When the kids run the school: What is a democratic free school?

At the time of this post, I am an intern at the Philly Free School. Prior to that, I was a high school history teacher in Baltimore City and then worked for a Baltimore City elected official.

The chairman of School Meeting reads, “Naseehah would like to bring a motion to spend up to $20 of the school’s budget to purchase garbage collecting tools. Naseehah, can you explain?”

A little girl, who looks no older than eight, is seated in the front row of the meeting. Her feet don’t touch the floor from her adult-sized chair, but she projects her voice to explain the problem: “Outside on the sidewalk around the school I noticed there was some trash, and if we had the tools, we could clean it up.” Earlier, she had asked a staff member to help her research quality trash grabbers, and she states that $20 is a reasonable amount of the school’s budget to spend for this purpose. 

Another student asks to modify the motion, “I think we should have two pairs of grabbers, so people can work together.” Naseehah’s face brightens as her idea gains momentum.

The chairman clarifies, “so you move to authorize Naseehah to spend up to $40 to purchase trash collection tools? Is there a second?” Several hands go up. “All in favor?” Most hands go up. “All opposed?” None. “The motion passes.” Naseehah’s first motion is over. The meeting secretary records the outcome in the School Meeting minutes and the chairman moves to the next item on the agenda – a group of students are seeking an endorsement of the Pen Pals project they’re organizing.

This is my first time seeing School Meeting at Philly Free School (PFS), where students call the shots on all aspects of the school: budgeting, making and enforcing rules, hiring and firing staff, and delegating the many duties that keep the school running. 

After successfully bringing her motion to School Meeting, the new trash grabbers have arrived, and Naseehah proudly shows them off.

So… what is a free school exactly?

For the three months I’ve been telling people I was coming to Philly Free School, I’ve gotten the response, Oh cool… so… what is a free school exactly? 

Aware of most people’s limited patience, I try to keep my answer brief. At a free school, every student and staff member has an equal say in any decision that shapes the school community and their lives within it. At PFS, that means that students’ votes outnumber staff ten to one.

If my questioner’s expression has not become glazed-over, I also tell about how the school runs on direct democracy, organized through a weekly meeting like the one described above. The school’s many sub-committees (which include students, staff, and sometimes parents) handle the details that keep the school running, from afternoon clean-up to budgeting to marketing. The most important of these is Judicial Committee, which meets daily to review and mete out consequences for any rule violations.

Students at PFS are rarely seated in rows, but today the field trip committee has called a meeting. A student member of the committee reports about their planning process to other students and takes suggestions for the next trip.

In short, the kids run the school. 

And as they get more practiced at democracy, they really do run it. New kids learn from kids with experience, like Nadja, who serves as the Clean-up Clerk this year. When 3pm hits on the first day of school, students and staff alike flock to her to get their clean up assignments. Like any organized supervisor, she holds a spreadsheet designating rooms and zone captains. After being told their assignment, workers head to their jobs.

In the common room, where I’m stationed, a group of three small boys work together to fold and store the large tumbling mats. Tables get broken down, chairs stacked, floors swept. Within fifteen chaotic yet productive minutes, the school is clean and ready for the next school day. At the last school where I taught, we hired a full time custodian, and I still had to sweep my classroom each day.

By this point in my explanation, listeners may be impressed by the democratic workings of the school, but the question still hangs in the air: But how do they learn?

But how do they learn?

At PFS, kids learn through self-directed education. In other words, they do what they want. Many teens spend their time off campus, going to a café, doing an internship, or taking a college class. Others spend their days in conversation, flowing between weighty topics and playful teasing. Still others may dive deeply into the democratic life of the school, spending hours each week working on multiple committees. Younger kids spend most of their time playing, doing art, or using computers. Wrestling, chasing, and pretend games are so beloved that the school has a set of rules devoted entirely to “Rambunctious play, excessive noise, ghosts, & ghost games.” But no day looks the same because students do what they want, and kids’ interests change from day to day.

But um… how do they learn to read and do math? This isn’t just a question I get from others; it’s at the top of my mind as well. Before coming to PFS, I taught in a traditional high school, and the idea of  self-directed education doesn’t always sit easy with me. A week in, when I see a child watching a Youtube video, napping, or playing a video game, my blood pressure rises.

Long-time staff don’t worry so much; they feel secure that kids are doing what’s right for them, that soon they’ll become bored with mindless activities and find more challenging things to do with their time. 

Still, children are not pressured to learn certain things over others. Unlike every other school I’ve seen, academic skills enjoy no special status over social, emotional, or physical skills. Exasperated by the priority outside inquirers placed on academic learning, one staff member started responding to questions about reading and math with other questions about what types of knowledge we value, pushing them to consider how kids learn to resolve conflict, care for others, take responsibility for their actions, figure out what they want, and learn to be free.

Interacting with the kids at Philly Free School, it’s clear they are learning these important lessons. In traditional environments, I’ve met many kids (and adults) who are competent at reading and math but haven’t scraped the surface of higher-order questions like those above. 

A myopic focus on academics ignores broader lessons about becoming a whole person who treats others with dignity. In a better world, reading and math would be no more valuable than the democratic skills students master at PFS. A child who grows up to dance, or direct plays, or tend public spaces would have no less access to political influence and economic resources than peers who become engineers and lawyers.

But we don’t live in that better world.  Math and reading are still important gatekeepers to economic stability, political power, and social status. 

So How Do They Learn Math and Reading?

