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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

Practicing Democracy in High School

In Massachusetts, Hudson High School has implemented reforms that build participatory democracy.

Practicing Democracy in High School - thumbnail
How can we engage students in meaningful learning and help them become effective citizens? Developing a strong academic program is crucial, but educators also need to create a school culture that welcomes all students, helps them learn to work together, and convinces them of their ability and responsibility to make the world a better place.
For the past 10 years, the Hudson Public School District has been working on two goals: bringing consistency, student-centered instruction, and high standards to our academic curriculum; and creating a school environment that nurtures students' social, emotional, ethical, and civic development.
To foster social-emotional learning and civic engagement, our K–12 social development program teaches social skills, creates a sense of community in the classroom, and gives students opportunities to use their knowledge to effect changes in their school and community.
For the elementary level, we use a social skills development curriculum called Second Step, which is produced by the Committee for Children. Our elementary and middle school teachers nurture positive classroom relationships through Responsive Classroom, a program developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children. For elementary and middle school classrooms, we have implemented conflict resolution and peer mediation programs developed by Educators for Social Responsibility. Service learning has become a natural extension of K–12 academic learning and serves as a solid base for building a sense of community.
These layered programs combine citizenship instruction in the academic curriculum with practicing citizenship in the classroom and school culture. Most of these programs, however, focus on the elementary and middle school level. We wanted to develop programs for the high school that would appropriately address adolescent development.

Fostering Responsibility

We began by creating a yearlong core course for the 9th grade that focuses on ethics and civic engagement. English and social studies teachers collaborate on examining an essential question: What is an individual's responsibility for creating a just society? Using the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, students study the roots of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Our teachers have added a study of the genocide in Rwanda and U.S. treatment of Native Americans.
By asking how genocide can become state policy, the curriculum confronts students with the human potential for passivity, complicity, and destructiveness. It raises significant ethical questions and sensitizes students to injustice, inhumanity, suffering, and the abuse of power. This academically challenging curriculum helps students realize that complex problems do not have simple answers. Students confront their own potential for passivity and complicity, their prejudices and intolerance, and their moral commitments.
To expand students' sense of social responsibility, the course requires students to develop a service-learning project that helps foster a more just society. As a result, students begin to see that they are either part of the solution or part of the problem. There are no bystanders in one's moral life.

