Saturday, March 16, 2013

Greene Hill School - Brooklyn, NY

Located on the site of a formerCatholic School, the
building has beautiful architectural
Founded in 2009, Greene Hill School currently serves children ages three through nine, as it grows to become a PK-8 school within the next few years. Located on a former Catholic school site in the Fort Green/Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn, the school assumed an unabashedly progressive philosophy from its earliest days. School Director Diana Schlesinger, Education Director, Barbara Frailey, and Development Director, Rachael Burton greeted me warmly and spent the afternoon touring and discussing this wonderful new project they have poured their lives into for the past several years. 

Diana Schlesinger,
School Director
With the mission and vision to create from the outset a progressive school that would embody the best practices of child-centered and experiential education, several educator-parents opened this extraordinary little school in 2009. I say "extraordinary," because it is not easy for any school to hew to a progressive philosophy these days, but the folks at Greene Hill, swimming upstream, nonetheless have succeeded in finding a solid niche in the highly competitive Brooklyn school scene. By knowing who they are, and deepening their understanding of progressive teaching practices, the school has built itself on a foundation of core beliefs and values which trace from the lineage of progressive education.

School Director Diana Schesinger, a graduate of Bank Street College, is credited by her colleagues for holding true to the educational mission of the school. And, true to the inclination of progressive schools, rather than defining herself what progressive education is, she put the question to the faculty in advance of my visit. The faculty boiled its definition to three core principles: teaching should be experiential; the program should center on the interests of the child; and assessment should be qualitative, focused on a deep understanding of each child's developmental growth.

Diana touched on an oft-repeated theme I have encountered in my many discussions with progressive educators around the country. That is, the relationship schools have with time. Are we creating the time for teachers to respond to spontaneous learning opportunities? Is there enough time for teachers to discuss children and understand them deeply? Are we carving out the time for children to play and discover the world independently? That we are so driven by the daily schedule can impede the pursuit of open-ended experiences where some of the deepest learning can take place. It is a common lament, but the folks at Greene Hill are doing their best to accommodate this need for teachers and students.

Barbara Frailey
Education Director
Barbara Frailey, Greene Hill's Education Director focused on a similar theme in sharing the school's philosophy about a child's "trajectory of meaningful learning." Rather than being consumed with a conventional learning timeline, the school allows for skill building to evolve according to the developmental profile of individual children. By creating a progressive educational environment, the flexibility exists for the school to be responsive to the children and families and their needs and interests. Barbara shared an example of a recent unit on flight and propulsion. What started as an impromptu paper airplane making activity by some of the students, became a major locus of attention for the teachers, who built a curriculum around this student propelled interest. Had the schedule been the master, the faculty would never have found the time to seize upon this learning opportunity.

Rachael Burton
Development Director
Rachael Burton, Development Director, talks about her experience as a student and later a teacher in the NYC public schools. Rachael had attended a progressive school as a youngster and then, ironically, ended up teaching in a very regimented school. Having lived through these contrasting school experiences, as she looked for a school for her own child, the program at Greene Hill resonated with Rachael's own early education. She talked about the philosophy of the school to help children see themselves as part of a community, and ultimately to be active citizens in their democratic society. She points to many examples of how the teaching practice and curriculum reinforces these values.

Students studying immigration, re-created the immigration center at Ellis Island after a field trip to the historical site. They learned of the long waits and the atmosphere of fear that often permeated the center. Later, when the students were creating the experience at school, the impact on their learning was profound. They understood the constraints placed upon the people waiting for the judgement on whether or not they would enter the country. It was a stirring learning experience that they understood on a deeper level than if the concepts and information had been presented in an abstract second-hand way.

There is a vibrant and lively spirit at Greene Hill. The parents, who understand they are pioneers, are supporting the school enthusiastically. That the school is firmly rooted in its core beliefs and values, makes all the difference to parents wanting a responsive school for their children. The kids are happy, they are learning,  and they want to come to school every day. And though they will face many challenges along the way, these courageous women working alongside a gifted faculty, are building a progressive school that stands to make a big impact; not only on the Brooklyn community, but on the broader educational community. We'll watch their journey with great interest.

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