Photo by Michael Weizenegger

Democracy in Schools: A Conversation with Donnan Stoicovy

Conversations on Participatory Democracy

Innovative democratic professionals are encouraging greater participation in some of our most fundamental institutions, yet what they are doing is rarely the focus of political theory, social science research, or what politicians talk about when they are talking about renewing American democracy. The conversations in this series aim to shed light on new democratic practices taking shape and to find out more about the dynamic people involved.

Photo by Michael Weizenegger
Photo by Michael Weizenegger

Donnan Stoicovy is the principal—or, in her words, the “lead learner”—of Park Forest Elementary School, a public K-5 school in Pennsylvania. Albert Dzur spoke with her recently about the participatory culture in her school.






Albert Dzur: Last year you held a series of Town Hall meetings that led to a Constitutional Convention at Park Forest school and you started with a pretty basic question: “How do we want our school to run?”

Donnan Stoicovy: Exactly! We started with discussions about “What kind of people do we want to be?” and “What is an ideal school?”—I encouraged the kids to do a little dreaming. And, of course, they know what’s realistic and what’s not–they know you can’t have chocolate covered hallways. But it was fun imagining with them. And then, “What do we value in our schools?” “What do we need to do so we can all get along in our space?” They were good discussions. Legwork for the discussions was done in their classrooms ahead of time and then students chose representatives for the Town Hall Meetings. We used a representative democracy to do all that.

AD: How did you decide to have the Town Hall meetings for the school?

DS: Well, I had been at the League of Democratic Schools meeting at the end of the school year and one of my colleagues there, Dianne Suiter, who at the time was a principal in Ohio, talked about doing something similar. She did questions like “What do we value in our school?” “What do we want to maintain in our schools?” So, as I started thinking about what she was doing, I thought this would be a great way to address what the Pennsylvania Department of Education is trying to do with what is called a “school-wide positive behavior plan.” Having been through many professional development experiences about classroom management and behavior, I wanted to approach the process of developing a plan with everyone’s voices being heard and developing something that we could all agree with as our school plan. Doing it democratically seemed to me to be the right way to engage everyone.

Two years ago, I had facilitated some conversations with parents about what kind of people they want their children to become. They didn’t talk about filling in the bubbles or doing some sort of standardized testing. They wanted their children to be people who could think critically, question authority, and make our world a better place. There was a whole list of things. I did the discussion twice and I had about 50-55 parents attend. So these conversations with our Park Forest Elementary school community members, plus hearing what Diane Suiter had done at her school inspired me. So I started thinking about it and talking with my colleagues here in our school.

AD: Did anything surprise you? Did you hear anything from the kids that you didn’t expect or that you hadn’t heard from teachers and parents?

DS: Nothing surprised me, but it did impress me that even kindergartners in my own “small school gathering” group had ideas of what kind of people they wanted to be. I remember thinking “Oh they get it!” My thoughts were, “Wow this is wonderful: they really do know what they want our world to be like and what they want their role to be in it.”

AD: So the kids really took it seriously.

DS: Oh yes, you could put your teeth into it. They talked about local environmental issues, for example, and wanted to solve some of those.

AD: Do you feel like it has had an impact on how the school was run last year and into this year?

DS: Definitely. Ultimately, we used all the information to create our school’s constitution. So this year we reviewed our Park Forest Elementary constitution on the federal U.S. Constitution Day. (PFE Constitution) Everybody got a printed copy to post in his or her classroom and we talked about what the different values meant.

So, going back to the Town Hall meetings at Park Forest, each of the small school gathering groups were assigned common areas to establish guidelines for: the ways we should be when we use the restroom, the ways we should be in the hall, the ways we should be when we’re on our buses, etc. Then they presented those at our All School Gathering in which everyone participates. Each of them was assigned a different week so they would present theirs with their small school group. Then everybody had a copy of those to review with kids over time.

AD: Was there any dispute over any of it? Did a group ever present a rule that other people disagreed with?

