A Learning Community Blossoms
May 9th, 2009
A Learning Community Blossoms
Dan Bresman, Abigail Erdmann and Kirsten Olson
(May 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 8 "Teaching Social Responsibility" Pages 68-71
What happens when students and teachers share
decision-making opportunities? At this small Boston
high school, democratic values thrive.
Tucked away on the fourth floor of Brookline High School, a large
comprehensive high school on the outskirts of Boston, is one of the
longest-running democratically organized alternative school programs
in the United States. Established in 1969, School Within a School (SWS), which currently enrolls 115 students, has become a place where students can seek intellectual challenge and learn what it means to be part of a community.
As society increasingly focuses expectations for learning on producing students who are able to
communicate their thoughts and ideas well, work in teams, articulate and analyze problems
comprehensively and judiciously, and adapt to rapid change (Darling-Hammond, 2008), the learning
dispositions and intellectual inclinations that School Within a School has been encouraging since 1969
have become more desirable than ever. Research describes how most U.S. high school programs
overemphasize low-level intellectual tasks and passive learning (Elmore, in press; Wardlaw, 2006; Yazzie-
Mintz, 2007). Democratic schools may be uniquely structured to teach students about social responsibility
and justice; to reveal the personal, contextual nature of authority; and to demonstrate shifting, expanding
definitions of knowledge (Miller, 2007; Mintz, n.d.).
With its small, intellectually intense, discussion-based classes that stress the connections among students'
personal, intellectual, and political lives, School Within a School encourages intellectual thought and a
commitment to community. It also provides opportunities for activism and belonging that keep students
deeply engaged. Our record of college acceptances looks very much like that of its host school—one of
the most competitive in the United States—yet our graduates often choose to devote their lives to
community service, teaching, and further education after college. As Bob Weintraub, principal of Brookline
High School observed:
One of the characteristics of SWS graduates, including my own daughter, is so many of them work in
service and social justice professions. That is not an accident. The culture of SWS builds a sense of
responsibility to your community. They live that ethic in school and carry it with them into the word of work.
Students are selected for admission by lottery. In 2008, almost 100 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors
applied for 48 new enrollment spots. The lottery system is multitiered; we admit an approximately equal
number of males and females, and we maintain a proportion of one-third students of color and
foreign-born students. Gender and grade balance is maintained through separate sublotteries, and we use
affirmative action principles if the lottery does not draw a sufficient number of ethnic minority students.
Diversity in our community is very important.
To be in the lottery, students must sign up; visit one English class, one other class, and the school's
weekly town meeting; and write a one-page reflection about why they think the school is right for them.
They must also attend a mandatory meeting for all applicants and current students at which applicants
read their reflections in small groups of current and prospective students. These readings begin the
process of self-reflection that is a part of being in our community, and they help to establish community
and personal reflection from a student's first day in the school. The wish to be deeply known, by one's
peers and one's teachers, is very much a part of what draws students to our school.
The backbone of our school is its weekly town meeting, a mandatory 70-minute gathering for all
community members. This meeting is run by an Agenda Committee of eight students who review
proposed discussion topics and take turns chairing the meeting. Students volunteer to serve on Agenda
Committee and are also chosen by lottery, so seniors, or other students who are already established
student leaders, are not always the ones who chair meetings. Students have to pass a test of their
knowledge of town meeting rules to serve on the Agenda Committee—a modification of town meeting
rules recently voted in by students.
The 115 students and eight staff members each have one vote on proposals up for discussion. Items
under review might be anything from the admissions policy, to the recent U.S. presidential elections, to
responsibility for cleaning up the lounge. One teacher who has watched town meeting develop through the
years said, "The best discussions we have are about questions of fairness: the choice between two goods.
The worst discussions are whether to hold a picnic on Saturday or Sunday."
Although many students initially find town meeting annoying or boring—participatory democracy is neither
efficient nor wrinkle-free—in retrospect, most agree with a recent graduate who said, "I feel I made a real
difference in town meeting, or at least I had the opportunity to make a difference." Graduates say that the
town meeting is where they learned how to exercise responsibility, reflectiveness, and compromise in
decision making. Other students use town meeting as a way to test personal power. "In town meeting you
can explore how to handle leadership or how to be assertive about your needs without being hostile or
aggressive," one student noted. This may be one of the most valuable lessons School Within a School
If significant disagreement arises over a topic before town meeting, the community is polled and those with
minority points of view are given more opportunities to speak than the majority. Although feelings are
passionate and intense, the discourse is measured and thoughtful. "Grandstanding in town meeting
generally doesn't happen," noted one teacher who has been at the school for decades.
Students are deeply involved in making decisions about the kind of education they will receive. In the
spring, teachers propose English and humanities courses for the upcoming year, and they present these
courses in a town meeting attended by both current students and newly accepted students. Courses might
be anything from The Spiritual Journey in Literature: The Journey Inwards, to Feminist Literature, to
Creative Nonfiction. Current students describe the courses they've already taken, teachers describe the
proposed new courses, and then everyone votes on the curriculum for the following year. Students vote on
these classes knowing they won't necessarily be able to take the ones they are most passionate about
because of scheduling conflicts, but they are asked to choose for the good of everyone.
In other disciplines, such as math, science, and social studies, students have less course choice because
of state and local graduation requirements. One of the great advantages of School Within a School's
structure, however, is that it exists within a large, comprehensive high school with hundreds of course
offerings. Students are required to take only two courses at School Within a School; they can satisfy other
academic appetites with the abundant course offerings at Brookline High School.
