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A democratic school? How does that function? 

(part 3 of Alejandra Gonzalez's Capstone project)


Ironically, democratic schools are vastly different from traditional schools in a democratic country. 

Now, we all know what a democracy is; we live in one after all. It’s a form of government where all citizens have freedom of speech and religion and equal rights no matter gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, when being processed by the law, everyone has the same rights. Citizens also have the possibility to have an indirect impact through elected representatives in the government. The government is divided into three parts: legislative, judicial, and executive. Democracies hold elections where the citizens have the right to elect a leader who will represent them in front of the government. These are the basic things about a democracy that we all know. 


Sudbury schools are in essence the same, hence the name “Sudbury democratic schools." As explained before, all Sudbury schools are different; not all of them hold the same systems, some may be similar to one another, and others can be very different. They all have a few things in common, though: they allow students to develop the necessary skills they will need to live in and understand a democratic world, giving them the time and space to learn how to live in a democracy before heading to the real world. 


The Miami Sudbury School has gone through a lot of changes since I got there, and there will be many more to come in future years. Students shape the systems according to the community’s necessities. Recently, we had a big change in our systems of officially elected students in positions of power, and I would like to begin there, but first we have to understand what positions of power there are in MSS. 


Rotation System 

Before the new rotation system was introduced, there used to be different roles called “official elected positions” like the ones mentioned above (with the exception of the Community Manager and Backup). In order to be in those positions of power, students were required to run for their desired role. The Elections Committee would go over all the nominations and decide whether the person is eligible to run for elected positions such as School Meeting chair or RJC Facilitator. People eligible for important roles shouldn’t have been brought to RJC often and should be able to uphold policies, even if it means telling their friends to not do something, having good attendance, and having been part of the school for at least 6–10 months. There wasn’t any age limit, but it was more common to see older students running the bigger committees of the school and the younger ones following and being part of some meetings. 


Apart from positions like SMC and RJC Facilitator, students had the option to run for Chairs of smaller committees such as Kitchen, Tech, Admissions, Elections, Maintenance, and many more at school. The requirements for being eligible for these smaller positions weren’t as firm as the others I mentioned before. 


The reason why we were so careful about who was able and not able to run for certain positions was because, in the past, there had been situations where, for example, students who are still new to the schools and the systems were taking on big positions that required a better understanding of the community. See, the problem was not them taking the position, but how they sometimes handled certain situations involving the power they had. For this reason, we decided that it should be a slower process that would benefit both the student holding the position of power and the rest of the school. Students could also ask the current Chair to train them so they could be prepared for taking the job if they were elected. 


This system had to change due to a lack of engagement from the majority of students in important roles. Since I was the SMC back then and it was also my senior year, I decided I would step down from the position and not run again during the Fall elections. 


An issue we were facing was that only the majority of the female population was doing all the jobs, with the exception of one boy helping out. It was a stressful period of time where we spent countless hours at SM brainstorming solutions. We knew we needed to change our current system, but we didn’t know what exactly. It was during an All School Meeting that we as a community decided we were going to try a “rotation system” like Sunset Sudbury School in Fort Lauderdale does. 




The rotation system is hugely different from our old one. It took time for people to get a hold of the new system, but taking into consideration how different it is from the previous one, the change went much better than expected. Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, would get to experience what it is to be the SMC, for example. The rotation would change every 2 weeks. For example, if a new rotation started on September 30th, which is a Monday, that would mean it would end on October 11th, on a Friday. On the last Friday of the rotation period, the CM must present the new tasks and jobs assigned to VMs for the next rotation, starting Monday, October 14th. Before this new system, we didn’t have the position of Community Manager and Backup, and instead of a student being the Secretary for RJC and SM, it was previously a position staff would take care of. 


Even after only a few months, there has definitely been a lot of change for the better. There are still challenges that need to be overcome, but that would be a normal thing in anything we chose to do. There are more VMs involved in different management activities, more variety in meetings, and more voices and opinions being heard. Some people get nervous about their job because they don’t understand what they should do. For that reason, students with more experience have volunteered to host workshops for other VMs to better understand how to do a certain job the moment it’s assigned to them. Of course, students can ask their peers for help; if someone is chosen to be an RJC Facilitator and they don’t know what to do or are worried about making a mistake, they can always ask students with more understanding to help them. It’s encouraged for young people to speak up when they feel confused about something, they know they can always talk to staff or other students with whom they may feel comfortable. 



After not even 6 months since transitioning into the new system, all students have gone through an amazing process; they have shown incredible capacities for handling a significant amount of change so suddenly. They have also demonstrated an amazing sense of responsibility and dedication to their jobs. 


School Meeting Chair 

The SMC (School Meeting Chair) is in charge of facilitating the daily morning meetings called Mini Morning Meeting (MMM) and the weekly meeting their position is named after. 




MMM is a short meeting hosted every weekday, with Fridays being the only exception since that’s the day SM is held. The purpose of MMM is to have a small period of time to share events happening throughout the day, special dates, and possible visits to the school. As the name suggests, it’s a pretty short meeting, only meant for relevant announcements and questions people may have. The meeting starts in the indoor gym at 10:15 and ends around 10:30 a.m. 


