Under a classroom’s fluorescent lights, students and teachers scramble to find seats. An important “Parliament session” is under way as together, they hammer out a plan for allocating the school’s activities budget.
The scene is the Hadera Democratic School in Israel, where students take an equal role in deciding not only how and what to study but how the school is run.
As they debate how to spend the $27,000 activities budget, one student writes in neat letters at the top of the blackboard, “order of speakers.” A debate soon breaks out over how much money to spend on the school’s music department, and whether it’s worth purchasing additional acoustic equipment.
Next, the drama teacher asks for additional funds to allow students to see professional theater productions.
One by one, everyone in the room is heard. After much wrangling, a budget is produced for the school year.
The Hadera Democratic School, which receives funding from both public and private sources, was the first of its kind in Israel. Since its founding in 1987 in this city about 60 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, 23 other schools have opened around the country based on its model of democratic education, in which student participation and choice is emphasized.
With its relatively large number of democratic schools, Israel is considered a groundbreaker and leader in the field internationally.
There is growing interest in alternative schools in Israel, where the public school system is mired in a crisis born of poor teaching and disciplinary problems. The Hadera Democratic School has 350 students, with hundreds more on a waiting list.
Most of the students are secular and come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Scholarships help students from poorer families pay the annual tuition of approximately $1,200.
Among the school’s most famous alumni is Gal Fridman, the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold medal in 2004.
Based on the idea that children are naturally curious and want to learn, the democratic schools focus on respecting the individual. There is close teacher-student interaction, and teachers — called “educators” by the students — mentor 15 students, in addition to their classroom duties.
With their elders’ help, students guide their own education. The goal is to instill in children the notion that they’re responsible for their choices.
There are no required classes, no grades or required tests. Staff and students are treated as equals and share in school decisions, sitting on a variety of committees that range from the school parliament to a teacher selection committee and a field trip committee.
Teachers say the committees are a key part of the education, teaching students how to analyze situations and make choices: “All these things they normally never have a chance to do,” said Aviva Golan, one of the teachers.
On the field trip committee, for example, it’s the students who hire the bus, organize the food and choose where to go.
Golan, who taught in a traditional school before coming to the Hadera Democratic School, no longer believes in conventional education.
“It’s bankrupt, and I believe children only learn from choice, not when they’re forced,” she said.
At traditional schools, she said, “I saw how I fought with kids instead of teaching them — the whole time telling them to be quiet. I believe kids need to move and play. It’s where the real things happen for them.”
The school itself hums with activity. Everywhere, students — from preschoolers to high school seniors — seem to be on the move. One girl reads a novel on a wooden bench. There are children juggling in the courtyard, while others bounce on pogo sticks.
On break, a group of boys plays soccer in the long sandy field in the center of the campus’ brightly painted buildings. Other students work in the computer lab, housed underground in a concrete bomb shelter.
Mike Moss, 17, came to the school as a disgruntled 11-year-old who was bored and restless in his regular school. He soon felt stimulated in the Hadera school and became active in the music and drama departments.
“I feel I would not be doing half the things I am doing here — preparing for matriculation, the music, the friendships — if I had stayed at regular school,” he said.
However, the Hadera school isn’t for everyone, Moss explained. He said students at the school need self-discipline and open minds.
Chen Shoham, 17, said the school has taught her to take responsibility for her education and her life.
“It’s about freedom as an individual and freedom of choice,” she said. “I do what I want and what I need to do. I’m responsible for my life.”
Shoham sits on the budget committee and helps oversee the budget requests each class submits.
“I’ve learned about priorities,” she said.
Traditional subjects such as math, English and history are taught, but it’s up to the students to decide if they’ll take them. Those who want to can study for the high school matriculation exam, which they need to pass with the highest possible marks to get into college.
The school’s principal, Rami Abramovich, said the students do well on the matriculation exam, but the school doesn’t keep data on how many students pass, because it doesn’t consider the matriculation exam a proper measure of whether a student has been educated well.
Students at the school speak of the value of learning outside of class — from philosophical conversations about the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band.
In contrast to the mainstream Israeli school system, there’s hardly any violence at the Hadera Democratic School.
“It’s because kids don’t feel the need to rebel against anything,” Shoham said.
Parents say they’re relieved to have found a setting where their children can thrive academically and socially.
“We think that regular public schools limit children,” said Hadass Gertman, a performance artist whose 8-year-old daughter attends the Hadera Democratic School. “We heard of children going through very bad experiences in public school, and we wanted her to enjoy learning, to enjoy school.”
Sitting outside the small, detached concrete building where he teaches 4- to 6-year-olds, Ron Vangrick spoke of being drawn to the job after growing disappointed with the mainstream educational framework.
“Education is going through a deep crisis because of a lack of relevance of what were once traditional goals,” such as treating others with respect, he said.
He believes that the unique atmosphere at the Hadera Democratic School contributes to the learning process.
“There’s a feeling of home here,” he explained. “It’s a relatively small place. There’s an atmosphere of living within a tribe. Kids of different ages are together and interact with respect and warmth. There is a feeling of childhood that is very powerful here.”
Abramovich, the principal, said the school works because it allows children to discover their own strengths. There’s learning in everything, he said — from the geometry of passing the ball on the soccer field to the negotiations behind staging a school play.
“Every child has his path and rhythm,” he stressed. “It’s a matter of finding it.”