Green Paper: Shoestring Democratic School 10

I have been thinking a lot about democratic education since starting work on the collaborative blog CoöpCatalyst. If you haven’t yet considered blogging or blogging with an audience of peers dedicated to improving teaching and learning for kids, I urge you to start.

The following represents my best thinking so far about growing democratic education within a public school system, beginning within one classroom. Please comment – this is a green paper, a suggestion, an idea, a vision. It needs work and discussion. I thank you sincerely for your help.

The Shoestring Democratic School (SDS) is a new model for self-directed, project-based learning and student service and entrepreneurship in the public, open-enrollment, chartered middle school. It could start as a pilot program and grow into a charter school or a network of democratic classrooms spread throughout middle schools in a division or region.
The SDS is a one-room-school-house-within-a-school. One full time teacher with multiple endorsements will facilitate students’ project-based learning, students’ interaction with virtual mentors in other disciplines, the school’s operations, the school’s community and parent partnerships, and technology or transportation to and from learning opportunities outside school. Virtual mentors will give blended feedback on content area performance in students’ project-based learning (PBL) work.
The teacher will work with approximately 30 students from 7th and 8th grades. 

Students will learn to think for themselves and learn to use tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They will develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical, moral issues. Through self-initiated activities,  as they direct their lives, they will take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.

Trust and respect willl be the keys to the school’s success. Students and teachers will enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they will gain the internal resources needed to lead effective, productive and responsible lives.
The school will be  a model of democracy: messy, growing, changing, always questioning the role of the individual in society and the role of education for democracy

The SDS will work to

  • Push students successful in a traditional school to seek out opportunities to demonstrate learning in new, unfamiliar contexts closer to those of workplaces, especially in the service and start-up sectors.
  • Innovate and disseminate new models of teaching & learning.
  • Provide school choice to the community.
  • Extend authentic learning outside the classroom.
  • Bring authentic audiences and feedback into the classroom.
  • Disrupt secondary school cultures of compliance and capped curriculum, instruction, and assessment through student activism fostered by honest conversation about schooling during morning meetings and tutorials.
  • Establish a scalable, networked/viral model of democratic education for every division middle school.

Operations, Curriculum, & Instruction
The SDS will share the following services and resources with its host school: a classroom; furniture; a printer; the clinic; the cafeteria; the library; the gymnasium; counselors; classified staff.
Curriculum, instruction, and assessment will come from students’ self-directed projects, as well as from feedback given by educators and expert practitioners. Parents will receive narrative feedback twice quarterly about students’ work, growth, and mastery of standards from their children, the school teacher, and virtual mentors. The school will assess and report students’ mastery of mandated learning standards, but it will not use grades.

Students will have the opportunity to teach and learn from one another organically inside and outside school, as well as by setting up student-run courses and exchanges during morning meetings – daily gatherings dedicated to fostering a school-wide culture of valuing all community members, pursuing excellence, and celebrating and owning our learning.
The school will allow students to use personal electronic devices to build a 1:1 classroom. Surplus hardware, scholarships and donations will be sought from the division and community for students in need of 1:1 learning technology.
The teacher will carry at least 2 core subject endorsements. She will direct the school and facilitate daily learning. She will help students design projects and align learning outcomes to state standards for PBL body of evidence portfolios. She will also help students create daily and weekly schedules for project-management, service to the larger school community, and physical education.
Moreover, the teacher will facilitate student communication with virtual mentors and with volunteer and school-contracted tutors for student-directed language and music learning. Finally, the teacher will be responsible for the fiscal and day-to-day management of the school, with support from the host school and division central office.
Virtual mentors will round out the staff.  These mentors would be highly qualified teachers already at work in the division. Ideally, each would receive a leadership stipend of at least $1500 and an division-subscribed SmartPhone to use for communication with SDS students. These mentors will be expected to make weekly F2F or virtual contact with each student to give guidance in discipline area learning and to assess discipline area work embedded in students’ projects.
The mentors’ credentials will cover endorsements not carried by the teacher. The mentors will serve as teachers of record for the school in their respective areas.
Additionally, the teacher will work with students to manage per-pupil funds for project materials and tutoring in languages and music as required by students’ projects. The teacher will also pursue funding and learning opportunities in financial literacy for students interested in entrepreneurial learning.
To customize their learning space, students will use the red paperclip approach to classroom design and ownership. They will solicit and barter goods and services from home and private business for additional classroom furniture, supplies, materials. The class space will reflect their work and communications needs and wants rather than the teacher’s pedagogy.
Students will spend part of each week on service projects and/or gardening/farming at the host school and/or nearby elementary schools with elementary school buddies.

