Thursday, February 16, 2012

Death of a Democratic School in A Culture of Greed and Mistrust

Guest post by Shella R. Zelenz, M.A.Ed., Ed.D. Candidate

Iniabi = Osage for "The sun on which all life depends"

We will not be able to transform our education system if we remain comfortable. How can we? We can’t possibly be comfortable with genocide in Africa, slave labor practices in China, and other similar humanitarian abuses. Especially when we become aware that the only reason this occurs, is a direct result of the current consumerism-focused educational system that has now  reached a crisis point. I no longer wish to hear other ways to tweak the current system to make people happy.

The system itself needs redesign and repurposed. No one is happy in this current paradigm. Even those who "succeed" according to the current educational system spend their entire lives in fear of losing what they have and are willing to abuse others to maintain their lifestyles. I'm seeking education with a TRUE purpose. Our kids deserve it. Our future needs it. We can no longer continue down the path our founding educational systems designed. A consumer focused education which perpetuates the continuous need to produce more and purchase more despite the environmental and cultural ramifications.

To respond to the need for something truly different, I developed a model for a school that had the potential to offer an entirely new way to educate. Education with a purpose designed to change the world. Education with a purpose to change the way we interact with one another. Education with a purpose to change the current destructive models into self-sustaining practices, reversing the damage done by those who did not know any better.

I began this school with the intent to create a non-coercive, democratic middle-school similar to Summerhill in England and the Sudbury Valley School in the United States. However, there were additional factors which made it more unique. This school was to be eco-sustainably built and maintained, off-grid, and the students were responsible for the growing of the food (organic farming), cooking, and maintenance of their "village." Adults were present and participating, but the purpose was to teach self-sustaining ways of living.

Students were responsible for the governance of their school. Students would spend a semester living in various on-campus “continents.” These spaces reflected the cultural identities of those who inhabited the continent represented. They had to research everything they could and recreate that lifestyle. The foods they grew were relevant to that continent. What they chose to study and do with what they discovered regarding their continents was left up to them. Projects were designed by the students and facilitated by adults, which would inevitably integrate all factors deemed essential to learning (math, language, reading, writing, music, arts, science, history, ethics, and government). The goal was to have the students obtain a deeper understanding of the world that they lived in. Each semester, they would move to another continent.

Upon completion of their “tour around the world,” they would then begin the apprentice program, designed for students 16 years and older. The apprentice program was significantly different in that the students chose a one-on-one personal mentor to further their studies. They would identify an area that interested them, most likely with a global perspective after having studied the continents so intently for a few years. From that interest, they would select various internship possibilities where they could spend time learning hands-on skills with already established organizations that either pursued that type of concept or that would help deepen the understanding of the problem faced. The mentors would then help the student to design their own business plan. Partnerships with the local Better Business Bureaus were made and they had generously offered to teach courses on business establishment. Our goal was to walk the student through the process of literally launching their own business which resonated deeply with their own beliefs.

Unfortunately, these goals were never met. It seems the community was not ready for such a school. There are numerous factors which led to the eventual closing of the Iniabi Free School. Factors such as my not being a native Texan, not having strong connections to the community prior to launching, and not having sufficient funding. All of these factors contributed to the realization of what the purpose of the school truly meant, and what obstacles society deeply faces to overcome them. All of this despite the drastic progress accomplished with the few students we did have.

Here is what I learned throughout pursuing this school in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex:

  1. Parents did not trust their students to succeed and only wanted to know if they could get into college.
  2. Businesses were intrigued with what I was doing, but were very uncomfortable when told that the educational system they currently entrust their children to is contributing to their own demise.
  3. Adults do not trust children to make intelligent decisions with regard to their own education and well being.
  4. No one wanted to pay for it, but they wanted their kids to be in it. Some would pay a reduced tuition, but refused to volunteer their time to compensate the difference, even though they saw how much their child loved it and was making progress never before seen in the public schools.
  5. Staff were not interested in working for free (due to lack of funding, not lack of intent to pay).
  6. Grants for such a unique model were non-existent.
  7. The lack of focus on the test made it highly unsupported by financial institutions.
  8. No one (not even the staff) truly and deeply understood the ramifications of such a model.

