Tag Archives: Democratic schools

Where Equality and Freedom are School Values

Nova staff and students
Nova staff and students.

Last week’s piece about the Nova Project explored two benefits of democratic societies that also seem to benefit democratic schools like Nova: a better educated population, and a population more enthusiastic about their society’s (their school’s) success.

But there are two more benefits that may be part and parcel with democracy as well: a responsible freedom, and a culture of equality.

Teacher Brian Charest, who left teaching in a traditional high school to teach ELA at Nova, reports that equality is certainly a benefit found here. Traditional high schools, he says, divide students into at least three tiers: advanced, general, and special-needs. But at Nova, where students work with teachers to create the classes they want, where students choose the classes they take and can choose independent study as well, tiers aren’t needed any more than tiers are needed in colleges. Students work enthusiastically and at their own pace.

Students are not ranked or judged with grades, either. All courses at Nova are pass/no pass. But to receive a passing grade in any course, Charest says, students must present a project that demonstrates their mastery of the subject. “In some ways I feel like we’re a more rigorous program academically than some of the traditional schools. . . . You can’t fill out a worksheet and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve demonstrated competency.’ You really have to be able to show clearly that you understood, that you learned something.”

Most public schools struggle with bullying. At Nova, students work to be more sensitive to one another. Students form various committees to help them express their needs. There is a committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students, another for students from racial minorities, and more. Students who have been bullied in other schools, Charest says, are delighted to find Nova a welcoming environment. Every floor of the student-run school, in fact, has three restrooms: one male, one female, and one gender-neutral, so transgender students can know that they, too, belong at this school.

Equality between students and staff is part of Nova’s culture as well. The staff does not dictate what classes students take but supports them in following their own curiosity. This freedom can require some adjustment for youth inured to traditional K–12 schools.

“There is a real process of unlearning that has to happen,” Charest says. “Many students start Nova not quite knowing what to make of it. ‘What do you mean I can pursue my own interests?’ Given the choice to learn what you want, a student is suddenly faced with an often overwhelming number of choices. We work hard to support students through this discomforting, yet ultimately liberating, experience. And, over time, most students begin to embrace the deep learning that happens through inquiry.“

And as students take ownership of their education, their new-found freedom seems quickly joined by a sense of responsibility, leading students to get a stronger education. Principal Mark Perry says that, while he opposes standardized testing, Nova complies with all testing requirements, and he finds the test results satisfying. Nova students score as well in math as do students at traditional high schools that “teach to the test,” and Nova students actually score better in reading and writing.

“I attribute most of this to our liberal arts curriculum that is not driven by Common Core or [various standardized tests],“ says Perry.

And what happens to Nova students after they graduate?

“Students who go to a four-year college report back to us that what they learned [at Nova] about personal time management, making good choices, and their use and understanding of depth of analysis in all subject areas gives them an advantage over other students, [including] many who come from elite or AP programs,” says Perry. “We also have colleges like Mills and other liberal arts schools who directly contact us to recruit because of the success of our graduates at their schools.”

After teaching in more traditional school settings, Charest sees clearly the benefits of a democratic school. He says:

What I don’t understand is why our public officials, including school boards and local school district administrators, aren’t doing more to encourage and support the creation of more schools like Nova. There’s a lot of talk these days by so-called education reformers about the need for more innovation and collaboration in schools, but then these folks turn around and open a charter school that looks almost exactly like the school the charter was meant to replace (i.e. they continue to do school in very traditional ways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every school should look like Nova, but I do think it would be great to give teachers, students, and parents the ability to shape curriculum and decide for themselves what’s worth knowing and doing.



If you missed our interview with Brian Charest last week, read it here.

Democracy in a Public High School

Nova students
Nova students

Most American high schools tell students democracy is the best governing system, but the Nova Project practices what it preaches. At this Seattle public high school, students decide what classes are offered, how the budget is shaped, what hours the school is open, and what rules are enforced.

