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«THE LUCKIEST LITTLE HIGH SCHOOL: THE POSSIBILITIES AND PANGS OF COMMUNITY DEMOCRACY Introduction The rapid transformation of a secondary school from ...»

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Dorinne Dorfman Planning and Changing

Vol. 35, No. 3&4, 2004, pp. 143–153




The rapid transformation of a secondary school from a bureaucrati-

cally regimented institution to a student-centered learning environment

advocating democratic practices merits review. During its third year of pro- gressive reform, this gem was discovered among the ashes of high-stakes assessment and corporate infiltration in public education. I will share my observations of what I have come to regard as the luckiest little high school, its achievements, contradictions, challenges, and promises. This study emphasizes the rapid revolution of a small rural school characterized by conformity and compliance to an artistically and democratically expressive student center for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual engagement.

In Pursuit of Democratic Education My initial interest lay in the practices of school leaders who had forged major efforts to ensure democratic involvement for secondary stu- dents. American educational theorists have contributed a century of litera- ture that grounds the focal tenets of a community democratic school. These include student ownership of curricular content and activities (Apple & Beane, 1995; Dewey, 1944; Giroux, 1997; Meier, 1995), the formation of a multicultural perspective (Apple & Beane, 1995; Calabrese & Barton, 1994;

Denith, 1997; Dixon, 1998; Giroux, 1997; Kanpol, 1992; Maxcy, 1998), and structures of governance to gain critical community consciousness (Apple & Beane, 1995; Giroux, 2000; Giroux & McLaren, 1986; Johnson & Pajares, 1996; Rusch, 1994).

These ideals are often muddied in the busy world of distracted administrators, constrained teachers, and hurried children. However it is my intent to appreciate the democratic reforms underway at the school of which I have become so enamored. While I will divulge the inconsistencies observed, analysis will concentrate on the source of its success. Hence I take liberty in ordaining the luckiest little high school.

Research Inquiry The purpose of the research of which this study was a part was to engage secondary school administrators, who were responsible for discipli- nary matters, in “critical conversations about democracy” within their local educational system (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003, p. 3). Pursuing qualitative inquiry as a non-participant observer (Creswell, 2002), I conducted observa- tions and interviews in four schools in order to elucidate the underpinning philosophy that these deans of students put into practice. Utilizing Lewis and Maruna’s (1994) concept of a “person as the unit of analysis” (p. 232), I shadowed each of the four professionals at work for a period of four to eight hours and thereafter conducted a standardized open-ended interview (Patton, 1990). In addition, the members of a standing student leadership com

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mittee or an adhoc group of active students chosen by the dean were interviewed. Finally, in three schools I observed a governance council which included students as participants in the decision-making process. The fourth school, though it practiced progressive teaching methods, did not maintain such as structure.

While I engaged in the research design and analysis from a critical theoretical perspective, which ultimately focused my attention on an emerging community school democracy in one low-income district, I refrained from exploring the third level of this approach, which is taking action (Glesne, 1999). However, Moustakas (1994) suggests that phenomenological study requires the researcher to discover “a topic and question rooted in autobiographical meanings and values, as well as social meanings and significance” (p. 103). In this sense, I share the aspirations of the study participants; I hope to follow their example in becoming a school principal committed to the common good. My current charge was to learn from their leadership model, their views, and their practices. Not a consultant, I neither passed judgment nor attempted to solve problems. Instead I sought collegial trust through a gentle probing of their notions on education.

Once data collection was complete, I employed an interpretative lens to reconcile “what is really present with what is imagined as present from the vantage point of possible meanings” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 27). The perspectives involved included those of the deans, their interviewed students, and my own observations. One administrator, George, whom I spotlight in this article, demonstrated significant cleavages between his pedagogical convictions and his actualized practice. Nevertheless, his initiative had measurably advanced the democratic participation of his students at the highest levels of decision making.

Methods of Exclusion

Administrators and students in four secondary schools noted for progressive practices were interviewed. Two were public and two were private, and all were located in northern New England. The public institutions were predictably more connected to their surrounding communities unto which they were pedagogically and financially accountable. The “parent communities” in the private schools, characterized by an elite corps of professionals desiring a sheltered environment for their offspring, lacked this local liability. Children not only had to apply for admission, they were also reminded of their “choice” in attending. In one interview, an administrator shared, “What I say to kids is based on the standards and assumptions I feel are appropriate.

I’m the adult. It’s my decision to make, and sorry if you don’t like it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” The idea that education is conditionally selective, and that powerful adults can determine a student’s fate without due process, is anathema to democracy. This exclusivity lessened my intrigue in the two private institutions, both of which utilized that practice. While I viewed a similar student-centered governing structure at both a private and a public school, I chose to focus on the public institution for its requisite inclusiveness. Indeed, the effort to engage a socioeconomically and culturally heterogeneous community in a compulsory educational system may distinguish 144 Planning and Changing The Luckiest Little High School true efforts in creating liberty and egalitarianism for all.

