Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Baker Demonstration School - Wilmette, Ill.

What a pleasure to visit Baker Demonstration School, a school seeped in the history of Progressive Education. Dan Schwartz, the Head of School who guided my visit, sits on the planning committee for the 2013 PEN conference to be held in Los Angeles next October. Dan has been a principle in the Winnetka and Chicago public schools, and is a principled believer in Progressive Education.  

Baker Dem, an historically progressive school founded in 1918, is a toddler - grade 8 school located in Wilmette, Illinois, a northside suburb of Chicago. Once a lab school of the National College of Education, the school became fully independent in 2004.

Dan Schwartz, Head of School
 I have many vivid images of my visit to the school, but one that will always be with me is the image of its Head of School, Dan Schwartz, jumping out of his chair time after time during my interview with him to pull from his vast collection of treasured books about progressive education. His desk was a scattered wealth of resources as we concluded our discussion. Dan is a scholar of progressive education, and someone from whom I did and will continue to learn much.

Dan is a purist when it comes to progressive education. Though he laments that the term carries its share of baggage in our 21st Century educational lexicon, for him it represents all that is best for children and their learning. Dan wants progressive educators to reclaim their historical identity and posits that in not doing so, we are avoiding an important, though difficult conversation. He alluded to Chris Gallagher's Reclaiming Assessment (Heineman, 2007), to compare the phenomenon of how the status of progressive education has been stripped away and demeaned.

Dan defines progressive education as succinct as anyone with whom I have spoken. For him it is teaching students to think critically, synthesize, and learn the fundamentals of the world around them, so they can use the information to create new knowledge. It is education that encourages students to act upon the world, rather than have the world act upon them. 

At Baker Dem, the manifestation of these principles abound. The halls scream everywhere with student work. Dan stresses the importance of play in the lives of children and believes play should not be relegated to the early childhood program, but should be a part of a student's experience throughout his/her education. To illustrate this, Dan told me about the boat building project that engages the eighth graders as a culminating activity during their time at Baker Dem. Using cardboard, the students design and build a boat for two, that they test and launch in the school swimming pool. Taking on the characteristics of a big exhibition, the students delve deeply into the concepts of displacement, mass, and density. It is a howl for them, and a fun way of learning important science for thirteen and fourteen year-old kids. 

I visited the kindergarten and third grade classes and was struck by the notion of memories as they shape an important part of the program.  The teachers (Merle and Liz) share the belief that shared memories help the children learn that we are friends when we have memories together. Their collective memories form a sense of "this is who we are together," an important antecedent to building a strong community of learners and cementing cognitive understanding. Around the room are posters and displays of the children's memories embellished with their drawings. In the block area where the children create ships, we see visibly how the memories work to inform the learning; the kids' conversations are replete with the thinking that arises from their collective memories. Clearly Baker Dem. is a school where children are taken seriously and the teachers are committed to observing and understanding their thinking.

Student work is everywhere
The students emerge from Baker Dem. not afraid to challenge authority. This is a theme that I have found on my tour to be common among progressive schools. Dan describes the phenomenon as students knowing how to look behind and under the curriculum that is being taught and not accepting it at face value. As questions arise, the students are taught to voice them and not defer always to the adults. He adds that Baker Dem. places great value on questioning authority in a respectful way that keeps dialogue open.

Dan believes that leadership in a progressive school requires one to always be asking, "What does good teaching look like?" It is recognizing that curriculum needs to be vibrant, always changing, and evaluated constantly. What serves one group of students may not serve another. Dan aspires to co-create with the staff a model of shared leadership where teachers feel respected and have a vital role in institutional decision-making. Leadership teams have been formed and the teachers deeply engage in curriculum review. 

Baker Dem. is an impressive place. The school is well equipped and the campus facilities outstanding. With a century of rich history behind him, Dan Schwartz and the staff are leading the school to its next incarnation as an unabashed exemplar of what possibilities exist in a progressive school environment.


  1. Children are falling through the cracks at Baker. I know this first hand because I rescued my child from this school after identifying a significant yet treatable reading disorder that was glossed over by the faculty and administration and identified only because I was worried and sought help. AWFUL SCHOOL and a terrible, indifferent principal. I am a college educator and I believe that much of the failing we are seeing at the collegiate level is thanks to institutions just like this one.

    1. I'm interested to understand more about your perspective. Please reply to this thread with a contact point you are comfortable offering. Thank you in advance.