Essential Schools: Putting Theory into Practice

May 29, 1985 4 min read
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Putting together the Coalition of Essential Schools, says the author of Horace’s Compromise, has been an exercise “in looking for friends.”

“So far we’ve heard from more than 300 schools,” says Theodore R. Sizer, who is also heading the coalition project that will test the ideas put forth in the book. “Usually, it starts with a letter or a call from someone saying, ‘Gee, we’re interested.’ Then what follows is a lot of crisscrossing. The selection process is far more informal, gradual, and reciprocal than most people would think.”

The process, he continues, has two steps. First, he or a member of the coalition’s staff visits a promising candidate. Then the selection is made after conversations with staff members and officers of the National Association of Independent Schools and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the project’s co-sponsors.

“Right now we have eight schools,” Mr. Sizer says. “I think we are going to take a solemn oath that 20 will be the absolute outside number. As we got deeper into this, we found out that our obligations were greater than we thought. This is not going be quick or easy. You have to plan carefully and move slowly.”

In addition to Westbury High School, the members of the coalition are:

Adelphi Academy, Brooklyn, N.Y. A private school located in a predominantly white community, Adelphi was one of the first two schools to join the coalition.

Although it enrolls students from kindergarten through 12th grade, only the upper school will be involved in the coalition project. Approximately 40 of the 265 high-school students are members of minority groups. The upper school has a 32-member faculty.

Before joining the coalition in September 1984, the school launched its “Adelphi Plan,” which closely resembles the model for schools outlined in Horace’s Compromise. Clinton Vickers is the school’s headmaster.

Central Park East School, New York, N.Y. Next fall, P.S. 171, a public elementary school in East Harlem, will begin the process of transforming itself into a K-12 school. The new school is moving into an old junior-high-school building in a low-income neighborhood. At present, the elementary school has an enrollment that is 59 percent Hispanic, 39 percent black, and 2 percent white.

According to coalition staff members, this fall the program will be limited to the school’s 90 new 7th graders. It will be expanded as the school adds new grades during the next five years. Deborah Meier is the school’s principal.

R.L. Paschal High School, Ft. Worth, Tex. Paschal, a comprehensive public high school with a 2,200-student enrollment, plans to open a “school-within-a-school” organized around the coalition’s principles next fall. The program, which initially will involve 100 9th and 10th graders and 10 teachers, will be expanded to cover all four grades within four years. Half of the school’s students are white, 20 percent are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and the remainder are Asian. Radford Gregg is the school’s principal and Larry Barnes is the coordinator of the essential-school program.

Portland High School, Portland, Me. Like Paschal, this public high school also plans to implement the coalition’s principles by means of a school-within-a-school. The program will initially involve 80 stu-dents and five teachers. The school, located in a predominantly white city that was hit hard by the economic recession of the late 1970’s, has a total enrollment of 1,200 students. The principal is Barbara Anderson and the project coordinator is Betsy Parsons.

St. Xavier’s Academy, Coventry, R.I. St. Xavier’s is the coalition’s most recent member and the only Catholic school to join the group to date. An all-girls school with 130 students and eight full-time and seven part-time teachers, it has been involved in nontraditional education since the early 1970’s. At present, students at the school take only two courses each day, each of which last two and a half hours. Students progress at their own pace, ideally completing each set of courses in a 12-week period. Sister Teresa Foley is the school’s principal.

Thayer High School, Winchester, N.H. Thayer joined the coalition along with Adelphi at the beginning of the project. The 300-student public school has 35 teachers and is located in a poor rural area. It is said by coalition staff members to be the farthest along of all the coalition members, having reorganized its curriculum around the project’s nine principles over the winter. Dennis Littky is the principal.

United Day School, Laredo, Tex. Like Central Park East, this private elementary school in southern Texas is expanding to the 12th grade. The program will begin next year with the 7th grade, which will have 15 students, and will involve each successive 7th-grade class. The school now enrolls 240 students, 90 percent of whom are Hispanic. The headmaster is Charles Como.--tm

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 1985 edition of Education Week as Essential Schools: Putting Theory into Practice

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