Building Community

Studies of social development show that creating a sense of community in classrooms and schools has a powerful impact on adolescents' social development. Resnick's study (1997) of factors that prevent at-risk behavior highlighted the importance of adolescents feeling connected to individuals at school and to the school as a whole. In a multiyear, social development program study, Schaps, Battistich, & Solomon (in press) found that the sense of community among students had a favorable impact on their conflict resolution skills, reading comprehension skills, reasoning about social and moral issues, and interest in helping others. To enhance this connection to a community, we have moved to a semester-based block schedule, which gives students greater opportunity to work in depth and to build stronger relationships with their teachers.
We have also divided our 1,000-student high school into eight smaller communities. Data on effective high schools (Wasley, 2002) indicate that small schools outperform larger schools academically; experience fewer incidents of violent and disruptive behavior; and help students feel less anonymous and more willing to participate actively in school activities.
We started by creating an 8th and 9th grade middle school within the high school, with two teams for each grade. Each team includes approximately 110 students who take all of their core courses from cohesive, interdisciplinary teaching teams. The team identity brings a greater sense of community to these transition years.
In grades 10–12, in spring 2003, we created four groups, which we call interest-based clusters. To create a common bond among students in each cluster, we organized the clusters thematically around four broad areas of student interest: communications, media, and the arts; science, health, and the environment; technology, engineering, and business; and public policy, education, and social service. Using data from career-interest surveys, we organized the clusters into relatively equal and compatible groups.
To build a sense of community, we have scheduled an hour each week for cluster meetings in which students and faculty gather together to discuss school governance issues, plan cluster-based service projects, or hear school-to-career speakers. Each cluster includes approximately 130 students from all three upper grade levels. In contrast to the teams in the 8th and 9th grades, these students may take courses from any teacher in the school; however, because both students and teachers select their clusters on the basis of interest in a theme, most students will take a significant number of their classes from their cluster's teachers. This cluster model allows closer contact between teachers and students and fosters a more close-knit community. Clustering enables them to enjoy the advantages of a small school and the curricular and extracurricular benefits of a larger high school.
The thematic organization does not restrict students' exploration of other careers or academic areas but instead offers students ways to delve more deeply into subjects with other similarly interested students. It also gives them service-learning and school-to-career experiences that support decision making about their future direction. Because students will remain in a cluster for three years, work on projects and issues together, and address differences of opinion through discussion, they will come to know a group of teachers and students well.
In the past, our service-learning program for the upper grades was centered in classrooms. Now, each cluster's students and teachers will be working together on more extensive and varied service-learning projects that relate to the cluster's theme. For example, the science, health, and environment cluster may develop a variety of short-term or multiyear environmental service projects, such as expanding the school's current conservation work on the nearby Assabet River or the schoolwide recycling program. The public policy, education, and social service cluster may work on issues of confronting prejudice and appreciating diversity, such as planning for and implementing a diversity awareness week for the entire school. By formulating these projects themselves and often continuing them for several years, students will experience greater depth and commitment in their service.
Building on our current school-to-work program, which includes extensive internships, job-shadowing opportunities, and workshops offered by local business partners, the clusters will further help students see relationships between coursework and the world outside school and offer school-to-career experiences to help them consider their future goals. Speakers and presentations, for example, will provide ideas about career opportunities or discussions of current social issues relevant to the cluster's theme.
Clusters will also allow the flexible formation of smaller groups and advisories to discuss such topics as college and career planning, conflict resolution skills, or world events that are of concern to students.

Democratic Governance

High school students' involvement in decision making is effective in fostering moral growth. Just communities—an approach to student self-governance proposed and developed by Kohlberg—offers students hands-on practice in democratic governance. In a study of just communities (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989), small groups of approximately 100 students practiced democracy during weekly town meetings in which each person, including each adult, had one vote. In these meetings, students made decisions about the management, care, and direction of the school. Because the issues were meaningful to students and their decisions had direct consequences for the group, each student developed a personal sense of responsibility to the community and learned to argue issues with an increasingly sophisticated level of moral reasoning.
The typical high school curriculum and schedule, however, usually allow little time for student self-governance. Typical representative democracy in a high school—usually a student council—involves very few students. Those who serve are often the most active and popular—those who may be least in need of the experience of democratic engagement.
Knowing that active participation in a democratic community is the best way to foster tolerance, respectful dialogue, civic engagement, and moral responsibility among adolescents, we decided to build a participatory governance structure. We have designed our new high school, which opens in September 2003, with group spaces large enough for entire clusters to meet for discussions. The hour that our weekly schedule allocates will provide time for effective and participatory deliberation of issues.
Clusters will be the principal governance units in the school, providing opportunities for participatory, student-led, democratic governance. The governance meetings will replicate Kohlberg's concept of just communities. Students will select, discuss, and take action on topics of concern to them. Each cluster will meet as a whole group and in smaller groups to discuss school and cluster issues. They will make decisions about cluster activities and make proposals and policy recommendations for consideration by the entire school. Within each cluster and its smaller groups, student agenda committees with rotating memberships will decide on the cluster's program of activities. This regular participation in decision making will build commitment to the school and cluster. Sometimes the topics for discussion in clusters will be of particular interest to that cluster, but sometimes they will be topics of interest to all students in the school.
A typical four-week schedule for cluster meetings might include one week for flexible small-group governance meetings to discuss an issue; a second week for a whole-cluster governance meeting discussing the same issue; a third week for small-group work on service projects in classrooms; and a fourth week for a large-group meeting to hear a speaker.