If we look at the points above, we see a common theme - trust and money. The purpose of education is about money. When we start acting ethically, we don't know how to do it because it doesn't appear to align with the current beliefs about money. In fact, I had an African American woman recently tell me that removing money won't change racism. She believes that those who participate in racism only do so because of their own personal beliefs. I disagree. I believe money is why they believe what they believe. In fact, I can prove so by using her as an example. She is from Africa. However, she uses cell phones, has a diamond on her wedding band, and drives a car which uses oil. If she does not believe that she is contributing to the genocide in Africa, then she misses the point that money has driven her to participate in racism unintentionally. Whether the abuse of other cultures is conscious or not, these practices need to be addressed.

The aim of the school was to produce self-sufficient entrepreneurs who created new kinds of businesses. Businesses that did not trample the earth, destroy cultures, and were conscious in their practices. Businesses that behaved ethically. Unfortunately, it seems such goals are not in alignment with the current climate and focus of what our society values. When that changes, I have a school just waiting to re-launch.

Author Background
Shella has taught music for 16 years. It wasn't until her oldest son had challenges in school that she ventured into the public school classroom. This is where she discovered what created his challenges. It wasn't her son, it was the education system itself. Her own resistance to the system as a teacher inspired further inquiry into why things are the done the way they are. As such, she pursued her doctorate in educational leadership and change. Her research in that program is what led to the school that she endeavored to start in Texas. Her goal wasn't just to make school more enjoyable for kids, nor was it just to "save" the inner-city youth which her school was designed for. Her mission was to create an entirely different purpose for school. A purpose that would offer societal and systemic change which she feels is critical at this juncture in history. Her research delved into the worlds of virtual classrooms, unschooling and democratic education systems. However, it was not limited to school structures and practices. Her research included anthropological aspects which affect various cultures in the current school models and how their resistance to it may be genetically encoded to protect their futures.

This may appear contradictory to contemporary thought and practice in education, but that is because current thought is pursued through the eyes of the historically designed school structure. The purpose of education in America was to create workers who would contribute to society and be good consumers. We have accomplished this. What was neglected, and is glaringly obvious at this point in history, is that such perpetuation of understanding is what is leading to the destruction of our earth and of cultures globally. Education can no longer focus on the "dominate and conquer" mentality. It is time that education focuses on the holistic world-view of sustenance for all, not just the elite. More on her research can be found at


  1. Hey Shella, I know your school failed but hats off to you for having done something. Even though it didn't spark the change you wanted, you went after something instead of talking. That in itself is far more than most do.

    Thinking big isn't a bad thing. Although moving kids around the globe is a difficult sell to most (worrying) parents.

    I think the college = success paradigm is vanishing. Colleges are just going to keep shooting themselves in the feet. Eventually, something will take their place.

    I wonder if the response would be different if you set up a school like this in a place where the public schools are particularly terrible. I bet there you'll have more parents open to different options.

    The free model also reminds me of a great talk given by Patch Adams (think that Robin Williams movie) at the Mayo Clinic. He was talking about healthcare but I think the mindset he had can readily be applied to education. If you have a few minutes, you should def watch this:

  2. There was no physical moving around the globe. The students created the continents in their campus. I actually met Patch Adams in 2008 at the Alternative Education Resource Organization's annual conference. He definitely had much to do with the progress of this school. I saw many successes, and I think the ultimate success for me was that the experience gave me a bigger glimpse into the societal issues more acutely. I think if I had more funding, we would have done well. I used up my entire retirement trying to get this off the ground. We only closed because funding dried up. I had a huge community interest and I definitely stirred some pots that are still ruminating after I left. It wasn't a failure, it's just not open anymore. Thanks for your kind words Joe. :)

  3. I love your understanding that the school was not a failure. Failure is a word that NEVER belongs in a discussion about education. It was the funding system for alternative education that caused a model with community interest to close.
    How long were you able to keep your model open? If funding was available would you try again in the same location, in another location?
    I am inspired by your model.

  4. Hi Jo,

    I'm open to the possibility of doing it again if funding were available. Location is not important. My goal was to initially focus on inner city youth and those that the current mainstream system throws away. Wherever I can find need and a purpose to benefit those who struggle, I am interested. Thanks for your kind words Jo!

  5. I'm in Plano and I'd LOVE to be part of something like this! I totally get your unique issues in the metroplex. We currently unschool and I was looking at what would be necessary to start a Sudbury school in the area. My biggest fears were the very obstacles you mentioned.