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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Democracy in Action: Students Step Up as Key Decision Makers

These high school students join their newly formed community council and get the chance to help govern their school.
By Roberta Furger

VIDEO: First-Class Citizens: Civics Isn't Just a Class

Running Time: 7 min.

For the students and staff of Hudson High School, in Hudson, Massachusetts, civics isn't just a class. It's part and parcel to everyday life at this New England high school, which has become a laboratory of democracy, challenging widely held assumptions about how schools can and should operate.

Several years ago, when the district set out to build a new high school facility, Superintendent Sheldon Berman, longtime principal John Stapelfeld, and the entire Hudson High community embarked on a journey that would take them to uncharted waters.

Credit: Edutopia

Their mission: to plan and build a school whose design would encourage a sense of community among its occupants and to move into the new facility after having laid the groundwork for a bold new experiment in school governance in which students have a say in the big and little decisions that make up school life.

At the core of Hudson's grand experiment is the community council, a committee consisting of elected students and staff that is responsible for making many decisions at Hudson typically left to the school principal or a faculty committee to decide. Meeting once a month, the committee (led by a student, rather than a teacher) discusses and recommends policy on everything from dress codes to lunchtime fare to parking policies and more.

"Everyone on the council speaks with an equal voice," says Brian Daniels, a teacher at Hudson and executive to the Hudson High School Community Council. "It took a long time to get everyone ready for the change," he adds. Hudson students and staff discussed the new governance idea for two years before holding their first Community Council meeting.

Credit: Edutopia

One of the biggest challenges for students and staff was the shift of thinking -- and, in some ways, the shift in power -- that needed to occur in order for the Community Council to be effective.

"It really pushes me to look at whose opinion should be valued more," reflects Sean Tanney, a Hudson graduate and head of the Community Council last year. "When the teacher says something, you normally think of it as right, and if a student says something, you always look to the teacher to reconfirm that," said Tanney. "However, in Community Council, whoever says something, it's automatically valid, regardless of who said it."

The Community Council is governed by a three-page constitution, which lays out terms of service for representatives, election procedures, responsibilities, and areas of authority, which include "all matters at Hudson High School not controlled by school board policy, state policy, administrative regulations established by the Superintendent of Schools, and the collective bargaining agreement." The principal can veto council decisions, but the council can override the veto by a two-thirds majority vote, a move that triggers the creation of a Board of Conciliation, which includes the district superintendent, a Community Council member, and a third person with expertise in the area under question.

Credit: Channel One News

Although the Hudson Public Schools has received considerable praise for its initiative (the district is part of the First Amendment Schools project), it's also opened itself up to more scrutiny, perhaps, than the typical U.S. high school. Hudson's administration found itself in the middle of a controversy last year when students from the school's Conservative Club accused Principal Stapelfeld of violating their right to free speech when he removed a reference to a Web site he considered inappropriate (they featured videos of beheadings of hostages by Iraqi terrorists).

Boards of Conciliation and lawsuits over free speech violations may sound like more than most superintendents would bargain for. But to Berman, the debate and day-to-day practice at democracy brings the school and the district one step closer to fulfilling the true mission of public education.

"I always believed that the primary mission of public education is to develop effective citizens," says Berman. "Our efforts, both instructionally and in the very structure of the governance system we've developed, are designed to complicate students' thinking," and to help then learn to appreciate and listen to diverse opinions and perspectives.

"If we do those two things," says Berman, "they will become good citizens, and I think they'll also become better people."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bruce Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will admit, I'm impressed that a conventional school would go even this far in granting students a voice in school management. However, it remains difficult to see this as more than a limited, if interesting, experiment.

Putting students and their teachers on the same advisory panel is nice, but having taught high school, I can assure you that teachers have scarcely more more power than students in conventional schools. An administration doling out bits of democracy hardly represents a radical change.

As evidenced by schools following the Sudbury model, real democracy in education has no arbitrary limits, and extends to all aspects of school governance, not simply those which school administrators find innocuous.

Bruce Smith, President
The Center for Advancing Sudbury Education

Jen Schwartz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must echo Mr. Smith's comments. While this school is taking steps in the right direction - that direction being the one in which all people have an equal say in the important aspects of their lives, work, and educations - a school council such as this one is only a baby step. Not only do I question how much power and authority this council has, but I also must wonder how many students are actually able to participate.
In my own high school experience, student council members were a bunch of popular kids. While they certainly weren't discussing anything as important as the council at Hudson High, it was a body of power limited to those with the popularity to get elected. Similarly, I wonder who is able to serve on Hudson's council?
I applaud the steps this school is taking, and yet, as Mr. Smith said, I simply don't think it's gone far enough.

Kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school doesn't give teachers nor students this much of a say in the way our school is ran. I would like to see more of these programs across the nation. I think we need to understand when critiquing these programs that the system in Massachusetts may not work as effectively in urban America, or even small town Mississippi where I live.

Kevin R.
Jackson, MS Metropolitan Area

Elizabeth Scheib's picture

I'm glad to see more public schools taking the bold step into democratic education which has a century old successful history largely in private schools. Check out edrev.org for more information on democratic schools (public and private) around the U.S. and world. I'm working to get a public democratic school here in New Mexico (Albuquerque area) and would love to connect with any like-minded educators for insight and advice and (locally) as team members.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

It is potentially more effective, particularly for urban students who are often the most disenfranchised & therefore see the most value in having a voice at the table. One example is Second Foundation School an urban, diverse school which accepts all students thereby functioning as any public school would, http://secondfoundationschool.wordpress.com/

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

Your concerns are spot on, for nearly a century there have existed Free Schools where each person (staff and students) gets one vote on all matters without any adult veto power, however I personally applaud all efforts which take us a step towards a system which practices what it preaches, democracy.

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