Whole-School Discussions

For the past two years and prior to establishing the clusters this past spring, we piloted this governance concept, engaging the entire student body in small-group, student-led discussions of issues selected by students. The first whole-school dialogue focused on the question, “What can we do to improve the school?” An all-voluntary group of approximately 110 students facilitated the small-group dialogues and then compiled the list of issues of greatest concern to students. To prepare for facilitating these discussions, many of the student volunteers had undergone one-day training programs. So far, the school has participated in about a dozen whole-school discussions on a variety of topics.
The first issue raised by students was the quality and selection of food offered by our food service program. All students met in small groups to discuss areas of dissatisfaction and recommendations for improvement. After the discussions, students volunteered to work with our food service director to research available options and implement some of the students' ideas. The result has been a wider selection of sandwiches, soups, yogurts, and a salad bar. Students and faculty are continuing their research by visiting other schools' food service programs to make further recommendations for improving the organization of the food service.
Another topic selected by students was the lack of integration of students from other countries into the school culture. Approximately 15 percent of Hudson's high school students come from other countries, such as Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, and Guatemala. Student volunteers interested in the issue produced a video based on interviews about students' feelings of isolation within the school. Again in small groups, student facilitators showed the tape and led discussions on how to create a more inclusive school community. One of the results of this discussion was a program called Friends, in which students volunteer to buddy with students from other countries. The group of approximately 100 members has held a number of events—including a special luncheon at a local Brazilian restaurant—and has set up peer mentoring and regular group meetings.
As the school moved to a clustering governance structure, students were eager to discuss how the democratic clustering model would work. Some students were enthusiastic; others were wary. These whole-school conversations have been powerful vehicles for engaging students in practicing democracy and in formulating our governance policies. To lend authority to these discussions, the students and faculty have approved a constitution that includes a community council composed of teacher and student representatives from each cluster. This council replaces our traditional student council and votes on decisions that affect the entire school.

Our Future Citizens

Although we are still in the early stages of implementation, students and faculty are committed to this model for improving school culture, student motivation, teacher instruction, and civic engagement. Implementing democratic governance and small democratic groups in a large public school is not only doable; it brings public schools closer to their historic mission. These democratic clusters build rich relationships between faculty and students, a meaningful instructional program, a stimulating professional culture for staff, and a respectful and responsible student body. But most important, participating in a democratic community enables young people to enter the adult world with the skills, values, and commitment to actively participate in our civic community.

Resource Organizations

  • Character Education Partnership, 809 Franklin St., Alexandria, VA 22314; (800) 988-8081; <LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning, Dept. of Psychology (M/C 285), The University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607-7137; (312) 413-1008; <LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Second Step, Committee for Children, 2203 Airport Way S., Ste. 5000, Seattle, WA 98134; (800) 634-4449;<LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • National Center for Learning and Citizenship, Education Commission of the States, 707 17th St., Ste. 2700, Denver, CO 80202-3427; (303) 299-3629;<LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Developmental Studies Center, 2000 Embarcadero, Ste. 305, Oakland, CA 94606; (800) 666-7270; <LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138; (800) 370-2515; <LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 16 Hurd Rd., Brookline, MA 02146; (617) 232-6919; <LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Responsive Classroom, Northeast Foundation for Children, 71 Montague City Rd., Greenfield, MA 01301; (800) 360-6332;<LINK URL=""></LINK>.

  • Open Circle Social Competency Program, Stone Center, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, MA 02181-8268; (781) 283-2847;<LINK URL=""></LINK>.


Power, C., Higgins, A., &amp; Kohlberg, L. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg's approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.

Resnick, M., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the national longitudinal study on adolescents' health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823–832.

Schaps, E., Battistich, V., &amp; Solomon, D. (in press). Community in school as key to student growth: Findings from the Child Development Project. In R. Weissberg, J. Zins, &amp; H. Walberg (Eds.), Building school success on social and emotional learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wasley, P. (2002). Small classes, small schools: The time is now. Educational Leadership, 59(5), 6–10.

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