Students are also central to the faculty hiring process. The whole community, including students, has
chosen every teacher at the school, and a Hiring Committee, composed largely of students, was intimately
involved in the recent hiring of a new coodinator for the school. On the Hiring Committee, as on every
committee, student and faculty votes count equally.
Cool To Be Smart
School Within a School has an intellectually rigorous culture, led and modeled by older students who help
new students commit to learning. A recent assignment in a creative nonfiction class asked students to
gather all their work, self-evaluate their pieces using The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B.
White, and then choose a paper to rewrite. Eric, a junior who was new to our school, refused, telling his
teacher that this was a "bullshit" assignment. "Why should I listen to some authority talk about rules?" His
actions and posture were challenging, but his classmates helped him adjust. David, a senior, gently
confronted Eric, letting him know that revision is a crucial part of writing.
Thus, students, not just teachers, hold the intellectual bar high and pressure one another to perform better
and care more. English classes are untracked, and students are not sorted by grade. Seniors, especially
those who have been in the school for three years, model, teach, and inspire others. "I can't believe you
are not taking notes when people read papers," Ladona chastised another student the other day. "How will
you remember what you want to comment on?" Very few teachers are as effective with their students as
beautiful, strong, wise, senior girls. Together, students come to take responsibility for their learning.
Answering a question about how a course might improve in second quarter, Noa observed, "We need to
do even better getting all the work done on time." At School Within a School, it's cool to be smart.
A Community Mind-Set
To enhance community participation, every student must serve on at least one committee for at least one
quarter each year. Some committees, such as the Agenda Committee, the Review Committee, and the
Attendance Committee, participate in governing the school.
The Review Committee, for example, helps students succeed by providing support and discipline. The
committee provides scaffolding to students who are struggling by offering to call them with reminders or
guidance about academic work, by helping to drive them to school, or by partnering with them around
study habits and schoolwork skills.
With input from the school's coordinator, the Review Committee also has the power to ask a student to
leave the school if he or she has repeated absences or chronically missed work and does not appear to be
making a commitment to the community. This is always a deeply difficult decision and is only made after
every other option has been pursued. By enrolling at the school, students agree to abide by the authority
of the Review Committee. The committee is made up of eight students and two staff members; half of the
student members are volunteers, and half are chosen randomly.
The Attendance Committee of six students and one staff person has the authority to review or change a
student's attendance record, and students can appeal to this committee if they feel their attendance record
is incorrect. Because students have a fair degree of flexibility in signing themselves in and out of classes,
attendance matters. Students can excuse themselves from school without having their parent call in, but
only four absences are allowed before a student's grades begin to suffer. This policy, devised and
enforced by students, allows more choice but is actually more restrictive and punitive than the main
school's attendance policy.
Other committees give students and faculty opportunities to pursue and share interests and passions.
Each of these committees is made up of one staff member, a core group of students who provide
leadership, and other interested students. The Students of Color Committee, for example, meets once a
week and provides a forum to explore issues, plan programs, and have discussions. The Feminism
Committee meets once a week to discuss gender issues and plan programs. The Yoga Committee meets
once a week to practice yoga. The Music Committee meets to listen to and learn about music and to plan
monthly evening music performances.
The Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (PYMWYMI) committee meets to raise funds for specific social
causes. Coauthor Abby Erdmann, a political activist and teacher, helped students found the committee
after the school's summer reading included Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001). PYMWYMI collects money for a
variety of local and international initiatives, most recently buying school supplies and soccer equipment for
an orphanage in Sierra Leone.
The committee also organizes public readings of student papers about social justice and activism. When
students gather to read work, they learn about lives committed to service and publicly share their own
intellectual lives. For parents, the paper-reading nights are among the highlights of their involvement in
their children's academic experience. One parent said,
It's amazing how good the papers are—the quality of the work is incredibly high. It makes you realize what
students are able to do if they are supported and challenged. We look forward to those paper readings like
any important cultural event in our community.
The Value of Each Individual
As longtime democratic school historian and philosopher Ron Miller (2007) observed, "Young people
ought to have … power and responsibility in the schools where they spend so much of their lives, …
Schools that are entirely managed by adults … do not teach democracy."
Our graduates note that their time at the school broadened their vision of what constitutes "smartness"
and ability. "SWS opened my mind to students who were not traditionally academic. SWS gave me the
opportunity to see them shine," said one graduate. Another student reflected,
I know I began to sense the value of a single human being and each person's responsibilities to each other
and the world in SWS. SWS helped me become an independent and free thinking person, or gave me the
inner authority to strive to become one.
Are these not the attitudes we want to see in society? Why not create schools that help cultivate them in
Darling-Hammond, L. (2008, October). Performance assessment around the world. Briefing at the Forum
for Education and Democracy, Washington, DC.
Elmore, R. (in press). Schooling adolescents. In R. M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of
adolescent psychology. New York: Wiley.
Miller, R. (2007). What is democratic education? [Online article] Paths of Learning. Available:
Mintz, J. (n.d.). Democratic school governance [Online article]. The Education Revolution. Albany, NY:
Alternative Education Resource Organization. Available: www.educationrevolution.org/demschoolgov.html
Wardlaw, C. (2006, September). Mathematics in Hong Kong/China. Improving on being first in PISA. Paper
presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society, Sydney, Australia.
Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2007). Voices of students on engagement: Report on the 2006 High School Survey of
Student Engagement. Bloomington: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University.
Dan Bresman is coordinator of School Within a School in Brookline, Massachusetts; Dan_Bresman@brookline.k12.ma.us.
Abigail Erdmann is a teacher at SWS; email@example.com. Kirsten Olson is author of Wounded By School (Teachers
College Press, 2009) and the parent of three children in SWS; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009 by ASCD
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