Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Calhoun School - NYC

Founded in 1896 as The Jacobi School, the upper west side institution evolved from a brother-sister school to one serving all girls until it became fully co-ed in 1975. The school name changed in 1926 to The Calhoun School in honor of Mary Edwards Calhoun who served as its headmistress from 1916 - 1942. The history of the school is filled with periods of growth, change, transition, and expansion, culminating in its  unabashed claim today as a PK-12 progressive school housed in a state-of-the-art facility on West End Street in Manhattan. As you ascend from one story to another, you are struck by the unique design of the building, planned carefully to accommodate the rich programs offered by the school in the arts, athletics, and academic programs. I met with Head of School Steve Nelson, and Director of School and Society, Josephine Salvador, both of whom were remarkably gracious and supportive of my project.


For progressive educators, Calhoun is becoming a beacon. Over the past several years, Head of School Steve Nelson and the Board of Trustees are together crafting a direction that seeks to examine where PK-12 progressive education is headed in the future. Not satisfied with the historical legacy of progressive schools, Calhoun seeks to be a leader among educators thirsting for models. To launch this initiative, the school has been offering to its Board, staff and parents a series of courses on the topic of progressive education. The notion is that the Calhoun community should be steeped in an deep understanding of the the philosophy and history of the progressive ed. movement, and it is in this area that the leaders of the school have developed an expertise.

Steve Nelson
 Steve Nelson defines progressive education as three overlapping spheres representing teaching and learning, the school community, and the school’s relationship to the rest of the world. Though each dimension can be discussed at great length, in sum they define a comprehensive picture of progressive education.  The first dimension describes a developmental approach in which the program accommodates and responds to the needs and interests of individual students. Appropriate teaching practice follows suit.    The second dimension builds a community of learners who are valued and respected. Schools should be diverse, equitable, democratic places, which champion voices of students and teachers. And, the third sphere defines the relationship of the progressive schools to its surrounding community. This dimension holds the recognition that school are not isolated from their communities, and that students must be connecting with and learning to serve their communities.

A scholar of the history of progressive education, Steve points out that the legacy of the movement precedes even the days of John Dewey and Francis Parker. The impulse to respect childhood and nurture children’s social, emotional, physical development arose a century earlier and it is Steve’s desire that our society recognizes that the progressive education movement did not spring up overnight, and is rooted in a deep historical lineage.

Students design and build
wind turbines
I had the opportunity to meet with Lisa Gilbert, a teacher in Calhoun’s lower school who attended Calhoun from sixth to twelfth grade. When she first enrolled at Calhoun as an eleven year-old, Lisa realized she was in a place where teachers listened to her, took her seriously, and were invested in her learning. The experience prepared her for college and the world beyond in a way that her prior education had not. She parlayed her Calhoun DNA into her teaching and judges the success of her curriculum by how effectively it reaches the students. I heard this theme over and over at Calhoun (and at virtually every school I have toured) – the desire to refine and tweak the program based on the needs and interests of the current cohort of students. Educators in our schools are asking, “Are my students learning?” How do I genuinely know if they are learning? How can we create a program that responds directly to them? 

At lunchtime, I met with a rotating group of Calhoun faculty and the theme of student leadership emerged. At Calhoun, the staff is cultivating student leadership from the youngest grades; indeed, the school has an expectation that each student will find his/her voice and develop as a leader. By design, the “school without walls” is configured so students have interactions across grade groups. By observing older students and the roles they play, a student learns to take on various roles in the school involving leadership. From presentations in the class, to student government, students learn to listen to others and respectfully question authority.

The arts play play a big role in the
program at Calhou
On my tour, I am pursuing the question of whether the kind of education Calhoun and the other progressive schools provide can work for all children. One of the teachers gave an inspired response by saying that she believes that progressive education can work for all students, but that not all students will be successful in particular schools. She highlighted the notion that schools must respond to the immediate needs of the students who attend the school. Over time, Calhoun has formed its program responding to its students, but if a different population of students attended Calhoun, the school would need to adapt and adjust. She was confident in its capacity to do so.

My conversations along this journey have been enlightening and none more so that the one I had with Steve, Josephine, and the folks at Calhoun. It is a school immersed in the challenge of deepening its understanding of progressive education and all its possibilities. We all should be paying attention to what emerges at Calhoun in the future.

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