Education Opinion

Nothing To Celebrate

By Douglas Frantz & Catherine Collins — October 01, 1999 29 min read
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Disney set out to build the perfect school for the perfect town.

When husband-and-wife journalists Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins first heard about the Walt Disney Co.'s plans to build a town called Celebration, they were intrigued. Disney’s scheme was ingenious as well as amibitious; the company wanted to convert 5,000 acres of swampland near its Orlando, Florida, theme park into a modern utopia, a place that would marry futuristic development designs with an old-fashioned emphasis on families an neighborhoods. To Collins and Frantz, this seemed like the biggest experiment in social engineering since Levittown, and they were eager to chronicle its beginnings. Almost on a whim, they rented out their home in Connecticut, bought a newly contructed $302,000 house in Celebration, and moved to the Sunshine State in June 1997 with their two young children, Nick, 11, and Becky, 9.

The book that resulted from their two-year sojourn, the just-released Celebration, U.S.A.(Henry Holt and Co.), is excerpted here. What Collins and Franz found in the town--despite Disney’s reputation for quality control and its hold in American’s heartstrings--was not the Magic Kingdom. Particularly troubling was the Celebration School. Disney had aimed to make the K-12 public school a model for the nation, a Tomorrowland of education that incorporated the most innovative and forward-thinking theories of teaching and learning. But confronted with this view of education’s future, Frantz and Collins and other Celebration parents found themselves longing for the past.

In the central courtyard of Celebration School, behind the twin towers with their green metal roofs, volunteers were passing out green and white pompoms. A thousand or more people had gathered, and the mood was festive and anticipatory. Dot Davis, the new principal of the school, watched in silence from the edge of a temporary stage erected at the rear of the courtyard. For a moment she turned away, as if to leave; then she faced the crowd again with a hesitant smile.

August 8, 1997, was an important date in the short history of Celebration. It was the first opportunity for the residents to tour their new $20 million school. Classes did not start until Monday, but, taking a page from Hollywood, Celebration Company, the business set up by Disney to oversee the town, had organized a “sneak preview” for this Friday night, and much of the town had turned out. They couldn’t wait to see the school. And they couldn’t wait to meet the new principal, the woman who had come to rescue their children.

No one in the crowd that night could have known how much that woman hated the limelight. Although she had been the principal of a nationally recognized performing-arts school in Huntsville, Alabama, before coming here and had made countless speeches and public appearances, she remained uncomfortable at center stage.

But Davis’s anxieties that night ran deeper. She had left the security of her old job almost on an impulse. “It was the hastiest decision I ever made,” she explained to Cathy later.

In the end, she had come at least partly as a means to allow her husband, Jim, to retire early from his backbreaking job as director of juvenile services for the state of Alabama. As for herself, Davis didn’t really have any desire to start from scratch at a new school after 27 years in education. Had she understood the full challenge of what she had taken on, and that the coming year would be the most difficult of her distinguished career, Davis might have never come near the stage at Celebration School that night.

From the days when Celebration was just a notion, education had been the centerpiece of the town. When the decision was made to build the Disney Institute, an educational institute for adults, elsewhere, the town planners had scrambled to find an alternative anchor. They thought that they had hit on exactly the right one-a unique combination of public and private efforts to create a model for education into the next century that would, like the town itself, combine the best of the old and new.

The school became integral to the company’s desire to share the concepts behind Celebration with the larger world. Public funds were used to build the school; outside money was needed to fund an accompanying teaching academy. The original idea was to bring together experts from around the country to create for Celebration School a program that would have the best teaching practices and curriculum possible. The program would be shared with the rest of the education community through the Celebration Teaching Academy, which would train teachers and administrators from the larger world. The sales brochure handed to visitors at the preview center described the school as “a unique public/private collaboration” and boasted that it would be “an outstanding example of progressive learning.”

“By bringing in experts from places like Harvard and other places and blending their theories with real-world practices, we began to think that there would be a vision of a public school that would be a lighthouse for new ideas,” said Don Killoren, the general manager of Celebration in the early years. “So many of the places we had visited in gathering ideas for Celebration were working on the same issues. Everyone was starting from scratch. Nobody learned from the mistakes of other people. The teaching academy would be a way to bring in people from around the country to preach about the best ideas, teaching methods, and curricula.”

