Saturday, March 9, 2013

Manhattan Country School - New York

Out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's arose Manhattan Country School (MCS), a small independent school located on the upper east side in a six-story mansion that houses its 200 PK- 8 students. The school owns 180 acres of farmland in the Catskills, where the students spend a considerable amount of time during their time at MCS.  Founders Marty and Gus Trowbridge envisioned a school with no racial majority that embodies the values of social justice, equity and socio-economic diversity.  I met with School Director Michele Solá and Maiya Jackson, Director of the Upper School.

If there exists another school with the same admissions policy and commitment to equity and socio-economic diversity as Manhattan Country School, I've not discovered it. Throughout the progressive school community, MCS is recognized as a model, and educators from around the country trek to the school to learn of its practices. The discussion about progressive education takes a decided turn to the social justice side of the equation, as the staff seeks to build an educational program reflecting the mission of the school.

Michela Solá

For Director Michele Solá, progressive education serves the possibilities set forth by democracy and recognizes that society is not perfect. The progressive school provides its students a hopeful and productive opportunity to create change. At MCS, these values were written into the founding documents and exist in its DNA. The true sliding scale tuition means that an MCS education can be offered to families of any means, and the socio-economic range of enrolled students reflects this aspiration.

Maiya Jackson
The social studies curriculum anchors the values of the school and engages the students in real activism. Teachers are not afraid to name the imperfect parts of society that mark injustice – racism, homophobia, poverty, gender and class inequality. This is a part of the vocabulary the students live with, and they know the heroes of the past and of our time who are fighting for justice. The youngest students understand and address fairness in the context of their class and social group; as they grow older, they understand fairness and injustice in widening contexts, appropriate to their age and maturity.

The school is inspired
by the work of Martin
Luther King
For Maiya Jackson, Director of the Upper School, cultivating student voice is essential at MCS. Here teachers create opportunities for students to express themselves and make choices in their learning. She describes the MCS program as "Dewey meets Delpit," in the sense that content and skill building are tied inextricably to teaching citizenship and personal responsibility. When she sits in on a middle school history classroom, Maiya says she could be listening to a discussion in a college graduate class. Their understanding of the nuances of culture and social change, and the ideas they express are mature and sophisticated. This doesn't occur by accident. It is the result of teachers making sure that the students, as they matriculate through the school are intellectually engaged, reading primary source materials, and addressing authentic, challenging essential questions.

In a school where no ethnic majority exists, diversity takes on another dimension. Students grow to understand cultural, racial, and socio-economic differences because they are living with them day after day. Each child brings something unique and stereotypes disappear. In the four year-old class, the children visit each other's homes. They understand first-hand where and how their friends live, and are exposed to a vast variety of culture and lifestyle. Through these experiences, the cohort grows closer in its understanding and empathy for one another.

The 2015 PEN Conference
Planning Committee
The mission of Manhattan Country School is rare and unique, Inspired by the work of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, for almost 50 years, the school has steadfastly sustained its original vision. If progressive educators believe that schools should be agents of social change, it is to the mission and programs of MCS where we should turn for our exemplar.

MCS has agreed to host the 2015 Conference of the Progressive Education Network. I met with a committee of staff who are already starting to lay groundwork for the conference. It will be exciting to have the gathering of progressive educators in New York, where I am clearly finding one of the hottest hotbeds of progressive education.

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