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«THE LUCKIEST LITTLE HIGH SCHOOL: THE POSSIBILITIES AND PANGS OF COMMUNITY DEMOCRACY Introduction The rapid transformation of a secondary school from ...»

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That I did not detect these powerful feelings among four Thompson sophomores I interviewed does not imply that they did not feel loved. They sat in George’s office with the lackadaisical confidence of teenagers comfortable with their surroundings. Considering the fact that this space was primarily used for disciplinary matters, the noticeable ease among the students may have indeed demonstrated that this was a place of love. This was also evidenced by one girl’s response to my question about the benefits of student involvement. She said, “When my siblings were here, there were a lot of issues. Now the adults really consider our opinions.” Their dreams for Thompson were very different from that of George. While he envisioned the ideals of community democracy, such as student ownership of curricular content and empowerment to create change for a better world, the students matter-of-factly asked for more fundraising, more school spirit, and “more fans at the games.” Though they easily shared the ways in which students were involved, they also complained bitterly about students who did not appreciate or take part in these opportunities.

I also observed the goings-on of students in the school office as well as the hallways. Having visited Thompson on several occasions before the arrival of George, I was struck by the sharp contrast in school climate. The high office partitions that once blocked students from office staff were gone, replaced by an array of low desks and chairs utilized by staff and students alike. A boy in full make-up stepped in and spoke with a student office assistant. The “jock” culture that once permeated the total school environment years earlier would have never allowed such personal expression without cruel consequence.

George addressed this change in climate in our interview. He shared that some students had complained to him that Thompson was becoming “a hippie school” because of the increased attention to the arts. He responded to their concern with the question, “Why can’t artists be athletes?” George felt that the underlying issue was that students didn’t feel valued at school.

Recognizing their accomplishments at community meetings had yet to

Vol. 35, No. 3&4, 2004, pp. 143–153 147Dorfman

appease all factions of the student body, he felt. However, his efforts had already impacted high school enrollment. During his first year, fourteen students had paid tuition to enroll in neighboring schools. Just two years later, only two students had transferred out, plus two students from neighboring districts chose to attend Thompson.

Right outside the office, the once empty hallway was now inhabited by studying and talking teens. Since the elimination of study halls, the students sat on benches painted with pictures and poems. Bright murals and countless bulletin boards covered the cinderblock hallways, a student space.


Clearly George had a vision for another way of educating that few others in the school had imagined. I asked him how his ideal compared to what he currently saw happening at Thompson. I will quote him at length in order to do justice to his response.

We are far from the ideal democratic school. We should be at a place where students help design the classes. It’s still a very adultcentered school. [I want to see] students help grow cafeteria food and clean the school. Everyone would be working together. We would not be stuck in discipline concepts, like [teachers saying], “I’m an expert in science, so I do only science.” Teachers would help them structure their day so they can learn from the experts, math, etc. We would have academics in the morning, and in the afternoon it would be more of being a familial community group, giving to each other. We would be doing weekly community meeting, and community singing, a shared vibration…I think we should start our week Monday morning and end our week Friday afternoon with shared vibrations. Those are some of the ideal pieces. The whole library would be chosen by the students. The physical structure of the school would be designed better for students and staff.

Now it’s designed for that factory prison model. We have eighty-six acres. We could create a historical farm here with cows, sheep, horses. We’d get pork, corn we can eat. At the same time other schools can come and say that’s how they used to do that. Plus I think we can do better with smaller buildings around. I’d love to see us do a Native American longhouse where the whole school community can fit for a meeting. But we have a long way to go. That’s another thing, to say: “we, we, we” instead of “I, I, I” or “they, they, they.” That’s democracy, too.

Entanglements with Community Democracy The contradictions I witnessed between democratic theory and programmatic implementation were troubling. However I must acknowledge that in no way did the members of Thompson express that they were a community democracy, or even a school pursuing democratic education. Based on my observations of the site, I have imposed this term on Thompson to explain the phenomena of reform underway. Yet with some disappointment 148 Planning and Changing The Luckiest Little High School I cannot claim that no gap exists between critical democratic theory and the actual school practice underway. In review I found three unexpected themes as most noteworthy: luck, power, and risk. In elucidating these elements deduced from Thompson, I will level my enthusiasm with precaution of its potential vulnerability.


Without hesitation do I attribute the anomaly of democratic leadership at Thompson to extraordinary luck. For a community divided for decades by education, class, and political conviction to be unified by a native personifying all perspectives is nothing less than astonishing luck. I have seen many rural schools impoverished more by a lack of creativity and vision on the part of hierarchical functionaries than by a dearth of financial support. Little in Thompson’s history could have caused its current democratic course in hiring a social idealist, reorienting its teachers, and empowering its youth.

Luck is not a theory. It is serendipity, and can fade fast. During an interview, George articulated the great obstacles he faced in challenging families accustomed to local power. Safeguarding fairness and due process in the school system had resulted in anything but luck for George. The first year he was “cursed out on a regular basis,” and the windows of his home were smashed with bricks. But the combination of courage and stamina George possessed was extremely fortunate for Thompson, for the early stages of change were as much a personal threat as a professional trial.

Lucky for this community, George’s vision persevered through the growing pains.


