Israels democratic schools, where the students rule

hadera, israel | 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.

This is the Hadera Democratic School, 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 this school year.

The Hadera Democratic School, which receives funding from both public and private sources, was the first of its kind in Israel. Since it was founded in 1987, 23 other schools have opened around the country, based on its model of democratic education in which student participation and choice are emphasized.

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, from a variety of economic backgrounds. Scholarships help 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.

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. There are no required classes, grades or required tests.

“I believe children only learn from choice, not when they’re forced,” says Aviva Golan, who taught in a traditional school before coming to Hadera.

At traditional schools, she says, “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.

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 at the center of the campus’ brightly painted buildings. Other students work in the computer lab, housed underground in a concrete bomb shelter.

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, says 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.

Hadera student Chen Shoham, 17, explains why: “It’s because kids don’t feel the need to rebel against anything.”