Friday, May 24, 2013

Hubbard Woods - Winnetka, Ill

I am back on the road this week to deliver the keynote address to the PEN regional conference in Chicago. I took the occasion to visit my friends at Hubbard Woods, and interview its principal, Daniel Ryan. With spring in full bloom, I visited the school on a muggy Monday morning, with a thunderstorm threatening.

Located in the bucolic upscale village of Winnetka, near Chicago,  Ill., Hubbard Woods Elementary School is one of the longest continuously operating public progressive elementary schools in the country. In my welcome address to the 2007 conference of the Progressive Education Network in San Francisco, I referred to Winnetka as the "County Seat" of progressive education, and at the K-4 Hubbard Woods, the progressive pulse beats strongly. Three past and present members of the Board of the Progressive Education Network are either current or former members of the Hubbard Woods' staff.

After a bitter winter, spring
is always a welcome sight
Chicago is the cradle of public protest and student activism. From the early days of striking meatpackers, through the protests of the 1968 democratic convention, the area has been a center of struggle and protest. This weekend and today, teachers and students from throughout the Chicago Public School district launched three days of marches to protest the city's pending decision to close 54 schools. It is a tragedy facing a great city which has played a major role in the history of progressive education

So it was with no small feeling of irony that I walked through the doors of Hubbard Woods this morning, along with the relatively well-heeled parents dropping off their children at a school that is unlikely to ever face closure. Yet Hubbard Woods and the Winnetka school district has been a symbol of progressive steadfastness throughout its history. Faced with many conservative political swings over time, it has maintained its progressive principles. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Carleton Washburne was the Superintendent of Winnetka in the heydays of the progressive movement, and it was Washburne who led the development of the Winnetka Plan, an organized curricular strategy which had a profound impact on the early history of progressive education.

Daniel Ryan, Principal
Hubbard Woods
Daniel Ryan, a die-hard progressive educator, is the current Principal of Hubbard Woods. Daniel founded The Children's School  in Berwyn (see my blog entry from Feb. 20), and in 2011 succeeded Maureen Cheever at Hubbard Woods after his 10-year start-up stint at The Children's School. Located in a beautiful building first opened in 1926, the place reeks of history - the walls adorned by framed photographs from the 30's and 40's showing kids and teacher playing and working on projects. My visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in the history of Hubbard Woods when a mentally ill woman carried weapons into the school and turned them on the students, injuring several and claiming the life of a second grader. Each year around this time, the media descends on the school and the HW community is reminded of the sadness that befell the campus on that horrific day.

If Daniel Ryan uttered the phrase "student voice" once during our conversation, he uttered it ten times. Clearly this is at the heart of his definition of progressive education which he describes as a process of teaching and modeling democracy to encourage the emergence of student voice. Daniel has encouraged a student-led town hall meeting that allows the K-4 students important leadership opportunities. As much as possible, the teachers have guided the students in how to run the all-school gatherings, and as the first year of this experiment comes to an end, the practice is becoming an important part of the school culture.

Hubbard Woods is also the beneficiary of funding that allowed it in 2003 to open a television studio, where daily the students produce a closed-circuit news program on station WGST (World's Greatest Student Television). Each day, the students broadcast announcements, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, provide the weather report, and give the news of the day. The students take the roles of news anchor, meteorologist, audio/video mixers, and teleprompter operator. They also write the news reports and the script for the anchors. It is another opportunity where the school encourages student voice and where students are given important leadership opportunities.

As is the case these days with many progressive public schools, it is sometimes a struggle facing the mandates and requirements which arise from the state or district, and teachers can find themselves hard-pressed to incorporate emergent curriculum or sustain a project-based program. The nature of high stakes testing can be daunting and teachers will often default to more conventional teacher-centered practices. I sense from the climate at Hubbard Woods that teachers are feeling this pinch. Nonetheless, there is a strong sense that the staff is doing all it can, largely validated by Daniel Ryan, to keep its progressive legacy alive and flourishing. If the Winnetka School District is to keep its historical legacy as one of the only self-aclaimed progressive districts in the country, it will be the teachers who make manifest the core tenets of the movement.

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