Mr. Chaucer Builds His Dream School

By Daniel Gursky — September 01, 1990 15 min read

Harry Chaucer doesn’t put much stock in the supernatural. “I’m a science kind of guy,” he says. Lately, however, Chaucer has had the feeling that his great aunt Ester is watching over his left shoulder—even though she’s been dead for almost 30 years.

It’s more than an odd coincidence that the stern face of Ester Gailer has been in Chaucer’s mind recently. For, in an almost eerie way, he is following in her footsteps. Dissatisfied with the existing schools in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1900s, Gailer founded a grammar school that stressed high academic standards and personal integrity. The well-respected Miss Gailer’s School educated the children of the staff at Yale University and others for about 40 years, until her death. “She was strict, she was down to business, and she was demanding,” says Chaucer, looking at an old photo of Gailer and other relatives, including his grandmother, who taught at the K-6 school.

Now Chaucer is continuing the Gailer family tradition. He has embarked on the demanding, exciting, and sometimes scary adventure of starting a school from scratch. In a tribute to his spiritual mentor, he has even named the secondary school the Gailer School at Middlebury, Vt. But the schools share more than a name: Chaucer says he’s building on the same philosophical base that made the New Haven school successful.

“I used to play in the school as a kid on weekends and holidays,” he recalls. “To me, it was a place that was just full of equipment and a half-dozen teachers you could ask virtually any question of. I thought of school as a place where you came and you were able to pursue what you wanted. Everyone was there waiting to help you learn. You didn’t just jump on an agenda and follow along with the school curriculum.”

Countless teachers have dreamed of starting their own school, but those thoughts rarely go beyond fantasy. For Chaucer, the mounting frustrations of 15 years as a public school science teacher and curriculum director pushed him from thinking about alternatives to developing one of his own. So this month, after more than three years of planning, the Gailer School at Middlebury opens its doors to 10 9th graders.

Chaucer hadn’t intended to launch the school, which he hopes will eventually serve 150 to 200 students in grades 7-12, until the fall of 1991. But when a group of eager parents in a nearby town heard of his plans, they persuaded him to open a year early. Chaucer sees this first year as a test run; he’ll be doing the bulk of the teaching, refining the ideas he’s been contemplating throughout his career.

“I just think there’s an awful lot more we could be asking of the kids,” he says. “And they could be much more involved in their own education. I’ve been trying to make something like this happen in the public system for quite a few years, and I’ve concluded that it’s not possible. I had a lot of freedom with my own classroom, but as soon as I started talking about changing programs or building new courses—as soon as I was outside the structure of the individual classroom—the politics became real sticky, and everybody’s vested interests started to rear their ugly heads.”

Politics may be behind him, but as a private school educator he will have to contend with another sticky force: the marketplace. Already, Chaucer has had to trade some of his identity as a teacher and begin thinking of himself as a businessman; his customers are the students and the parents, who will pay about $5,000 a year in tuition. “I can’t afford not to care about them,” he notes. “It’s not an option. If I don’t respond to them, I’m out of business. It’s as simple as that.”

Chaucer can be sure that the parents of the inaugural class of 9th graders won’t be shy about telling him what they think. The parents who persuaded him to open the Gailer School this year are a candid bunch who take an active interest in their children’s education. Meeting over a lunch of New England oyster stew at a Middlebury restaurant, they are bluntly critical of the area’s public schools. “The bottom line,” says Diane Nazarenko, “is that [my son] Damon doesn’t believe it’s a place to learn anything. He goes about his education outside of the classroom.” Fran Putnam, a private preschool teacher, agrees: “It can’t be any worse. You can’t get much lower than kids who every day say they don’t want to go to school.”

The parents’ views are colored somewhat by a bitter teachers’ strike last year at their children’s middle school. But Nazarenko says the strike had little to do with her decision to send her child to Gailer. “We still would have opted for this because my experience is that there is more opportunity for flexibility in private education,” she says. “There’s the ability for parents to have some kind of say as to what happens in the school.” At the Gailer School, Nazarenko plans to be “as active as Harry’s interested in having me be.”

There’s an undeniable risk for everyone involved with the Gailer School—parents, students, and Chaucer. “You’re brave people,” he tells the parents. “For me, if worst came to worst, I could get another job. You’re giving up your money and your child’s education for a year.” But it’s hard not to be captivated by Chaucer’s almost-missionary enthusiasm for the project. He’s obviously thought deeply about education, both in a broad philosophical and historical sense and in the specific ways it will take place at Gailer. (He even kept a journal of his thoughts as he planned the school.) Chaucer loves to talk about the school, and his friendly, straightforward manner makes his message even more convincing.

