Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Presidio Hill School - San Francisco, CA

Presidio Open Air School
c. 1920's
Nestled in one of San Francisco's finest real estate neighborhoods, Presidio Hill School is the oldest continuously operating progressive school west of the Mississippi River. Founded in 1918 as Presidio Open Air School by Helen Saltz and Flora Arnstein, the school has a rich history of continuous commitment to progressive values and teaching principles. I met with Head of School, Scott Duyan.

Scott Duyan
Head of School
With great resilience and fortitude, Presidio Hill School (PHS) has survived and flourished for almost 100 years. Time has taught great lessons about what it takes to be a progressive school given the exigencies and tumultuous political history of San Francisco during the century of the school's existence. Fittingly, Scott Duyan, a veteran progressive educator sits at the helm of PHS, leading an outstanding group of teachers and staff, deeply committed to the tenets of progressive education. After interviewing over 100 school leaders and educators over the past few months, my time with Scott stuck a rare chord of depth, gravitas, and understanding about the history, structure, and nuance of progressive education. 

At PHS - The Center of Gravity: Kids
As we began our discussion, Scott invoked the latin root of "education" - educare - meaning "to bring forth," to underscore the progressive presumption that children "come to the educational enterprise with interests and skills." He describes a teacher's job as needing to "weed out the skills and talents, and build upon the interests." He referred to the one hundredth anniversary of John Dewey's book, Interest and Effort (1913), where Dewey articulated his child centered philosophy wherein education starts with the interests of children. Scott measures a certain irony that a century has transpired since Dewey postulated his philosophy, yet our mainstream educational systems fails to grasp what, for Scott, is fundamental truth about children and their education. So, at PHS, the program is alive and vibrant with children as the center of gravity.

Relationships at the heart of
progressive education
Scott's definition of progressive education begins with his views on social justice. At the heart of a progressive school is "working for the greater good." In today's world, this means paying close attention to diversity, inclusion, multicultural education, and community service. He sees progressive education best manifesting at PHS through the relationships within the school community - teacher to student; student to student; teacher and staff to parent. The good will of these relationships spills over to the serve the good of the wider community.

Scott also points to a flat administrative structure as a contributing factor to the progressive spirit of the school. "Everyone has a job to do, and we are not very hierarchical at PHS. Our informality serves this dynamic - everyone is on a first-nme basis, even the students." (By the way, children being on a first-name basis with their teachers and school leaders is quite common among progressive schools). 

When I asked Scott to identify the primary benefits and advantages of a progressive education, he was ready with a formidable list as the school had recently surveyed its alumni and asked them the same question. They articulated many: continued love of learning; creativity; finding their own voice; knowing how to advocate for themselves; critical thinking, and a host of others. These testimonials validate the work of the teachers and staff at PHS - the learning goes far beyond the academic. 

Finally, Scott was also at the ready when I asked him what it takes to be a leader in a progressive school environment: vision based on progressive principles; openness to new ideas; willingness to delegate and share authority; flexibility and a non-anxious presence; intellectual curiosity and a growth mindset a la Carol Dwek; and a willingness to take risks. From my viewpoint, Scott embodies these attributes and the school stands as a model of what it means to hew closely to its founding progressive principles, even in these days of our societal obsession with normative standards. It's a happy place to be.