A Blueprint for Change

By David J. Hoff — April 21, 1999 19 min read
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James M. Piggee sorts through his keys. He tries one. Then another. Then a third. A tall, distinguished man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, he is hunched over the padlock that secures the auditorium at Horace Mann High School, where he is the dean of students.

Today, as on most days at Horace Mann, the auditorium is empty, and school officials have chained its two doors to keep potential vandals away. Once upon a time, such a scene would have been unthinkable. When Piggee, 60, went to school in the 1940s and 1950s across town at the then-all-black Roosevelt School, the auditoriums in Gary’s schools were open and actively used all day.

They were, in fact, central--figuratively and literally--to what may have been the 20th century’s longest and most thorough experiment with progressive education. The district’s “platoon system,” or work-study-play program, made the schools here internationally famous--and sometimes infamous. More than any other public school system, Gary applied the ideas of the country’s most celebrated and debated educational thinker, John Dewey.

And, in doing so, the city’s schools relied on their auditoriums for a range of academically and socially challenging activities almost around the clock.

“The Gary auditorium is the nub of school both day and night,” Hazel Harrison, a teacher at the Benjamin Franklin School, wrote in a 1927 book the Gary district published about its auditorium program.

“It was our daily bread--a speaking and listening chamber and laboratory,” YJean Chambers, 77, says over a recent lunch while recalling her 12 years as a student and 26 years as a teacher in the Gary schools. “It was one of the outstanding features of the platoon system.”

Horace Mann High--which opened in 1927, when the platoon system was at its height--is a relic of that era, a symbol of the Gary school system’s historic self.

Dating back to the beginning of the Gary public schools in 1906, pupils from 1st grade through 8th grade spent at least one hour of the school day in an auditorium. Older students could take the class as an elective. They sang, gave lectures, questioned one another’s presentations, put on plays, viewed films, recited poetry.

They sometimes were divided into smaller groups for lessons in diction, speech, or music appreciation.

At night, they often returned with their families.

On some evenings, parent-teacher groups met. On others, families paid 10 cents each to watch the latest Hollywood movies.

In the rooms beyond the auditorium, students learned arithmetic, spelling, and other academic subjects; practiced their skills in shops and laboratories; and played in swimming pools and gymnasiums--experiencing work and study and play every school day. The Gary schools had adjacent parks, zoos, and, for a while, a farm where youngsters harvested crops. The front lawn of the Horace Mann School included a pond, Piggee remembers.

Throughout the day, students learned to sew, type, and cook. Young chefs and future homemakers applied their knowledge by cooking in the school cafeteria, while students learning printing skills produced school materials, including a 1928 pamphlet describing the work-study-play approach to prospective teachers.

But it was the auditorium where everything came together, according to several accounts of what was widely known as the Gary Plan.

Chambers--like Piggee, a graduate of the Roosevelt School, where she was in the Class of 1939--remembers that every auditorium had a diagram shaped like a wheel. The spokes listed academic and vocational subjects taught at the school. The hub named speaking, listening, music, and the arts. Underneath, she recalls, it read: “All learning is transmitted through speaking or writing.”

Gary, located along Lake Michigan in northwestern Indiana, about 30 miles from Chicago, was transformed from vacant land into a city in a matter of a year or so. In 1906, one writer said, Gary had “only wastes of shifting sand dunes, dotted here and there with clumps of scrub-oak trees and broken in places by swamps.” But after U.S. Steel Corp. built a plant there that year, as well as housing for its employees, the area became an industrial center and company town, named for the chairman of the corporation. By 1912, its population was 40,000.

In 1907, the city’s leaders selected an idealistic educator named William A. Wirt as their superintendent of schools. Wirt had studied under Dewey at the University of Chicago and had begun to use some of his ideas as the superintendent in Bluffton, Ind. But until he arrived in Gary with the challenge of building a school system from the ground up, Wirt hadn’t had the chance to thoroughly apply Dewey’s philosophy, with its emphasis on activity-based learning and the school’s role in the community. (“Dewey: The Progressive Era’s Misunderstood Giant.”)

In a memoir stored in the archives at Indiana University’s Gary campus, Margaret Cook Seeley recalls that her schedule at the Emerson School--one of several Gary schools that taught students from kindergarten through 12th grade--was divided into the following one-hour periods:

8:15: Arithmetic and spelling

9:15: Gym

10:15: History and geography

11:15: Lunch

12:15: Nature study

1:15: Auditorium and music

2:15: English and writing

3:15: Art

The schedule was typical for 1st through 8th graders in Gary during the three decades in which Wirt led the city’s schools. The work-study-play system included three one-hour periods on academic material; one or two, depending on the age group, in physical education; one or two in special activities, such as art; and one in auditorium, according to the 1928 pamphlet that described the program to prospective teachers.

