Describing a school’s academic program is much easier than describing a school’s atmosphere. There’s only so much a website, article, or mission statement can tell you about what a learning culture actually feels like. When you actually visit a school though, you know whether it works based on simple impressions and observations; how community members interact with each other, how welcoming and inclusive the school seems, the fullness of life and freedom emanating from the students, the general feeling of comfort and connection, and whether the learning feels personal, meaningful, and ethical.
There are many fancier, better resourced, better endowed schools than Scarsdale Alternative School, but I can think of few schools that impressed me more on almost every education related metric that matters. The fact that the A-School happens to be a Just Community only confirms for me, once again, the unignorable intellectual, social, and moral value that derives from democratic learning and democratic experience. At the A-School, the mission and philosophy is not merely an externalized declaration of progressive values; mission and philosophy is internalized in the very nature of the community, and the personalities who speak and feel what the Just Community represents. The school aims to meet the following goals:
- To establish a workable, democratic governance system, a “just community.”
- To promote students’ social, civic, and moral development in addition to their academic development
- To create a sense of community where students and teachers learn together toward agreed upon goals
- To increase students’ freedom and participation in pursuing their own education
- To make the school less isolated from, and more responsive to, the larger community outside its four walls
- To emphasize cooperation, and eliminate the more destructive forms of competition
- To maintain the high level of academic achievement for which Scarsdale is known.
Before examining these goals, some brief historical context. The A-School was founded in 1972 by students, teachers, and administrators who wanted to develop an “experimental satellite” of Scarsdale High School, a much larger institution that serves the pretty wealthy and upscale community of Scarsdale, New York. Even before the A-School adopted the more specific attributes of Kohlberg’s Just Community approach, it made the “Community Meeting” a central feature of their educational program.
Students at the A-School are “dual citizens” of Scarsdale High School, which means they take classes at the high school (but mostly with fellow A-School students), and graduate with a diploma from Scarsdale High School. However, the A-School operates independently in most other respects, utilizing alternative structures and democratic practices that work most effectively in small, diverse communities. In its personalized and experimental approach to education, the A-School resembles a lab school; its population is a diverse and self selecting sample of the larger high school who gain admission through lottery. Once admitted, students stay. Happily.
But all of these matters are academic. Let’s get to the experience. First, we visited the American Literature course of Howard Rodstein, the A-School school’s infectious Director. The class was studying Lord of the Flies, and discussing how primitive urges and instincts (id) conflict with the demands of morality and civilization (superego). The discussion was inclusive and multi layered. Howard made it a point to call on every student; at the same time, students themselves kept track of participation, oftentimes calling on others to explain concepts from the text. There was no rote learning, and the tone of the class was lighthearted, sophisticated, and fun.
After Howard’s class, we visited Nelson DaSilva’s Environmental Science class, which focused on the biology and ecology of trash, and the impact of population growth on rates of consumption. These are heady matters of course, but they were brought to life by the students, who recognized the relevancy of each topic, both in terms of ethics and policy. Each student shared their specific impressions of a recent field trip they took to a private sanitation plant; a few students ironically noted that the plant was capitalizing on trash and ruining the environment in the process– a very sophisticated insight, and true evidence of understanding. Students composed population pyramids, debated how AIDS would impact the demographics of Botswana, discussed which countries had higher or lower birth rates and why, and imagined how businesses might capitalize on demographic trends in developing countries.
Students in Sheila Chason’s Calculus class were divided into pods, and tasked with solving some problems on the board which, despite their complexity, remained concrete and understandable. Sheila, like Nelson, was a supportive presence throughout, walking from group to group, and asking students to explain their problem solving methods in front of the class. Her manner was affable, informal, encouraging, patient, personal, and persistent. There was none of the dread, anxiety, and pressure that characterizes most high level math classes, where intensive pacing and teacher directed instruction reduces even the smartest kids to a passive role. It also seemed that there was a fair amount of variation in terms of ability, something you very rarely see in the compulsively tracked world of high school math. But this variation didn’t undermine–and in fact enhanced–the quality of the learning.
