What Does Freedom Mean at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School?

“A democracy is more than a form of government; it is a primary mode of associated living, or conjoint communicated experience.” —John Dewey

Most high school students consider the day they graduate as the day they finally experience freedom in their twelve years of education. They are accustomed to having things done for them and have not been given the opportunity to create and inspire change. In most schools, the “democratic” inclusion of students’ voices is generally limited to the select group participating in student government. At the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, we strive to extend student voice to all students so that their high school experience is not created for them but by them. Students from Parker aren’t necessarily much different from your average public high school student; there are some students who care a lot about important issues and some students who go to school because it’s illegal not to. What does separate Parker from most public schools is “The Parker Way,” an expression that anyone who’s been to Parker understands.

“The Parker Way” has no one definition. It is meant to be interpreted and defined by one’s own experience at the school. For us, it’s the freedom that the school allows students to express opinions and create change. The teachers and staff are there to support and encourage you to go after what you believe in and help you reach your full potential as an academic student and community member. As perfect as this may sound, it comes with many challenges, as does anything that’s worth hard work. It requires taking on more responsibilities, which means a lot of work, long days and spending time working—on this article, among other things—on Friday nights. But, ultimately, this is what shapes us into becoming more independent, powerful leaders.

Each year at Parker, the junior class selects two possible essential questions which guide our critical thinking and help deepen our understanding of the connections between our own lives and what we learn about in school. Then the entire student body votes to choose one of the essential questions. This year, our essential question is, “What is relevant?”

One thing we do at Parker that is most relevant is the functioning of our Community Congress, known as CC. This body of student government is made up of one student representative from each of the thirty advisories. Each representative is responsible for attending the hour-long weekly meeting and then reporting back new information to their advisory. Time is allotted for an open forum when representatives bring up issues that have come up in advisory or in the school. This can range from complaints around the high price of school pizza to discussions of how an appropriate policy can be established to address the dilemma of “Public Displays of Affection” (PDA).

After students bring issues to the table, CC holds large group discussions in order for everyone’s voice to be heard. As powerful and effective as this can be, it can also be extremely frustrating and time-consuming to even begin the process of drafting policy change. This is also true of American government as policymakers also face frustration when trying to make changes in public policies.

Last spring, we were elected as our school’s co-advisors of the CC. The responsibility of being a co-advisor consists of running the weekly meetings, as well as meeting with the principal and other staff once a week. Though Amanda had not been a CC member for the past three years, the day before speeches were due, Kayla approached her with the offer of running for co-advisor. Thinking we had a slim chance of winning, with so little preparation, we decided we had nothing to lose, so we gave it our all. We won with 60% of the vote. After the excitement of winning wore off, Amanda realized, “I knew nothing about the job of being co-advisor. And when you want to know about something, you have to ask questions. So, I asked questions and I found answers.”

Being co-advisors means that we are ultimately responsible to be the voice of the students at Parker. We are the final link in the chain between student body, administration and the Board of Trustees. We are accountable to ensure the process of democracy continues at a high functioning level at our school. We would be lying if we said we were not afraid. Frankly, it’s a huge responsibility with lots of chances to screw things up. What will be most difficult for us is adhering to the grueling process of democracy without wanting to quickly resolve the issue at hand and end the frustration. However, knowing that we are using the democratic way and helping to create positive change overrides our fears of making mistakes. We know there will be days when we will ask ourselves why we actually volunteered to take on this job. But we will always remind ourselves that we are creating change and inspiring others to be a part of that process. This experience of listening to the concerns of others and being responsible for the voices of the students who depend on us to represent them is the basis of democracy at Parker, just as it is the foundation of democracy in the United States.

At Parker, we make an effort to let everyone’s opinions be heard because we value the true essence of what makes a functioning community. This is truly the “Parker Way” and what a real democracy embraces. Even though, at times, it feels as though we’re headed down a long, dark, twisty road with no end, we are focused more on the process than on the outcome, which is the philosophy at Parker and at other Essential schools. Through this process we’re learning communication skills and appreciating a difference of opinion, skills that are forever valuable. Even though it sometimes feels as though we are moving backwards, we are actually taking one step back and two steps forward in order to achieve a true democracy in which everyone feels they have a voice in the process.

Many of our Community Congress discussions have ended without resolution. While it may feel frustrating, we understand that this is part of the process of change. This is how it all begins in a true democracy. When we ask, “What is relevant?” we can say that what we actively practice at Parker is what our country is founded on. Parker is a microcosm of how our government functions. This practice produces strong leaders and powerful change. Parker has many issues that still await resolution. Through the process of trying to discover an answer, we have discovered more about the powerful work of how to create change. And that is what is most relevant for the students at Parker.

Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School
A six-year public secondary school of choice, the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens is open by lottery admissions to all residents of Massachusetts in grades seven through twelve. One of Massachusetts’ first charter schools, Parker was founded in 1995 and currently educates 365 students from 40 towns in north central Massachusetts. Parker is a CES Mentor School.

Kayla Reeves is currently a sophomore at Parker Charter Essential School and has attended the school since seventh grade. In her spare time, she enjoys dancing, running and playing Ultimate Frisbee.

Amanda Griffin is a junior at Parker Charter School. She is an avid ski racer during the winter months. During the summer, she teaches rock climbing and lifeguards.

Kayla and Amanda recently received funding from Youth Venture and United Way to start a program that uses the game of Ultimate Frisbee as a tool to promote physical fitness as well as body image and other adolescent issues to inner-city girls in Worcester. They will be presenting a workshop at this year’s Fall Forum that will focus on student voice beyond student government.