iSchool students taking part in a Model United Nations class that the IDEA tour visited

Ammerah Saidi, a program coordinator with Detroit Future Schools, meandered in and out of classrooms in the iSchool one morning last week. She had her pick of classes to observe – classes such as “Sixteen,” a course designed around the question of what it means to be 16 in New York City, and Cartography, where students creatively mapped their hearts and fictional worlds.

Saidi was one of nearly 30 educators, advocates, and consultants from across the country and world taking part in a two-day, three-borough tour of schools and programs that promote democratic education.

“To hear about student-centeredness is one thing, but to feel it is something different,” Saidi said later in the day. “I love being reminded that it should be about the students at all times.”

That getting up close and personal with democratic modes of schooling is likely to inspire educators to change their practice is the theory behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America‘s “Innovation Tours” of city schools. Inspired by an Israeli organization, IDEA promotes the vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. To get educators to sign on, the group exposes them to democratic models of schooling in action. The goal of each Innovation Tour, which IDEA co-founders Dana Bennis and Jonah Canner lead, is for participants to walk away with ideas about how to broaden participation in their own communities — and then to implement those ideas, with IDEA’s help.

“We’re not just creating a certain school and modeling it and building it out around the country,” said Bennis, now IDEA’s director of research and programs. “This is about communities coming together and asking: What are our goals for education? What do we want to achieve?”

During last week’s tour, the group’s third since its founding in 2010, participants visited the iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, and Urban Academy, the alternative high school on the Upper East Side whose students demonstrate proficiency through presentations and projects instead of Regents exams. They heard the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 28 describe her vision for a school that helps everyone in the community, not just the students who are enrolled. And they saw how The Point, a community group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, works with new schools, develops green spaces, and provides outlets for creativity.

Administrators at the two high schools emphasized  the ways they grant students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and program. At both schools, teachers design courses they want to teach and students select most of the classes they take, and classes include students from all grades whose learning is dictated by their interests. Even space is distributed democratically among faculty and students, with large common rooms where teachers and students work side by side.

At the iSchool, administrators said, the goal of democratic learning is to let students take control of their academic success. In many rooms, the teachers disappeared behind the students, who took center stage as they passionately debated the dangers of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan in a Model United Nations short course and as they designed their own symphonies on laptops in a short, intensive course called “Inside the Music.”

In contrast, Urban Academy founding director Ann Cook said democratic learning at her school is meant to engage students around social and political issues that affect them. Urban Academy’s hallways contained sculptures, murals, and photographs, but also news clippings about the school’s battle for a waiver from requiring Regents exams and a big banner across the entrance that declared “Hunter College Hands Off! Save Julia Richman Schools! Save Our Community!”

“What we’re looking for is to have obnoxious citizens come out of our school,” she said.

If the mornings showed the IDEA tour group what education looks like “with liberty,” the afternoons showed what it looks like with “justice for all.”

P.S. 28 kindergartners sharing their observations about leaves

At P.S. 28, principal Sadie Silver described her efforts to turn half of the school building into community space that includes a meeting room and space for nonprofit groups to offer a nursing program, support for foster care families, job training, and other services. How the implementation of wraparound services will trickle down from big ideas to classroom practice remains to be seen, she said. During a whirlwind tour of the school (bubbly student leaders counted to sixty in each classroom before tapping visitorson the arm, whispering “we have to go,” and skipping off to the next room) the IDEA group saw uniform-clad elementary-schoolers engaging in fairly traditional lessons about editing for capitalization, counting to five, and making observations about leaves.

“It’s not just about how to teach your kid reading, but about how to find an apartment in this economy, about how to find a job.” Silver said. “We couldn’t do what we wanted to do within the school without targeting the environment as a whole.”

Innovation Tour members getting a guided walk through Hunts Point

Tour members saw a different vision of whole-community improvement efforts at The Point, the last stop on the Innovation Tour. On Friday afternoon, the group’s airy brick and windowed building in Hunts Point was busy with students entering a Shakespeare program and community members working on their incubating business ventures. After a presentation about the area’s poverty, Point staff led a walking tour through the community, pointing out places of progress: new schools, green spaces, a cleaned-up waterfront.

The Point prides itself on giving community members the tools to improve their environment and their lives.

“It’s about power,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program. “Not in a greedy or nasty way, but as in empowerment.”

As the tour concluded, participants reflected on what they liked about what they saw — the couches in Urban Academy’s hallways, the vision at P.S. 28 — and how they would take the lessons they learned back to their home communities.

“I didn’t imagine that there were so many people working on education and trying to improve their community and the youth,” Omar Soto, a social worker and coordinator for Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Puerto Rico, said through a translator. “I learned that there is tons of work to be done.”