Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

As in Life, As in School: A new book details the promise, the practice of democratic education.

 “Let’s make schools look like the world.”

So stated Jim Rietmulder as we sat down to talk about his new book, “When Kids Rule the School: The Power and Promise of Democratic Education.”

In it, he succinctly explains exactly what he means by this, as well as the many whys and hows behind democratic education.

“We want to give kids the freedom, responsibility and authority to come to school and practice life, to figure out and develop ways that are effective for them to participate in community and society,” he said. “We want them to have the space to develop introspective skills and patterns that lead to a fulfilling life for them.”

As one of the founders of the 35-year-old Circle School—itself a democratic school located in Susquehanna Township—Rietmulder is well qualified to tell this story. The Circle School is actually the second oldest democratic school in the country, fully accredited by the state Department of Education.

Unlike conventional schools that operate within a top-down hierarchy, Rietmulder’s approach, as explained in the book, enlists involvement by all students and staff to help students develop attributes and skills such as empathy, independence, self-determination, introspection, time management and critical thinking.

“Conventional education is undermined by its coercive curriculum and one-size-fits-all methods,” Rietmulder notes in his book. “Democratic schooling overcomes both limitations by aligning school with society. Students are citizens in a scaled-down version of the world beyond school, practicing agency in community.”


Real World

To better understand the foundations of democratic schooling, it’s helpful to contrast it to mass education (conventional K-12 schooling), which grew out of societal needs of the, first, agrarian, and, second, industrial eras.

Conventional education still trains students to listen to adults and, for the most part, fall in line rather than make decisions for themselves or consider their own interests and curiosities. Rietmulder contends that, because this happens all the way up through 12th grade, it’s no wonder that many young adults experience challenges navigating the transition to college and the working world. 

In contrast, a signature of the democratic model is a lack of formal curriculum, grading or class years. Instead, students are empowered to learn about the world at a pace and in a way that naturally suits each person. Staff is there to support and assist students as needed, and students tend to interact with each other based on interests and developmental ability.

Importantly, students and staff work together to run the school, upholding the school’s laws, setting budget and programmatic priorities, and taking on responsibilities ranging from daily chores to the establishment of special corporations to provide for a broad variety of initiatives and interests. All students—as young as 4 to as old as 19—are integrally involved in this process.

Numerous questions arise when people first learn about democratic education. Chief of among these is whether democratic education prepares children for college.

“The conventional system really drives home this myth that you can only get into college if you’ve gone through a traditional, academic curriculum,” Rietmulder explained. “But this is just not true.”

As means of example, the Circle School has an 84-percent college attendance rate for students who spend their last four years at the school. This number increases to 91 percent for those who attend for eight or more years.

Rietmulder, however, is reticent to focus too much on these numbers, as he firmly believes college isn’t for everyone.

“First and foremost, democratic education aims to prepare all students for life rather than for just this one particular track,” he said.


On You

To get a taste of the student perspective, I spoke with Johanna Bodnyk, a Circle School graduate who attended for the majority of her K-12 schooling. Bodnyk went on to attend Bard College in upstate New York, graduating with a literature degree.

As we spoke, she disputed the common assumption that students at democratic schools mostly hang out all day.

“Actually, everything is on you at a democratic school,” she said. “So, it’s more work than in a traditional school, in a way.”

Bodnyk’s comparative lens came after she attended public school for eighth, ninth and half of 10th grade then returned to the Circle School.

As an illustration of the self-direction and self-initiation that democratic schooling strives to instill, in recent years, Bodnyk decided to navigate a significant career pivot after finding herself dissatisfied with her existing track. Rather than simply resign herself to dissatisfaction, she began taking classes at Harvard’s Extension School and now works as a software engineer in Boston.

“Coming back to work at the Circle School briefly after college really cemented by belief in the approach,” she said. “It wasn’t just something I had experienced, but I was able to see it through other students’ eyes and see their joy and excitement.”

“When Kids Rule the School: The Power and Promise of Democratic Education,” by Jim Rietmulder, is available in local bookstores and online. For more information about the Circle School, visit

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