Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Park School of Buffalo - Snyder, NY

On a happy stroke of good fortune, I happened to be visiting The Park School of Buffalo on the 100th day of its 100th-year anniversary. If ever there was a day seeped in the rich history and tradition of the school, this was the day, and Head of School, Chris Lauricella allowed me to fully participate in the festivities. Situated on a scenic 34-acre property, the campus has the feeling of a small village. The original estate's farmhouse, barn, orchards, pond, and stone house are dotted around campus alongside the newer buildings which have been added over time. Park serves 250 students, in grades Pk-12. 

John Dewey advised the founders and
Mary Hammett Lewis, Park's founding Headmistress

Student in their Open Air garb
Founded by parents in 1912, The Park School of Buffalo has a direct lineage to John Dewey. One of Dewey's students at Columbia Teacher's College, Mary Hammet Lewis was appointed as the first Headmistress of the school, and later wrote a book, An Adventure with Children (1928, MacMillan), chronicling the early days of Park. Dewey himself is listed as one of the early educational advisors of the school, referred to at the time as an Open Air school. In the early years after the turn of the 20th century, Open Air schools became popular in Europe and the U.S. as a way to curb the spread of tuberculosis, and because the notion that learning and spending time outdoors and in the open air was thought to be healthy and hygienic for children. During an assembly on the auspicious day I happened to be visiting, Head of School Chris Lauricella displayed one of the garments from that era worn by students when they were in an open air classroom.

Chris Lauricella
True to the spirit of Park's history, Chris believes that the definition of progressive education has not changed over time. It starts with meeting students where they are as learners when they enter into the school community, and building experientially on their strengths and interests. Progressive schools embrace change that comes with the passage of time, and equip students with tools necessary to navigate a changing world. The importance of listening to children and helping them develop a voice is an important priority in progressive schools, and Chris is of the opinion that  children should be allowed to experiment creatively, even at the expense of failure. We talked about putting faith in our students and trusting their capacity. As I read the histories of pioneering progressive schools, this is a recurring observation - one that does not necessarily endure to this day - trust children and engage them in important decision-making. As much as possible, this is the aspiration of The Park School of Buffalo.

Jeremy Besch
At Park each of the divisions (lower, middle and upper) have an active and involved student government. Lower school reps rotate, while middle and upper school students serve for a year. The councils are tasked with important governance decisions. Some of the courses in the secondary school are driven by the students, and in the lower school the teachers incorporate emergent curriculum strategies whenever possible. I spoke with Head of Upper School, Jeremy Besch, a passionate young educator whose philosophy about empowering students was aligned with Chris'. Students in the upper school design a project syllabus. Topics are selected by the students and must be evaluative and supported by research. Jeremy and the upper school faculty have developed a formidable structure to this project that, once they appreciate its girth, no doubt catches the eye of college admissions teams as they consider the applications of Park graduates. Jeremy characterizes the experience as transformative for seniors, preparing them for the independence, critical thinking, and problem solving that will be required in college.

When he spoke about teaching in a progressive school, Jeremy's comments mirrored those of many others with whom I have spoken on this tour. In a nutshell, he depicts the significant challenges that teachers face on many levels. Typically, they are not guided by textbooks or pre-established curricula; they work in schools where shared decision-making is common and, aside from their primary teaching duties, requires many additional hours of meetings and committee work; the culture of progressive schools carries with it the constant  need for collaboration with colleagues; teachers answer to parents who might not be familiar with the progressive way of teaching, or who harbor stereotypes; the fundamental requirement to cultivate deep relationships with their students means that teachers are working assiduously assessing students' learning profile and re-calibrating the curriculum to meet individual needs; because progressive schools are not as well-heeled as some other mainstream schools, teachers are often paid lower salaries.  Now that I have been around the block visiting almost two dozen schools, my intuition has been validated over and over again: It is very hard to teach in a progressive school.

Lunch, community style
I was invited to have lunch with the entire Park community to celebrate this special day in the history of the school. The seating was arranged so students from every grade and division along with faculty and staff shared the same table. I sat with one of the international students, a senior from China to my left; a shy first grader on my right; and a charming middle schooler across the table. All around me, were faculty and kids who share in common their deep affection for the school. An eleventh grade girl who had transferred from another local school, described her experience at Park as feeling safe and not judged. She said she could be herself at Park and the other students tried very hard to be kind and inclusive. She was embraced as soon as she arrived at Park, and now has many friends.

The Park School of Buffalo has been designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat, meaning that it "...provides the four basic habitat elements necessary for wildlife to survive: food, water, cover, and places to raise the young." As we all proudly sang the Park School song after lunch, I witnessed on this stunning campus, a school community thriving in another way as it celebrates its centennial: devoted to a core set of essential values and educational principles, the school has a palpable identity true to its well-earned lineage in the pantheon of progressive education. May it flourish for another hundred years.


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