School Culture - Part One
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
Long before the Charter School movement was a “thing,” parents, teachers, administrators, and a school board in the Town of Rye, Westchester County marshalled their energy and creativity to create a junior/senior high school. As a result, a unique institution opened its doors to students in the fall of 1973 --- first as a 7 through 10 school and eventually graduating a full class of high school seniors in 1976 (4 students graduated in 1975). In this attempt at documenting the creation of that institution --- and what life was like during its first decade --- there are many stories to be told. This one is about some of the actual mechanics of starting a school from scratch --- never an easy task.
Throughout the 20th century --- and into this one --- there’s been an amazing homogeneity to “the high school experience” across this country. Whether public or private, you can pretty much count on a high school having a yearbook, a newspaper, a prom, homecoming, a commencement ceremony, a musical, a drama production, and the like. Beyond those “expected” school culture traditions, most places develop their own unique “traditions.” When I was at Bay Shore High School, back in the mid-Sixties, we had a Spaghetti Dinner, a Senior Card Party & Fashion Show, and Class Day --- traditions not necessarily shared by neighboring schools. If you are starting a new school, from scratch, it’s easy to say, “Okay, we’ll create a yearbook and school newspaper, and we’ll have a prom” but what other “traditions” is your school going to have that distinguish it from its neighbors? And what are the other aspects of your school culture that will reflect “the mission and values of the community, in and outside the classroom?” That was a big question when the staff began meeting to plan the opening of our new school in September 1973.
Blind Brook was created with a vision of it being an “Arts/Humanities” school featuring an interdisciplinary curriculum and subscribing to a progressive education philosophy. Hence, a building with very few interior walls. As Mort Smith, a member of the school’s Founding Board put it: “You can’t close Arts/Humanities in a room! You need space for creativity.” The building’s glass walls, which were everywhere --- looking into the Science labs, overlooking the gymnasium, at the back of almost every teaching area --- added to that sense of openness and freedom. Given that, how do the parents, administrators, and staff create a school whose “traditions, routines, expectations and interactions” develop a school culture that lives up to the “mission and values” of the community? As luck would have it, David Schein and the staff he assembled were up to that challenge.
One early question we faced was: what are our school colors and mascot going to be? Believing in the tenets of progressive education, there was no debate about letting the students decide --- it was, after all, their school. This can be formula for disaster, of course. Our students ranged in age from 12 to 15 --- they might come up with anything. Were we, as a staff, willing to live with it? We were and, after an all-school vote, the new school’s team colors were red, white, and blue. More problematic was the mascot the student chose: a Trojan. We knew the older students had convinced the younger ones to go along with voting for a mascot that represented a condom company but we, as a staff, had promised to go along with the students’ decision. The kids, for their part, feigned they were all huge USC fans, and the University of Southern California Trojans were, indeed, their favorite team. We, in turn, feigned believing them and, to this day, the Blind Brook Trojans proudly compete in sports and academic challenges.
Beyond school colors and a mascot, the usual “traditions” of yearbook, school newspaper, etc. were easy to establish. But what else would make the place ours and ours alone? One early aspect regarding the school’s “openness and freedom” was that no teacher could shut his/her door and dominate a fiefdom. Because of the school’s architecture and design --- and unlike more traditional schools --- there were no hallways with doors enclosing classrooms. There was a semi-circle of Teaching Areas --- which were essentially like Stalls (with moveable walls) --- which students (and others) could walk around at any time. It was not unusual for passersby to stop and observe one’s class for several minutes and then move on (or for a kibitzer to interrupt the proceedings!). None of the teachers, of course, had ever taught in an environment like this before so we were all learning as we went. As Roger Smith, one of the Founding Teachers, put it:
Having taught for a year in a traditional high school in Central NY, having the department head, or (God forbid) the principal or vice-principal show up to do an observation in my classroom was cause for a guaranteed adrenaline rush. Of course, that probably happened all of three times in the whole year and it was always done as part of a mandated evaluation.
At BBHS, administrators, strangers, board members, other teachers, politicians, air conditioning installers, parents . . . pretty much anybody, was likely to walk through my area on any given day. After a steady parade of same, had I had a blood pressure monitor attached to me, there wouldn't have been a blip if Governor Carey had walked through.
And that became true for all of us. Early on in late September or early October of 1973, my class was interrupted by two construction workers who proceeded to install my Teaching Areas blackboard during my teaching period! We learned to take it all in stride and students, miraculously, learned to focus on tasks-at-hand, lectures, group work, etc. It did put the onus on teachers to create lessons that engaged their class --- you couldn’t shut your door and demand silence --- that Old World was gone, and this new school culture was taking hold.
Along with not having one’s own room as a teacher, our desks and work area was a communal space. There were doors off each Teaching Area into a central core office which was shared (downstairs) by all the Humanities Staff and (upstairs) all the Math, Science, and Foreign Language staff. (The business, art, music, and industrial & home arts each had their own areas.) Maybe because many of us were new teachers so we just didn’t know better, or maybe so many of us were the product of 1960’s “communal” philosophy we didn’t think it odd, but the staff rather seamlessly adapted to this. A by-product was that students could access teachers easily (there was no way to lock the doors!). As Paul Satenstein (Class of 1979) put it:
What I appreciated most was that the teachers' offices were at the center of the multi classroom floor square so access to teachers was very easy and casual. That easy access enabled me to get help when I needed it. Also, since the teachers got along so well, the environment was always cheerful and welcoming.
It may not have been that way for every student, of course, but I believe Paul’s recollection would be echoed by many during the first decade at Blind Brook. The collegiality the shared Teachers Area generated was another aspect of the developing school culture that was crucial to the school’s emerging identity --- and contributed directly to other unique features of our New World.
3/8/2023 04:59:01 pm
I would echo "Sat's" comment about accessibility to our teachers. It was on the first floor at Peter Tarshis' desk where he taught me to juggle. To this day people are amazed at my ability to easily keep 3 or 4 balls in the air, and I owe it all to Peter!
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