School Meeting is the heart of the school; it's what keeps it alive and well-functioning. Every Friday at 10:15 a.m., the SMC calls the meeting to order in the indoor gym for the first part of SM. Once everyone at school is gathered around, the SMC will start the meeting by reading out loud the mission statement, and then the Secretary will read the last meeting decisions as a quick reminder of what was discussed the previous week. As soon as the Secretary is done, the SMC will continue reading the agenda for that day. The SM’s agenda is divided into 5 parts in this exact order: Announcements, Recurring Items, Returning Items, New Items and Open Agenda. 

● Announcements: Very similar to MMM, the first part of Announcements is for any relevant news, dates, and events. 

● Recurring Items: Recurring Items is a predetermined list of items that don’t change. These items are specific things like updates from high schoolers and their projects, attendance, communication issues, financial updates, and rotation system reviews. Since this section never changes, it allows us to keep track of important things in an easier and more straightforward way. 

● Returning Items: Items that have been brought to past School Meetings but are being brought back for further discussion or final approval. 

● New Items: For this section, VMs can bring any topics of discussion, proposals, and issues or concerns they may have. The most common topics for this section are field trip proposals, in-school special activities, questions or suggestions regarding systems, and absence requests. This is usually the longest part of the meeting, with an average of 6–7 and sometimes exceeding 10 items per meeting. Each item usually lasts about 5–10 minutes, but there are times when the conversation can stretch for 20 more minutes until it’s finished. 

● Open Agenda: The last section of the agenda is a last-minute resort for those who forgot to add their items earlier before or during the first part of SM. 


When the chairperson is finished reading that day’s agenda and after VMs have added their items, the chair will adjourn the first part of the School Meeting and announce that the meeting will resume at the Main Table after a 15-minute break. It’s not mandatory to attend the second part of School Meeting, anyone can join at any time as long as they’re not disrupting the pace of the meeting and discussion going on. 


Once the break is over, the SMC will start the second part of the meeting with Recurring Items, and from there it’ll follow the order with the next Returning Items, then New Items and at last Open Agenda. Right before adjourning the meeting, the Chairperson will call everyone to the Main Room to listen to the SM’s decisions read by the Secretary. 


All decisions made at SM are by consensus. Everyone at the meeting must agree to live with or be OK with the final decision. Consensus can be a tough thing to work with. There are times when reaching a final decision with which everyone at the meeting agrees or at least feels OK can be incredibly hard. The reason we have a consensus vote is because we want everyone to agree with the decisions made at their school. When someone doesn’t agree, they’re asked why they feel that way, and help brainstorm another proposal. A thing to keep in mind: only the people who are part of the meeting vote on the final decisions; if anyone outside of the meeting has strong feelings against the final vote, they are free to bring a counterproposal to the next SM. 


Students are encouraged to speak up if they disagree with the way a system works, a policy, or just a decision made at SM. Students are always reminded that in order to make things how they want them to be, they have to do something about it. They can always ask for help if they need it, but they know no one is doing it for them because no one wants it more than themselves. 


Restorative Justice Committee 

The Restorative Justice Committee (RJC) was designed to solve problems within the school. Each Sudbury school has its own lawbook. In the case of the MSS, the lawbook was written by students and staff together. As time passes, students vote to add and remove policies from it; of course, they are not allowed to do it without SM’s approval. If a student wants to either add or remove an agreement from the lawbook, they first need to bring the proposal to SM. If the proposal is approved in one of the two required readings, it’ll be put into action after SM is adjourned and the Secretary has read the final decisions made throughout the meeting. Because it’s a new policy, SM decided that all new agreements for the Lawbook would have to come to SM for a “second reading” one week after its approval. The reason why SM has the second reading for new rules is because, during the first week of its approval, the new policy is “put to the test," which gives us time to observe how it plays out. In other words, the first reading is to approve it being tested for a week, and the second reading has the final say over the new policy. The final decision is made during the second reading. If it’s approved, it’ll officially become a lawbook agreement. 



The lawbook is a very important part of the school’s systems, especially for RJC. The lawbook is an easy and practical way to allow all VMs to know what is and is not allowed in school. For example, it’s not allowed to run inside the building; the only room where VMs can run is in the indoor gym. The reason for this rule's existence is because when people run inside, it can get pretty loud, and there’s a lot of tables and chairs around the building. The chances of them ending up hurting themselves or others while running inside are decently high, and we do not want anyone to get hurt. The “no running inside the building” rule is one that got accepted really fast; there wasn’t anyone who opposed it, but it’s not always like that; like in any other school or job, there are rules that not everyone is too fond of. Normally, even though teachers in traditional schools tell students not to curse, it is pretty common for students to see or hear students use profanity in school. In the MSS, we have a “no profanity in school” policy. This agreement is definitely one of the least popular among older students. There have been many times that some of the older students have tried to change the rule, but that hasn’t been possible. The main reason why the “no profanity” rule is so important is because the school is a mixed-age community, which means that students of all ages are in the same space most of the time at school. The most shared and used spaces by VMs of all ages are the Tech Room and the Main Room, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for a 15-year-old to be cursing in front of an 8-year-old while playing or talking with other friends. And even though some students don’t necessarily like that agreement, they understand the reason behind it. 