In the best Disney tradition, the first step in creating the school and academy had been to organize a number of sophisticated brainstorming sessions. These began in late 1992 and continued through 1993. The sessions were organized and directed by Larry Rosen, an associate vice president of Stetson University, not far away in Deland. Disney had formed an alliance with Stetson to help design the new school. For its part, Stetson viewed the project as a way to enhance its reputation and perhaps move onto the national stage as a university for educators. “The question we posed,” Rosen said later, “was, What sort of school do we create to showcase the best ideas and practices in public education?”

To get the answer, Rosen and his colleagues leveraged the Disney name to draw people like Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the author of Multiple Intelligences; one of his Harvard colleagues, Lois Hetland; David Johnson and Roger Johnson, professors at the University of Minnesota and advocates of cooperative learning in which students work together to solve problems; and William Glasser, who wrote Schools Without Failure. Alongside the academic heavyweights were teachers and principals who came from both surrounding Osceola County and across the country.

Rosen remembered those first days as a period of tremendous excitement. “I believed and said from the very beginning that Disney was one of the few companies in the world that, if it chose to, could make a serious difference in the world of education,” he said. “Disney owns a little chunk of so many people’s hearts that it hits them on an emotional level. At the same time, the company has a great capacity to make learning fun and interesting.”

A key decision made early on was to build a school that would house kindergarten through 12th grade. No other school in the county has this range of students, and few public schools anywhere in the country do either. Indeed, at one point, the planners considered building only an elementary and middle school, and perhaps creating a satellite of one of the nearby high schools within the town. According to Rosen, they went for the K-12 idea for two primary reasons. First, a lot of educational research has found advantages in keeping siblings together in school. There is continuity for students, teachers, and families. Plus, parents can devote more time to volunteering at a single school. Second, there was a feeling that resources could be shared among the grades. For instance, if the high school had an excellent physics teacher, from time to time that teacher could also work with children in the lower grades.

To an outsider, the school’s plan for 100 students per classroom seemed like a recipe for chaos.

Once the decision was made to build a K-12 school, the planners focused on the learning practices and theories that would be used within the school. What emerged from those meetings and reams of memos was a school designed to enable students to discover the individual learning style that suited them best. The school would have large classrooms, with up to 100 students and four teachers in each classroom. The students would often work collaboratively, mostly in teams of three or four. And the teachers were expected to work with one another in leading the classes.

To an outsider, or anyone who has spent much time in a room of 100 kids, it seemed like a recipe for chaos. But in reaching this approach the planners relied heavily on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which holds that children learn at different rates and in different ways. To allow for the varied learning rates of the children, the classes were combined into what were called “neighborhoods,” where children of different ages would progress at their own rates. The early plans envisioned classrooms broken down into fairly narrow age ranges: kindergarten to 2nd in one neighborhood, 3rd through 5th in another, 6th and 7th together, 8th and 9th in another, and 10th to 12th grades together.

The idea of learning freedom affected the design of the physical structure of the classrooms. They would be three to five times larger than normal classrooms, with as much as 5,000 square feet of space. Instead of rows of desks, there would be learning centers throughout each room, with small groupings of chairs, tables, and even sofas. The rooms were of a size such that while a large group in one section listened to a teacher give a math lesson, three or four children might be gathered in another spot to work on a science project, and a lone student might read undisturbed in a window seat.

Within the classroom, the daily schedule would not follow the traditional approach of one subject per time period. Instead, the plan called for a flexible approach that would encourage students to take the time they needed to get assignments done, which was intended to develop self- discipline. There would be no fixed time for math or science. Rather, students would be expected to pursue learning projects that incorporated an array of disciplines into a single project. For instance, a child might decide to spend several weeks learning about the swampland surrounding Celebration. He or she would be expected to incorporate biology and geology along with history and literature and to use mathematics to quantify the findings. Students also might tap outside resources through the computers, use nearby libraries and research facilities, or contact experts directly.

An integral part of the multiage approach was the personalized learning plan, the PLP. To ensure that every child was working to full potential, the teachers were to sit down with the student and his or her parents to devise such a learning plan. The PLP was supposed to take into account the student’s strengths and weaknesses and map a journey toward knowledge that would help make sense of the bewildering freedom offered to these youngsters.