Learning outside school, including service learning and physical education activities, will be welcomed for sharing and feedback at school with the entire school community.
SDS will reverse middle schools’ loss of parent volunteerism by inviting parents to be tutors and experts in the classroom and to provide micro-field trips for students to local businesses and studios for learning and feedback. Community organizations and local professionals will be invited regularly to contribute to students’ learning at school or on site at their places of operation.

SDS students will share governance of the school with the teacher according to the democratic education model. All community members would work together to establish daily routines, schedules, norms, consequences, and celebrations. Each community member will have an equal vote in setting policies and practices that don’t garner clear consensus.
SDS will have opt-in summer “office hours” for students to continue their learning with school resources. Before its inauguration, the school will have summer hours for students to help design the school and start projects on an opt-in basis.
To showcase and celebrate students’ work and provide the school with a measure of public accountability, the school will have quarterly, whole-day and early evening Expo Days that students will plan and host for parents, school division personnel, and the media. Students will schedule the dates, create promotional materials, make media contacts, design and print invitations, provide refreshments, and arrange the room for Expo Days.
All school community members will work together to provide collaborative professional development to teacher-and-student teams from other schools during the summer. SDS students will prepare round-table and workshop sessions on self-directed learning, project-based learning, service, entrepreneurship, and democratic education for attending teachers and teacher teams. All participants will receive tech for participation and the commitment to implement some level of of PBL, service-learning, student entrepreneurship, and/or democratic education the following year.
Student Activism
Part of the SDS mission will be to engage students in discussions about how school works and how it can work better for all students. Students will learn how to talk about school and resist pressures to be compliant when compliance doesn’t help them learn. Students will learn to challenge their teachers in constructive ways and to suggest learning and assessment alternatives for themselves and peers that are more authentic than traditional schoolwork.
Student Profile

SDS is a public school dedicated to open enrollment and finding best-fit learning opportunities for all students who enroll.

Students likely to experience early success at the SDS might, in some combination:

  • Already be over the game of school.
  • Experience difficulty finding challenging work at school.
  • Experience difficulty learning through traditional instruction, especially in the traditional amounts of time given to it.
  • Experience difficulty demonstrating learning through traditional assessments.
  • Frequently challenge or mistrust the structures of school.
  • Experience social pressure to dumb down his or her work or affect.
  • Pursue a life-long learning passion that doesn’t fit into the traditional school day.
  • Be willing to exchange authentic responsibilities for authentic freedoms in learning.
  • Exhibit an aptitude and appetite for service learning and/or entrepreneurship.
  • Experience anxiety in competitive and/or large-school settings that keeps him or her from fully engaging in or demonstrating learning.

SDS will use the following pieces of assessment for state accredidation and division-level accountability.

  • Fall & Spring norm-referenced, growth-model literacy and math testing.
  • Published projects & critiques.
  • Expo Days.
  • Body of evidence binders written into an alternative accredidation plan to provide students with an opt-in alternative to standardized testing.