“I’m really trying to comprehensively rethink school,” he explains. “We’ve set up a series of programs, some of which are highly teacher directed and some of which are highly student directed. We’re trying to balance different needs and interests to build a coherent program for the student rather than a potpourri of courses that don’t have any particular relationship to each other. There are very specific programs designed for very specific educational purposes.”

The most distinctive component of the school is probably its core curriculum. Students at Gailer won’t take separate English, mathematics, science, and social studies classes, as such. Instead, they’ll follow an integrated, interdisciplinary approach that ties all the subjects together. Chaucer says he is especially intent on bringing together the humanities and the sciences, bridging “the ocean” that has traditionally separated them. Ideally, he says, the school will produce scientists who love the literature of Tolstoy and Dickens, and poets who understand the second law of thermodynamics.

The “da Vinci” curriculum, as Chaucer calls it, follows a historical thread that will start in 7th grade with the origin of the universe and progress through modern times with the juniors and seniors. In examining the origin of the universe, for instance, students will discuss the cosmological theories typically taught in physics or astronomy courses, but they will also explore mythology, art, music, and other subjects as they relate to the beginning of time. The same method will be used as students progress chronologically through history.

Textbooks won’t have much of a place in the school. “I can see them as helpful resources,” Chaucer says, “but I would not picture the school having many, if any, sets of textbooks as they’re currently used.” Chaucer has devoted hundreds of hours to developing the Gailer curriculum, but he considers it “a labor of love” because it will free him and other teachers from the rigid adherence to textbooks that can make classes so routine and unimaginative. “I could literally walk into any biology class anywhere in this country right now,” he says, “and with a 30-second consultation with the teacher, I could take over. Just give me the publisher and give me the chapter; that’s how structured it is.”

The da Vinci program, which will take two-and-ahalf hours in the middle of each day, relies on team teaching. Each team of four or five teachers will teach two grades—7 and 10, 8 and 11, or 9 and 12. “This thing is very heavily faculty-weighted,” Chaucer notes. “Teachers have 100 percent control of the curriculum and instruction.” To give the teams enough time to plan the program, the teachers will meet each morning for one-and-a-half hours. This is possible because, while the core teachers are meeting, the students will be working on technical skills such as math, foreign languages, and keyboarding through self-paced study and the guidance of a few teachers who are not part of the da Vinci curriculum.

The Gailer school day also will include small-group seminars each morning for discussion of contemporary issues; an “inquiry,” where the student meets once a week with a teacher on an independent-study project; and an all-school fitness program for teachers and students. It’s a long day—from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—but Chaucer needs the extra time to include all the components. There will be none of the usual study halls and breaks between classes that chew up time in most schools.

Computers and writing will also be two key ingredients in the school program. Chaucer’s still talking with various computer companies about grant proposals, but his goal is for every student and teacher to have a computer. The curriculum will be developed and updated on the computer using software like the Apple Macintosh’s Hypercard. With Hypercard, it’s possible to quickly tap into a topic by grade level, subject matter, or specific unit. There are places to add curriculum notes (reference books on a subject, for example), instructional notes (hands-on demonstrations for a topic), and learning notes (provocative questions students raised during classroom discussions). “The curriculum is literally improved daily by using the computer to do things you just can’t do with pencil and paper,” he says. “Computers can link curriculum and instruction, which are so often seen as separate.”

Computers can also make writing easier, but they can’t replace it as a tool for developing critical-thinking skills. So Gailer students will do a lot of writing. One of their main assignments in the da Vinci program will be to write historical fiction. They will be asked, for instance, to write about an imaginary early australopithecine family in a realistic setting and to trace their fictitious family’s migration through Cro-Magnon times and on to the present day. Over the course of their studies, the students will have written a virtual novel that covers millions of years of history.

Leadership and community service will be emphasized throughout the Gailer program, especially for seniors, who will be expected to take on more responsibility in the school. For example, they will complete intensive independent-study and community-service projects and serve on the committees that develop the school’s policy, curriculum, and disciplinary rules. “We want to help the students learn that they can make a difference in the world,” says Chaucer’s wife, Andrea Torello, an elementary school teacher who has been active in planning the school. “That’s something that’s sorely lacking today in schools.”

College preparation won’t be ignored. Twelfth graders at the Gailer School will receive a heavy dose of advanced-placement material because Chaucer knows that people will judge the school on whether its graduates get into good colleges. “I expect that they will,” he says. “The school’s got to be competitive. We can’t graduate kids who are ill-prepared. If that were the case, a parent would be foolish to send another kid there.”

Chaucer says he believes the Gailer School “is going to be one of the most exciting places to work in education. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s going to be extremely rewarding work.” Teacher salaries will be comparable with other area public and private schools. “But the psychic rewards will be higher,” says Torello, who will also do some of the teaching this year.