Monitoring the progress of students along that journey would be even more radical. Rather than using traditional written tests and letter or number grades to measure a student’s progress, the planners developed what they called “authentic assessment.” Under this rubric, teachers would evaluate the student’s ability to use many different learning tools, such as computers, videos, and texts, to explore an idea or complete a project. For each quarter, the student would create a portfolio that laid out not only what he or she had learned, but how. Integral to the portfolio would be the student’s critique of his or her own work. Teachers would then write a detailed assessment of each portfolio. In ad dition to assessing the quality of work, teachers had to decide if the work actually represented a student’s best effort. At the conclusion of each quarter, there would be report cards that, instead of grades, would contain eval uations like “not yet” or “achieving.”

We saw the implementation of these concepts firsthand with our children. Nick’s first assessment covered four areas: communication, reasoning and problem-solving, personal development, and social responsibility. In a further fine-tuning, he was assessed as “extending,” “proficient,” and “in progress” in subcategories such as “approaches new situations with an open mind, healthy skepticism, and persistence,” “makes healthy choices,” “learns by serving others,” and “knows the rewards of giving one’s energies for a larger good.” You really had to dig to find fundamental academics in there. We were confused. And worse, Nick was confused.

In case anyone missed that this was to be no ordinary school, the planners came up with their own cumbersome jargon, much like the special vocabulary developed at Disney World where customers are “guests” and employees are “cast members.” Celebration would not have just a school, it would have the Celebration Learning Center. The students were to be called “learners,” and the teachers were “learning leaders.” As noted earlier, the places where they all gathered each day were “neighborhoods,” not classrooms. The language reinforced the uniqueness of the school, but in ways that Rosen and the others could not foresee, it also would come to symbolize an orthodoxy that separated believers from nonbelievers. (In the end, the “Celebration Learning Center” proved too much for county officials, and the name was simplified to Celebration School.)

The new school would place high demands on students and teachers alike. The children would have to exercise unaccustomed discipline over themselves and authority over their peers. The older students and more advanced learners would be expected to bring along those behind them and to do it in an acceptable manner. The belief among the school designers, Rosen explained, was that even very young children, given the chance, are capable of self-discipline and helping their peers to control themselves.

As for the teachers, they would require special training to work as a team and integrate diverse subjects into broad, interdisciplinary themes. It would not be a simple matter. Later in the year, we heard an award- winning high school chemistry teacher exclaim, “I’m not qualified to teach in a school like this; I just know chemistry.”

In addition, teachers would have to learn to deal with students who no longer sat in rows, eyes ahead and pencils at the ready. They would have to be up on the latest uses of technology and computers because their students would not be using textbooks. Classrooms would be brimming with computers, and the teachers would have to know how to use them.

The nature of the school meant that teachers, students, and parents would face a steep learning curve together. At one of the planning sessions, Robert Peterkin, an education expert from Harvard University, advised Disney to expect problems in the early stages. “Having worked with other companies,” he said, “I understand how discouraging it can be when the public arena seems not to acknowledge or appreciate your efforts. In the glare of the public light, it is sometimes very difficult to be a partner with a public entity that is undergoing the kind of scrutiny that public education is today. I would just urge Disney to realize that there will be ups and downs, that this is a long haul.”

More than half the families moving to Celebration in the first year had school-age children, according to Disney’s demographic information. And the school was listed as the number-one reason for moving to the town. Indeed, the school was a major selling point, and information about it was provided to every prospective resident. The concepts were explained in brochures and by salespeople. Terry Wick, an education expert who worked for Celebration Company, was quite candid in explaining the importance of the school to the success of the town from a marketing viewpoint. “Frankly, the major reason for the school, and one that we as a company have been very upfront about from the beginning, is that not only would we attract families by having a school, but by having a school here first it sold homes.” Larry Rosen from Stetson and other experts talked with countless prospective home buyers and parents. As part of marketing the school to prospective buyers, Disney even hired a professional film production company to make a video. Called A Day in the Life, the video followed a fictional student named Eddie through what was described as a typical day at Celebration School. It showed how he had developed a personalized learning plan, or PLP, that was monitored by a committee of teachers. His day began with an internship with a physical therapist at Celebration Health Center. At the school, he joined a study group in a multiage “neighborhood” to interview young children about their injuries for a health-and-safety booklet the class was preparing to publish for parents. Then he spent time in “distance interactive learning,” receiving instruction from France in French, via satellite. At the conclusion, the narrator said, “Wherever he is, we can all be assured that Eddie is applying the kind of critical thinking essential for success.”