The approach was also called the platoon system because each K-8 class was split into two sections. While Margaret Cook and her classmates attended an academic class such as arithmetic or spelling, a separate section at the same grade level participated in some form of activity-based learning, such as nature study or auditorium. (Auditoriums throughout Gary would hold three classes at a time.) Later, the sections switched places.

Even the youngest children in the K-12 schools changed classes every hour, switching from room to room. Jessie MacLennan, 93, a teacher in the Gary schools from 1926 until 1972, remembers making molds in the school foundry and caring for farm animals as a student at the Emerson School before she graduated in 1924.

On Saturdays, Wirt opened the schools for remedial work or for play periods. And throughout the summer, 65 percent of students attended classes. Some came for makeup work; others studied to move ahead of their age groups.

The schedule also encouraged students to learn outside school.

Once a week, children could choose to leave their schools to attend religious education at the churches of their choice. Pauline Bennett, 85, a 1931 Roosevelt graduate, had to hurry to get to her church class. “You had to run or else you’d be late,” she says.

And Marie Edwards, 81, a 1934 Horace Mann graduate, was excused from her second gym period to take piano lessons off campus.

Beyond that, when a Gary school collected entrance fees for special events, such as movies shown in the auditorium, it spent the money on artwork for the walls, ultimately accumulating enough to be considered a museum, say Edwards and MacLennan, who both returned to the Gary schools to teach.

“Wirt’s notion was not only to afford each child vastly extended educational opportunity--in playgrounds, gardens, libraries, gymnasiums and swimming pools, art and music rooms, science laboratories, machine shops and assembly halls--but to make the school the true center of the artistic and intellectual life of the neighborhood,” the education historian Lawrence A. Cremin wrote in The Transformation of the School, his 1961 book on progressivism in American education.

Wirt’s philosophy was based in educational theory, but the superintendent’s desire for economy and efficiency and his belief in the superiority of capitalism also played a strong role. In his extensive writing about the program in reports, pamphlets, and journals, Wirt emphasized that the Gary Plan grew from economic concerns, as much as educational ones, according to historians Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl.

The emphasis on applied learning grew from Dewey’s teachings, but the efficiency of having large groups of students performing or lecturing in the auditorium, cooking in the cafeteria, or learning outside reduced the need for classroom space, and, therefore, the tax burden on the growing city.

“The limited resources of the School Town and the overwhelming size of the school obligation to be met led to a most careful investigation and study of school plant economy,” Wirt wrote in a report to the Gary Town Council in 1909. The document is cited in The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling, a 1979 book by Cohen and Mohl. “The purpose of the school administration has been to secure not only an efficient school plant but the most economical and efficient plant.”

In little time, the Gary Plan became internationally renowned.

John Dewey himself and his daughter, Evelyn, praised it in their 1915 book The Schools of To-morrow.

MacLennan, Edwards, and other students recall streams of visitors from throughout the United States and even foreign countries. (Today, Japanese scholars remain fascinated by the Gary Plan and its impact in their country in the 1910s and 1920s, Cohen said in an interview. At least one researcher from Japan has traveled to the Midwestern city to study the system.)

In 1914, John Purson Mitchel, the new mayor of New York City, toured the Gary schools and decided that Wirt’s model would solve his school system’s problems with overcrowding.

The city hired the Gary superintendent as a $10,000-a-year, part-time consultant and instituted the work-study-play program in 32 schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. But the progressive ideas weren’t embraced in New York as they were in Gary, according to The Great School Wars, Diane Ravitch’s 1974 history of the New York City schools.

Protestant and Jewish leaders complained about allowing Catholic children to attend church instruction during school hours. Newspapers criticized the Gary Plan as easier than the traditional academic program it replaced. And the school leadership was determined to provide “a seat for every child” in a self-contained classroom--a goal counter to Wirt’s belief in the need for an economical and efficient platoon.

The month before the 1917 mayoral election in New York, students led riots against the work-study-play program in 19 of the schools experimenting with it.

While Ravitch portrays opposition to the Gary Plan as a grassroots movement, Cohen and Mohl write that the riots and streams of anti-Gary propaganda were organized by Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine that Mitchel had ousted in 1913 after winning the mayor’s office.

Regardless of the cause, the Gary Plan died in New York as soon as Judge John F. Hylan, the Tammany candidate, trounced Mitchel and two others in the 1917 election. The school system spent $300 million on construction over the next eight years, but still did not have enough seats for every child, Ravitch writes.

The defeat in New York did little to curtail interest in Gary. By the late 1920s, more than 200 cities in the United States adopted some portion of the work-study-play program, Cohen notes in his 1990 history of the Gary school system, Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1960. Detroit and Portland, Ore., among others, adapted Wirt’s ideas in their schools.

“Few other communities remained totally unaffected by its innovations,” according to Cremin.

