Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Putney School - Putney, Vermont

The campus stretches into
the exquisite distant
A place of alluring beauty and natural splendor, The Putney School sits on 500 acres of farm and woodland in Putney, Vermont, 10 minutes from the town of Brattleboro. One of progressive education's icons, the school was founded in 1935 by Carmelita Hinton, whose spirit seems very much alive at Putney today. Many of the staff with whom I spoke, mentioned "Mrs. Hinton" with reverence. The book, The Putney School: A Progressive Experiment, by Susan Lloyd McIntosh (Yale UNiversity Press. 1987) chronicles the early history of the school. A boarding high school, Putney features a working farm, which students care for year-round with a rotating set of "work-jobs." One would think by the name "work-jobs" that students attend to a few chores here and there, when, in fact, the students do all of the work on the farm, including care of the animals (livestock), tending to the fields, and managing the flow of work (students are even hired back over the summer to ensure that the work is student driven year round). It is a sight to observe these young people with their heads down, industriously attending to the hard work of running a farm. Though the farm program is a defining feature of Putney, the outstanding arts and academic programs create a vital and relevant school experience. I met with many of the staff, and my visit was hosted by the Head of School, Emily Jones. 

Although it's been said many times...Putney is a lifestyle as much as it is a school. More than almost any other school environment, the school creates among the students an ethos of independence, creativity, and hard work. Putney is a living example of how, given trust and confidence, young students are capable of great accomplishment. Carmelita Hinton believed this and in 1935 started a school where this vision became a reality. Her desire was to "make school a more real, less self-centered venture," where students would be "attached to the soil to care for animals, to be an integral part of the cycle of the seasons." I found the current staff committed to these beliefs, working to sustain the founding ethos of the school, while ensuring that Putney is relevant and vital in today's changing world. The campus lends itself to this endeavor.

Pete Stickney
I visited with Pete Stickney, Farm Manager and History Teacher, who has worked at Putney for over twenty years. Pete sees more and more student interest in sustainable farming and agriculture, and the farm program at Putney is a model for other educational institutions; visitors from around the world visit Putney to see how the students manage the necessary work. When I first walked into "The Barn," where the milking of the cows take place, I was struck by the number of livestock - 30 cows lined the barn and the enterprise is a small working dairy, which supplies all of the dairy needs of the boarding school, while selling the surplus in local markets. The rows of vegetables in the garden similarly supply much of what ends up on the table in the dining room; Putney is an early pioneer of the farm-to-table concept that is all the rage among schools these days.
Students are fully responsible for
the livestock 

Students are fully responsible for the work that takes place on the farm and adults assiduously resist the temptation to help out. The key is learning the importance of one's contribution to the ongoing health of the livestock and the gardens. To miss work is to betray the confidence of your workmates; students govern themselves and one can be "fired" for intransigence or not showing up. Here the students learn what a real work environment is like and with few exceptions rise to the occasion. They learn to juggle their academic and personal lives around the work-jobs; they learn to be responsible young adults.

Emily Jones
Head of Putney
The room of looms
one of Emily's favorites
In my conversations with Emily Jones, the Head of School at Putney, she mentioned one of the few challenges that face Putney graduates. They go off their colleges and many are stunned by the lack of independence and resilience among their new classmates. Few had faced in high school the kind of responsibility that is de rigueur for Putney students. Emily talked about the benefits of a Putney education: "These kids know how to figure things out." Over the nine years she has been Head of School, Emily has observed that Putney graduates have a strong sense of efficacy; they are required almost constantly to face new challenges and newly offered programs. Besides their farm duties, the students are offered many special programs in the evening. I visited the "loom room," where beautiful weavings are created by the students; there are many other offerings, and students take good advantage of them. The staff at Putney has a level of comfort with experimentation and failure. They see failure and iteration necessary components of learning and constantly impose challenges on students.

Emily's definition of progressive education is unique among all I have heard in my travels. The big idea of education has not changed, but the world keeps forgetting. Alive since the time of Montaigne and the Renaissance is the belief that education is the development of intelligence. Progressive education keeps alive the classic education born thousands of years ago. The Putney manifestation begins with students seeing and understanding everything that goes on at the school; nothing is secret. Students participate in governance and have access to all aspects of the school's decision-making structure. Through this transparency, they interact with wise adults who mentor them in the ways of collaborative decision making; new students observe older kids making decisions and grappling with real world issues. They become more intelligent in a practical and authentic way. Leadership arises naturally among the students - there is no need to teach it - important decisions need to be made every day. Social justice lives in the school and is not an abstract concept; create a place where student views are valued and respected, where everyone is expected to pull his/her weight, and the ethos of equity and justice will arise naturally.

Ann Marie White
Academic Dean
Ann Marie White is Putney's Academic Dean and another believer in the capacity of her students. She teachers molecular genetics and on the first day of class, without introducing a lab protocol, she gives the students one hour to extract DNA. The next day, she requires them to share with another student, without filter, the results of the experiment. Again, the experience plunges the students head-first into a complex problem that they are required to face and solve. This approach sets the stage for a class where creative thinking exists alongside the scientific knowledge they will amass over the course of the year. Emily sees the benefits of progressive education in allowing students to take risks and develop independence of thought. Because they are asked to function independently, Putney student are not afraid to ask questions - good questions, according to Emily - it is a necessity arising out of the moment-to-moment need to think on your feet.

The Putney gorilla beckons
All around you at Putney is evidence of student art and creativity. There is an iron gorilla sculpture hanging from a tree near the art studio beckoning the whimsy that surrounds you. Inside the studio is evidence of serious-minded craftsmanship: a blacksmith shop; painting studios; metal works of every kind. The studio loft is reserved for the handful of students who have been admitted to the fine art colleges, like the Rhode Island School of Design. The school respects artistry, and this is a place that pulses with student work. Putney is a place where you learn to use your hands; you might be caring for a calf's infected udder one day; harvesting broccoli the next; and throwing clay the next. You get dirty playing and working at this school; but things are not messy in a cluttered way - there is a meticulous order, maintained by the kids themselves.
Would most high school students
know their way around an anvil?

This fairly long entry only scratches the surface. On my one day at Putney, I collected hours of conversation and pages of notes. I could go on and on describing this unique learning environment. At the heart of the enterprise is the faculty - courageous and innovative - working to sustain the dream of Carmelita Hinton. The school is an enigmatic example of progressive education reaching for its greatest heights, and after almost 80 years, they are still at it - planning strategy and examining the school's future in the 21st Century.

On a morning walk through the snowy Putney's woods with Emily, Drama Director and Dean Karla Baldwin, and their exuberant young canines, it struck me that perhaps Putney should be considered a national treasure. Not because of its exquisite natural beauty, but because it offers a rare educational model to which all high schools should aspire. Our society would be better off if all students had the experience of a Putney education.


  1. Tom, I love this glowing take on Putney! My daughter is a grad. Thanks for spreading the word on a place I'll love forever. Claire from Wingra School in Madison

  2. I agree with Claire from Wingra, your portrayal of Putney rings true. My partner is a longtime trustee and my daughter, who first visited the school when she was 8, graduated last year. You certainly met some of Putney's best, Pete, Karla and Anne-Marie. They are a diverse group and their synergy is part of what makes Putney vibrant and supportive of the many different types of learners and doers who thrive at Putney.