DS: No. They’re very realistic about things when you set the right tone. In the “Ideal School” part I wanted them to dream what would be fun. Every classroom came up with a poster about what an ideal school would have in it—so there’s chocolate covered slides and so on. But then they have values like “Respectful,” “Friendly.” One has “Helpful–the cafeteria is a helpful place,” “Caring everywhere,” “Kindness,” “We recycle,” “It’s an awesome place.” Another one did a little more of the big dreaming. They wanted a movie theater here and a computer café. And there are already computers everywhere here! They wanted a place where pets could be and a bug room. Another poster says: “No bullying,” “Helping others,” “Quiet areas for reading.”

This Town Hall information became the supporting evidence for our Constitutional Convention, which we convened several months later.

AD: You weren’t surprised by what came out of the Town Hall meetings, but I wonder if there were any ideas that came forward from the students that made you think: “Oh, they really do care about this.”

DS: Bullying was one thing that they talked a lot about in numerous conversations. What their definition of what bullying was. They felt like it isn’t here and they don’t want it to be here. They talked about how we head it off—each student doing his or her best to prevent it from happening here. Our fifth graders wrote a song and created a skit that they presented in every classroom.

AD: So they were taking some of the responsibility. It’s not just that they want the school to do something about bullying. They were saying “we’re going to be part of making sure we don’t have this at Park Forest.”

DS: Right. They demonstrated to me that they wanted to be proactive about it. Their song was really cute and they were very enthusiastic!

So, getting back to our school’s constitution. In the constitution, the kids wrote: “In order to form a better school, create a place where people want to be, establish fairness and kindness.” The kids wrote all this. We helped guide the process—we let them narrow down the words and that’s all. “To ensure the safety and well-being of all and promote learning and citizenship, we hereby create this constitution for Park Forest.” And their rights: “Feel safe in our school; Speak what we believe and not be judged for it.” That one’s pretty sophisticated. “Be appreciated and recognized and celebrate our success; Experience creative, engaging, and fun learning; Learn and help others learn; Have a safe learning environment both inside and out; Be respected; Help the community both inside and outside; Be treated fairly; and Have opportunities to serve our school.”

AD: It seems like you really got to some core issues.

DS: Yes. And then their responsibilities were really cool too: “Learn and teach others what we’ve learned; Work hard and do our personal best; Respect our school and those in it; Use our manners; Care for others and our environment; Actively engage in learning; Work with others and cooperate.” This one’s cool: “Share appreciation of others, take notice of their needs and show faith in them.”

AD: This took a lot of time and effort. Not something you would do every year.

DS: It was a much longer process than have a committee of teachers create the rules and tell the students what they were as many schools do in their school-wide positive behavior plans. Plus it was more effective in connecting our school’s community by creating a constitution. We’ll renew it in a few years since it did take some time. We’re going to keep it the way it is right now unless there’s an issue with something. After three or four years quite a few of the kids will have moved on from our school to the middle school. We can start from the frame of what we have and see: Is this what we really want or do we need to revise it? I realize our country doesn’t do that every year! But you know if we just hang it on the wall, it doesn’t live.

The other part of the process that was really powerful was how homerooms selected their representatives.

AD: How did that work?

Well our fifth grade used the Electoral College process. Because they were trying to teach what the Electoral College was.

AD: Those smart fifth graders!

DS: Yes. So the teachers did that with the kids and it was great. Kids who thought they would get to be a representative sometimes didn’t get chosen because by Electoral College it worked differently. There was a video clip on the CBS Sunday Morning Show that explained it. So the teachers used that video clip as a good model for the kids and then they experienced it.

Some of the other classrooms had elections. The kids did speeches as to why they thought they should be selected. Each classroom had a representative and an alternate for the convention so we let both students come. We had 44 kids total who were at our constitutional convention.

We met twice. After the first meeting, they went back to their classmates, and shared what had happened. One fourth grader set up a Google doc and put all of the information that we had shared with them in it and asked her classmates to add to that Google doc. And they were just learning how to use Google docs so she put that up and the teacher was blown away. The student took it really seriously: she asked the other students things like “Okay, so what do you think about these? I have to narrow this down…” and her classmates gave her input.

