Our Democratic School

The school year ended yesterday here in Israel. Today I took the boys to “Kaytana” which I think can be translated as “day camp”?

I think this is a good opportunity to finally post about the school my kids go to – the democratic school. I have been meaning to do this for a while, since whenever I mention the name of the school, it generates many questions. By the way, the school has an official pretty name, but as with every democratic school, people just call it “the democratic”.

So, it might be easier to format this post as an FAQ.

What is a democratic school?

The school is a community based on the principles of democracy. There is a parliament where school rules are decided – and children, parents and teachers are all equal members with equal voting rights. There are also many committees, made of kids and teachers, including one where disputes between kids are settled. There is a huge emphasis on mutual respect, tolerance and communication.

Democracy is also about freedom of choice. School kids choose their own lesson plans. They are required to include Hebrew and maths, but can otherwise choose any other subjects they want. Several hours of free time are also worked into their weekly plan.

The choice doesn’t end there. The kids are allowed to choose not to go to their classes. They’re encouraged to join the class, and the teachers work extra hard to make the lessons attractive, but if the kid decides to stay outside, that’s fine too. As you might guess, many kids prefer to stay outside and play, especially the younger ones. You may be surprised to know, that many do attend their classes.

Are there more democratic schools in Israel or elsewhere in the world?

I know about various experimental schools that were/are in England and the US, but as far as I know, this particular version of school is unique to Israel. The first democratic school opened in the town of Hadera, just over 20 years ago, with more schools opening or converting into democratic education every year. I know of a couple of dozens now, all over the country. There are three of them, within twenty minutes of where we live.

What subjects are taught in a democratic school?

Basically, the subjects are the same as in other schools. Maths and Hebrew are mandatory, but the rest are all optional. By the way, that also means Torah/Bible studies are optional which is very unusual in Israel. Specialty classes can be and are added by request and taught by the school teachers or by parents. Last year for example, third and fourth graders could attend a class of veterinary studies.

There are also many workshops and special projects, by teachers and parents. For example, IsraeliDad gives physics workshops to the first and second graders every couple of months.

What about homework and tests?

As a Mom, I am grateful to say there is no homework! Whew! I keep hearing from parents of kids in regular schools what a nightmare it is to help with homework everyday. It’s such a waste of a good afternoon too. In our school, kids that want homework do get them, otherwise, the afternoons are for playtime or after school activities.

No tests either, of course. Nothing is graded as such, but rather the teachers give each kid constant feedback on his or her work. Not numbers, just words and suggestions.

What does a day in the school look like?

School day in Israel normally starts at 8 o’clock sharp. In the democratic, the morning officially begins with a meeting of the teacher and the kids at 8:20 or 8:30 (each teacher has his/her own schedule). That means kids arrive anytime between 7:30 and 8:20, so even if you arrive after 8, you’re not late. Of course, even if you are late, it’s not a big deal. And of course, some kids decide to just stay outside and not join the morning meeting .

Next, there are lessons, and kids either go to their respective lessons or they don’t. If they don’t, they can play in the yard, supervised by the yard teacher, or they can go into their “Ba’it”. Literally meaning “home”, this is like a play center, supervised by a teacher, where they can play, draw, read a book or anything else they want to do.

Aren’t you worried about your son being in the schoolyard instead of the classroom?

This is something I used to hear a lot from the kids’ grandparents. One thing to keep is mind is that many kids opt not to attend classes. There is nothing lonely or unusual about playing outside. The kids are supervised by the schoolyard teacher and violence is very rare in democratic schools. Being outside isn’t devoid of learning either, as long as developing social skills is considered part of learning (it is, for me).

When do the kids learn how to read and write?

I would say about half of the kids can actually read and write by the end of the first year. Then again, who says kids HAVE to read and write at exactly the same age? Experience in democratic schools shows that once a kid decides he/she wants to learn how to read and write, they will, and fairly quickly at that. Kids are not that dumb – they realize what’s good for them and they see the need for reading and writing. Less pressure, and more trust in the kids, is the key here.

Is this part of the public education system in Israel or is this a private school?

Democratic schools are part of the official public education system. However, our school and the other democratic schools that I know of, gain additional budget from tuition fees paid by the parents.

The school is anything but rich. The extra payment goes towards paying for the extra teachers needed to maintain the system. Fees are not very steep – 600 NIS ($150) per month. A portion of the fees goes towards scholarships: funding families that can’t afford the fees.

So, there you have it.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think I’ll keep this post fairly basic and hopefully refer to it in the future when I share stories from school life.

Let me know if you have more questions or comments. I love discussing schools and education – fascinating topic, always!

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10 Responses to Our Democratic School

  1. Anya says:

    Wow! What an idea! Are these democratic schools just for elementary school kids or secondary school as well?

  2. tracey says:

    I LOVE this! This sounds like homeschooling (which my family does) but in a school setting. What a fabulous, brilliant way to learn!!

    I’m so happy to hear about places like this.
    .-= tracey´s last blog ..I dont want to forget this =-.

    • IsraeliMom says:

      There is a lot of similarity to some styles of home schooling! It’s not surprising that many of the families in the school either used to homeschool or at least considered the option (ourselves included).

      I think both homeschooling and democratic educations are at least in part, a protest against conventional schools.

  3. It’s amazing to read that a public education system has the schools you describe. My brother teaches at a public school here in California, and he hates the system. The focus here is on regimentation, tests and grades. I’m certain he would love to teach in a democratic school.

    • IsraeliMom says:

      The Israeli education system is quite pluralistic, for good and for bad. Minorities, such as Charedim and Arabs, are given some autonomy in their school programs, and I think we benefit from that (we, as in parents who wish their kids to get a different kind of education).
      Your brother should come visit and get a tour of the schools, I’m sure he’ll find that interesting.

  4. rick says:

    sounds like a brilliant system of how to get help to learn instead of beeing teached. how is the graduating going on? your kids will have the same exams like in other highschools?

    • IsraeliMom says:

      When they get to high-school, kids in democratic schools can choose whether or not to do the regular exams (known as “Bagrut” in Israel). Experience in the more established schools shows that about half of them do that. They say they realize it’s not real learning, but they also realize it’s something they need to do in order to move onwards with their academic studies in university.

      Overall, the percentage of graduates that continue to university is about the same as that in regular schools.

  5. Sarah Kopp says:

    I’m a homeschooling mom in northern Israel. I like the idea of the democratic school and have researched it quite a bit. We are orthodox so I’m wondering what the level or quality of religious education, if any, is offered in your school, and if you know of any specific democratic schools in Israel that offer a high level of relgious learning support.

    • IsraeliMom says:

      Our school is secular. I know kids in the first and second grade are offered a class of “torah stories” but that’s as far as it goes. However, there is the Keshet democratic school in Zikhron Ya’akov, which tries to combine democratic schooling with an emphasis on religious/Jewish education. I know they even prefer religious families in the registration process (because it’s important for them to have children from religious homes in the hosue).