George is in a position of great power. Once hired as the primary disciplinarian to assist the building principal, his influence has spread to virtually every corner of the school district. Before long, he was promoted to co-administrator, and currently considers his efforts to be “very effective.” In our interview, George recalled many instances in which he exerted his authoritarian power in order to forge change, as in teacher and classroom reassignments. Several “old guard” teachers had left during George’s short tenure, allowing him more opportunity to advance his vision by hiring candidates to his liking. A Thompson faculty member described that his evangelical zeal simply overwhelmed people accustomed to the formality of the conventional bureaucrat. While George may justify these moves as best for the school community, such unilateral action is anathema to democratic practice. His reliance on positional power to further democratic ends is paradoxical, and possibly symptomatic of the early stages of progressive transformation. In a micro institution characterized since its inception by a rigid hierarchy of decision making, how else can change occur? George felt compelled to make an immediate difference in lives of the children. His vision of a school of caring educators and empowered youth needed potent authority to inhibit past patterns detrimental to a community democracy. Despite his

Vol. 35, No. 3&4, 2004, pp. 143–153 149Dorfman

affinity toward egalitarianism, George relied on the traditional school structure of top-down decision making whenever he felt it necessary.

George’s tendency to dominate, however laden with good intentions, was manifest at the Cabinet meeting I observed. At the assemblage of the highest governing board, he broke out of his role as facilitator numerous times during the one-hour session. Typically a facilitator talks little of his own views and instead focuses on eliciting dialogue from participants.

George did not concern himself with this obligation, and instead ran the meeting with a view to efficiently complete school business. The only time the student Cabinet member spoke was to propose reading announcements over the intercom. To this, George turned toward her with a single word, “No.” In addition, the sole community member present voiced concern about communication between the school and community. George recited the numerous ways in which school personnel already communicated with town residents and then moved on with the agenda. Twice the community member asked to return to the subject, which she felt unresolved. Finally George asked, “What do you want the Cabinet to do about it?” All members were silent. He ended the matter by referring her to the communication committee.

Despite George’s curt responses, the Cabinet meeting had a friendly atmosphere, with a congeniality between members and an appreciation in taking part in this uncommon collective. The participants appeared to like George and enjoy his humor and character. However, the essence of democratic reform cannot be sustained by any form of personal adoration (Fullan, 2002). The risk of loss is too great.


The luckiest little school is at great risk of losing its prophet. That the congregation of teachers, parents, and students may enjoy the benefits of democratic practices that bring voice into action in no way implies a capacity to foster democratic leadership absent their pioneer. George is a man on the move toward great change in the town he loves, but he may also have other career aspirations. The tenure of principals in Thompson as well as in the rest of the region is notably brief, some three years, before transferring elsewhere. Now that he has peaked the state average tenure, a decision from George to seek a more prestigious position in a more affluent district could spell doom for Thompson School. Since George has a great personal investment as a graduate of the school and a lifetime community member of the town, a departure in the near future is unlikely. However, it is very possible that if a conservative backlash overwhelms the school board, ousts its student membership, and opposes his vision of change, George may abandon the struggle. Only when a treasure is so rich is a populace so defenseless.

The people of Thompson must take extraordinary care of its human wealth.

As a school leader, George must take precautions to secure that his efforts for democratic practice endure. Student membership on the school board, the Cabinet, and standing committees must be written into the bylaws of school governance similar to those of a non-profit organization. Positive sentiment and generous lip service cannot survive a leadership change 150 Planning and Changing The Luckiest Little High School or political turmoil battling educational conservatism. Thompson is especially susceptible to a regressive fluctuation to the right because the pendulum has swung so far to the left. Unfortunately, in terms of democratic education, there is no middle “balance” between two movements. Structural changes require a cultural conversion if they are to endure. For example, the current student handbook neglects to mention student involvement in decision making. The Cabinet, community meeting, and school board membership are not included in the patchwork of belief statements, discipline codes, and eligibility guidelines. A redesign of school governance has yet to be officially adopted. There is still an omnipresence that the administration runs the school, and that these officials take liberty to include others only as they deem appropriate. While I found that George’s judgment reflects democratic ideals to determine student, teacher, and community involvement, I found little evidence to suggest that other district leaders, such as the other co-administrator and superintendent, exercise such discretion predisposed toward democracy.

Hope The failure on the part of the Thompson students to articulate their understanding of governance and democracy is also a call for alarm. The executive elite public school I discussed earlier utilized classroom instruction in order to connect students to the enlightened system. Through learning and applying the tenets of liberal democracy, these teens easily spoke of their school’s structure and culture, which emphasized the centrality of student leadership. The message was everywhere: democratic learning principles posted in every classroom, a bulletin board of the Community Council, and frequent publicity of opportunities for involvement. The leadership at Thompson needs to expose their achievements in community democracy as well as establish systemic reform reflecting those ideals. Thompson community members can visit other schools pursuing democratic practices, both public and private, and seek transferability to strengthen their own system.

Professional development for faculty and training for students in democratic education can lead to an enduring participatory systems change. Classroom learning can involve activities for small-scale decision making as training for wider student leadership. Together they can become transformative intellectuals (Giroux, 1985) and critical agents in shaping the world they collectively inhabit. The love and ease George puts forth to sustain creative and caring growth at Thompson would be furthered, not compromised, by transforming his ideals into adopted protocols.

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