The Urban Democratic School Project at TIS

The Intergenerational School (TIS) is a highly successful charter school located in Cleveland, OH, the poorest city in the United States according to recent census figures.  (For more information about the school see our website at  By state achievement test metrics, TIS is achieving astonishing success.  The school has been rated excellent or effective for all 5 years in which we have been eligible to receive a state ranking.  TIS was selected by the US Department of Education as one of 7 charter schools in the nation featured in a publication about urban charter schools that are closing the achievement gap.  The list of accolades could go on and on.

What this tells us is that we are very good at figuring out how to get kids to learn and study and pass tests.  And we do this in a positive way.  Our school is a calm, respectful learning environment where teachers speak nicely to kids (no yelling).  We try hard to show the students how to make good learning and behavior choices throughout the day.  We don’t spend the year “teaching to the test,” although we do devote a few weeks before the tests to intensive review and test prep.  Mostly it works.

Despite this, I am sure every teacher will tell you that they pay constant attention to behavior.  And each teacher would be able to identify a few students who do little work, pay little attention, seem much more interested in disrupting class than participating in it.  Sometimes they seem to go through an entire learning period without doing anything.  As we ponder how to motivate these kids, I’ll ask the teacher, “I know they are not doing schoolwork, but they must be doing something–what is it they are doing.”  But they truly seem to be content to literally do nothing.

The vast majority of urban school teachers will agree that dealing with the chore of getting students to complete the tasks of learning and addressing the disruption that occurs when they just won’t is the most time consuming and draining aspect of their day.  We know that ALL children have an inborn drive to explore, interact actively with their environment, and learn–yet for some children that seems to have completely evaporated when it comes to school.  Learning should be a joyful, exciting, naturally engaging experience–not daily drudgery!  Where had that joy gone?  And more importantly, could it be rekindled?

‘This blog is a record of that attempt.  For the final month of school, students would be encouraged to do only that which excited and interested them.  There would be accountability, primarily in the form of the final report card, but there would be no required classes, work, homework.  (We know already that the report card alone compromises this process, but as a public school we do have a responsibility to parents to provide that information as to their child’s academic status.)  The daily question would be “what do you want to learn about or do?”  Students could achieve a respectable report card by reading, writing or exploring just about any topic or idea.  (Math is a little different in that certain skills and understandings need to be demonstrated to obtain good grades.)  Or they could choose to do nothing academically as long as their choice (and the behavior that accompanied it) did not interfere with the right of other students to pursue their own learning.

The procedure for accomplishing this would be through democracy–in the vein of some of the “free schools” we had researched. This would also show students from the inside out what democracy actually entails.  That is something they are definitely learning!  As one student put it yesterday “the trouble with democracy is that it has too many problems to solve!”

We don’t know how well this will succeed or what can be accomplished toward enabling students to find their learning passions in just one month–but we intend to try and to record our experiences through these reflections.

Catherine Whitehouse


One response to this post.

  1. “well Silvia this idea of Free School / democratic…sounds fabulous! My sons Chris and Shawn would have loved this and I am sure would have done well in learning…..instead of being forced to take certain subjects that they detested and therefore did not do well in…leaving them feeling very low self esteem and negative……they hated school later…
    I think your idea is a life-line for these students!
    Just imagine being able to do your work and yet get extra time in the day to pursue your passion!
    Go for it ladies!”

    From Marie Lloyd


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