At Jerusalem’s Flagship Democratic School, Curriculum Is in the Hands of the Students

At the Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School, there are no classes, no school bells and no tests, and even the youngest kids get to take part in key decisions - like which teachers should be fired.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Dozens of students and teachers from the Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School attended an assembly on Wednesday. But unlike assemblies in other schools, the students did not sit and listen to the speeches of the teachers, staff and principal. The “School Meeting” was run, as it is every week, by Katherine Leff, an 18-year-old Sudbury student. The School Meeting discusses such matters as suspending students, hiring and firing teachers and changes in the school rules for student elections. All those present at the meeting have a right to vote, including the youngest pupil, who is eight years old.

And yes, in the Sudbury School, the students can fire the teachers.

No classes, no school bells, no lessons, no standardized curriculum, no educational syllabus, no daily schedule, no tests, no teachers and no breaks. That is how the Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School operates. And recently, the school was ranked as having the lowest level of violence of any school in the city.

The Sudbury method, named after the first school of this type, the Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts, is considered the most extreme version of the democratic school model. It almost makes the other versions of democratic or experimental schools look like military academies. There are only two such schools in Israel, the one in Jerusalem and the Kanaf Democratic School of the Golan Heights located in Kibutz Kfar Haruv.

Jerusalem’s Sudbury School was founded 14 years ago and now has 115 students, making it the second largest of the more than 30 Sudbury schools around the world. The original one near Boston has almost 200 students now. The Sudbury schools are not formally associated with each other in any way, but are a loosely connected network of mutual support, each operating as an independent entity.

The school in the capital is located in a historic building on Makor Haim Street. The students look quite busy, even if they have no schedule. Two were taking care of the animals in the small zoo, a few were in the library, others were getting organized for a game of Dungeons and Dragons, someone was in the music room playing and a group was practicing the end of the year performance.

Richard Ben Ohr, a former high-tech person, is one of the founders of the school and today is a senior member of the staff; the word “teacher” is not used at Sudbury schools. For outsiders − the municipality and Education Ministry, for example − he is considered the deputy principal, said Ben Ohr. His wife Yehudit is the principal. But within the walls of the school, the two have no authority and their vote at the school meeting is worth exactly the same as that of any student, which is a somewhat difficult concept for those who went through the regular state school system.

“Our goal is for the children to be free to choose what interests them. To let them use the breadth of time and the space to discover the world,” Ben Ohr tries to explain.

The only commitment the students have is to spend five hours a day in school and to arrive by 10 a.m. at the latest. Once inside the school, no one will tell them what to do. Some will spend all their time playing games, others will sleep, watch movies or read. There are those who choose to set up a group and build a little zoo or music room. Another group set up a communal kitchen and serves meals at a nominal price. Those who still want to learn and take tests can join a class or create a group that wants to study a specific subject. The school also has no divisions by class or age groups.

Yoav Metzer, 11, enjoys joining the class that studied for the history matriculation exams, for example. The other students say he knew the material better than the older students.

Despite it all, a third of the students manage to complete their matriculation certificate. Another third take some of the exams and a third don’t even try to take any. Almost all the students enlist in the army or do national service.

Over half the students at the Jerusalem school come from religious families. After a long period in which the school was not recognized by the educational system, in recent years it has been warmly accepted.

Shari Frumkin, 18, who is finishing school this year, has been at Sudbury since she was seven. “All I did until I was 11 was to play with Barbies,” she said.

Read at own speed

“Every student who comes to school is asked to be responsible for their own schedule, it is not checked,” said Ben Ohr. Despite the complete freedom and the firm rule that students only learn when they ask to, most students learn to read and write without any special problems − even if they don’t do so at age six.

“I don’t know where they learn things. They absorb,” said Ben Ohr. “Suddenly I see children playing chess. I ask them where they learned to play and they don’t know how to explain it. That’s how suddenly a child comes with a book and asks you how to say this,” he added.

Not everything is perfect, admits Ben Ohr. Sometimes parents are stressed because the child does not know how to read. Despite the pressure, the staff never forces a student to learn reading − or anything else. “It hasn’t happened yet that a student left the school without knowing how to read. Many times the problem is emotional; when the child wants to read he finds the way to do so.”

The standard response from the school is that this educational method is not appropriate for everyone: Not for every child and not for every family, said Ben Ohr. The younger children are the ones who actually adapt to the system and its rules much more quickly than the older students, who have already studied in regular schools, he said.

Despite the spirit of complete freedom, there is still a complex bureaucratic system in place at the school. The school rules, or “Code of Law,” fill 46 pages. All were accepted democratically by the students.

The school operates as a direct democracy: Every student or staff member can propose a rule, which must go through two readings in the school meeting. The rules cover everything, from teachers’ pension plans and the school budget, to the ban on nail polish or rules governing the use of games. Every group of students can set up a “corporation,” and can ask the assembly for a budget, and can set up their own internal rules − such as the detailed instructions for caring for the chinchillas. There is also a “committee for personal rights,” which Ben Ohr calls the heart of the school. It is the “Judicial Committee” in Sudbury terms, and is made up of three students and one staff member, and it handles all matters dealing with the violation of school rules.

There are still not enough graduates of the Sudbury schools in Israel to examine how the method affects their adult lives. Studies done elsewhere in the world show that 80 percent of Sudbury graduates successfully continue on with their academic studies.

The school wants them to be people “who know how to get back up after a failure, who know to take responsibility for their actions and understand democracy,” said Bar Ohr.

Students at the Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School.Credit: Emil Salman