Democracy in School Leadership

9 Mar

What is a Democratic School?

Democratic schools each embody the spirit of democracy in their own way. They are as  distinct as the communities they support. The spectrum of democratic runs the gamut from the anarchistic Free Skool concept, to schools who host weekly parliamentary meetings. These schools value the distribution of power across a learning community through seeking feedback, encouraging freedom of choice, and engaging with horizontal leadership structures.

This is What Democracy Looks Like (at AGC)

In 2014, AGC took steps to formalize an existing philosophy of power sharing into more formal systems of democratic participation. On a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis, elected multi-stakeholder groups make recommendations to inform school management based on constituent feedback. Those democratic structures (described below in italics) seek to activate feedback from all staff, channel the parent voice, and tap into student perspectives. Our goal is for a majority of decisions affecting the whole school are made through a democratic process.

Within each classroom democracy is also upheld as a value. AGC follows the best practices of Responsive Classroom, Restorative Justice, and student-led inquiry-based learning. Within our International Baccalaureate framework, students have tremendous agency to drive their own learning.

Our Democratic Structures:

The School Planning and Management Team, is a group of elected representatives from each staff department alongside a parent representative, with participation from the student council when appropriate.  

The AGC Community Council (ACC) is an elected group of of parents, staff, and parents who are also staff (a huge percentage of our staff are also parents of AGC students.) The ACC is tasked with channeling the parent voice and helping to organize parent engagement. 

An elected Student Council represents student voice. Additional student committees and publications bolster open feedback and dialog.

An array multi-stakeholder committees tackle specific needs, such as the budget committee (made up of parents and staff) and the hiring committee.

Why Democratic Education?

Democracy can be messy and labor-intensive, but power sharing in the classroom and in school leadership also has tremendous benefits.

We are truly greater than the sum of our parts. To reimagine what’s possible in public education, we need every member of our community to be fully and authentically contributing to our vision for change.  A diversity of perspectives within multi-stakeholder groups also helps to enrich decision making.

In his book exploring democratic learning environments, American Schools, Sam Chaltain describes the balance that American institutions strike. “These two universal needs,” he says, “for freedom on one hand and structure on the other — are particularly relevant to our nation’s school leaders, who mush strike the right balance between the two in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.”

Responding to Change

AGC was founded in 2008 with 100 students and a handful of staff. As our school has grown and evolved — developing our Middle Years Program in 2013, incorporating a Dual Language program in 2014, graduating our first 8th grade class in 2016 and now, in our 10th year — our staff structure has grown and changed organically to meet the needs of our community. Our democratic structures have emerged, ebbed and flowed responsive to changing needs.

Recently, we sat down as a community to draft a staff model that best meets the needs of our community today. After ten years of intense growth and change, we’re no longer adding a grade level each year and, because change is truly the only constant, we’ve grasped an opportunity to reflect and redesign our leadership approach.

As a laboratory of innovation in education, we look for the best path, which is often not the most common or the easiest one. As a community driven by a unique mission, vision and values, we are accustomed to innovative problem solving.  Over the last year, AGC’s democratic multi-stakeholder groups have spent countless hours developing a vision for the future of our leadership structure.

Innovating on School Leadership

To begin this process, we held open parent and staff meetings across two evenings to collect feedback on what the goals of a new leadership structure should be. Parents, staff, and students walked silently around the multipurpose room, pausing in front of chart paper taped to the walls to answer probing questions: “What makes our community unique? What will AGC to be remembered for in 10 years? What is the primary role of leadership?” We then split into small, multi-stakeholder groups to reflect and offer feedback. All of the days’ notes were collected and analyzed by the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT). This feedback and generated 11 models, each reflecting a unique approach to leading a democratic school.

After several roundsof feedback and Q & A on shared google docs, the 11 models were reduced to 4.  Those 4 models were taken to staff who, during a professional development day, broke into small groups to observe the problems in school leadership each model solved, created, or failed to address.

It has been an inspiring experience to watch our staff collaboratively innovate and problem solve, week after week throughout this process. AGC’s incomparable staff boasts an average of 11+ years of experience, which is uncommon in the Chicago charter community. AGC also retains 90% of our staff year-to-year, so we must be doing something right!

What’s Next?

With this revamped leadership model, we’re now looking for progressive, innovative, and  bilingual school leaders to join our team. We are exploring internal and external candidates simultaneously and accepting applications on a rolling basis.

Please share our 2018-2019 staff openings with the like-minded educators in your network!

Revised Leadership Roles, Hiring for 2018-2019

Teaching Positions, Hiring for 2018-2019



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