Academic journal article Planning and Changing

The Luckiest Little High School: The Possibilities and Pangs of Community Democracy

Academic journal article Planning and Changing

The Luckiest Little High School: The Possibilities and Pangs of Community Democracy

Article excerpt


The rapid transformation of a secondary school from a bureaucratically regimented institution to a student-centered learning environment advocating democratic practices merits review. During its third year of progressive reform, this gem was discovered among the ashes of high-stakes assessment and corporate infiltration in public education. I will share my observations of what I have come to regard as the luckiest little high school, its achievements, contradictions, challenges, and promises. This study emphasizes the rapid revolution of a small rural school characterized by conformity and compliance to an artistically and democratically expressive student center for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual engagement.

In Pursuit of Democratic Education

My initial interest lay in the practices of school leaders who had forged major efforts to ensure democratic involvement for secondary students. American educational theorists have contributed a century of literature that grounds the focal tenets of a community democratic school. These include student ownership of curricular content and activities (Apple & Beane, 1995; Dewey, 1944; Giroux, 1997; Meier, 1995), the formation of a multicultural perspective (Apple & Beane, 1995; Calabrese & Barton, 1994; Denith, 1997; Dixon, 1998; Giroux, 1997; Kanpol, 1992; Maxcy, 1998), and structures of governance to gain critical community consciousness (Apple & Beane, 1995; Giroux, 2000; Giroux & McLaren, 1986; Johnson & Pajares, 1996; Rusch, 1994).

These ideals are often muddied in the busy world of distracted administrators, constrained teachers, and hurried children. However it is my intent to appreciate the democratic reforms underway at the school of which I have become so enamored. While I will divulge the inconsistencies observed, analysis will concentrate on the source of its success. Hence I take liberty in ordaining the luckiest little high school.

Research Inquiry

The purpose of the research of which this study was a part was to engage secondary school administrators, who were responsible for disciplinary matters, in "critical conversations about democracy" within their local educational system (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003, p. 3). Pursuing qualitative inquiry as a non-participant observer (Creswell, 2002), I conducted observations and interviews in four schools in order to elucidate the underpinning philosophy that these deans of students put into practice. Utilizing Lewis and Maruna's (1994) concept of a "person as the unit of analysis" (p. 232), I shadowed each of the four professionals at work for a period of four to eight hours and thereafter conducted a standardized open-ended interview (Patton, 1990). In addition, the members of a standing student leadership committee or an adhoc group of active students chosen by the dean were interviewed. Finally, in three schools I observed a governance council which included students as participants in the decision-making process. The fourth school, though it practiced progressive teaching methods, did not maintain such as structure.

While I engaged in the research design and analysis from a critical theoretical perspective, which ultimately focused my attention on an emerging community school democracy in one low-income district, I refrained from exploring the third level of this approach, which is taking action (Glesne, 1999). However, Moustakas (1994) suggests that phenomenological study requires the researcher to discover "a topic and question rooted in autobiographical meanings and values, as well as social meanings and significance" (p. 103). In this sense, I share the aspirations of the study participants; I hope to follow their example in becoming a school principal committed to the common good. My current charge was to learn from their leadership model, their views, and their practices. Not a consultant, I neither passed judgment nor attempted to solve problems. …

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