Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ethical Culture Fieldston School - The Bronx, NY

I will be hard-pressed to visit a school that has a longer history than Ethical Culture Fieldston, the K-12 school located on two campuses in New York. Founded as a free kindergarten in 1878 by Felix Adler, it was an outgrowth of his New York Society for Ethical Culture, which he had founded two years earlier. The school added elementary grades in 1880 and was known for its first ten years as The Workingman's School. Since 1890, the school has continuously operated under it current name, and has been a tuition-based operation. I visited the Bronx campus which houses a lower, middle and upper school (Ethical Culture has a second PK-5 campus located on Central Park West in Manhattan). ECFS's total enrollment approaches 1700 students. As such, it is one of the largest progressive schools in the nation. I started my day with Head of School Damien Fernandez, whose welcome and introduction to ECFS was most gracious. I was fortunate to spend time with several member of the ECFS staff. It was a rich and rewarding morning.


A student generated event
My lasting impression of Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS) will be of the poster that was displayed in Nancy Bank's office announcing a Progressive School Leadership Meeting, sponsored by the Ethical Culture Student Government. Nancy told me that the students had been deepening their understanding of progressive education, and wanting to engage students from other schools in New York City. That the discussion had reached the students at this level of depth speaks volumes about the commitment of the school to its roots as a progressive school. We all know how challenging it is these days in a competitive marketplace, trying to sustain our core values; ECFS is not about to sell out and the students help sustain the effort.

Damien Fernandez Ph.D.
Head of School
My discussion about progressive education spanned five conversations with ECFS educators. First, with Dr. Damien Fernandez, the Head of ECFS, whose career as an educator included his time as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at Purchase College SUNY. Damien describes an ambitious undertaking at ECFS to re-embrace and re-think its commitment to the school's fundamental core values. He refers to it as a "re-foundational moment," looking deeply at the history of the school in a non-reactionary way. The process is intended to balance the requirement to have a strong and rigorous academic program, without the school losing its progressive identity. Damien foresees a challenging but successful synthesis of the two, as they are never mutually exclusive. But, how best to articulate this balance for parents and the public is the current endeavor launched by the school.

At ECFS, talk of equity and
social justice abounds
For Damien, progressive education is a bundle of goods, encompassing pedagogical and political components. His view that education is always political synchs with that of many progressives, and he hearkens back to Felix Adler's belief that education was the fountain for social mobility and for entry into the democratic process. Damien is excited about this time of new immigration and what the future holds for cultural and societal shifts, and sees education a vital part of the equation to bring justice and equity to our society. In this vein, all roads lead to ethical learning. Education must value inclusion, economic and racial diversity, and provide a pathway to cultural competence in an ever-changing world.

From a pedagogical standpoint, Damien aligns with many of the progressives with who I have visited: education should be experiential; arising from the interests of students; interdisciplinary; place-based; teacher not the center of knowledge. However, Damien adds a twist arising from his hard-nosed immigrant ethos: we should not shy away from hard work; we should expect students to work hard and reach for their best. It is a mistake that some progressives do not expect and hold students to their highest personal standards. For Damien, we build a culture of quality by keeping ours students' feet to the fire.

Kevin Jacobson
Middle School Principal
My next stop was with Kevin Jacobson, the bright and knowledgeable Principal of the Middle School. Kevin, in his second year at ECFS, has a big job shepherding a large middle school faculty and almost 400 students.  He invoked Alfie Kohn's twelve questions to underpin his definition of progressive education, and makes the same distinction as Damien between political and educational aspects of the progressive philosophy. The priorities that Kevin and the middle school faculty are investigating all speak to Kevin's view of the progressive mission of the school: emphasize collaboration among the teachers; develop capacity as multicultural educators; and develop more integrated curriculum. Kevin believes that students can derive a profound benefit from a progressive education - that they learn how to engage and inspire the world; that we become actively involved in our learning and in our world; and that learning has an application.

George Burns
Lower School Principal
After my conversation with Kevin, I met with Lower School Principal, George Burns, who worked at Bank Street for 20 years before coming to ECFS. George embodies the beliefs of a veteran progressive educator and the depth of his responses was compelling. At his fingertips were the principles that he has endeavored to bring to the lower school at ECFS: child centered classrooms; developmentally appropriate teaching practice; preparing students to be members of a democratic society; and attending to the larger question of who is in our community now and how can we pay attention to the needs, strengths, interests and proclivities of our students today. George feels fortunate to work in New York where so many real-time resources are accessible to teachers. In spreading out to the larger community, the teachers can bring alive the concepts they are teaching. It is a wonderfully rich environment in which to teach.

I met with Nancy Banks, the Dean of Student Affairs to discuss some of the very creative programs that ECFS is sponsoring. At ECFS, student activism is encouraged and Nancy oversees student initiatives, government, and assemblies. She teaches a course on the history of Fieldston and progressive education and is pulling the voice of the students and the school's history into the strategic planning process the school is undertaking this year. An example of the activism arose after the Newtown tragedy earlier this year when the students met on several occasions then formed an organization named Students Against Gun Violence. It is a quintessential example of the ways that ECFS students determine how best they can influence their world and make a major impact, and a perfect illustration of the benefits of a progressive education that Kevin Jacobson articulated.

Andy Meyers and Nancy Banks
Andy Meyers, whose new title is Director of Interdisciplinary and Experiential Education (how's that for a progressive school title?), shared with me the very exciting City Semester program that has been ongoing at ECFS for a several years. A group of approximately 15 - 20 students spends the semester on leave from their primary classes and immersed in a project in the city of New York. The experiential semester integrates english, science, history, languages and ethics into the investigation into life in the city for those who are disadvantaged and the programs that serve them. It is a stark experience for the independent school students who have an otherwise privileged life and education.

While some progressive schools emphasize the social justice/ethical element of progressive education and wear that ethos on their sleeve, others pay closest attention to the educational/pedagogical side of their core principles. In my travels, I have rarely encountered a school (of such girth, no less) trying to hold both sides of its progressive legacy as ECFS. It is a monumental challenge for any school, but one that Ethical Culture Fieldston is taking on with relish.  It is a long and wonderful journey they are on, for over 130 years. We'll be watching how their strategies and thinking emerge.

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