Guess what? I decided to embark on a journey. One that is not entirely new for me, but a necessary one as we begin to promote democratic and progressive learning environments in our public schools. I’ve decided to search for and locate our progressive and innovative public school leaders in our nation. The models are out there; we just need to seek them out, and highlight them. Personally, just knowing these places and leaders exist, gives me so much life. However, I will not be satisfied until all children, not just those in affluent private schools and communities, get a progressive education.
A few years ago, I worked as an organizer for a progressive organization whose goal was to promote democratic values within public schools. For many people, the first institution they encounter is our traditional public schools: one of the foundations of our democracy. Unfortunately, our public schools are probably the most undemocratic spaces to be. Many schools and districts across the nation structure their communities to fit an autocratic format at almost every level. Central office and the administrators call the shots. They dictate “directives” while all the “workers”, and their students must fall in line. It’s factory-style schooling at its best.
In more ways than I would like to admit, the autocratic, top-down control of the school and district often trickles down into the classrooms. Students are not allowed a voice. The teachers have no voice, and on most occasions, only the most outspoken parents are the ones who receive any consideration. Otherwise, the teachers, students, and parents are not respected as individuals who help co-create the learning ecosystem.
Back in 2011, I collaborated with one other person on a project to identify progressive and innovative schools and school leaders. The idea was birthed at a retreat-like camp experience with a democratic education organization I used to organize with. My teammate and I decided we would locate these school leaders and schools across the country by creating a survey and distributing across our networks. We got about seven responses, of which five responded to our request for an interview. Although our project never took off as we wanted it to, we were proud of the work we were attempting to do and I believe it has set the foundation for what I am about to embark on.
So, public school progressives, where are y’all?
In the past few weeks, I have stumbled upon some amazing progressive educators and school leaders, but I know there have to be more. Then, where are they? We know since the beginning of time that there had been teachers, when prevented from providing a progressive experience for their students, who have subverted oppressive forces and worked to provide their students with the world. However, that’s not what I’m looking for now.
I am specifically looking for school leaders and their schools. I want to find school leaders who seek to create learning environments that allow the teachers and students the room and autonomy to co-create innovative learning experiences with and alongside each other. I am looking for learning environments that fully engage, encourage, support, and honor the voices of their students beyond claiming to be “student-centered” but indeed walk the walk. I am looking for learning environments that honor the sanctity of childhood and their innate need to play, innovate, collaborate, and contribute to a democratic society.
I am looking for leaders and schools that are fervently seeking equity and equality of life and learning for all students. I am looking for school leaders who understand the need for constructive criticism, collective decision making, and who embrace conflict and dissent, to therefore emerge as more whole and complete in the end. And finally, I am looking for school leaders who are thinking outside the box to create and lead schools that meaningfully uplift the power of students and staff while creating dynamic, deep, innovative schools that provide opportunities to engage all students and staff in meaningful and authentic ways.
If you know someone that fits this description, then we need you! This is only the beginning. The possibilities of how big this could grow and spread are endless. I take joy in the unknown and uncertainty. Let’s build together!
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