SDS will require the following resources:

  • Shared services as part of existing, recurring operational costs at a host school.
  • 1 FTE for director.
  • X mid-range leadership stipends for X highly qualified teachers serving as virtual mentors.
  • SmartPhones & subscriptions for virtual mentors.
  • Per pupil costs allocated to the school for ordering student supplies as needed by students’ projects.

If these resources are not available, the teacher will pursue teacher volunteers and/or federal and private funding to open the school pending approval from the division and board.
Additional Revenue

Students will have regular opportunities and encouragement to raise funds for the school, its projects, and organizations that benefit communities such as a local food bank or Kiva. Student work may be sold or licensed, and instructional materials created by school community members for projects or professional development may be recorded and serialized through services like Supercool School to bring modest revenue to the school’s work and a greater sense of ownership over the school to its students.

During the summer after its first year, the SDS will train virtual mentors in core content areas to establish their own one-room democratic schools the following year. Each teacher in the network will serve the other democratic schools as a content-area virtual mentor, as well, thus brining each core teacher participant’s student-load to approximately 90 kids. At this point, teachers might establish a weekly rotation to substitute for one another in order to confer with virtually mentored students at other school sites.
During the school’s second summer and third year the first cohort of teachers will train another network of teachers to open one-room democratic schools for the fourth year of the network. Thus, by the network’s fourth year, depending on the distribution of participating teachers, each middle school in a division or feeder pattern could have its own democratic classroom. 
As local and state revenues recover and opportunities for charter funding increase, the model could be scaled more quickly into a larger school with a core faculty and perhaps 100 students housed in space aligned to the needs of project-based democratic education.

10 thoughts on “Green Paper: Shoestring Democratic School

  1. Reply Joe Bower May 16, 2010 1:45 pm

    Chad, this looks very interesting. I find that education may come down to uber personalization – and so I wonder if we all will be making our own green papers to tailor our own education.

    I do have one What the Hell? Why are you using norm-referenced exams? Please tell me you mean criterion-referenced?!

    Thanks for sharing,


    • Reply Chad May 16, 2010 6:57 pm

      Thanks, Joe – here’s what I had in mind for division-level testing:

      What do you think? The percent score is normative, but the achievement and growth scores are aligned to content area achievement, and growth is tracked over time. Would elaborating on the nature of the specific test I have in mind help the proposal? Or does it still count as a What the Hell? test?

      The green paper doesn’t go far enough away from standardized testing, but in starting a public school it’s important to use some measure outside the school to verify its viability for stake-holders.

      I guess the question is – thinking here of Kirsten’s conversation with Ron Miller – do you start a “school” completely outside the box or try to start a school inside the box that has a wormhole to somewhere outside the box. What level of compromise and alliance with the existing school structures is acceptable in negotiating the opportunity to do something different?

      All the best,

  2. Reply Michael Josefowicz May 17, 2010 6:38 am

    You’ve put a lot on the table to digest. But well worth the time. For now, I want to put just two thoughts on the table.

    Is the single teacher the best way to go?

    My experience is that the best way to create a scalable model is to have a team of three teachers.

    From what I’ve seen it’s very hard to scale only one teacher. The problem is separating the effect of the idiosyncratic skills and approach of the individual from the essential characteristics of the “protocol of educational therapy.”

    I use the medical metaphor becuase I think it might be a useful thought model to get to the underlying necessary changes. As in medicine, getting a second opinion and a specialist’s advice might be just what’s needed.

    As in medicine, the issue is a defined protocol with diagnostics and minimally invasive interventions.

    I see many more useful analogies, if you find it interesting to pursue, please @ DM . If you think appropriate and useful I would be glad to continue the convo in this thread.
    (I don’t see an email alert. So if you could @ me as appropriate, that would be really helpful.)

    • Reply Chad May 17, 2010 8:48 am

      I agree with you, Michael, that a team would b better able to share-out and scale-up the work in a consistent way. My quandary here is how to start up and minimize the budgetary impact of the SDS on a host school or school division. Even funding one additional teacher right now is a fiscally and politically fraught enterprise with the amount of staff RIFed this spring. One idea is to use virtual mentors during the first year who become the team of teachers during the second year. Another idea would be to start with the team.

