Saturday, February 9, 2013

Visiting Progressive Schools: First Stops PS1 and Crossroads

With the good graces of the Park Day School community, today I launched my tour of approximately 50 progressive schools in America. A long-standing dream of mine has been to study the current state of Progressive Education, with a primary focus on those teaching practices that best illustrate the principles of progressive education. Today I started my tour of schools, which will take me around the country.

I launched my journey by visiting two extraordinary Los Angeles schools, PS1 ( and Crossroads ( in Santa Monica. Heads of School Joel Pelcyger (PS1), and Bob Riddle (Crossroads) rolled out the red carpet for me, and allowed me to visit classrooms and witness the exemplary programs that underpin the philosophy of the two schools. These two gracious Heads personally guided me on tours of their school campuses, and sat for interviews to explore a working definition of Progressive Education. I saw the challenges they face in developing the master plan for their campus, while trying to bringing program continuity to the curriculum.

                                     Joel Pelcyger                                          Bob Riddle

The irony, as I begin my journey, (and I suspect there will be more of this to come), is that both Bob and Joel expressed ambivalence about the label of "progressive education." Though both consider themselves progressive educators (both serve on the steering committee for the Progressive Education Network conference in LA - October 2013), they share the sentiment that labeling themselves as progressive may narrow the overall perception of their school; neither would like to see their school boxed in. As much as they acknowledge progressive practices being alive and flourishing in their teaching practices, they would like to see their schools exemplify a wider educational spectrum.

Pluralistic School 1

PS1, or the Pluralistic School, abides by its name of building a respectful and nurturing learning environment where children can see themselves as part of a whole community. The schools works assiduously to balance a deep understanding of children on an individual basis, with the desire to create a cohesive community working together in the best interests of the school. Joel invoked the unofficial national motto e pluribus unum in describing the mission of the school, and sees a profound influence that this concept has had on the PS1 community.

Joel eschews the binary way of opposing progressive and "traditional" forms of education. He sees power in both and both are reflected in the PS1 program; he prefers not to be dogmatic.

To pursue its mission of understanding kids, Joel asks the teachers early in the school year to write what they honor, value and admire of about each of their students. This creates a positive tone in the school community and the strengths of the children are clearly brought into relief. As the teachers deeply understand the children, they support them in finding their voices and being empowered to participate fully in the classroom. One way of measuring if this is working is when children challenge the authority of their teachers and school leaders. Joel wants to see a healthy amount of dissent among the students and loves it when the kids petition him for change in a policy or school rule.

Fundamentally, Joel believes that progressive education is about building relationships. Teachers and parents partner in raising children, and together create an atmosphere where children can flourish. He describes parents as rolling up their sleeves to help build the foundation of the school, and collaborating with staff in many ways. Teachers cluster to create program and have become very cohesive in their curricular approach. One interesting practice at PS1 has teachers switching grade levels every few years. Joel believes that this builds an understanding among the faculty of the needs and interests of the various grade levels, and increases the likelihood that children will encounter a teacher more than once, thereby advancing the goal of the school to understand the students as deeply as possible. The school's motto is Competence, Confidence, Connection. What we know, How we feel about what we know, snd what we do with what we know.

With their new building, which includes a wonderful community gathering space, it is clear that PS1 has a bright and successful future. Though I will respect Joel's wishes and not place a label on the school, I do see it as a clear example of progressive practices in action.


Bob Riddle, the Head of School at Crossroads, taught at the school for 27 years before assuming his position five years ago. The K-12 school is set on two campuses in Pasadena, CA., only one block apart from one another. When visiting the Upper School (Grade 9-12) one is struck by an old alleyway located at the center of campus and divides the campus buildings, that is regarded by students as the heart and soul of the high school campus. There students gather at lunch and between classes and the atmosphere is urban-sophisticated, lively, and unique.

Though Crossroads no longer refers to itself as a progressive school in its mission, the school has long been regarded as a school where many progressive practices are at play. Describing Crossroads more as an "innovative" school, it was founded on five basic commitments: to academic excellence, to the arts, to the greater community, to the development of a student population of social, economic and racial diversity, and to the development of each students' physical well-being and full human potential. In many ways, these commitments point directly to the basic tenets of progressive education, and I surely saw several examples of progressive teaching practices.

Bob defines progressive education first as nurturing student voice and building a culture where students develop an ownership for their learning. He believes in constantly challenging the traditional norms of teaching and asking if current approaches to curriculum are best for supporting student learning. Whenever possible, learning should be active and experiential, and not just consuming or absorbing the knowledge in a passive learning environment.

In todays's independent school milieu, Bob sees youth being challenged by the pressures of "grade lust," and of being over-scheduled. How can the Crossroads address the well-being of it students, while meeting their academic needs? Crossroads has been a pioneer in the concept of "education in balance," and I saw lots of examples of how the school nurtures students emotionally. I sat in on the Life Skills class where the 11th grade students sat against back-jacks in a circle on the floor of a darkened room. The teacher asked the students to select from scattered slips of paper on which were written an iteration of a "first experience." First frustrating moment; first fear; first memory; first love; were examples. After selecting a slip, the students in turn shared their memories and experiences. The climate in the class was respectful and engaging. The students listened and built an understanding of one another, and within the conversations addressed emotional and social aspects of their lives. One of the kids who had been at Crossroads since kindergarten told me that these kinds of conversations had been a part of his school experience throughout his twelve years. It is embedded in the culture of the school.

While at lunch, a student excitedly invited Bob and me to attend the showing of a dance recital in the black box theater. The students were performing the dance pieces they had choreographed, some individually and some in pairs. Again, it was an example of finding student voice and expression, while  integrating the arts as a core part of the curriculum.

I also interviewed Jeff Ranes, an alumni of Crossroads, who is now the Director of Environmental Ed. programs for grades 4-12. This is an essential part of the school's mission and cultivates outdoor leadership and designs outdoor and environmental experiences for the students. As students learn about their environment and the principles of sustainability, this program fully integrates an experiential component to break down the walls of the school and engage students outside the school and in the community.

So, from a distance, notwithstanding their respective ambivalence about the label of progressive, I would include both PS1 and Crossroads in the lineage of progressive schools. I observed in both schools, happy kids who love to come to school, engaged in their learning, in a nurturing environment. What a start to my journey!!

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