The technology-based, individualized learning plans depicted in the video were a long way off when Celebration School opened in 1996. As parents discovered the gap between the video and the reality, they dubbed the film “Eddie Does Disney.”

But the progressive program, which eschewed textbooks and the usual tests and grades, was in place, and it quickly became clear that a fair number of home buyers had not understood the nature of the school. Perhaps the old-fashioned architecture and marketing rhetoric about old-fashioned values lulled them into believing their kids would be going to a school just like the one they had attended. Although still a far cry from the experience described in the film, Celebration School was clearly nothing like the school most of the parents had attended.

‘We came here as a family with a dream, and all we received was an educational nightmare.’

Richard Adams,
in a letter to Disney executives

Nine weeks into the school year, Richard Adams, a retired fire chief from Pennsylvania, packed up his two children and returned home. In a scathing letter to Disney, he wrote: “We came here as a family with a dream, and all we received was an educational nightmare. My children not only did not progress in this school-they regressed. Not only in their academics but also their discipline.”

He was not alone. Roger Burton sold his house and moved his family back to Illinois because he and his wife were disenchanted with the school. “They told us the school was going to be up and running, that they had been planning this for years,” he complained to newspaper reporters. Michael and Luba Bilentschuk felt the same way and took their two children out of the school and sold their home in December, just four months after moving in.

By the end of the first school year, more than 20 families had pulled their children out of the school. Frank Stone, the town doctor, and his wife, Janette, fretted throughout the school year before withdrawing their older child and enrolling her in a Catholic school half an hour away. Eventually they put their younger child in the private school also. “My gosh, we live on Campus Street,” said Stone, a gentle and sincere man who was building a new practice in Celebration. “We expected to be able to watch our kids walk to the school down the street. But it was not working at all. Our 4th grader did nothing the last nine weeks of school, and no one took responsibility. We stuck it out for the first year, anticipating growing pains, but then we realized that a child only has one chance to do 2nd grade, or 3rd or 4th. We didn’t feel we could waste that time any longer.”

Six of the 19 teachers left at the end of the first year, and Bobbi Vogel, Celebration’s original principal, notified the school superintendent early in 1997 that she would not be returning. She suggested that the school was so unwieldy that it needed two principals, one for the lower grades and one for the upper.

We were oblivious to the feud and underlying problems when we signed the contract to buy our house in early February 1997, midway through the inaugural school year. By the time we moved in at the end of June, however, we were well aware of the splits. Earlier that month, they had gained national attention in an article in the Wall Street Journal, which ran under the catchy headline “Disney’s Model School: No Cause to Celebrate.”

But Dot Davis never got the news.

“I felt really bad for her, I was worried,” said Robin Delaney, who had worked hard at the school since the beginning as a parent volunteer. “I just thought that someone should have sat down with her and given her a realistic picture of the ongoing challenges here.”

In 1984, Davis had become principal of the Academy for Academics and Arts in Huntsville, Alabama, a new magnet school for kindergarten through 8th grade. Over the next 13 years, she had helped transform it into a huge success that drew students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods as well as from its poorest. Test scores were consistently well above the national average; the U.S. Department of Education had selected it as an outstanding school. By the time Davis left, 700 students were on the waiting list to get in.

Davis and her husband, an Alabama native, were respected and comfortable members of the community. Jim had doctorates in criminal justice and theology, and he was not only head of the state’s juvenile justice system, but also a Baptist preacher. The only problem that Davis saw was her husband’s demanding work schedule. The phone seemed to ring 24 hours a day. The hours and the emotional involvement of working with juvenile offenders were taking a toll on him. The Davises had not taken a vacation in six years.

One day in February, Jim dragged in from the office at about 10:30 at night. “Look at this,” his wife said, holding out an advertisement from an education publication. “They are advertising for two principals at a new school in Florida. One for the elementary grades and one for high school. Do you think I should look into it?” To his wife’s amazement, he said, “Why don’t you call right away and see if you can be certified in Florida?”