      If the paper gains traction somewhere and practical details like that get hammered out, I’ll be sure to update this comment thread.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thinking – I would love to find funding for a team.

      All the best,

  3. Reply Michael Josefowicz May 17, 2010 8:57 am

    I wonder if you might consider 3 teachers and 150 kids.

    I know it sounds a bit crazy, but I bet there is a way to make it work by offering mentored apprenticeship to edu students at a local teachers college.

    They get invaluable experience and work with the teaching teams “teaching assistants.” They get paid in credit from a com college.

    If the online environment is Open Source the tech is free. It means a student-teacher ratio of 1 to 50. What school board wouldn’t try that?

  4. Reply monika hardy May 29, 2010 6:55 am

    very cool Chad.
    so similar to the district innovation lab we are starting this fall… well actually just now – as you said – because of optional summer start-ups.

    parent involvement has been great. ie: for expert tutors in foreign language a couple parents are native speakers… they are reading the books along with us (linchpin, the element, rework, diy u)

    another example for an expert tutor.. one girl wants to be a neuro surgeon.. so we applied for an nsf fellow from a local uni and got it – she will be meeting with her fellow one week this summer.

    amazing.. the similarities… the main differences.. at this point… we hadn’t come up with a stipend for expert tutors… that’s a great idea.

    currently – we have 50+ kids signed up. our plan to scale involves video logging.. which will then become prof development for teachers passionate about taking it on in future years.
    we are also working with a group of pre-teachers from a local uni… for added support to us.. but also to promote authentic pre-teacher training.

    we have a 4 year plan to scale.. would love to skype or live chat sometime.

  5. Reply kirsten olson Jun 5, 2010 12:02 pm

    Hey Chad, I’m just getting here. Thank you for this vision.


    1) How would the SDS model handle kids who are very underskilled? (2-3 grade levels behind. These are often some of the most wounded learners.) Would the school still be attractive to them? Would it serve them?
    2) I have worked with some schools sort of like this. (They exist, really.) what I find over the course of time is that they gradually move toward wanting more and more “traditional” kinds of students, who are already pretty skilled up, because it’s easier for the teachers and less stressful for the community. Mostly what this means is white, upper middle class kids with pretty groovy and or/well informed parents constellate there. How do we keep reform efforts moving towards that 40 million or so kids who do not have these supports/capitalizations coming into school? That’s how KIPP kinds of schools came to be, answering just that question. (Have you ever gone to a KIPP school by the way? Kids love them. Parents love them.)
    3) How do we COOP CATS and other reform minded folks keep our efforts moving out into the mainstream, not just serving those who are most likely to understand and like what we are doing and thinking?

    Also in solidarity and admiration,


    • Reply Chad Jun 5, 2010 1:29 pm

      Kirsten, your questions come at a great time. We’ve just finished our annual testing and I just finished reading about Gattengo’s math lesson in Holt’s How Children Fail.

      How would the SDS handle kids who arrive unskilled? This question begs a multi-faceted answer.

      First, the SDS will do a better job than some traditional public schools (TPS) because, like Gattengo, it will help kids learn through their smarts, rather than enroll them in course after course meant to fix their weaknesses. The SDS will use its expert mentors and students’ interests to scaffold the “basics” work that any student needs to meet his or her learning goals and create excellent work. The SDS teacher needs to understand that inquiry isn’t just about content and product, its about access and interplay between students’ smarts, their passions, and the content, processes, and products of their learning.

