Democratic schools put Israel's children in the driver’s seat

The fundamentally different learning model offers pupils a real alternative.

A staff member provides assistance during an artsand- crafts workshop, helping pupils meet their desired learning goals. (photo credit: JERUSALEM SUDBURY DEMOCRATIC SCHOOL)
A staff member provides assistance during an artsand- crafts workshop, helping pupils meet their desired learning goals.
Far from the norm of public school systems, there lies a different breed of learning. In Israel they call it “democratic” schooling.
In democratic schools, pupils generally have full autonomy over and an equal vote on their personal and daily lives, as well as what goes on in their school, from deciding whether a guest can visit or whether to wear school uniforms to the hiring of teachers.
While most Israelis send their children to state schools, there are alternatives allowing pupils more freedom. Democratic schools, with a completely different model of learning, are unofficial but recognized schools in the Israeli educational system that endows these schools with the ability to decide how the children learn and how the schools are run – similar to the schools in the ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin communities.
“We are recognized but not official, similar to the status of ultra-Orthodox schools – and we sort of rode that wave into developing our model. We get 70% of our funding from the Education Ministry and the rest is from private donations, as we are technically a private school,” said Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School founder Rena Greenberg. “We do have obligations, however, with local and national testing we are required to offer, but the student still has the gift of choice with deciding their day.”
Most schools have a “Committee,” “Parliament” or other governing body where the children with staff members to decide the fate of the school and their future as pupils. They police themselves, decide what and when to learn, and in some cases even teach themselves.
Some democratic schools don’t even have a principal. In these situations, the pupils are equals in the governing body, are involved in the hiring of staff, sit on financial committees and are still, most importantly, the children themselves.
For comparison, we will differentiate the difference between three Israel democratic schools: Haifa’s Fichman Democratic Elementary School, Jerusalem’s Sudbury Democratic School and the Democratic School of Hadera.
FICHMAN IS run by the principal and school “council,” made up of children and teachers. The council determines minor regulations such as uniform wear and school activities. The children decide what they want to learn as well as when; the classes are taught by teachers that the principal hires. Pupils must be in class according to the schedule they choose. Fichman is an elementary school, whereas the other two schools teach K-12, so it is more controlled by staff.
The Democratic School of Hadera is run by a ‘parliament’ made up of mostly pupils and some staff members, such as the principal, who oversees the meetings – and they all vote as equals. The parliament decides everything – from the hiring of teachers to school rules and sometimes the introduction of new classes. Students have full autonomy over their lives; they can go to class if they want or chat with friends. The teachers determine the material; the children decide if and when they want to learn it.
Consequently, children may not step foot in an English, Science or Math class for years. From a young age they take charge of their lives. If they fail, it is their own doing; if they succeed, it is their triumph. If they want to learn a subject, they will; if not, they focus on other subjects.
JERUSALEM’S SUDBURY Democratic School believes in this philosophy. The school was founded 17 years ago by Greenberg after she and other concerned parents felt that the state school system and the Education Ministry were failing their children.
“The system isn’t working,” says Greenberg.
Sudbury drew its model and philosophy from a school in Boston that shares the same name. Greenberg shared contacts at the school to help formulate the Israeli model and used religious laws to her advantage for opening such a school in Jerusalem.
“About 19 years ago, a group of parents dissatisfied with the system got together to come up with a model of education they felt would be suitable for kids,” said Greenberg, “The idea that children should be treated with the respect that is given to all [adult] human beings is the most basic and fundamental concept in this school. They decide what they do with their day and it dovetails nicely into how human beings are constructed.
“They get to decide what they do with their day and it dovetails nicely into the innate ability that humans possess in wanting to learn and understand their environment.”
The Sudbury model gives pupils complete autonomy alongside staff members. The school believes in the pupil and believes that the pupil has the capacity to follow through on learning goals and to take control of their lives at a young age. The school has a degree of trust that the pupil will do what is right and best for them. Children are required to be in school five hours a day; how they choose to spend their time is up to them.
Sudbury’s “Committee” of elected pupils/officials and staff decides everything at the school – from financial to school rules and social aspects. For example, for a visitor to come to the school, the committee must vote on it. Budget changes and new program decisions are also made by the committee. The committee posts its rulings upon the board at the entrance of the school for all pupils to read. Any pupil can appeal to change decisions. No parents are involved in decision-making at the school.
Children have their own court systems where they can bring cases against one another for wrongdoing. The officials hear cases from both sides and make a decision. The rulings are posted on the entrance board, for children to see and/or appeal.
Sudbury has no scheduled classes. Pupils decide their own individual subject matter. There are no teachers – only “staff” members, as the children are equal members of the school. A staff member is but a resource; you are your own teacher. You learn what interests you and then when you harness your passion to learn, you take the driver’s seat and find out how.
“When I explained to friends of mine where I went and what my school is like, they asked me if my school was like a “summer camp.” I took that negatively, since they have never been to the school and don’t understand how it works,” said a Sudbury pupil. “However, it won’t affect the way I think about the school. Since this type of school is rare, they are a bit [hesitant] to [enroll] here. When something is totally different, it’s scary.”
The object is to prepare the children for a world of decisions. The main idea is that learning is a choice and life is full of choices. When it is not forced upon pupils, it sparks a passion to learn and an understanding of how to achieve goals on their own, accomplished by researching, consulting a staff member or studying within groups.
“By letting go of a specific curriculum or bag of facts you need to know, students gain the abilities and knowledge they need to be adults, to lead themselves. You begin to know yourself, what triggers your mind and how you like to learn,” said Yael Wasyng-Fuchs, a staff member of the school’s PR committee.
With this style of learning, it might seem as though there aren’t many reasons to attend school each day, but that is not the case.
“The role of the school is to be a safe place to learn how to take control of your life and make decisions that will be good for you. If I want to learn math, I’ll learn math and there are plenty of ways to do it. If I want to start online I will search online, if I need help, I will ask around and find the right person or resource to do it,” said a former student of the school.
FICHMAN, HADERA and Sudbury have created their own societies where pupils live, learn and grow. The children can control their learning; whether they do or don’t is their choice.
 “The school doesn’t structure individual learning. Learning is innate. Human beings want to learn, they want to understand their environment and that’s how we’re built,” said Greenberg.
The freedom the pupils are graced with can be a proficient path or it can be overwhelming. Learning is different for everyone; the model is never the same for every person. The democratic schools try to explore the uniqueness of the individual and give the gift of choice to the pupil.
Different from structured schooling, the democratic model can be considered awe-inspiring or confusing, a positive learning environment or just a riotous free-for-all; the allure or disenchantment lies within the eye of the learner and the beholder.
While democratic schools determine their model’s success in the growth of their individual pupils, the true value of the model is open to debate. For centuries, schooling has been structured learning within traditional classroom environments and teaching situations, yet over the past 30 years, the democratic model of learning has been taking root in Israel. The beauty is in the alternative and the culture that nourishes it.