community organizing schools

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform and Research for Action have both published studies on the positive impact of community organizing on schools. In a recent article from Annenberg, Tracie Potochnik praises the power of youth organizing. Having supported my students in organizing a rally against gun violence in Philadelphia and in several other organizing projects, it is hard for me to describe how powerful the impact of the experience was on some of my students. In a couple of months, some of them developed skills and competencies, particularly interpersonal skills, that enabled them to thrive in high school and beyond.

At the REAL School, we are trying to fuse the principles of organizing into the design of the school. These design principles are drawn liberally from the work of community organizers and researchers (Alinsky, 1946; Alinsky,1971; Gecan, 2002; Rogers, 1990; Shirley, 2002):

1)School leaders really get to know the members of the school community–Students, parents, neighbors, and teachers. Leaders must visit with members, listen to their stories and learn about their needs and aspirations. This work will ultimately shape the structures, policies, and curricula that drive the school.

2) Community members are helped to understand leadership and supported in learning to participate in issues that are relevant to their immediate interests and needs. This includes leadership development as a central part of the REAL School curriculum and student led leadership in the community as well as traditional community organizing in partnership with existing community organizations (Alinsky,1971).

3) Resources–both institutional and individual–are dedicated to the organizing process and organizing meetings are an essential element of the school calendar

4) Resources are dedicated to support individual empowerment and active participation in the school and the broader community


Supporting this sort of radical democratic participation is no easy task for an institution, especially a school, traditionally a conservative institution. As Gecan (2002) notes, “…leaders and organizers face a tough challenge: maintaining a conservative’s belief in the value and necessity of stable institutions, along with a radical’s understanding of the need for persistent agitation and reorganization” (p. xix). This is the tight rope that the REAL School and other democratic schools must walk.

Ultimately, because this is a design question, it’s important we remember our purposes: “After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people–a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated, and above all, develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future. The people themselves are the future. The people themselves wills solve each problem that will arise out of a changing world. They will if they, the people, have the opportunity and power to make and enforce the decision instead of seeing that power vested in just a few” (p.  55) – Saul Alinsky, 1946, Reveille for Radicals



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