      How would these kids get to the SDS? Through determined recruitment effortds that SDS teachers make in a division’s schools and within a division’s community. The teacher will have to present the school as an alternative for all students frustrated in TPS, not just for those bumping against its ceilings. There will have to be community education about the school, including student and parent testimonials from those who have participated in the school. Mentors and experts will need to come, in part, from the immediate community, to voice its dreams for students and to serve as ambassadors from the schools back in the community. Parents of traditionally underserved studentds who enroll their kids in the school will need to be invited to be a part of its life ion a regular basis so they, too, can inform its learning and teach other parents about how the school works. The SDS has to be inviting to all, trasnparent to all, and accountable to all through that transparency. All of the educators involved have to be willing to shelve plans and preconceived notions of their roles so that they can adapt to students’ needs for student-directed learning.

      Any new school that remains closed, metaphorically, to the greater community, faces an uphill battle in recruitment and loses the chance to voice its own story to the community through community members.

      I have not made it to a KIPP school yet, but have read and watched everything that comes my way. I have also talked friends who are or who have been KIPP teachers. I know that I’m no authoirty on KIPP schools. I acknowledge that I’m strident in my criticism of them, despite all safety and structure they provide for their students. KIPP schools are clearly fulfilling community needs and wants for college prep education for underserved students, but they present their own issues. I often wonder what would happen if the all went full-PBL over night and geared those extra hours of instruction, planning, and indoctrintation to the arts, entrepreneurship, service, portfolios, and performances. They have powerful branding and totemic significance in current #edreform debate. I would love to sponspor a KIPP and/or college-prep dicussion on the Coöp between us, KIPP devotees, and critics, all of whom I think would be glad to participate and easily recrruitable via Twitter.

      I will confess that I have a particular spot in mind for my SDS, if I ever launch it, right in the heart of mainstream education. I encourage us to partner with divisions that have excess space due to underenrollment and to launch sane education programs in schools otherwise operating as intended by the system. In some cases, I bet new programs – especially those that bring some money – could help districts side-step the political pit-falls of redistricting and consolidation.

      An aside:

      Let’s also recognize that traditional public schools don’t serve underskilled students well. Nor do they serve traditional or “honors” track students well. They deliver a curriculum in return for compliance. It’s a devil’s bargain. It’s ghost-enrollment: “white, upper middle class kids with pretty groovy and or/well informed parents constellate” constellate in different parts of traditional public schools than peers from less privileged backgrounds.

      If we had the compassion and guts as a country to take on the system, we wouldn’t be side-tracked in the public vs. charter debate.

      You know who siphons funds from public schools and the underserved? Their own most privileged graduates who consume the most innovative teaching, the most materials-driven #artsed opportunities, and the widest variety of niche courses.

      Traditional public schools have their own shadow-charters called tracks. If traditional public schools functioned more like a SDS and leveraged students’ strenghts and passions in their learning, they would better serve all students and interrupt the interdependent cycles of endless remediation and disengagement.

      Heh. Sorry :)

  6. Reply Chad May 16, 2010 12:06 pm

    Thanks for the question, Gayla -

    As I tweeted, the SDS differs in several ways.

    The SDS serves a middle school population, rather than an elementary one, though Montessori methods can be applied to middle grades, too.
    The SDS is shaped in all ways by the learning needs and wants of its students; it is not a prepared environment.
    The SDS prepares students for an activist life in education and democracy, not necessarily a practical one.
    The SDS foster co-learning between students, between students and teachers, and between the classroom and its community and world. The SDS does not depend on observation and indirect teaching.
    The SDS bridges self-directed learning and mandated standards.
    The SDS is a public, open-enrollment school dedicated to undoing school wounding and working with all students who enroll. The SDS is not a separate movement that holds itself apart from public education, but a democratic and joyful embodiment of it.

    I would add further that the SDS asks students to choose to enroll based on how they see themselves as learners. The school asks kids to buy-in to democratic, project-based education. Enrollment in the SDS is less a philosophical, parental choice, and more an experiential, student-selected one.

    How else can I better articulate the SDS vision?

    Thanks for your help!

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