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Democratic School Communities in Unexpected Places

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

If we aim to build a broad, majoritarian coalition for democratic school change with a strong focus on community, I think we need to move beyond ideological labels like conservative and progressive and look in places that are not part of the conventional progressive horizon.

It's much more productive to look at schools and educational traditions which embody principles and values like an egalitarian ethos, respect each child's potential, building community inside and outside the school (including belief in the involvement of parents and families in education), inclusiveness, and agency than to make rigid distinctions between "public," "private" and "parochial." 

I should note that this is unrelated to vouchers, where I believe your skepticism about individual family choice is warranted especially in elementary education -- and extends to public schools as well. My own policy model would stress local schools for all, with a lot of opportunities for everyone to learn civic agency skills of making change and gaining voice and also many ways to interact across school communities in a region.

In Public Achievement, we've seen examples of schools with a strong democracy ethos  in all three kinds of schools. 

Last Saturday I spoke to St. Mary's University in Minneapolis. St. Mary's is a "Lasallian" institution, which means it is part of the world wide network of more than 1000 institutions, from elementary level to higher education, which descends from the tradition of the Catholic priest and educational innovator in 17th century France, John Baptist de Lasalle. Lasalle had a strong commitment to education of poor children and to teacher training. He is the patron saint of teachers in the Catholic world, and founder of the order called the Christian Brothers.

I had not known much about the Lasallian education so I did some reading and talked to people knowledgeable about the tradition.

The web site of St. Mary's says "At the heart of Saint Mary's education is the development of meaningful relationships that help the individual leader realize and achieve their potential in a trusting and respectful environment."

They stress that "Faculty, staff, and your fellow students become allies on your educational journey. In an intense give and take setting each of us discovers just how much we can grow." They emphasize education for citizenship and making a contribution through work.

Their emphasis on inclusion, community, social justice, and respect for each student's capacities are at odds with the intense focus these days on individual achievement, competition, and only cognitive skills. Education generally trains "the head" and pretty much ignores the "heart" (affective and emotional growth). Education for the "hand," vocational education, is usually disconnected from liberal learning.

Lasallian education seems to push back against all of these dominant trends. It also has a strong sense of "narrative," the tradition itself and its values. Was this simply public relations, or do Lasallian schools really buck the system?

I asked a colleague, Dennis Donovan, who I've mentioned before. Dennis is national director of Public Achievement, our youth civic education and empowerment initiative. Before working with us he was a Catholic school principal for many years. He knows the world of Catholic education.

Dennis teaches an undergraduate course at the University of Minnesota, "Organizing for the Public Good." One of the assignments is having students develop their "public narrative," using a concept and method developed by Marshall Ganz and widely used in the 2008 Obama campaign.

Public narrative involves students thinking about key events in their lives and what they made of the experiences - not simply what happened to them. It encourages students to think about their agency.

Dennis gave me a public narrative of one of his students, Kimi. She said we are welcome to use it publically.

Kimi is an African American young woman from a low income community, who had many challenges in her background. Then she was given a scholarship to go to De La Salle High School in the Twin Cities.

"So many times in my life I felt unwanted or like I did not belong," Kimi says. "De La Salle never made me feel that way. What is important at the Lasallian schools is you are part of the community in which hearts are being touched, minds are being stimulated, and leadership is being cultivated. "One of my favorite things about De La Salle is the inclusive nature."

She also described how she carries a strong sense of the school mission and culture with her - a lot like you describe many students from Central Park East. "I will forever be part of their legacy and carry the Lasallian traditions with me wherever I go," she says. "It is a big deal wearing its name or logo across my chest, announcing I am an alum when I introduce myself or walking back through the halls to visit." She is bright, confident, and convinced she can make constructive change in the world.

I wanted to put Kimi and teachers in Lasallian schools on a lecture circuit to spread the word about their tradition and its values.

Harry

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