116
Diablo Valley School
2924 Clayton Rd, Concord, CA 94519
Alpine Valley School
4501 Parfet St, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033
Mountain Laurel Sudbury School
147 West Main St., Berlin, CT 06052
2458 Grassroots Way, Tallahassee, FL 32311
Spring Valley School
2109 Nebraska Ave., Palm Harbor, FL 34683
Sunset Sudbury School
4200 NW 66th Ave, Davie, FL 33024
Sudbury School of Atlanta
3260 Covington Highway, Decatur, GA 30032
Tallgrass Sudbury School
82 Woodside Rd, Riverside, IL 60546
17900 Queen Anne Rd, Upper Marlboro, MD 20774
Arts & Ideas Sudbury School
5801 Harford Rd, Baltimore, MD 21214
Sudbury Valley School
2 Winch St, Framingham, MA 01701
The Jersey Shore Free School
36 Birch Ave, Little Silver, NJ 07739
South Mountain Co-op
240 Franklin Ave, Maplewood, NJ 07040
The Tutorial School
400 Brunn School Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505
Agile Learning Center @ Manhattan Free School
115 East 106th St., Second Floor, New York, NY 10029
Brooklyn Free School
372 Clinton Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Harriet Tubman Democratic High School
59 Elizabeth St, Albany, NY 12202
The Albany Free School
8 Elm St, Albany, NY 12202
Hudson Valley Sudbury School
84 Zena Rd, Kingston, NY 12401
Eugene Sudbury School
2370 Parliament St, Eugene, OR 97405
The Village Free School
1800 SE Water Ave, Portland, OR 97214
The Circle School
210 Oakleigh Ave, Harrisburg, PA 17111
The Philadelphia Free School
2001 Christian St, Philidelphia, PA 19146
Clearview Sudbury School
1507 Wilshire Blvd, Austin, TX 78722
The Sego Lily School
1533 E. Murray-Holladay Rd, Salt Lake City, UT 84117
2807 North Augusta St, Staunton, VA 24401
The Clearwater School
1510 196th St. SE, Bothell, WA 98012
The Trillium School
PO Box 492, Indianola, WA 98342
98 Sycamore Springs Ln, Ellenboro, WV 26346