Brian Charest, a second-year Nova teacher, came to the school after teaching English for six years in Chicago’s traditional high schools. At NCTE’s 2015 Convention, Charest gave an eye-opening presentation about Nova and the possibilities that unfold when students are invited to make the important decisions.

The school’s 380 students came to Nova by choice. Youth in Seattle can choose to go to their neighborhood school or to an “option school” offering something different. Nova is an option school that utilizes inquiry-based education, with students encouraged to investigate topics of their choosing.

Students at Nova work with teachers to design independent study or design more organized classes. Among the student-shaped classes at Nova: Terrifying Samurai (the films of Akira Kurosawa), Food History, Utopias/Dystopias, Philosophy, the History of Skateboarding, and That’s Funny (a study of comedy). And those are just the ELA courses.

Some may wonder whether students get a serious education in The History of Skateboarding, but Charest says they do. “The idea is for students to learn about the evolution of skateboarding and its place in our culture. We watch documentaries, read articles, and discuss how skateboarding has been marketed over time,” he says. “Students are required to write one-page conversation papers every two weeks on a skate topic of their choice. And, as a final project, students need to do a multi-genre research project. Students can make a ‘zine, do a video edit, interview local skaters, map local skate spots, or something else entirely. So, yes, I think the class is as much about writing and inquiry as it is about skateboarding.”

Charest adds, “We are an academics-based program [but] we provide something that’s missing from a lot of schools, and I think we provide something that looks a lot more like college than you’re going to find in a lot of big schools.”

Nova students confer
Nova students at work

Nova is run by a governing group called the Mothership Committee, made up of several students and staff. The students here can easily outvote the adults, but Charest says the students deliberate carefully and tend to make good decisions. When asked if he has ever seen the students make a decision that worried staff, only one example came to his mind. Some students wanted to eliminate the Mothership Committee and restructure how decisions were made. The staff largely opposed the restructuring, but nevertheless, they put it to a vote of the entire school and agreed to abide by the students’ decision. The students voted to follow the advice of staff.

This system, he says, does have drawbacks. “It’s like any sort of democratic system. It’s messy. It can be challenging at times. Committee meetings can take a long time. . . . If you want everybody’s voice as part of the decision-making process, it can take a while.”

But democracy has at least two advantages that have made it a popular way to run nations, and Charest finds these advantages in a democratic school as well.

The first advantage is buy-in. Machiavelli advised rulers they would enjoy more power as elected leaders than as kings because the citizens of a democracy are more loyal and more invested in their society’s success than are the citizens of a dictatorship. That buy-in, Charest reports, can be seen at Nova. “[D]iscipline problems (e.g., fights, class disruptions, etc.) are not really problems that we face regularly at Nova. Yes, we have students who need extra support and coaching to help them deal constructively with their problems and behaviors, but we don’t have the kinds of problems you might see in a large, comprehensive high school.”

The second advantage of democracy is a better educated population. As Dr. James Brent, a political scientist at San Jose State University, explains, “Decision makers study to make good decisions, and they learn from the results of their bad ones. The process of deliberation forces participants to examine and reconsider ideas. So the more that people are included in the decision-making process, the deeper their understanding becomes.”

That, too, can apply to a democratic school. Charest reports:

At Nova we link our committees to courses so that work we do in these spaces is connected. Students learning about democracy can see firsthand how democratic processes function when they work on a committee like Mothership that makes schoolwide decisions. Linking committees and classes creates a connection between academic work and civic or community engagement in much the same way that a lab links the work in a science classroom to experiments and work in the field.

After teaching in both traditional schools and in a democratic school, Charest is sold on the benefits of bringing democracy to high schoolers. “It definitely works here,” he says. “Having student voice be a part of what we do makes this a better school. It builds a kind of community of the school that’s not present when students feel like they don’t really have a say in what’s going on.”


In one week, we’ll deepen our look at Nova. Meanwhile, you can read more on the value of student-led inquiry and students making their own choices.