V isitors to any of the eight so-called unit schools--ones that included students from kindergarten through 12th grade--built during the Wirt era were likely to find the auditorium first. From the front door, they’d walk up a half-flight of stairs and end up across the hall from the centrally located room. (Even today, a guest looking for the principal’s office at Horace Mann High wanders toward the auditorium before being directed to the basement.)

On a recent tour of the Horace Mann building, James Piggee unchains the doors to the room. Unlike the multiple-use cafeteria-auditoriums in more recently built schools, this auditorium is magnificent. The 600 or so seats slope upward, giving every audience member a clear view of the wide and deep stage. The floor is carpeted, and the auditorium seats are upholstered in burgundy--the product of redecorating in the 1980s, Piggee says.

Behind the stage, stairs lead up to two floors of classrooms. YJean Chambers says that’s where students used to go for small-group music or speech instruction while a larger group would stay for auditorium activities. Today, those rooms are never used.

In The Auditorium and Its Administration, published by the school system in 1927, Edna Arnold Lockridge outlined how she divided a 50-minute class period in the school’s auditorium: listening to music on “the Victrola” (five minutes); announcements (three minutes); music appreciation or chorus (20 minutes); calisthenics (two minutes); speeches, drama, or films with audience response (20 minutes).

Lockridge encouraged students to lead all portions of the class. During the chorus, those who played musical instruments accompanied the choir. Lockridge assigned other students to direct the choir. Still others led the brief exercise session.

During the final 20 minutes, Lockridge and other auditorium teachers led a potpourri of activities. One day, a local minister spoke about Abraham Lincoln; on another, the school principal talked about effective study habits. On April 7, 1925, at the Beveridge School, the secretary of the local YMCA lectured on the theme: “Be a Capitalist and Be Religious.”

Some days, the teacher would show a movie for an hour. The 1927 book suggested a series of travel films, nature films such as “Our Feathered Aviators” or “Why Elephants Leave Home,” or movie versions of “Macbeth,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” or other classic literature.

Teachers might discuss current events or encourage young children to tell stories. They also might hold committee meetings, where students were required to follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

“Little ones even would learn how to run a meeting,” says Hylda Burton, 90, a 1926 graduate of the Froebel School, who taught in auditoriums throughout the city from 1928 until the school system discontinued the program in 1955. She later taught 2nd grade in Gary until she retired in 1971.

During an extemporaneous speech in an auditorium session, YJean Staples, now YJean Chambers, chose her career path.

As a 1st grader, she volunteered to tell a story to her auditorium class, she says. Her classmates listened intently, laughed, and applauded as she told them about Goldilocks and the three bears. When she finished, she decided she wanted to teach in that room as an adult.

And she did teach in the Roosevelt School’s auditorium for 10 years before the district shut down the mandatory, hour-long program and replaced it with electives.

Like Chambers, many other children graduated from the Gary schools with stage presence.

The list includes Karl Malden, an Oscar winner for his supporting role in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the star of the 1970s television show “The Streets of San Francisco"; Alex Karras, the former National Football League all-pro who became a television actor and producer; Charles O. Finley, the insurance salesman who owned the Oakland A’s baseball team in the 1970s; and Hank Stram, a Super Bowl-winning football coach and later a broadcaster.

(Possibly the most famous Gary natives--the singer Michael Jackson and his siblings--missed out on the glory days of the city’s school system. Chambers, however, remembers turning the Jackson Five and its preschool lead singer away from a high school talent show until the sponsors decided to let them in.)

All those people knew how to speak clearly, organize their thoughts, and entertain an audience, the advocates of the Gary Plan say, because they spent an hour a day in the auditorium.

In a 1996 newspaper interview, Karras--who graduated from the Emerson School in 1953--said his transformation from football player to actor had its roots in the Gary system.

“The great thing about my hometown--I always say this; Karl [Malden] always says this, too--is that we went to a school where, if you were a football player and you chose to act in the drama class, that was perfectly OK. There was no ‘I’m a football player, what would I do with those dudes?’ So we were able to go back and forth as actors and football players. I loved athletics and it kept me off the street, kept me busy, but what I liked most was drama,” Karras told an interviewer from The Times newspaper in nearby Hammond, Ind.

After leaving her teaching position at Roosevelt High School in 1971, Chambers became a professor of speech and theater at Purdue University’s campus in Hammond. She later won a seat on the Gary school board.

From the dais during meetings, she says, she and her colleagues judged parents’ speeches. If the adult spoke with proper diction, enunciated words, and presented a coherent argument, they whispered to each other: “Pre-1955.”

If the parent fidgeted, mumbled, and failed to make a persuasive argument, they’d say: “Post-1955.”

“We could tell,” she remembers. “It was so obvious. It really was.”