After 27 years in the justice system, Jim Davis had been searching for a way to reduce his workload with an eye toward retiring in a couple of years. And he felt that his wife had done everything she could in her present job. Maybe a new challenge would be good for her.

There were only five days until the application deadline. Davis assembled a quick résumé and mailed it off, not really expecting to hear back. For two months, there was no word, and that suited her fine. The ad had started her thinking about the best way to change their lives, and she was contemplating retirement, not a new job.

“I had pretty much forgotten about it,” she said later. “I was very, very happy with my job. Really. The only reason I was thinking about retirement was because I had been there 13 years and the faculty was so well-established. Jim was under so much pressure. My parents were not well. I had a lot of leave time that I could take off and go home to help my mother. Plus, I really like being at home. I’ve always said that I am basically a very lazy person.”

The silence was broken in April. Davis learned she was a candidate. She was interviewed by telephone, asked to respond to a set of standardized questions that had nothing to do with education but were designed to screen out people whose personality might not fit the job. She was asked things like: Can you tell us one time when you were the life of the party? What was your most embarrassing moment?

She was so flummoxed by the questions that she couldn’t remember any of her answers, but they provided grist for the mill in her daily e-mail exchanges with her family, in which they, too, all answered the offbeat queries. There was a second, similar but longer, interview a few weeks later. At the end of May, someone on the search committee called to say that they were submitting her name as a finalist. But the caller said there had been one change. The school could not afford two principals. Would she still be interested in the job as the single principal?

“That was my mistake,” said Davis, who had no high school administrative experience. “I said yes. I probably should have said no, because it is a tough job with a huge responsibility.”

A week later, she was in Celebration taking questions from the search committee, which included Brent Herrington, Celebration town manager for Disney; Cynthia Hancock, president of the Dream Team, the local Parent Teacher Student Association; two people from the school staff; and a couple of other parents. She and Jim had come down primarily to check out the town and the job situation. Because there had been no face-to-face interviews so far, she assumed the selection was still a long way off.

‘You may ask one question as we walk out,’ the Celebration School officials told the prospective principal in her interview.

While Dot was being grilled, Jim was inspecting the town. He stopped at the preview center and looked at house prices. He knew that his wife felt strongly that a school principal needed to live where she worked as a visible reminder of her commitment to the town as well as to the school. When he met up with his wife later in the afternoon, the first thing he said was: “No way. We cannot live in this town. We can’t afford it, and there’s nothing available for months.”

The next morning, Davis had an interview with Larry Rosen from Stetson University, Terry Wick from Celebration Company, Blaine Muse, an assistant school superintendent, and Thomas McCraley, superintendent. The first thing they told her was that she was one of three finalists. Then they asked a set list of questions, which took about 15 minutes. Then they stood up to leave.

“Wait a minute,” said Davis. “I have my own questions for you.”

“You may ask one question as we walk out,” she was told.

Miffed, both Dot and Jim went to the school and talked with Vogel, who was packing her desk on her final day. They also talked with Donna Leinsing, the school administrative employee who had helped develop the curriculum. As they were about to leave the school to go to the airport and fly home, the county school superintendent, McCraley, called the office. The teacher who picked up the phone--Davis doesn’t remember who it was--emerged and announced to the Davises and several teachers in the hall that Dot had been selected as the new principal. The staff cheered and applauded. Dot and Jim looked at each other in disbelief. The superintendent had already hung up.

Davis called McCraley back and discovered that he was preparing a press release to announce her hiring. She protested that she had not decided whether to take the job and had not informed her own superintendent, a man with whom she had worked for 27 years and whose son was a student at her school.

“Are you having second thoughts?” McCraley asked.

“I just need time,” she said.

“Okay,” he replied. “Call me tomorrow morning. I’ve already called your superintendent anyway and told him myself.”

“No, this is Friday, and I won’t be home till after midnight tonight. I’ll let you know by Monday, or Tuesday at the latest,” she said.

On the way home and the next day, the Davises thought hard about the decision. The cons outweighed the pros. Neither wanted to leave their aging parents. They would be giving up established positions. Dot would be taking on huge new responsibilities. And then there was the attention. Dot now knew enough about Celebration to know that the school principal was going to get some serious press attention.

