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.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1


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(3) comments


The American public education system is a total failure. Instead of teaching the 3 R’s it’s experimentation like this that’s the reason NYS schools rank 22nd but ranks 1st in teacher’s salaries. Hmmm, who would have thought that?

Intelligent disobedience is for training dogs with shock collars not children in school...

Holmes -- the real one

"Fake Holmes" -- Quite obviously you are back to that all or nothing thinkin (splitting). In case you are unable to notice, nothing is a "total" anything.

Also obvious is your poor ability to examine and interpret data.

You have already made clear that you don't do much reading -- as you do once again in this comment.

Can you count back change?

Holmes -- the real one

"Classroom lessons are developed by professional educators. They know the best methods to help young people learn essential topics."

Frankly, I don't think this is necessarily true.

With all of our attempts at learning assessment, we have a lot of people coming through the educational system who just are unable to successfully apply all that learning. We have kids who don't know how to ask intelligent questions and who have absorbed the lesson that school is boring and learning means memorizing supposed "facts."

The real test of the success of any education process is whether the person can use and apply what they have learned.

How many of our young adults can't even count back change?

How many of any age are able to make the choice to do what is right over what is expedient (or immediately gratifying)?

How many take personal responsibility for what they do?

We have had ample demonstration that many will follow what they know is wrong rather that apply intelligent disobedience. Is that what we are aiming for? I sincerely hope not.

I applaud this attempt to work within the school system to address some of these issues.

How DOES a person learn these very important lessons?

Here is a book that discusses some of these concerns:

Intelligent Disobedience, Ira Chaleff

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