Democracy in a Public High School - National Council of Teachers of English
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Democracy in a Public High School

Nova students
Nova students

Most American high schools tell students democracy is the best governing system, but the Nova Project practices what it preaches. At this Seattle public high school, students decide what classes are offered, how the budget is shaped, what hours the school is open, and what rules are enforced.

Brian Charest, a second-year Nova teacher, came to the school after teaching English for six years in Chicago’s traditional high schools. At NCTE’s 2015 Convention, Charest gave an eye-opening presentation about Nova and the possibilities that unfold when students are invited to make the important decisions.

The school’s 380 students came to Nova by choice. Youth in Seattle can choose to go to their neighborhood school or to an “option school” offering something different. Nova is an option school that utilizes inquiry-based education, with students encouraged to investigate topics of their choosing.

Students at Nova work with teachers to design independent study or design more organized classes. Among the student-shaped classes at Nova: Terrifying Samurai (the films of Akira Kurosawa), Food History, Utopias/Dystopias, Philosophy, the History of Skateboarding, and That’s Funny (a study of comedy). And those are just the ELA courses.

Some may wonder whether students get a serious education in The History of Skateboarding, but Charest says they do. “The idea is for students to learn about the evolution of skateboarding and its place in our culture. We watch documentaries, read articles, and discuss how skateboarding has been marketed over time,” he says. “Students are required to write one-page conversation papers every two weeks on a skate topic of their choice. And, as a final project, students need to do a multi-genre research project. Students can make a ‘zine, do a video edit, interview local skaters, map local skate spots, or something else entirely. So, yes, I think the class is as much about writing and inquiry as it is about skateboarding.”

Charest adds, “We are an academics-based program [but] we provide something that’s missing from a lot of schools, and I think we provide something that looks a lot more like college than you’re going to find in a lot of big schools.”

Nova students confer
Nova students at work

Nova is run by a governing group called the Mothership Committee, made up of several students and staff. The students here can easily outvote the adults, but Charest says the students deliberate carefully and tend to make good decisions. When asked if he has ever seen the students make a decision that worried staff, only one example came to his mind. Some students wanted to eliminate the Mothership Committee and restructure how decisions were made. The staff largely opposed the restructuring, but nevertheless, they put it to a vote of the entire school and agreed to abide by the students’ decision. The students voted to follow the advice of staff.

This system, he says, does have drawbacks. “It’s like any sort of democratic system. It’s messy. It can be challenging at times. Committee meetings can take a long time. . . . If you want everybody’s voice as part of the decision-making process, it can take a while.”

But democracy has at least two advantages that have made it a popular way to run nations, and Charest finds these advantages in a democratic school as well.

The first advantage is buy-in. Machiavelli advised rulers they would enjoy more power as elected leaders than as kings because the citizens of a democracy are more loyal and more invested in their society’s success than are the citizens of a dictatorship. That buy-in, Charest reports, can be seen at Nova. “[D]iscipline problems (e.g., fights, class disruptions, etc.) are not really problems that we face regularly at Nova. Yes, we have students who need extra support and coaching to help them deal constructively with their problems and behaviors, but we don’t have the kinds of problems you might see in a large, comprehensive high school.”

The second advantage of democracy is a better educated population. As Dr. James Brent, a political scientist at San Jose State University, explains, “Decision makers study to make good decisions, and they learn from the results of their bad ones. The process of deliberation forces participants to examine and reconsider ideas. So the more that people are included in the decision-making process, the deeper their understanding becomes.”

That, too, can apply to a democratic school. Charest reports:

At Nova we link our committees to courses so that work we do in these spaces is connected. Students learning about democracy can see firsthand how democratic processes function when they work on a committee like Mothership that makes schoolwide decisions. Linking committees and classes creates a connection between academic work and civic or community engagement in much the same way that a lab links the work in a science classroom to experiments and work in the field.

After teaching in both traditional schools and in a democratic school, Charest is sold on the benefits of bringing democracy to high schoolers. “It definitely works here,” he says. “Having student voice be a part of what we do makes this a better school. It builds a kind of community of the school that’s not present when students feel like they don’t really have a say in what’s going on.”


In one week, we’ll deepen our look at Nova. Meanwhile, you can read more on the value of student-led inquiry and students making their own choices.