As you can guess now, the lawbook keeps the school a healthy and safe space for all members. The reason for RJC's existence is for when those agreements are broken. The goal of RJC is not to punish anyone, and I think that’s a hard concept for new students to understand. A lot of people are used to receiving punishment for the wrong things they did, which is the total opposite of what Sudbury Schools do. In the MSS, we see it as a consequence. When a VM breaks a rule, they will face the consequences of their actions, which may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. All of our actions have consequences, good ones or bad ones, that depends. It is obvious that when we do something that’s not right, there will be some consequences, and they’re not always the good kind. 


RJC is meant to be a system that gives space for problem-solving. The job of the Facilitator is to maintain a calm conversation among the two parties involved: the concern writer and the people whose concern is about. The goal of RJC is to find a solution to the issues that come up at school. 


Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 11 a.m., the RJC Facilitator is in charge of going through all the concern forms. Once the Facilitator and Secretary have read all the concerns, the Secretary can start writing down the important details on the RJC concern forms: the names of the people involved, what happened, the date, and the policy that was broken. The people involved are called, and the meeting starts once everything is ready. Usually, solving a concern can take 10–15 minutes. The procedure is simple: once the meeting has started, the RJC facilitator gives the option to the concern writer to read their concern out loud for the others involved to be aware of why they were there. If the concern-writer doesn't want to read it out loud, the Facilitator will do it for them. After the concern is read for the others in the meeting to hear, they will be asked if they understood what happened, if they don’t, the person who wrote it will give them more details about the situation that had worried them. From there, the people involved have two options: take responsibility or ask for a discussion. People rarely ask for further discussion about the specifics of the troubling events; if they know they did something wrong, there’s a higher chance they will take responsibility for their actions right away. Once everyone is on the same page and the responsibility has been taken, the next step is to find a solution. The concern-writer can express what they would prefer as a resolution, but those involved can also bring proposals to the discussion. In order to finalize the meeting, both parties have to agree on the final resolution. 


During RJC, there are special cases where this discussion can be a 45-minute-long meeting. This is usually caused because the party that broke a policy won’t take responsibility or doesn’t propose or accept any of the resolutions the concern writer and the Facilitator give them. It can be a long process, but in the end, students always find resolutions for whatever issue was brought to the meeting. 


When a person is continuously brought to RJC for breaking policies, their concerns will be referred to SM, which is the last step to finding a solution before the students are asked to take a reflection period or call for a family meeting. The school tries to solve as many concerns as possible “in house,” and unless it is actually not possible to solve them in school, families may get involved to find a final solution. This is a rare case, though; SM rarely gets involved in these kinds of situations unless it’s something that RJC has decided is out of their power and needs to be handled differently. 


I can say for certain, RJC has evolved so much. It has required hours of brainstorming, long All School Meetings and countless proposals, but in the end, students have proven to be capable of transforming it into a greater system over and over again. It’s continuously improving and changing based on what the students decide. 


School Meeting & RJC Secretary 

Before the rotation system was established in the school, the secretary position belonged to staff; this, of course, changed with the transformation of our systems. 


A student must be at least 12 or older in order to be assigned the role of Secretary. This is because the job requires a lot of attention and good writing and listening skills, which can be a little bit difficult for younger people to do. Of course, if any younger student wants to be the Secretary, they can always talk with the Community Manager to assign them that job for the next job rotation. 


During the first part of School Meeting the Secretary is required to read the decisions made the week prior as well as write the agenda for that day’s meeting, adding all the announcements and items written on the School Meeting board to the official Google document. During the second part, they are asked to take notes on the relevant details of the conversations and final resolutions made throughout the meeting and read them at the end of the meeting. 


For RJC, they’re only required to take the details from the concern form, transfer them into the Google document, and take notes on the highlights of the conversation and the final resolution. 


Backup 

The Backup person is like a wildcard in a card game. They take on others’ jobs while they’re not at school, for example; if the SMC is not present, the backup will be in charge of facilitating MMM for that day. 


Community Manager 

The Community CM (Community Manager) is in charge of keeping track of who is at school, keeping records of who did and didn’t report an absence, and later in the week reporting it to SM. The CM is in charge of assigning and making sure students are doing their tasks and jobs for the 2-week rotation system. They are also in charge of calling Chore Time and making sure all chores are done by 1:30 p.m. 




Zone Managers 

ZMs are in charge of making sure people in their designated zone of the school building are helping with chores. After their team is done cleaning their zone, the ZMs must announce to the CM they have finished their job so the CM can mark the zone as “clean" on the clipboard chart they have. 


 

Watch this fun demonstration of how RJC works that our students put together for the End of the Year Showcase Celebration in 2024. This is an imaginary situation of course.





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