This is a story about one great school, one I was lucky enough to attend.
“The Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study,” the “3Is” sprung from the minds of three brilliant educators: Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Alan Shapiro. Postman and Weingartner were the authors of the book on radical educational reconceptualization, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Shapiro was a frustrated junior high school English teacher and leader of the local American Federation of Teachers. They came together in a struggling old “inner suburb” of
New Rochelle, about 75,000 people in 10 square miles, might be best known as Rob Petrie’s home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it was (and is) a complex old east coast city, with vast wealth disparities, a troubled core, and an extremely diverse population. It had, in the mid-1960s, been the first northern
It did have some unique advantages at the time. It did not, for example, have an elected school board and it did not have public votes on taxation. Schools were a part of the city government, the board was appointed by the mayor (the state legislature later changed this). It also fed all students, rich, poor, black, white, etc., into one enormous public high school, meaning the school had much of the full diversity of the city, despite the existence of four Catholic High Schools and two private high schools within the city’s borders. And it had a brilliantly enlightened union.
So, when the schools seemed in crisis, the union fought for educational change – briefly went on strike for educational change – and the board, not having to face voters, decided to go along with teacher demands. This meant a vast increase in open classroom and multi-age efforts in elementary schools. In the high school it meant the creation of separate schools-of-choice (or, yes, perhaps recommended choice would be a better description, this was somewhat European in strategy) within the building – including nursing, cosmetology, construction trades, performing arts, and, the “3Is.”
The 3Is was designed as the alternative school, the place for the kids who were not functioning within the standard school environment. But the first brilliance lay in the idea that "not fitting in" could be described as almost anything. There were geniuses. There were crazy dyslexics. There were those with "behavioral issues." There were those who'd been suspended, etc. There were those who had simply been bored. this was true inclusion. There was no special ed at all, or rather, it was special ed for everyone.
"Most school curricula are based on a set of assumptions which the experimental program rejects. For example, most school programs assume (1) that knowledge is best presented and comprehended when organized into "subjects," (2) that there are "major" subjects and "minor" ones, (3) that subjects are things you "take," and that once you have "had" them, you need not take them again, (4) that most subjects have a specific "content," (5) that the content of these subjects is more or less stable, (6) that a major function of the teacher is to "transmit" this content (7), that the practical place to do this is in a room within a centrally located building, (8) that students learn best in 45-minute periods which are held five times a week, (9) that students are functioning well (i.e., learning) when they are listening to their teacher, reading their texts, doing their assignments, and otherwise "paying attention" to the content being transmitted, and (10) that all of this must go on as a preparation for life. "This memorandum is not the forum for a serious and thorough critique of these assumptions. Hopefully, it is sufficient to say that contemporary educational philosophy disputes most of them, in part or whole, and that few teachers would deny the merit of experimenting with programs based on an entirely different set of beliefs."
A quote from Thoreau and the authors are off...
"we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."
Let me describe the school they created. Most students were rarely there. If you were studying science you were probably at the City's greenhouses or the local hospital or at the heritage farm we created in a City Park. If you were studying journalism you were creating the school's weekly newspaper or maybe, spending nights chasing news with a local radio station's overnight news guy. If you were studying urban design you might be in the planning department at City Hall. Psychology? How about interviewing Grand Central's homeless population after midnight. Great literature? Sitting around a teacher's living room one night a week sharing tea and ideas. There were, of course, classes - but they were different kinds of classes.
UP THE HIGH SCHOOL AND DOWN THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL An analysis of current responses to recent problems in education.
ENCOUNTER Survey of group technique with particular reference to methods of small-group therapy.
SCAPEGOAT: STUDY OF THE NATURE OF PREDJUDICE Psychological study of causes and impact of racial prejudice.
LANGUAGE AND REALITY To study how language influences our perception of the world and to determine the language "environments" of politics, black-white relationship, science, (etc.)
MATH SEMINAR Advanced math curriculum, including theory of functions, logic, calculus, non-Euclidean geometry, set theory, probability.
There was no required schedule, no required classes, no sense that you were in one "grade" or another. There were no grades, and there were no "failures." The grading system was "pass/no-record." You either got credit or the "course" or project did no exist anymore. At the end of each course or project the student wrote an evaluation of their own work, then a teacher wrote their comments.
There were no real administrators. Decisions were made in "Big Meetings" or by a student steering committee. Students interviewed potential teachers and voted on hiring. Students called teachers by their first names, argued with them, ate with them, played with them, helped them.
Yes, this was New York State, so your credits had to somehow (often quite creatively) match up with the required high school curriculum. You had to take the Regents Exams. Which we did, and which we passed, if not always with flying colors.
But the key thing was, students were known, in every way, by what they were good at. There was no deficit model at work. Not that most of us didn't really struggle with some things, but in this environment you led from your strengths. Everyone pretty much helped everyone in one direction or another.
Despite that we didn't just focus on our own stuff. You couldn't. You were around other influences. Did I, for example, read a book in high school? Well, part of Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's, for a history seminar remembered mostly for our field trip to see The Last Picture Show- which had something to do with a conversation about the 1950s.
Despite that, I played basketball with guys in Great Books and listened to conversations about Siddharthaand other masterpieces. I hung out at breakfast with musicians and learned both music and math. I got lectures about history and art in evening "social situations." We were told to engage in the world, and we did, and thus the world came at us at full speed.
The school changed "everything," and in doing so liberated us to learn. Stripped away our excuses. And turned us loose to make the world our classroom.
How did this school do by traditional measures? Very, very well. A 99% graduation rate with a wildly diverse population. Most went to four year colleges, including every SUNY campus, but also places like MIT, Brown, University of Michigan, Kenyon, Hampshire (of course). Years later we are lawyers and teachers, museum administrators and scientists, diplomats and artists. All from a group which might have seen a stunning drop out rate without this program.
It lasted over 15 years, and fell to conservative trends in education and budget cutting. Where once schools like this filled cities from Philadelphia to, at least, Ann Arbor, few now exist. Of our "Alternative School Basketball League" only one survives, the Village School in Great Neck, NY.
What made it work? First, choice. New Rochelle High School offered students real choices at the time. Vocational programs, traditional academic programs, arts programs, and this. Sure, paths were strongly suggested, but ultimately there were options. Students began each day knowing they had some level of control, they had put themselves into their situation. Second, a real belief in students. No 3I teacher ever looked at a student and saw "failure." They might have seen problems, but they also saw opportunities. Third, a belief in the power of adolescence. These adults knew kids would screw up, but they also knew that failure is how people learn - and that teenagers want to learn. So they dropped the cost of failure to almost zero. And people tried just about everything. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But things were always learned along the way. Fourth, they embraced universal design before the idea had been described. "Do it the way that works for you," was the idea. If I sat in a chair and talked while my friend John typed newspaper articles for me, that was fine. If I didn't function well in the morning, I didn't do much until after lunch.
So, did I actually "cut" school every morning from ten to noon to have breakfast with my friend Bob? No, because no one cared that I wasn't "there," so we weren't really cutting. Did Glenn and I really design a massive idea for downtown reconstruction? Yes, we did, and now he's one of the world's leading experts in architectural restoration. Did we really spend all night in Grand Central interviewing the homeless? Yes, and while I became a cop others became psychologists. Did I really take a course called "Monday Morning Quarterback" and bet on football games? I did. I think I called it "Math." Debbie though, took it and became a sportswriter.
- Ira Socol