AD: Let’s talk now about some of the barriers you’ve encountered in moving your school in a more democratic direction. You’ve mentioned a problem of pedagogical philosophy, which is the conventional mindset of teaching subjects rather than people. I wonder if you have encountered other barriers to this work?

DS: It takes time. That’s probably the biggest barrier for some people. “Like why don’t you just tell us what to do?” Obviously, I want it to be a shared situation, so I say to people: “It’s really important that we construct this together. It doesn’t have to be the way anybody else’s school is but it has to be what fits us.”

When we changed our lunchroom, one of the teachers said to another teacher: “Why doesn’t she just tell us what the rules are?” “You know,” he said, “it would be a whole lot easier and take less time.” And the other teacher took the opportunity to teach him what I was doing and why I was doing it that way. Yes, it would be easier and take less time, but it would be my rules for our place. The more ownership into something, the more people will come together to do the hard work we need to sustain this place.

Some surprises have sometimes emerged as we work with everybody. The teachers and I came to realize that our students really do think about things like to be mannerly, to be kind to each other, for example. They are important to them. Some teachers reacted: “Oh wow, I didn’t even know that they really got this, that they came to school with all of this.” I have found that our belief in students gets higher and more established when we allow students to have voice and when we provide the platform for them to share it.

AD: As you were talking, I was trying to think of why somebody would say: “Why doesn’t Donnan just tell us what to do?” It could be that they’re worried about making a mistake. They feel like they don’t have enough experience. They don’t want to take on the responsibility. Do you think that is what’s going on?

DS: Sometimes people are just used to having somebody telling them what to do: “Here’s the rules and that’s the way it is and let’s do this as a school.” The only rules we have provided are through our effort to develop citizens; we’ve said to everybody that these rules include characteristics of citizenship like Trustworthiness, Active Listening, No Put Downs, Personal Best. We could develop our own school rules and have everyone participate in that, but we just felt using those ideals fit what we think of as citizenship so nobody here had any issues with having those be our rules.

But, yes, I think you’re right that a person can think it would be just easier if the principal told us what to do and we did it. Then they don’t have to have that responsibility or ownership if things fail.

AD: I think what you’re asking your colleagues and students is, “I want you to be co-owners of this school,” and maybe that’s a lot to ask somebody who is not quite sure whether that’s what they want to do with the rest of their life.

DS: Exactly. That’s what’s going on. Hopefully the kids are getting that it is really important for them to be involved. That’s the most important message for me to be giving them. We can change things, but everyone has to be involved in it.

There are mechanisms out in the world for everybody to be involved. But fewer people are getting involved in their community unless it’s an issue that really upsets them. But there are other issues where we need to be aware of what’s going on. So hopefully they’re learning some lessons here. If those lessons continue through the later years of their schooling and later in life, they should encourage involvement and citizenship.

AD: This raises the issue of buy-in from other schools. I can well imagine you have colleagues at other schools who think: “We’re doing OK. Maybe we’re not excellent. But we’re very good and we don’t feel the need to do anything different. And surely we couldn’t possibly take the time to have a constitutional convention, Town Halls or All School meetings or any of this stuff. We’re doing OK as we are.”

DS: Actually, some of my principal colleagues do have some sort of meeting each month in their schools. They do some sort of assembly. But it is often connected to their school-wide positive behavior plan where they’re rewarding kids. And it isn’t like at Park Forest where we have a concerted effort to have children run the meetings.

AD: What sorts of arguments or rhetoric have you found useful in talking with colleagues at other schools who think “we’re OK with where we are?”

DS: I think that they are following the plan that was outlined for them through the Pennsylvania Department of Education workshops that they attended. Some schools are having difficulties with students. They have school-wide positive behavior plans, but they are putting the principal and teachers into the role of “police officers” handing out reward tickets. The kind of student involvement we have at Park Forest offers a different approach. We have a more intrinsic model of doing the right thing because it is the right thing not because there is a reward for doing it.

AD: So there may be problems that emerge in other schools and you can start talking with other principals about more democratic practices—but you don’t use those terms. You don’t wave a big Democratic Schools flag in their face.