Simply, most students learn to read and do math whenever it becomes meaningful to them. A younger student who sees big kids reading may pick up a book and ask for help. A student who wants to bake in the school kitchen may need to learn fractions. Kids in traditional classrooms face specific grade-level standards; kids at PFS are not even divided into grades. A child who doesn’t find a reason to read until they’re ten is not classified as ‘remedial’ or slated for any interventions.

 As an adult at Philly Free School, this calls me to practice two types of trust. 

First, I must trust students to collaborate in self-governance. Based on my experience in a traditional school, I not only trust students to self-govern, I believe this is the only way they will become prepared to grapple with the responsibilities our world asks them to handle. 

Second, self-directed education requires that I must trust each child to know what is best for them in their individual learning process. 

This type of trust does not come easily. After teaching in Baltimore City, an under-resourced urban district where many students graduate without achieving functional literacy, self-directed education still makes me antsy. In particular, I worry that letting children direct their learning could deepen racial and class inequities.

The stark realities of systemic racial and economic oppression in America mean that poor people and people of color have been intentionally excluded from the American Dream; that is to say, they have been isolated from institutions and opportunities that would allow them to pass privilege to their children. Students who live in households with wealthier, more educated parents are more likely to be surrounded by books and reading material of all kinds. They have greater access to extracurricular support like  parents who can afford to spend time reading with their children.

As a classroom teacher, I took these realities to mean that I had a duty to drill as much reading and critical thinking into my students as possible. The stakes always felt high; if I didn’t bring my 11th graders up from a 5th grade reading level, what might happen when they graduated high school? When they needed basic literacy and critical thinking skills to read a lease, a phone contract, or follow the news? How might they feel if they learned that they were woefully unprepared by the system,  and even with their diplomas in hand they needed years of remediation before they could begin to earn college credits? This fear of leaving students unprepared to cope with the realities of our unjust system still sits with me, and so far no quick defense of self-directed education has assuaged it. 

At the root of a democratic free school is trust – trust that kids can manage themselves, trust that they will freely choose the activities that develop them to their fullest potential. I haven’t developed that second type of trust yet, and I don’t know that I will. But I’m open to changing my mind, and during my three months at Philly Free School, I’ll be asking kids about their learning, their dreams, and their plans to get there.

What do you wonder about democratic free schools and self-directed education? Add your questions to the comments to guide future posts.


  1. This post gave me all sorts of feels. I started thinking about if my students would be able to succeed at a free school and my answer is no. But then I started to wonder if that was a part of culture rather than environment. I feel like in Asia, there is pressure from parents to excel and even self directed learning within the confines of specific subject makes me them antsy.

    I’m also curious about the teachers role in a free school. If there students run the school, is the need for teachers just to supervise? Are specialists hired? or general classroom teachers?

    Anyways, I’m sure you’ve just sent me on a giant black hole type of search, but I’m genuinely curious about what I’ll find.

    Thanks Haley!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ari! It’s awesome to hear from you and I’m so glad you’re teaching.

      Your point about cultural expectations is so real. I’m not immersed in Asian culture, but I’ve still been socially conditioned to ascribe value to certain types of learning over others.

      The role staff take on in this environment really varies by the school. At Philly Free School, staff take on roles as mentors and often look for the important moments to nudge kids. For example, there was one teen who’s been at the school for a year but hadn’t yet taken on a formal leadership role. When a spot as School Meeting chairperson opened up, one of the staff went to her and encouraged her to volunteer for the role, which she did. The goal is student leadership, but kids sometimes need adults to model leadership and encourage them. At some other free schools (like the Brooklyn Free School, where I’ll be going next), students request a lot more subject classes, so staff do more direct teaching. I’ll be interested to see how the school culture and student learning differs as a result.

      Thank you for your questions!


  2. This is fascinating, and I’m excited to follow you on your journey. I share in your reluctance to dive into the second type of trust, but I hope your research can change both our mindsets. Which leads me to my first question, which is not the type of question you’ve requested, but nonetheless needs to come first:

    Given your role interning at PFS, what are your restrictions with regard to what type of information you can blog about? If anything ever does pop up as a red flag in your research or observations, will you be sharing that?

    With regard to your actual prompt, what I wonder about democratic free schools and self-directed education is (1) How are students assessed (on anything) and with what frequency? Do they have the same graduation standards as other PA public school students? Annual state assessments? How do their teachers track progress?; and that leads me to (2) Echoing Ari above, what is the role of the teacher, and how are teachers assessed on their performance if performance standards for students do not exist?

    Looking forward to reading your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Kim!

      Your first question is so interesting to me and something I’ve thought about a lot. There are already aspects of the school about which I’m curious and critical, and I’ll be touching on these in later posts. But to your point, I have to be conscientious about what I share, since I’m a guest in others’ homes, so to speak. I need to be careful sharing information about kids (for their safety) and I need to be respectful of the school community. There’s also the interesting layer of democratic process. I have to share my blog posts with the whole School Meeting (all students and staff) before I post them. If kids or staff strongly object to what I’ve written, I won’t share it.

      On the one hand, this could be viewed as a drawback, since I’m arguably less able to be ‘objective’. A traditional researcher wouldn’t be beholden to representing the school community as it wished to be represented. On the other hand, I think this can also be viewed as a strength; traditional research methods can often miss the context and layers of a community in an effort to remain neutral. The idea of representing a community without their consent is also very troubling to me.

      So far I haven’t asked to publish anything critical, but I’m sure the time will come. I’m excited to see how my unique position as a researcher within the community will shape my writing when that moment comes.

      As for your other questions, I’ll be digging into some of those in an upcoming post that dives deeper into self-directed education!

      So glad to have you on this journey with me!


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