'Students Find A Sense of Belonging'

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Democratic practices, policies, assumptions, and attitudes permeate School-Within-a-School, Brookline High School's alternative program for 115 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. In our democratic school, teachers share power and responsibility with students. A teacher's vote counts no more and no less than a student's. An administrative unit of the 1,700-student high school, S.W.S. requires our students to attend Town Meetings and take at least two classes in S.W.S. They take the rest of their classes and extracurricular activities in the regular high school, with which we share the fourth floor. S.W.S. receives independent funding and support from the district; we are a separate and nearly autonomous school.

Unlike many alternative schools where students are placed for rehabilitation or gain entrance by having academic credentials, membership in S.W.S. is by choice, and selection is by lottery. We strive for an ethnic, racial, and gender balance of students. Our school community reflects the vast diversity of Brookline's community.

Most students enter S.W.S. for personal, not philosophical, reasons. The interest in democracy comes later. "I needed less structure in my classes--a chance to think," reflects one former student writing us from rabbinical school. Other students feel "out of place and alone" in the regular school. One student who graduated in 1981 "was intrigued by the students, daring to be different." In S.W.S. individuality and authenticity are valued. Many are drawn to the intimacy that develops as students and teachers start on a first-name basis and get to know each other over time, often outside the classroom. Students come hoping to find a community.

S.W.S. started in 1969 as a protest against the requirements, strict tracks, and bells of Brookline High School. A group of students and teachers felt this traditional education stifled individual growth and expression. Although democratic structures were not in place, S.W.S. had a democratic ethos and atmosphere from the beginning. We believed that students were worthy of power and could be trusted with it.

It took us five years to arrive at the idea of Town Meetings. Carefully guarding our autonomy and history, we had the help of Lawrence Kohlberg and Ralph Mosher, two professors of democratic education, to create a democratic Town Meeting. Town Meetings have been a key part of S.W.S. for 20 years. We discuss everything from affirmative action to talent shows. The meetings are planned and led by a member of the Agenda Committee, whose six members are drawn out of a hat every quarter. We adopted this system in 1978 after a student proposed that the committee should be like a jury, including everyone, not just "student council types."

Even after 10 or 15 years, former students will say, "I think I'll come in for a Town Meeting." They all remember the meetings and refer to them as the "heartbeat," the "glue of S.W.S." Some students are devoted to the meetings' participatory democracy. As a boy from 1980 put it, "Do you think power just goes away if you don't take it? Hell, no! Somebody else, a teacher or administrator, picks up the ball and uses it for you." Others use Town Meetings as a way to test their personal power. A student from 1977 described the meetings as "a way to explore how you handle leadership or how to be assertive about your needs without being hostile or aggressive."

Not everyone enjoys the democracy of Town Meetings, but everyone is invested in our democratic classrooms. Students participate in curriculum development by suggesting courses, evaluating, and voting. They shape the curriculum day by day, recommending new books and different approaches. In our classes of about 20, everyone counts, not just the smartest or the most verbal.

Students write papers for their classmates--not just for the teachers. They pick their own topics and work on new angles and directions, getting suggestions from their peers, often in small groups, "to write the paper only you can write." Discussions are planned but not structured. Often, we begin with student reactions and comments into which we weave our lesson plan. Students participate without raising hands, paying special attention to each other, sharing deeply personal and important matters about families and fears, using books like Beloved and Crime and Punishment as resources.

We share power with students in the most sensitive areas. Students who fail to perform academically or who are guilty of breaking a rule are sent to the Review Committee, composed of eight students and one staff member, to discuss the problem. Ultimately, only this committee has the power to decide whether a student should remain in S.W.S. Often, adults worry that a student-dominated committee will be too lenient. On the contrary, students feel that S.W.S. is their school and are offended by "slackers," liars, and con artists. Over the decades, they have been the ones to recommend expulsion of one or two students a year, despite pleas for leniency from some staff members.

After our collective 40 years in S.W.S., we feel our democratic school makes education collaborative, honest, dynamic, and academically rigorous. Students continue to feel S.W.S. is their school long after they graduate. They tell us that S.W.S.:

  • Taught them to think and question. Over and over, students say, "I was more vocal in college [because of my experience at S.W.S.]." "I wasn't intimidated by my professors."
  • Gave them a more open mind. "S.W.S. opened my mind to students who are not traditionally academic. S.W.S. gave me the opportunity to see them shine."
  • Prepared them academically. "Downstairs classes teach you how to get by in the real world, but S.W.S. classes show you how things could and should be. ... They raise your expectations."
  • Inspired them to seek and create democratic communities.

Our democratic school works; students tell us so, eloquently and often. In the words of one former student: "I began to sense the value of a single human being and each person's responsibilities to each other and to the world. I was exposed to the issues and social concerns that most of the 'world out there' appeared to be ignoring. This sense of belonging and sense of activism are positive ways to fill the needs of high school students: needing truth, needing friends, needing places to put their incredible energy. S.W.S. gave me the knowledge that I have a voice. It didn't give me that voice, but I would go from there to the places that would help, not hinder, me. S.W.S. gave me the inner authority to strive to become an independent and free-thinking person."

Vol. 14, Issue 14, Pages 34-35

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as 'Students Find A Sense of Belonging'
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