DS: No. That’s the quickest way to turn somebody off. But I’ll say, “Have you thought about this?”

AD: It is not an ideology you’re communicating but a set of practices that might be useful to other people.

DS: Right. Just showing people step by step how to do it. Some of my colleagues say, “Oh you think a little differently over at Park Forest.” And I quickly come back and say, “No. If you involve students in this, there is power.” So helping them to see that. Some of them don’t want to do it and that’s fine. But it would be great if they did.

If schools are having difficulties then it is very possible some of their students are not feeling their voices coming out. I am thinking of my visits to Rwanda. There is no student voice there in a classroom at least in a verbal way. The student voice that comes out there is in the carving they put on the desk where they’re writing the bad words—the nice American words that have managed to come there. Or writing all over the walls. And that’s what the students do. So their voice is coming out in a different way. And somebody has to paint it every now and then. And paint is very expensive in Africa. And so is making wood products. So there’s no voice as our students experience it there.

And consider, too, how the Rwandan government is working to save the gorillas. And the gorilla population is now coming back because they offered the people who were the poachers the opportunity to make a living wage by protecting the gorillas.

AD: So schools with difficulties would have fewer problems if they gave young people more voice.

DS: Yes, that’s my belief. Lots of my colleagues and a number of researchers I’ve read, such as Dana Mitra, Adam Fletcher, Stephanie Serriere and others stress engaging student voice is important. And not just the voice of the top academic kids. Student council in a high school is always the most popular kids. If I’m going to pull together a student group I want the kids who don’t care. They’re the ones where I’m going to find out more information about what I need to be doing.

If I have an issue here about something I want to hear from the kid who’s disconnected, who’s writing in the restroom. We rarely have writing in the restroom issues. Sometimes it’s an experiment. Somebody does it and then they realize: “oh…” Because other kids catch them. “Hey, stop doing that!” I don’t have to do that. They don’t want their school to look like awful.

AD: Let’s move on to the question of resources. You’ve talked about time. That’s a major resource. Are there other sorts of resources that you wish you had or had more of?

DS: Time is the biggest thing. And I think the other is opportunity to collaborate with other people across the country—similar people who are thinking about this.

AD: Could universities be helpful resources? Another principal of a democratic school once told me he wished universities would identify teachers who would be good at this work and direct them toward schools like his.

DS: I would want everybody to know about democratic schools. I would want universities to be teaching more about democratic schools, in general. I would like more of the work at universities to be helping open students’ minds to thinking about having a responsive classroom, eliciting student voice and engaging students in their school. Not just “here’s what discipline is.” And oftentimes they don’t even teach that until they end up in school and it is modeled for them by whoever their mentor is. Universities need to go back to essential questions like “What is the purpose of public education?”

Universities could also model a more democratic approach. Some of them are getting better at having more engagement work, but without modeling it is hard to open peoples’ minds.

AD: Last question. Fifty years from now when you’re off in the mountains canoeing and only thinking of the school once and a while and there’s a new principal, is Park Forest going to continue to be a democratic school?

DS: I hope so! I am trying to put the structures in place and have the things so that people value what we do. I don’t know if that will ensure it. When one of my colleagues retired they had promised her that her school would stay committed to democracy, student voice and participation, but it has quickly eroded.

A new principal can always walk in and say, “We’re not doing that anymore.” So I don’t think there is any way you can totally ensure that it continues other than if you’ve nurtured somebody who understands the importance of this culture and can then take over. Sometimes school boards let that happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s dependent on who the superintendent is and what their goals are.

My community is very committed to what we do—I’m talking about the parent population. Some people move here so that their children can participate in the ways we have been talking about. I hope the things we’re doing—the All Schools, the small schools, Town Halls, etc.—all of those things become so institutionalized as simply “ the way we do things here.”

Everyone has the opportunity to learn and live within our school’s democratic practices and hopefully those will be carried into life as they become thoughtful, engaged citizens. At least that is my hope!

Work on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.
Images provided by Donnan Stoicovy.
More of this interview can be found at the Boston Review.

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