Democracy in Education

Village School Discussion

by Scott Schumacher, Board Member

Standing in line. Hall passes. Study hall. Detention. Small desks. Running to your locker so you aren’t late for your next class.These are just some of the memories I have of school growing up. After graduating from high school nineteen years ago, it’s difficult to come up with a list of ways that school prepared me for the real world. Maybe the one Home Economics class I took my freshman year, or perhaps one of my Psychology courses were the ones that I took with me into the “real world”.

On Thursday, February 2, I joined many others for an open discussion about democracy in education and the mission of The Village School of Northfield. While I had been to the school before, this time showed more of the deep need for true democratic education in our school systems today. The Village School is about self-directed education. Students from grades K – 12 learn what they want, when they want, and how they want. Teachers act as partners and guides for students in their education. As the evening unfolded, I felt I had learned more in two hours than I had in years.

“Our school is largely misunderstood in the local community,” began Rose Ann Steenhoek, a teacher at the Village School. “Sometimes we are known as the school with ‘Bad Kids’ or a place to send students when nothing else works. None of us feels that way when we are here. We’ve been a place that transforms.”

“Students are free to determine the course of their lives here. You can never tell students what they have to learn. They exercise democracy here as they have a say in all day to day decisions, including hiring teachers. We have a student representative to our board.”

Steenhoek further described the components that the school instills in students within their education. “Freedom, democracy, community, restorative justice, and transformation are all part of our philosophy here. We teach and guide in a ‘whole person’ way.”

Olivia Frey“It’s been said that schools are about ‘reading about [things]’ but not ‘acting’,” continued Olivia Frey, director of The Village School.

“Schools and the community can often deal with the intellectual. Actually doing something is frightening! A desk and a book and fifty minute class periods don’t mean that you are using the mind.”

Frey further elaborated on discipline and restorative justice at the school. “Students and staff take an equal part in restorative justice and the mediation of problems. It’s not fast food discipline! Some in the community aren’t comfortable with this. Sure, we could kick kids out who swear, but that’s not what we believe in. It’s love rather than punishment. Some people are afraid of that.”

Kayla WelzantKayla and Gina Welzant are sisters who have both attended The Village School. Gina is a graduate, while Kayla is a senior this year. Starting at the school as an eighth grader, Kayla recounts her experience thus far.

“Other people my age don’t take responsibility for themselves or their community. If I would have stayed at my old school, I wouldn’t be able to think ‘outside the box’ like I do now. When other kids I know are asked at school about their opinions, they don’t care. ‘How does my opinion matter?’ they ask. ‘Aren’t you supposed to tell me?’ I have confidence and speak my mind. I express my opinion.”

Gina spoke to the group of her different experience.

“I was a dropout. I never wanted to go to school. I had so much anger in me, but this school changed my life,” she stated while holding back tears.

“Now my daughter goes here, and I will live in Northfield and send her to this school for as long as it exists. If the school ever closes I’ll find a way to send her to a school like this, even if I have to work three jobs to do it.”
Gina Welzant
“I love it that my niece will never be forced to read here,” chimed Kayla. “When I was forced to read, I hated it. Nobody said I HAD to read here, and now I own 300 books and have spent over a thousand dollars on books. Somedays I read an entire book at school, and I love that I’m allowed to do that!”

When topics drifted to student pressures in schools, Frey related experiences that other students have expressed to her.

“Children in mainstream schools can be terrorized. They’ve witness teachers dragging students by wrists down hallways. They have two minutes to use the bathroom, and are given mandates. You have to learn, you have to learn, you have to learn. Students are happy here. They have a voice.”

To which Kayla expressed “I love that my teachers listen to me. We can learn from eachother.”

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