Recently I had the opportunity to spend the day at The Open School, Orange County California’s first and only Democratic and Free school. I wanted to write about my experience immediately but every time I sat down I couldn’t quite put it into the right words. My mind was spinning with the possibilities for our future if every child had the opportunity to learn this way… If our schools would just incorporate a fraction of this… If I integrated this into my interactions with my son, starting today… So what is this magical thing The Open School does so well? This is democratic education and it is so inspiring to see in action.
The Open School
When I visited The Open School this past November I spent time with two of the co-founders, Cassi Clausen and Ben Page. Both are patient and genuine in their interactions, passionate about giving a voice to children of all ages, and they truly treat the students as their equals. Democracy is not only their goal, but the method of instruction and shapes all student-to-staff and student-to-student communication throughout the school day.
The students of The Open School are free to pursue their interests with the weight of standardized testing lifted. The basics are learned collaterally and their passion for learning is fostered through curiosity. Ages are mixed and students learn from each other. Much of the student’s time is spent World Schooling and Orange County California has an endless variety of locations to explore.
As much as I want to write all about democratic education and tell you every detail I learned about The Open School from my time there, I realize it’s better to stop myself and focus on my experience observing the philosophy in action. For FAQs, in-depth definitions, and general information, I linked a few resources at the bottom of this article. In addition, The Open School has a beautiful and informative website. While you are there I encourage you to take some time to read their blog. I found this post written recently by co-founder Ben Page very inspiring and thought provoking for me personally.
Democracy in Action
Students and staff as equals may seem like it could never work, but it does and it’s awesome. It was clear to me one of the reasons it works so well at The Open School is the authentic relationship the staff builds with each student. The students know they are equals and are confident in the value they bring to the school. They understand if they do not participate in creating something they will not have a say, so they participate. They are invested in what they are learning because they are genuinely interested. They know they will be heard so they speak up. They want to be respected by their peers so they show their peers respect. Real democracy in education is how you build lifelong passionate learners, community leaders, and entrepreneurs. I now see this is how we can empower our children to change the world.
So how do they do it? To me one of the most striking ways is through their School Meeting. This is a time when every student and staff has an equal vote in managing the school. As we gathered for School Meeting I thought “well this will be interesting”, contemplating how much chaos could come from entering a meeting where the children ran it as much as the adults. I have to admit it ran smoother than many meetings I’ve attended that were facilitated by adults, for adults. Before my eyes the students proposed, amended, and voted to pass rules that would govern their day-to-day interactions with each other.
What about when there are problems? When there is a matter that needs to be addressed it is done through Civics Meeting. This is a respectful interaction between staff and student that gives appropriate attention to an issue brought up by a member of the school. Not punitive at all, and really more professional in nature, Civics Meetings are opportunities to communicate directly about the consequences if a behavior is continued. It is also the time to acknowledge if there is a barrier to a desired behavior. Forgiveness and understanding is offered if something was simply just a mistake. No lecturing, as is often the case in student/teacher interactions of this nature.
Another way students are empowered is through certifications. There are levels to the certifications and more independence is granted as they demonstrate their ability. For example, students are certified at different levels to use art supplies. To move from a level 1 to a level 2 a student must show increasing ability to use the supplies appropriately – let’s say place caps back on markers and clean up the area when done. At the highest level they are getting out their own paints, cleaning the area and washing the dishes used, and even assisting with the younger students. I observed students who were eager to earn ever-higher levels of certification and demonstrate their ability and independence in many aspects of their school day.
See for Yourself
Democratic, Free, and World Schooling are alternatives to what you will find in traditional classrooms. There are amazing benefits to these methods of education and if bells are going off that these approaches might be right for your family, I encourage you to schedule a tour of a school in your area. The Open School is currently accepting early bird registration – GO! Talk to the staff and see for yourself! Even if a Democratic School isn’t right for your family, let’s make a pact here-and-now to be advocates for incorporating as many of these elements into our children’s education as possible and inspire them to change our world.
The Open School (theopenschooloc.com)
The Open School’s comprehensive FAQ Page (openschooloc.com/wp/faq/)
Sudbury Valley School (sudval.org)
List of Democratic Schools (Wikipedia)
Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA)
Summerhill School, England (summerhillschool.co.uk)
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Follow The Open School on Instagram