Why are classroom observations in any way relevant to the Just Community approach? Well, first of all, it was clear in each instance that the teachers related to the kids, and the kids related to the teachers; none of the traditional authority symbols and structures were detectable in the class; Howard was Howard, Nelson was Nelson, and Sheilah was Sheilah. Each lesson, like the Community Meeting which took place later, was a joint undertaking; in the Earth Science class, Nelson started the lesson by asking the kids to introduce themselves and share their interests. Meanwhile, he stood in the background, accentuating and enriching certain points where necessary. Same was true for Howard and Sheilah’s classes; the teachers were present but mainly as co-inquirers, fellow travellers who knew how to scaffold the lesson, but not coerce its direction.
Meanwhile, us as visitors were never treated as foreign entities; in a classic expression of Just Community norms, we were welcomed and included by the students themselves, all of whom made meaningful eye contact whenever they spoke, eagerly explaining what they were working on, what the traditions of the class were, etc. This type of responsiveness just doesn’t happen in most schools, where an invisible barrier tends to separate “in group” from “out group.” This is not to say there was no authority and hierarchy, it’s simply to say that authority was just and caring in the authoritative sense, rooted in learning as a social experience, not an exercise in individual performance. There were no rules and expectations as traditionally conceived, but a set of shared understandings about responsibility and community that carried over into each class.
The Community Meeting
The Community Meeting, which takes place each week from 1:30 to 2:30 on Wednesdays, comprises the heart of the A-School experience. Visiting classes and talking to students gives you a general impression of the school’s values, but the actual source of these values derives from a very specific ritual, one whose practices enact, strengthen, and celebrate the school’s democratic identity. The Community Meeting is the school’s most distinguishing feature; it’s the one place you’d have to take visitors, parents, and prospective students to demonstrate what makes the school so special. This is what we used to do at Shalhevet as well; we sold the school by bringing families to Town Hall, where the spirit of the school shone vividly and brightly.
Before the meeting sprung into action, a few Seniors, at Howard’s encouragement (but they happily complied) ran off to pick us up some sandwiches from the local deli. As they buzzed off, a few students talked to us about how the A-School’s governing structure operated, how new students learn A-School traditions, and what role Seniors play at the school. The level of respect and informality that inhered in these small, reciprocal interactions highlighted the casual and genuinely caring connection that existed between students and faculty. This was later evidenced during the Community Meeting, when the two Seniors moderating the discussion didn’t immediate call on Howard–or myself–when we had something to say. We were treated as community members, not authority figures with special privileges. And this is precisely what democratic community demands; a commitment to egalitarianism, the breaking down of barriers that divide most schools into non overlapping constituencies (the student body, the teachers, the administration, the board), a genuine interest in the welfare and voice of others.
The meeting was called to attention at 1:30; two Seniors sat at a desk in the front of the community hall, asking everyone to take their seats. Some kids sat on collapsible chairs, others on the two elevated rows encircling the very intimate and unaffected meeting space. Unlike other Just Communities, students at the A-School (mostly but not always Seniors) take turns moderating the Community Meetings (the same rotating leadership approach applies to the school’s Fairness Committee meeting as well). Below is the meeting agenda, followed by a description of how things played out:
Birthday songs (1 min)
- The community has their own way of singing happy birthday; everyone sings the song at different volumes and entry points, some clapping quickly, others just completing the first verse. And this is how the meeting began; a cacophony of diverse melodies, all celebratory, joyous, and giggly. Hard to follow but complete hysterical and unique.
Ripples (5 min)
- Community members “rippled” each other by recognizing, affirming, and thanking people for small acts of kindness. The rippling is all done vocally and publicly; I want to ripple so and such for helping me with my homework, giving me a ride last week, granting me a homework extension, etc. The more people ripple, the more others feel compelled to ripple. It’s a small, uncomplicated ritual that promotes solidarity, and sets the tone for the Community Meeting. We rippled the school for welcoming us so warmly and graciously.
Current events (10-15 min)
At each community meeting, a select Senior summarizes current events for the week, mostly focusing on political news. It’s a ritual designed to briefly inform the community about goings on in the world. The Senior summarized the news on Justice Scalia’s passing, and described the impending political battle to nominate a Supreme Court justice to fill his vacancy. When he finished, the moderators posed a few questions to the community:
- Does the community like hearing about current events? Should the ritual continue after the current Senior doing current events graduates?
