No mandatory courses, no grades and the students are empowered to help manage and police the school.
For 30 years, the innovative Saint-Nazaire High School has proposed unusual solutions to counter the surge of violence and drop-outs in French high schools. Over the past three decades, many ideas have been proposed but Saint Nazaire's approach has been radically different. The school has 19 members of the teaching staff and about 180 students. The organizational structure is non-hierarchical: there is no principal, no director, no secretary and no janitors. Students and teachers self-organize to manage everything.
Most of the 180 students come from impoverished backgrounds. Yet the school has been relatively successful in getting students to buy in to the curriculum and follow through until the end of their academic careers. Eleven of the 12 candidates for the baccalauréat (French high school diploma) passed their year-end exams in 2008. In the following video, students explain how the school works and why this self-empowering approach appeals to them:
Nolwenn Weiler a writer for Bastamag, an independent online french news site that focuses on social and environmental issues, unpacked the decision-making process in interviews with sources at the school. One of the interviewees, Lucie, a student, highlighted the management of the school cafeteria:
« Tous les matins, on fait une cagnotte, explique Lucie, élève en 1ère. Chacun donne ce qu’il veut, ou peut. On fait les courses et le menu en fonction de la somme récoltée. » Mise en place sur la proposition d’un élève, la cuisine du lycée fait maintenant partie des incontournables. C’est même un gros poste pour l’équipe en charge de la gestion. « On gère le lycée par quinzaine, précise Lucie. Chaque équipe de gestion compte une vingtaine d’élèves et trois “mee” (pour “membre de l’équipe éducative”).
Lucie, a 11th grade student explains: “Every morning, we collect lunch money from students. Each student gives what he/she wants. Then we do grocery for the menu depending on the amount we raised.” This process was implemented based on the proposal of a student. The school cafeteria is now among the best-run activities at the school. It is one of the main projects for the team in charge of management for the time being. Lucie says that “The team management rotates every two weeks to run the school. Each management team has twenty students and three members of the teaching staff.”
The course selection for the upcoming curriculum and the school budget are also decided jointly by the students and the teachers. This is a deliberate choice for the school. As one of the teachers commented: “You don't learn how to ride a bike with a text book.”
More importantly, the school provides a second chance to students who struggled in the standard school environment.
One of the students, Aymeric, testifies:
J'étais turbulent et impertinent. Ici, j’ai ré-appris à apprécier les gens, tous les gens. J’ai découvert qu’il y a du bon en chacun.
I was troubled and cynical (as a kid). Here I have re-learned to appreciate people, all people. I discovered that there is good in everyone.
Dans les autres établissements, les relations entre élèves sont dures. Ici, c’est facile de créer des liens. Il n’y a pas d’effets de meute, avec un élève qui s’en prend plein la gueule. On peut vivre sa vie sans que personne ne nous embête.
In other schools, the relationship between students can be tough. Here it is easier to bond. There is no pack mentality or bullying. One can live his life without someone interfering, looking to pick a fight.
Christophe Juin, one of the teachers at the school, says that the structure of the classroom facilitates the exchange of ideas, while sometimes the school invites outside experts to enrich learning:
Lors de nos travaux de groupes, membres de l’équipe éducative et élèves ont réalisé, ensemble et comme des pairs, la lecture et les échanges qui s’en suivent. Au cours du projet sciences, une collaboration s’est installée avec Isabelle Drouet, enseignante chercheuse en philosophie des sciences et en logique. Le groupe s’est à plusieurs reprises penché sur des articles publiés par notre intervenante.
During our group work, members of the teaching staff and students read and analyzed papers together as peers. In one science project, a collaboration was established with Isabelle Drouet, a researcher in science philosophy and logic. The group analyzed her articles in depth.
However, one must be mindful of hailing the approach as a universal model capable of curing all the ills in the French education system, as Pierre, another teacher, reminds:
Je ne pense pas que ce soit la panacée, ici. Mais sur l’absence de violences, sur l’enseignement sans notes, sur l’interdisciplinarité, sur la démocratie, on expérimente. Ce sont des sujets sur lesquels on a quelques petites choses à dire.
I do not think this approach is the be-all and end-all solution. But on the subject of violence, of teaching without notes, of interdisciplinarity, on democracy, we have done some research and experiments. These are topics on which we have a few insights to contribute.