Treating students as though they’re citizens, with all the rights afforded those who hold this status, seems antithetical to an effective academic environment.
Classroom lessons are developed by professional educators. They know the best methods to help young people learn essential topics.
It’s the job of teachers and administrators to create an atmosphere where children can grow intellectually and emotionally. Having these adults guide the process has worked well for many years.
So allowing students to have a greater voice in how they choose to study doesn’t fit the traditional model of primary and secondary education. But people behind the democratic school movement somehow make this idea work.
“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?” according to the website for Alternatives to School. “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.”
Twenty years ago, Little River Community School in Canton opened its doors to four students. By the end of the year, it had 12 students.
It now serves 33 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Little River is chartered by the state Board of Regents and is a member of the Northeast Association Democratic Education Conference. It employs six teachers.
Little River Director Steve Molnar said the focus is to help young people feel empowered in their educational experience. They make curricular decisions and take ownership of individualized learning plans, according to a story published Friday by the Watertown Daily Times.
“With guidance from parents and teachers, Mr. Molnar said, students at Little River work to design academic coursework as well as extra-curricular activities that align with their personal learning interests,” the story reported. “Behind the school building, a playground and small barn — structures the students constructed — provide outdoor play and learning, and three miniature donkeys are housed in the barn. Students are responsible for barn chores in the rear of the school. And adjacent to the school property sits Birdsfoot Farm, an organic vegetable farm, where Mr. Molnar lives with his wife, Dulli. At Birdsfoot, students often learn about and assist with planting and harvesting.”
Over the past two decades, Little River Community School has shown that a viable alternative to the standard educational model exists — and it has succeeded here in Northern New York. Many of its students have gone on to college and have done well in their post-school lives.
Last year, four juniors opted to complete their high school education elsewhere. Nicholas Bos-Ladd, Clara Maine and Galen Oey-Langen enrolled in the Clarkson School. And Quinn Williams-Bergen finished her senior year in Germany with American Field Service.
The democratic school model has been an experiment in encouraging young people to assume more adult responsibilities. Little River has done an outstanding job in raising humans.
They leave there better prepared to take their place in the larger society, and it’s a real credit to school operators that they’ve done so well.