Did you get one of these?
Narrator: Once a month, a group of students and teachers at Hudson High School on the outskirts of Boston meet to discuss school issues.
Okay, just a few quick announcements, and then we'll move on to issues of cluster accountability, a report from that team, and the dress code.
Narrator: In this community council, when it comes time to vote, students have the final say, over everything from the school's dress code to the menu in the cafeteria.
I'm fuzzy on when there's conflict. How is the resolution actually worked out?
These are all simple majority procedures.
Sean: Normally, when you think of the classroom, if 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. However, in community council, it's now whoever says it, it's automatically valid.
The community council decided that there would be no credits, but still, Doctor Berman wanted some sort of accountability.
Sheldon: Public education was formed because the country wanted to develop a public from which a democracy could thrive, an educated, thoughtful, concerned public. That's, I think, the primary mission that we still have in public education. It's the melding of different perspectives. It's the bringing together of different viewpoints.
Narrator: As one of twenty schools in the nation to take part in the First Amendment Schools Project, Hudson forces teachers to take a back seat in the council's democratic process.
Brian: I'm biting my tongue all the time. "Oh, yeah, I know the solution to that." But that's not how this system is designed to work, but that we find the solution together.
A move to a straw vote. All those in favor...
Narrator: For a school of 1,000 students, it's a challenge to get everyone to come together around any issue.
Narrator: So the school decided to break the student body down into groups of 100. Called clusters, the self-organized groups meet one period each week to pursue non-academic interests, everything from soup to knots.
Oh, I messed up again.
Eleni: We were thinking of interest groups for the clustering that we're doing, and so we thought, well, why not have them knit hats for the homeless, and we put out some sign-up sheets, and someone came and said we had to stop the sign-up sheets because so many kids were signing up. And so we called the senior citizens and asked for help, and I thought it would be a lovely opportunity for one generation to make friends with another generation.
Fran: People will say to you, "High-school kids? Whoa!" But it's not "whoa." I don't see any "whoa" at any age. I think they're good kids, really good.
I like it because it relieves stress, and I play hockey and I have a lot of stress.
Sheldon: It's very important that we personalize the high-school education for adolescents. They are at a time when they need not only the academic skills and knowledge that they're learning, but they need to be in an environment that's a caring environment.
We need more berries.
Narrator: In the wellness cluster, students practice everything from meditation to meal preparation.
Julie: This group over here is trying to make healthy ways to cook, and something that will give them nutrient value. And our interest group gives them opportunities, and they get involved in something that they're passionate about, hopefully, and in our case, it's the idea of wellness.
Narrator: To allow students the freedom to pursue their passions on their own schedule, Hudson created the Virtual High School. For Zoe McNealy, it means being able to pursue her Olympic skating dreams in the morning and her coursework any time of day or night.
Nancy: Zoe has been doing the VHS classes since she was a freshman at Hudson High School, and it has enabled her to leave school during the day so that she could skate on an ice surface that didn't have 20 children skating on it.
Zoe: So I can log on anywhere that has Internet access, so it allows me to either access the work at competitions or I can access it when I come home and get the work done that I missed without really missing anything.
Narrator: Virtual High School is now a consortium of 364 high schools in the U.S. and 18 foreign countries, offering more than 200 courses over the Internet.
Man: We wanted to provide opportunities for students to take advanced courses, to take specialized courses, to try to accelerate their learning.
Student: This is almost like a textbook. All of my controls are here.
Narrator: For Zubin Patel, VHS means taking advanced computer science courses, like cryptography, at home.
Zubin: The VHS basically allows me to take these courses that aren't offered at school. It means extra work. It means staying up some nights 'til three in the morning doing VHS work, but, you know, you have to do what you have to do.
Narrator: While the Virtual High School allows students to explore courses that aren't normally offered at Hudson, it is no substitute for real-world lessons learned there every day.
Could you do a bit of background information?
Sheldon: I don't believe you can have a completely virtual education. I think the social environment of the high school is an important environment. I think it's important that we mix the two.
Narrator: The council lived a lesson in the First Amendment when it considered the rights of a student conservative club.
Reporter: So how far does the First Amendment go? Students here at Hudson are now testing those limits. One school club says it has the right to freedom of expression, but school administrators say that expression may be too extreme.
Narrator: In posters hung at the school, the club tried to recruit new members by directing them to an Internet site that featured Iraq beheading videos.
There were some relatively inflammatory things on the site, videos that were showing Islamic terrorist beheadings.
Within a day of putting up those posters with the website, the school takes down the posters and tells us to censor them.
The administration may not have handled it the best way, but I do think it was within their right to say, "We don't want this hung up in our school."
Sheldon: That is what democracy is about, those kinds of controversy, those kinds of questions, and I think our students will walk away, I hope, feeling that they had the opportunity to voice those kinds of differences.
Sean: It creates a community that can think, can reason, can hold disagreeing opinions but still be civic about it.
Brian: We're doing something unique in the nation and people are noticing it and it's not always easy. In fact, it's not easy at all. But I think it's worth doing. I'm proud to be part of it with you all.
Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to Edutopia.org.