The two public secondary schools I observed differed in democratic practice and economic status. One school was less than a decade old, and was designed from its inception to mirror a liberal democratic form, in which governance is limited to a small circle familiar with pertinent issues and invested in their outcomes (Beane, 1990; Dixon, 1998). A central task of this elite is to fuel a propaganda machine in order to influence the only democratic outlet of the common people, voting (Dixon, 1998). The wealth evident in this community (the starting price on a one-family home was $400,000) fit neatly into Anyon’s (1980) depiction of the “executive elite school,” in which “work is developing one’s intellectual powers” (p. 272).

One can easily attribute shared leadership and youth empowerment in this school to increased expectations of democratic engagement for parents and their children, augmenting an already prestigious public education. While the highest governing body of the school, the Community Council, was largely made up of students, this grouping was quite homogeneous, a select cadre within an already privileged population. Comparing these young citizens to those at Thompson, the latter of which I have called the luckiest little school, the former were considerably more informed and articulate.

When asked, “What are the benefits to a system of student involvement?” the wealthy youth responded, “It’s a great thing to have control over your education.…The students have more say than everyone else.…It becomes easy to control your future.” This contrasts with the words of the Thompson pupils who, though less well-spoken, were no less convinced of the value of democratic participation. They reported, “So we don’t get screwed over.

There are less arguments. School is less frustrating.” While there is no shortage of scholarly justification to rationalize my predilection for Thompson over the advantaged school (e.g., Freire, 1993; Giroux, 2000; Hooks, 1994; Kozol, 1992; Meier, 1995), in truth my attraction is founded on a personal resonance with its lower middle and working class constituency. Equally significant, I am more taken by the tenets of community democracy than that of liberal representation.

The Beginnings of Community Democracy What I found at Thompson School was a fledgling community democracy. Several school factors contributed to the risk-taking leadership and structural redesign. These included small size (Meier, 1995), critical empowerment (Kanpol, 1994), dialogue (Freire, 1993), and local control (Dewey, 1944; Dixon, 1998). Given the current tsunami of standardization of schooling, these progressive developments at Thompson deserve the attention of the critical pedagogue. Although still in the throes of the change process, the advances made at the secondary level in this K-12 institution have been remarkable. First was the creation of the Cabinet, whose membership includes teachers, staff, administrators, students, and community members. Second, two students have joined the local school board as non-voting members. Third, the entire high school (approximately 150 students and fifteen teachers) assembles for community meetings to discuss and vote on issues twice a month. How did these protocols emerge in a small rural

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school typically marked by conservatism and efficiency? My intrigue was soon contended when I interviewed the newest administrator in the district.

George George was hired as assistant principal of Thompson School three years previous to my visit. This was the school’s third administrator in three years, and there was little sign that a new face would make a difference in the mainstays of the school, namely teacher isolation, student tracking, and sports worship. However, unlike previous leaders, the coming of George was revolutionary to Thompson School. His progressive pedagogy and flamboyant personality set forth a new district agenda.

The town of Thompson had been divided for decades between the traditional farming families who had settled the area in the late nineteenth century, and the students and alumni of an alternative college in the locale.

Cultural and economic differences between the two groups were great and annually inflamed over property taxes, which accounted for most of the Thompson School budget.

Although George was a member of an old local family, he also was a graduate of the college. When I interviewed George over the course of an hour, he did not mention this surrounding context. Instead he focused exclusively on Thompson School, his heart’s desire. Shortly after he assumed the position of co-administrator, he began a number of initiatives to increase student and community involvement in decision making.

His leadership caused Thompson to become the luckiest little high school. Unlike much other school reform, which is often designed and funded by corporate donors or state agencies, the changes at Thompson were homegrown by a local visionary who relied on both his positional authority, for which he was hired, and on democratic interventions, such as community dialogues and student involvement, in which he profoundly believed.


I was greatly taken by George’s choice of words during our interview. In describing education, he said, “Many schools for so long have been spirit-crushing institutions. I believe we need to create spirit-enlivening institutions. Part of that is to enliven the spirit of every child and let them believe that they have equity and equality in the school.” He revealed his faith in that, “the kids have the answers,” and pointed to a sign that read ‘love’ over the doorway. He said, “I put that sign love here so that anyone who comes in here for whatever reason passes through love both coming and leaving. I have passed through love. The answer is love, the big Buddha, Jesus, the big love.” In the era of sexual harassment and professional precaution, I was impressed by George’s comfort in talking about love. He said that occasionally he talks about love in the presence of students. He shared, “I explained how you can love a group because you’re with each other for three years and you get to know each other and you’re committed. I know each one individually. Kids have come to me and said, ‘We love you.’” 146 Planning and Changing The Luckiest Little High School George acknowledged that a number of faculty and staff members at Thompson had had considerable difficulty with his emotional approach.

In return, he expressed a desire to work with teachers who wanted to change, and to persuade others who “might need help in leaving.” A colleague had complained that he had “gone too far” in talking about love in the high school community meeting, and that it caused discomfort among the students. George acknowledged this differing perspective, saying, “that person is missing some love in himself…There’s probably some kids who felt uncomfortable, but they heard me say it. And more than that, they see me do it. They see me love them.” George’s love was a love of humanity, of togetherness, and the pursuit of learning. While scholars and practitioners conventionally laud George’s intent with terms like “caring” (Noddings, 1992) or “compassion,” (Nash, 2002), George felt the professional ease and the personal freedom to express his devotion to students through love.


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