“The Gary graduate could speak clearly,” Edwards, the 1934 graduate of Horace Mann, says. “I’ve noticed the difference since it’s been ended,” she says of the auditorium program. Edwards taught at Gary’s Lew Wallace School for 21 years and later became the district’s supervisor of social studies programs for 20 years.

Wirt spent the 1920s refining his ideas and adding new schools to the system, including Horace Mann.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression left the Gary district, like most school systems, cash-strapped. Still, Wirt managed to start Gary College, based at the Horace Mann School. College classes met in the K-12 school’s classrooms in the late afternoon and evening, and the college grew to become Indiana University Northwest, Gary’s branch of the state university.

At several points during the decade, Wirt halted evening or Saturday activities to save money, according to Cohen, the Indiana University historian.

Wirt remained Gary’s superintendent until his death at the age of 64 in 1938. Teachers announced his death in the auditoriums in the city’s 21 schools, according to the reports in the March 11, 1938, edition of The Gary Post-Tribune. His body lay in state in the auditorium of the Emerson School.

Three years after the architect of the Gary Plan died, the school board started to make gradual changes. In January 1941, three schools experimented with keeping 1st graders with the same teacher all day; 2nd and 3rd graders stayed in the same classroom 80 percent of the time. By that fall, the school board abandoned the platoon system for 4th through 8th graders. The school day for kindergarten to 3rd grade shrank to six hours. Other grades were in school seven hours and 15 minutes, compared with eight hours every weekday under Superintendent Wirt.

Some elements of Wirt’s plan--such as auditorium, home economics, and music--remained in place. But by the end of World War II, the work-study-play program was “only a shadow of its former self,” Cohen writes in his 1990 book.

The platoon system--and the auditorium program with it--finally ended in 1955. That year, consultants from the Public Administration Service, a Chicago nonprofit group, noted that while portions of Wirt’s plan had been abandoned, nothing had been developed to replace it.

The lack of coherence could be seen in the consultants’ finding that eight schools still enrolled children in grades K-12; in the rest, grade-level groupings varied from K-3 to K-8. The report recommended that the system be divided into K-6 schools, junior high schools, and three-year high schools. The proposal was phased in over the next 13 years, Cohen writes.

And the report suggested that the platoon system be abandoned completely. By then, Cohen observes, auditorium and physical education classes were the only vestiges of Wirt’s original vision.

The changes meant that Hylda Burton left the auditorium in 1956 for a self-contained 2nd grade classroom. The speech and theater lessons YJean Chambers taught in Roosevelt’s auditorium became electives.

Today, Gary’s schools face the problems encountered by many urban school systems. Its 19,500 students, most of whom are African-American, live in poverty in higher proportions than students in just about any other U.S. city. The property-tax base has been undermined by the “white flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a continued lack of economic development.

U.S. Steel--now named USX--continues to run its steel mill on the lakefront, but it’s smaller than the ones from the company’s Gary heyday. A Sheraton hotel stands abandoned just two blocks from the mill. An apartment building across the street from Horace Mann High School has been boarded up since Piggee, the dean of students, arrived 27 years ago.

Still, Gary’s schools are recognized as beating the odds in some ways. In 1995, the system won a performance-based accreditation from the state based on its scores on the Indiana Testing for Educational Progress and its plans for improving those scores, an unusual accomplishment for an urban district. Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, the city’s magnet school, has been named a “Four-Star School” by the state for placing its student in the 75th percentile on the state tests several years running.

Yet, many of the remaining graduates of Wirt’s system aren’t satisfied. If they were running the schools, things would be different. Speech, theater, and music--electives in most schools today--would be mandatory if Chambers, Burton, and other Gary alumni had their way. Those studies would be at the center of the curriculum, much as the topics and skills taught in the original auditorium program were at the heart of the work-study-play program.

“I would be sure somehow to insert the speech, music, [and physical education] curriculum more fully into what we’re doing. I would stop these things they do called language arts. I’d go back to teaching grammar, how to parse sentences, and parts of speech,” YJean Chambers says. “And then I would have speech--all the way through, I would have speech. I would build a curriculum all the way from K through 12 called speech. I would inject that ... into everything.”

Over tea one recent afternoon in their friend Hylda Burton’s apartment, Marie Edwards and Jessie MacLennan dream about reforming a school system.

“If some of us had enough nerve, we’d go to a place like Gary, Indiana, and reinstitute the Wirt system,” Edwards says.

“It would be good,” MacLennan interrupts to add.

“Anytime you get three people together who went to the Gary schools during those years, they start talking about how we need [Wirt’s work-study-play plan] now,” Edwards finishes.

But at Horace Mann High School, the pool is used only once a year for a nine-week physical education elective. The pond that graced its lawn is a parking lot. And the doors to the auditorium--once the centerpiece of the school day--are almost always chained and padlocked.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Blueprint for Change


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