In New Haven, Teachers Designing, Running Their Dream an Ungraded Elementary School

By Ann Bradley — November 06, 1991 7 min read
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Years ago, Carol Donovan and a group of like-minded teachers wrote a proposal to create an elementary school where students could work at their own pace, without being labeled as kindergartners or 3rd graders.

Nothing came of it. Eventually, the teachers Ms. Donovan worked with on the project left the school system.

She stayed. And now, to her delight, Ms. Donovan is teaching in a school that looks very much like the one she once dreamed of creating.

“I’ve been teaching 21 years,” she says, “and because of this school, I’m going to leave teaching saying that I did something. And that’s really nice.”

The school that means so much to Ms. Donovan is the Benjamin Jepson Nongraded Magnet School, the first elementary school in this city to be planned and run by classroom teachers.

The teachers were set free to come up with their version of the ideal elementary program because New Haven administrators and teachers'-union officials had “restructuring” on their minds. During a conversation in the spring of 1989, Frank Carrano, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, challenged Superintendent John Dow Jr. to give elementary teachers the chance to run their own school, as high school teachers here have done for years.

Mr. Dow agreed, and after 2 1/2 years of planning, the school opened its doors this fall in a cramped former school library. Jepson’s seven teachers and 110 students are making do until they move into permanent quarters in a renovated school in December.

In its short life, big hopes have come to rest on the little school.

For teachers, Jepson offers the chance to break free of the constraints of traditional schooling and put theories about the development of young children into practice.

For New Haven administrators, the appeal of the nongraded program offers hope that the school can attract students from surrounding areas, a key strategy in the district’s efforts to integrate its schools.

For parents, the program provides a welcome alternative to lockstep curricula and rote teaching methods.

And most importantly, for children, the school holds out the promise of learning and growing without the stigma of failure that marks so many young lives in this city.

“There is no such thing as a typical 5year-old,” Mr. Carrano says. “But we establish a pattern early on of kids who are successful and kids who are not. You begin a cycle of failure which kids are very conscious of.”

Teachers as ‘Facilitators’

When the union announced that it was looking for teachers who wanted to work on a proposal for a new elementary school, Ms. Donovan recalls, some of her friends urged her to get involved.

“I said, ‘Forget it,’” she says. “I couldn’t go through it again.”

But as the teachers continued to meet, Ms. Donovan was drawn into the planning process. She found out that her colleagues shared her basic philosophy: that young children should be allowed to progress at their own rates without suffering what the teachers called “the indignity of retention.”

The teachers designed a proposal for a nongraded elementary school that would be run by a “facilitator,” who would be a classroom teacher, rather than by a principal. They envisioned a school where students would be grouped in classes without grade-level designations. For some activities, the students would be grouped by age, while for others they would be grouped by skill level.

This approach, they reasoned, would allow children to help each other learn.

The planners also wanted the school to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the city, to actively encourage parents to participate in their children’s educations, and to develop students’ social skills.

Originally, recalls Mr. Carrano, the teachers talked in terms of creating a neighborhood school. They thought one school in particular, where the principal was leaving and about half the teachers were retiring, would be a good candidate for the new program.

But residents of the neighborhood balked at the unconventional notions the teachers were advocating, Mr. Carrano says. It was also late in the spring of 1990, which did not leave much time if the school were to be ready to open in the fall.

Peggy Beckett-Rinker, a union official who helped write the program for the school, says teachers at the neighborhood school were “afraid of being displaced.”

“Many had ties to the parents,” she says. “They were not ready to buy into it.”

By the fall of 1990, the planning team of teachers was getting “a little discouraged,” Mr. Carrano says. “They were beginning to think it would never happen, but we managed to keep them together.”

Recruiting ‘Road Show’

Faced with opposition, district officials then decided to turn the proposed teacher-run school into a regional magnet. But that meant that teachers would have to recruit students for the program.

The teachers created what they came to call their “road show,” using an amateur video to illustrate the concepts they were promoting. They traveled throughout the city during the district’s magnet-school recruitment drive, and everywhere they went, parents filled out applications to enroll their children in the new school.

When the recruitment drive began, no site had been identified for the school, recalls Johanna Wilson, one of the two teachers who share the facilitator’s job. Interest in the new program increased after the district found a site--an old school that had been turned into office space and was up for sale.

The Jepson school building, named for the city’s first music teacher, is now being renovated and is expected to be ready for students after Christmas.

“People couldn’t believe that parents took such a risk, to put their kids in something so nontraditional and untried,” Ms. Wilson says. “But we got to know the parents. They kept calling us, and they got enough of a sense that we knew what we were talking about.”

Parents also sensed the teachers’ excitement, says Lorraine Rose-Lerman, who decided to enroll her son, Gabriel Rose, 5, in the program.

“I felt like, How could you go wrong?” she says. “Because that’s the most important part of any school.”

Ms. Rose-Lerman adds that she chose Jepson even though the family lives near a neighborhood school with a good reputation. The emphasis on parental involvement and the chance to help get a new program off the ground were too appealing to pass up, she says.

“I feel individually responsible for what goes on here,” Ms. Rose-Lerman says as she stops by the school to pick up her son. “Parents are an integral part. It’s not just that you send your kid to school and then complain if you don’t like what you get.”

Professional Freedom

When it came time to choose a facilitator from among the Jepson teachers, recalls Nina Wolfson, who now shares the job with Ms. Wilson, no one wanted the job. Everyone wanted to teach.

So the faculty members came up with the idea of splitting the facilitator’s duties among two teachers, who would also spend half their day with students.

The facilitators say they do not relish their administrative duties, but concede that it is a job that must be done.

“It doesn’t make me want to get an administrator’s certificate,” Ms. Wilson says. “There’s nothing we do that’s not important, but principals do get bogged down.”

Just because there is no principal does not mean that there are no meetings or that teachers are free to do whatever they want.

In fact, teachers at Jepson said, they probably have more meetings, but they make decisions collaboratively and have the freedom to exercise their professional judgment without being second-guessed.

For Karen Migliore, that is a far cry from the days when she was required to fill out monthly reports telling her principal what page she was on in the required textbook. She recalls a time she wanted to do a lesson on writing invitations so that her students could invite their parents to an open house.

The lesson on invitation-writing was on the “wrong page,” however--too far ahead of where her students were supposed to be in the textbook. Ms. Migliore did the lesson anyway, because she thought it would teach the students something.

Ms. Wolfson listens to her colleague tell the story and notes that veteran teachers know what is best for their students.

At Jepson, she says, “teachers are only accountable to themselves, and that’s the difference. I know if I did a bad lesson. I don’t have to be accountable to my principal. I am accountable to myself, and to my kids.”

Ms. Beckett-Rinker says students who had trouble at other schools are already flourishing at Jepson. One of the oldest students is a 10-year-old boy who had been held back in a Catholic school, where his teachers were in their 70’s and 80’s.

And she adds that a girl who now attends school faithfully was chronically truant from a traditional public school because her mother was so dissatisfied with the program that she did not make her daughter attend.

Parents are welcome at the school at any time, to visit their children, help out on the playground, or observe lessons. The school also has a decisionmaking council made up of parents and teachers.

Jim Haddon, whose daughter attends Jepson, says he and his wife picked the school because they liked the teachers’ emphasis on allowing children to develop at their own pace.

Even so, sending his child off to begin her schooling in a brand-new program has made Mr. Haddon somewhat uneasy.

“No one can predict exactly what is going to fall out,” he says, “but my intuition says it will be more good than bad.” .

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as In New Haven, Teachers Designing, Running Their Dream an Ungraded Elementary School


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