Turning classrooms into laboratories of democracy

Sunday, May 12, 2002

As students walk across the stage at graduation this spring, many Americans seem to believe that they get handed the First Amendment along with their high school diploma.

Think about it.

In far too many school districts, students spend 12 years in a highly undemocratic system that largely ignores student voices, stifles student press, denies student religious-liberty rights and provides little or no opportunity for civic engagement in the community.

Then suddenly on graduation day these same students are supposed to become active citizens who know how democracy works, understand the responsibilities that come with freedom and care deeply about upholding (and expanding) the American experiment in liberty and justice.

But nobody becomes a free and responsible citizen overnight or through osmosis. Democratic freedom takes practice.

Sure, every school teaches something about how government works and, if there’s time, a little about the First Amendment. But the rights and obligations of citizenship can’t be taught from a book; they must be lived and applied in daily life.

Consider an analogy. Would we teach kids how to “do chemistry” by putting them in a room with lots of chemicals and then hope for the best? Of course not. We provide science laboratories with planned experiments that teach students how to use chemicals responsibly.

Just so, exercising fundamental rights with responsibility takes practice. That’s why we need schools to be America’s laboratories for democratic freedom. Wasn’t that why we created a public school system in the first place?

Now here’s the good news. On May 7, the First Amendment Schools project — a new school reform initiative — announced the selection of the first 11 schools that will become models of how to teach and live the principles of freedom and democracy embodied in the First Amendment.

Sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the nation’s premier educational leadership organization, and the First Amendment Center, this initiative calls for all schools to re-affirm “educating for freedom and responsibility” as a core mission of education.

What will these “laboratories for democratic freedom” look like?

  • All members of the school community will have substantial opportunities to practice democracy.
  • Students will learn how to exercise their inalienable rights with civic responsibility.
  • Parents, students, educators and community members will work together to promote a shared vision of democracy and freedom.
  • Civic education will be translated into civic engagement through service-learning and civic problem-solving.
  • The first 11 project schools are located in seven states and the District of Columbia. They include a mix of urban and rural schools, big and small, on all grade levels. Eight are public, two are public charter and one is an independent school. (A description of each school may be found at www.firstamendmentschools.org.)

    Most of these schools are already doing many innovative things to model First Amendment principles (as are many other schools throughout the nation). The resources they receive from the First Amendment Schools initiative over the next three years will help them to expand their vision of democratic freedom — and to become models for all other schools.

    In one of the selected schools, Federal Hocking High School in rural Ohio, students sit on all of the school committees, including the site-based governance team, and participate along with parents and staff in hiring and other major decisions.

    In another project school — Center City, a charter middle school in Salt Lake City — students helped shape the guiding principles of the school through writing a student constitution. Each week students and staff discuss and resolve school-wide issues at a “town meeting.” Students serve on the school’s advisory committee with parents and staff, and exercise their constitutional rights in many ways including peer mediation, student court and the school newspaper.

    Three of the 11 schools represent the elementary grades. One of them, Fairview Elementary in Modesto, Calif., involves students, parents and staff in making decisions about the school community. A student-run radio station gives students daily opportunities to express their views and discuss issues. The school sponsors yearly institutes and regular workshops for parents to promote meaningful parental involvement in the life of the school.

    For students in all of these schools, “democracy” will be more than an abstract idea in a civics textbook. Democracy will be a living experience.

    And “freedom” won’t be defined as “license.” Freedom will be linked with the civic skills and virtues needed to uphold individual rights while also serving the common good.

    What could be more important to the future of our nation than preparing young citizens to exercise their freedom with responsibility?

    “I often wonder,” wrote Judge Learned Hand, “whether we do not rest our hopes too much on constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it. No constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

    Can we renew the democratic mission of America’s schools? We must.

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