When enrollment reaches the 150- to 200-student target, the school will have a faculty of about 16, with Chaucer as the “principal teacher.” “I’m looking for as much diversity as possible,” he explains. “For the core faculty, I want people who are not only excellent teachers, but who have also demonstrated mastery in their field outside of teaching. They’ve got to first of all be learners, real curious people who are just dying to find out what’s been happening in social studies over the years while they’ve been locked up in the science classroom.” With the team teaching and interdisciplinary curriculum, he easily foresees a science teacher discussing literature with the students.

He says it’s “ludicrous” the way the existing system restricts what teachers can teach. “It gives the students some very misshapen ideas of what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a scholar.” He likes to point to Charles Darwin as an example of a true scholar. When Darwin traveled through South America, he studied and wrote about whatever he encountered, whether it was geology, botany, or mining, Chaucer says. “He didn’t say, `I am a biologist, this is my niche, and I’m going to do biology in a narrow way.”

Although Chaucer is not planning to hire teachers who are just like him, he has clearly considered his own background in developing his demanding requirements for Gailer faculty. His resume lists an impressive array of teaching experiences. For example, he has taught special education at the Yale Psychiatric Institute and almost every science subject at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vt. Then there’s the master’s degree in biology and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 1981 from the National Association of Biology Teachers, not to mention his interest in scuba diving, woodworking, and playing with Legos with his 5-year-old son.

Chaucer turned 40 in July, and he admits there’s a relationship between reaching that milestone and tackling this formidable project. “I spent the first chunk of my career working with as many different types of people as possible,” he says, “from Head Start-aged people to graduate students to working in psychiatric hospitals and schools for the retarded. The second chunk of my career, I taught as many different content areas as possible, particularly in the sciences. This piece is synthesis, putting it all together and making it work in a whole school that deals with whole kids and a whole faculty in a meaningful way. I think that’s sort of a `fortysomething’ kind of thing to do.”

One big obstacle to starting a new school can be locating an appropriate building and getting it zoned. In that regard, Chaucer was extremely fortunate. He found, and will rent, a former parochial school that hasn’t been used much in the last 20 years. The three-story, yellow-brick school appears a bit humble surrounded on three sides by the stately gray stone buildings of Middlebury College. But it’s solid. And the setting couldn’t be much more idyllic: Large windows overlook Gailer’s four-and-a-half acre, grass playing fields, complete with hockey rink. Beyond that is the center of Middlebury, perhaps the quintessential New England town, with its church steeples, rustic inns, antique shops, town green, and backdrop of heavily wooded Green Mountains.

This first year, however, the Gailer School will have a temporary home. While the main building undergoes modest renovations, Chaucer and his 10 students will meet across the grounds in a convent where the nuns who taught at the old parochial school used to live. One still lives upstairs.

Finding the main building was relatively painless, but it was only one of “a phenomenal number of details involved with starting a school,” Chaucer says. A highly abridged list includes obtaining state approval, passing fire and safety inspections, buying various kinds of insurance, advertising, hiring a staff, and developing policy. “In all of these things,” he adds, “I’m trying not to simply take the existing model but to question the existing model and look at ways of improving it.”

The planning has been demanding and nerve-racking at times, more so than Chaucer imagined. He recalls a typical episode: “One night I woke up at midnight, completely awake, with no chance of getting back to sleep. And I thought, `What if I don’t get any students? What if I hold this party and nobody comes?’

Money has been a constant worry—how much tuition to charge, how much to pay himself and other staff members, how to pay for equipment such as computers, and how to survive on just his wife’s salary and his $8,000 graduate fellowship from the University of Vermont, where he’s pursuing a doctoral degree.

To develop the school the way he would like, Chaucer is counting on grants from federal agencies and corporate foundations. He has submitted a number of formal applications and preliminary proposals with the goal of raising more than $500,000. The money would be used primarily to further develop the school and its curriculum. After that, he would like to obtain grants for endowments and scholarship money that would allow Gailer to offer financial aid to a more diverse group of students.

This year, with only minimal rental expenses for the convent building, Chaucer says he can get by on the $50,000 in tuition from his 10 students. The largest expense will be salaries for him and four other part-time teachers who will also help out.

Still, the costs of the recent months have created a financial strain on Chaucer and his family. All the phone, photocopying, and mailing expenses involved with planning the school have really added up. “But just to be doing something that is a fundamentally creative process has been tremendously rewarding,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed it enormously.”

For now, Chaucer has his building, he has some students, and he’s ready to see if he can make his dream school a reality. But even after years of successful teaching, he’ll probably be more nervous than his students on the first day of school. “There’s a positive tension that I’ve never felt before,” Chaucer says. “I think that’s a good thing. It’s going to be a fascinating year.” And he hopes aunt Ester is watching—and pulling for him.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Mr. Chaucer Builds His Dream School