Find a Good School
Herndon’s first “Explanatory Note” in How to Survive proved prophetic regarding my arrival at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High in September of 1973:
Explanatory Note #1: Find A Good School And Send Your Kid There
It is a good school because of the principal, and because of the teachers whom he collected together . . . It is a good school because a district superintendent tried to get intelligent, serious people to come to work in the district and, once they did, allowed them to work. . .. they (teachers/administrators) like and respect kids. (p. 89-90)
The unincorporated Village of Rye Brook existed within the Town of Rye and was bounded by Port Chester, New York and Greenwich, Connecticut until it became an incorporated village in 1982. In September of 1973, when I began teaching in Rye Brook, the town had recently passed a bond to construct its own Jr./Sr. High School. There already was an elementary school (The Ridge St. School) but senior high school (9th-12th) students were sent to other area high schools --- Port Chester, Valhalla, Rye Neck, and Mamaroneck, for example. The community had decided to not only to create their own school, but they had also bought into a radical architectural design for their new facility. Featuring an array of floor-to-ceiling windows, the school’s interior had no walls! Remember, this was the early 1970’s and the concept of the “Open Classroom” was in vogue. According to Wikipedia:
An open classroom is a student-centered learning space design format which first became popular in North America in the late 1960s and 1970s . . .The idea of the open classroom was that a large group of students of varying skill levels would be in a single, large classroom with several teachers overseeing them. It is ultimately derived from the one-room schoolhouse.
The Rye Brook community had bought into the “open classroom” concept but didn’t realize, until the school was actually built, that their budget only allowed for about half the square footage for classroom space a true “open classroom” design would require. The initial idea was that there would be at least one open area (the size of a classroom) between classes that were in session. With half the square footage, those “open” areas disappeared at BBHS and the first few years were a clear challenge for teachers and students alike. As noted in Wikipedia: “If poorly planned or laid out, open classrooms can sometimes lead to problems with noise and poor ventilation. Classrooms that are physically open are increasingly rare, as many schools that were built ‘without walls’ have long since put up permanent partitions of varying heights.”
The school started with grades 7,8, 9, 10 and a plan to add 11 and 12 in the succeeding years. So, open space (no walls!) and 7th and 8th graders mixed with 9th and 10th graders --- this could easily have been a recipe for disaster! But it wasn’t --- and it wasn’t because Herndon’s Explanatory Note #1 proved to be exactly correct. The Blind Brook Rye Union Free School District was led by a Superintendent with the curious moniker, Harley Dingman. In his infinite wisdom, Harley hired Irvington High School’s Principal, David Schein, to lead the new school. Dave inherited some staff --- some of the Ridge Street teachers who taught 7th, 8th, or 9th grade and wanted to become High School teacher --- but he had carte blanche to assemble the rest of his new staff. With a small school like Blind Brook (about 100 students per grade) and only about a half dozen to ten “holdovers” from Ridge Street, Dave was able to “get intelligent, serious people to come to work in the district and, once they did, allowed them to work.” As it happened, Dave, along with Curriculum Coordinator Elmer (“Bud”) Moore, recruited a staff they believed could implement a “humanities curriculum that included interdisciplinary studies.” (wiki) What this led to, as the first few years proceeded, was the hiring of TEN teachers from the Colgate Master of Arts in Teaching program and another half dozen from Columbia’s teacher prep program (which was, philosophically aligned with Colgate’s). By the time the High School graduated its first full class in 1976, almost half the teaching staff were products of Colgate and Columbia --- with Paolo Freire and John Dewey philosophically center stage!
It’s hard to describe the first few years at Blind Brook without wondering “How did we do it?” and “What were we thinking?” Quickly realizing the “no walls” thing was a problem (imagine trying to teach your 7th grade Social Studies/English group next to --- remember NO WALLS! --- a MUSIC class full of 7th graders who were just given tonettes!), we soon ordered movable “dividers” and rolling bookcases/closets that served as physical barriers between teaching areas. Students moved around behind “classrooms” so someone who was “free” might well amble past your class in the middle of some lesson, invariably distracting someone. It was a kinetic and energetic place, to say the least.
But it was also one of the most exciting, interesting, and educational places any of us (students/teachers/administrators) could ever hope to experience. The faculty I worked with in my early years of teaching (1973 to 1984) were among the brightest, most creative, most dedicated people I have ever known. Some are still close friends and we often marvel at what those years were like --- and how important it was to know that Dave Schein, our Principal, always had our backs. Dave’s priorities were simple and straightforward: #1 – the kids; #2 – the teachers; #3 – anything else that happens in and around the school. He never wavered in his commitment to those priorities and he instilled a great sense of dedication in the staff, particularly around the idea that “the kids come first.” He was a great supporter of “go for it” with his teachers --- and that was good and bad. It was great for those of us Dave had hired, but less so for the veterans who had already put years in the District. Blind Brook was great, it was not perfect.
As new, young teachers (full of ourselves, for sure) we surely came off as arrogant assholes to a number of the veteran teachers. We, of course, saw them as hopeless old dinosaurs who weren’t familiar with Freire and didn’t see that we were the Vanguard of the Future (“Teenage Teachers from Outer Space!” was the brilliant Peter Tarshis’s nickname for us). We were going to upend Public Education and make it work (despite having read Herndon, I was still sure we at BBHS could “change the system”). Dave did his best to smooth things over between the old/young factions, but it was pretty clear which group was in the driver’s seat. I already had a history with my Colgate housemate, Steve Jones, an English teacher hired with me in the initial “Dirty Dozen” hires Dave made. We arrived in Rye Brook thinking we were “the Pro’s from Dover,” like Hawkeye and Trapper in the original Robert Altman M*A*S*H movie. There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and I’m not sure we always knew the difference.
Nonetheless, it was a unique and special group that forged indelible relationships with students and families in the Rye Brook community. I lived on the property of the Ridge St. School and played recreation softball with fathers of my students in the summer. Teachers, old and young, put in countless hours at the school in those early years, coaching teams, directing plays, leading the choir, tutoring math and writing, supervising the school newspaper and yearbook. And everything was being created on the fly and from scratch! It was amazing, invigorating, exhausting and even debilitating at times. But it always felt like we were doing something important.
Five years in, when we had to be reviewed for accreditation, we did all the paper work, met with committees and spruced the place up for our three-day visit, generally feeling anxious, even though we believed we were a really good school. It was incredibly gratifying, then, when we met with the Review Team for their cursory “Executive Summary” and were told Blind Brook was a “House of Joy” and we were hitting all our marks academically, and then some! It made all the work, all the hours, all the “dealing” with problem kids (and problematic parents!) more than worthwhile. We were on the right track. We were “doing school” the right way. Like Herndon, I believed we, at BBHS, were like Columbus and discovering the New World. I forgot what Herndon said about “change” and “institutions” and, slowly but sure, the earth shifted, the sky changed, and the New World sunk below the horizon.
Next: Winners & Losers & Some Important Questions