School Change/School Reform
Context: It’s fairly common knowledge that “the Sixties” was a period of social and political “ferment” in the United States. Movements dominated the period: Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s’, and Gay Rights are the ones the textbooks “cover.” The desire for “change” was pervasive and, led by the college-aged “Baby Boomers,” there was also an energetic, if inchoate, “school change/school reform” movement. The “Free School” movement was most prominent among these. As defined in Wikipedia:
The free school movement, also known as the new schools or alternative schools
movement, was an American education reform movement during the 1960s
and early 1970s that sought to change the aims of formal schooling through
alternative, independent community schools.
Notable among these were the Black Panther Party Liberation Schools. In their 10 Point Program the Panthers stated:
"We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society." In order to ensure that this occurred, the Black Panther Party took the education of their youth in their own hands by first establishing after-school programs and then opening up Liberation Schools in a variety of locations throughout the country which focused their curriculum on Black history, writing skills, and political science. (wiki)
The best known “alternative program” of the period was the Philadelphia “Parkway Program.” According to the Education Research Information Center (ERIC) in April of 1973:
The Parkway Program is the prototype school-without-walls created by the School District of Philadelphia in 1967. The program presently consists of four units of approximately 200 students (chosen by lottery from throughout the city), ten teachers, ten to 12 interns, and a Unit Head and administrative assistant housed in four separate non-school locations around the city. The students attend classes in: (1) conventional subject matter areas, the bulk of which are taught by the Parkway teachers, and which usually take place in sites around the city contributed by agencies and institutions, and (2) subject fields not ordinarily available to high school students, offered by volunteers (many from institutions) whose courses are monitored by Parkway staff. To provide intellectual and interpersonal coherence to the program and to offer counseling and basic skill development to all students; Parkway offers a period each day called tutorial.
The idea of “schools-without-walls” was to use community resources/people to educate “at-risk” students. The other popular “alternative” that evolved was the “school-within-a-school” (SWAS)--- programs that did not follow the “mainstream” curriculum but were housed in “traditional” junior and senior high schools and were designed for kids who didn’t find “regular” school particularly effective. All of this fit right into the counterculture movement of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s (see: Theodore Roszak, Philip Slater, Charles Reich). This was the movement that strongly influenced me as I began considering pursuing a career in education.
Before I ever read Herndon (though I had heard about his first book, The Way It Spozed to Be as well as Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age) my first immersion in school change/reform was the product of my organizing activities during the May Day Demonstrations in New Haven in the Spring of 1970. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was on trial for (trumped-up) murder charges and thousands of people descended on New Haven to protest what was clearly a Nixon/Hoover attempt at destroying the Panthers. Determined to “do something” beyond May Day, I landed a summer job with the Yale Council on Community Affairs and my assignment was to catalogue “resources” for a proposed New Haven “Parkway” program --- the New Haven High School in the Community, an alternative high school." *
That was my first experience working with an “alternative” school and it set my course regarding school change/school reform. I knew the system I had gone through “worked” for me (there I was at Yale, after all) but it hadn’t engaged me or inspired me and, quite honestly, my first year and a half at Yale (when it was still an all-male bastion, btw) was a struggle. I was far behind my classmates who had gone to prep schools or “elite” public high schools (Great Neck, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, New Trier, et al). I didn’t blame it on Bay Shore High School so much as I saw the larger system as flawed. My political activity and mindset made me a natural for the “alternative school” movement. And that’s where Herndon re-enters the picture.
Welcome to the website for High School in the Community, the small school for students who want to do big things. Our goal is to help all students grow into the leaders our families and communities need and we have an increasing track record of success in accomplishing this task. Our students serve as leaders of their own learning both here at HSC and in off campus courses through our neighboring colleges and universities. They gain experience working with dozens of nonprofits and organizations right out our doors in downtown New Haven. They start their own campaigns and efforts to solve local problems, travel to foreign countries to examine global issues from new perspectives and collaborate side by side with staff daily to design and build a school fit for the 21st century.
HSC has a unique relationship with the New Haven Federation of Teachers, which serves as the operator of the school and provides management oversight and broad support towards our mission. Our teachers are passionate, empowered to make decisions as professionals that move the work of the school ever forward. Their voice and ethos animates what we do here as they strive for greatness in their teaching craft and for success for all students.
It is a unique school and, while it now (2019) has many characteristics of a “traditional” school, it is still quite distinct because of the Teacher/Community governance and its use of community resources.}
Back to Herndon:
Once again, as I reviewed How to Survive in Your Native Land, I can see how my experience with the New Haven High School in the Community, when combined with reading Herndon in the Spring of 1971, set my mind to thinking about working in an “alternative” school setting, if not creating my own school. Two significant “Explanatory Notes” for me were Explanatory Note #3 – No Man and Explanatory Note #5 – Four- or Five-Minute Speech for a Symposium on American Institutions and Do They Need Changing Or What? The humor in the second note’s title is obvious --- and part of what makes Herndon’s writing so effective is that he never fails to see the humor in all this. “No Man” is based on the simple notion that teachers “feel we have nothing to do with it (educating children) beyond the process of managing what is presented to us.” As he explains it:
Teachers imagine that they determine nothing. After all, who built the school?
Not the teachers. Who decided there would be 38 desks in each room? Not
the teachers. Who decided the 38 kids in Room 3 ought to learn about Egypt
in the seventh grade from 10:05 to 10:50? Not the teachers. Who decided
there ought to be 45 minutes for lunch and that there ought to be stewed
tomatoes in those plastic containers? Not the teachers. Who decided about
the curriculum and who decided about the textbooks? Not us. Not us!
Indeed, too often those who are closest to the kids on a daily basis --- the teachers --- have the least input as to what goes on in schools (and this is true even today, dear Reader). As Herndon continues:
Nobody, it seems, made any of these decisions. Noman did it. Noman is
Responsible for them. The people responsible for the decisions about how
Schools ought to go are dead. Very few people are able to ask questions
of dead men. (pp. 101-102)
So, “No Man” is a serious problem teachers need to confront from Day One when they enter the profession. The challenge of “change,” (and the larger issue confronting the institution of schooling, as nicely framed by Herndon in Explanatory #5) will be explored in the next essay in this series.
Next: School Change/School Reform, Part Two