- If so, who should the community elect to provide a news summary each week?
These questions were quite simple and basic, but they prompted an interesting discussion that took on a life of its own. Most people liked hearing about current events (there was a straw poll to gauge general interest), but some felt that the current events were either too political (why not include pop culture in “current events”?), or perhaps too biased (maybe the choice of what events to summarize would reflect political prejudice, dependence on a partisan news source, etc.). The moderators were fantastic about eliciting a representative sample of voices on both sides of the issue, and directing the discussion towards constructive solutions proposed by the community. The moderators took a formal majority vote on the following options:
- Have two people share current events, but with the caveat that these two people fact check each other’s sources to ensure accuracy and fair-mindedness
- Have each advisory group, on a rotating basis, take responsibility for sharing current events during Community Meeting
- Maintain the current system by electing another qualified person to do current events
The Community elected to maintain the current system.
Short Presentation (15 min)
- The wife of a 9-11 victim spoke movingly about starting an organization that trains dogs to help victims of terror recover from physical and mental injuries. A brief Q & A period followed.
Topic for discussion (30 min)
I admit; initially, I was a bit uninspired by the seeming frivolousness of the main topic for discussion: whether the A-School should continue its tradition of playing the game, “Frank.” What’s Frank all about? Students are given a rubber ducky, and paired with another student. Students then have to catch that other person without his or her rubber ducky. If that person doesn’t have the rubber ducky when you do, they’re out. That is all.
I wanted to observe a discussion with more gravitas, but I quickly realized that my own preferences reflected a common tendency in even the most progressively minded adult; wanting to direct, influence, and select topics of importance for the students. It takes constant reminders that the Just Community is developmental, its approach involves trusting kids, and recognizing the value of their needs and interests (i.e, which typically become part of the “Hidden Curriculum“).
Back to the discussion. Apparently, some people felt the game violated the norms of the A-School community, as Frank had become increasingly competitive, with many students adopting the lingo of warfare (elimination, destruction, etc), and taking joy in getting people out. The voices expressing the most concern were a History teacher, followed by Howard, who was torn on the matter. He liked the game but didn’t know if it helped or harmed school culture. One student respectfully called out the History teacher, wondering if she had taken things a bit too seriously, ruling out a fun game that causes no offense. Others wondered why Frank was even up for discussion. Again, the moderators did a fantastic job of balancing competing perspectives, and making sure to acknowledge the minority of voices who expressed concern about the game. In the end, a majority vote was taken, most of the kids raised their hands in favor of Frank, two faculty members raised their hands in opposition, and the tradition of Frank was preserved.
Meeting adjourned. School day over.
What’s the moral of the story?
As I mentioned at the outset, it’s hard to describe what we felt after our visit to the A-School. But what we felt was very good. Here was a warm and caring community that made us feel comfortable and welcomed. The kids were unpretentious, genuine, mature, cooperative, and self motivated. Whatever it was that the kids we’re learning, it was clear they were wonderful individuals first, with a level of social intelligence that transcended even their most distinctive academic accomplishments. It was also clear that the values of the A-School were so deeply internalized, that democracy and diversity didn’t really have to be taught, as it’s taught at schools like Spence. This is no criticism of schools like Spence, it’s simply an insight into the nature of real democratic learning, which can only fulfill its promise in a communal context, not an institutional one. In the end, Howard Rodstein, the school’s Director, was another member of the school; his leadership approach was grassroots, self effacing, non hierarchical, and consistently educational. His title didn’t govern him, or his relationships with others; it’s simply a piece of information you can find online.
Of course, I know the A-School remains competitive; students still prepare to take the Regents exam, students still anxiously apply to college, and anxiety (academic and social) still influences how the kids feel about themselves. But these issues don’t influence the life of the school as they do on so many other campuses, and this has everything to do with the Just Community approach.
A final point. At the beginning of the Community Meeting, Howard asked whether any student would give us a ride to the train station after school. A student raised their hand, found us after the meeting, and promptly drove us over to the Scarsdale station, chatting us up along the way. He reminded us that our train back to the city would leave at 3:15, promptly. We wished each other well, and took off.