“Do you really want to do this, Dot, because you know you don’t like the limelight?” Jim asked.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve always done it.”

And so there she stood on that early August evening, watching the hoopla, ducking as Larry Rosen placed a Stetson hat on her head, holding aloft a three-foot key to the school presented to her by McCraley, and wondering just what she had gotten herself into.

Davis, who would be our next-door neighbor when her house was finished, was not the only person watching the proceedings with some amazement. The sneak preview had all the earmarks of a Disney extravaganza. As the new principal, the superintendent, and other distinguished guests stood by, the teachers were introduced. The voice over the public address system was deep and professional, and it sounded suspiciously like the guy who announces the character parade at the Magic Kingdom. Actually it belonged to a Celebration resident who summoned each teacher by name, identifying those who were here the year before as “returning players” and the new teachers as “first draft choices.” Each of them rushed onto the stage and was handed a green-and-white football jersey. The most enthusiastic pulled them on over their clothes, but some didn’t seem to know quite how to respond.

In his 1998 autobiography, Work in Progress, Michael Eisner claimed that the company had expected a certain amount of difficulty with the school. “We knew that an experimental approach would be controversial,” he wrote. “My children attended a similar school, the Center for Early Education in Los Angeles. When Breck was 8 years old, my parents asked what grade he was in. ‘Continuum purple,’ Breck blithely replied. A simple ‘2nd grade’ would have been far easier to explain to my mother. Jane and I were relieved when the school adopted a more standard language.”

If Eisner expected controversy, the parents certainly did not. They complained that their children tended to get lost in the chaos and din of a single classroom with 80 children between the ages of 5 and 10, leaving students without adequate supervision or instruction. And some questioned the educational theory behind putting such a wide range of students in a single classroom. “I know there’s been research on combining grades, but has there been any on an age range like the one we have here?” asked Joseph Palacios, a parent, at a meeting for parents and administrators. “A six-year spread? None that I’ve been able to find. The classes here have been configured solely for the convenience of the school, without taking into account what works for the children.”

From our tour of the school, we had seen that the design of the building had locked Celebration School into grouping children in large classrooms. Unlike most school buildings, where classrooms are designed to hold 20 to 30 children, this one was comprised of a series of very large rooms to accommodate the big multiage classes. This was not unintentional; the architects had responded to the requirements of their clients, the educators who had developed the philosophy behind the school. If that philosophy changed one day, or even if the school wanted to modify it and reduce the size of the classrooms, it would be difficult without major renovations.

We had seen more schools than most parents. A few years earlier, we had collaborated on a book about teachers and interviewed more than 150 of them around the country, asking what problems they faced and how they would solve them. They spoke in many voices from many perspectives, but the common thread in almost every conversation was that nothing would work without a good ratio of teachers to students. Opinions varied on the optimum ratio. Some teachers said they could manage with 15 students per teacher; others thought the ratio could go as high as 20 to one, under the right circumstances. But none of those teachers, or any other expert we had ever talked to or read about, advocated anything as high as the ratio of 26 students per teacher that was the norm at Celebration School. And even more important, we felt, the huge numbers of children in a single space would change the usual classroom dynamics significantly, rendering the usual ratio debate moot and requiring even more teachers per students.

One of the consultants that Disney brought in to comment on its model school in the late planning stages was the headmaster of one of the country’s most elite private schools. He asked that we not use his name because he did not want to anger Disney. But one night as we talked about his reaction to the Celebration plan, he shook his head sadly and said he did not see how the innovative curriculum and multiage groupings could work in a public-school setting. “You have to have a ratio of one teacher for every six to nine students to make something like that work.”

The academics and urban planners who developed Celebration School viewed the world through a different lens. The teachers were supposed to act more as catalysts than instructors, hence the term “learning leaders.” The kids were expected to help each other, and their primary motivation was supposed to be their own thirst for knowledge. The overriding principle on which the school was founded, in a nutshell, was the idealized vision of every student being a lover of learning.

It was the view taught by the nation’s education professors. A survey that would be released just two months later by a nonpartisan research group, Public Agenda, found that the professors put their priorities on “teaching kids to be active learners,” not on discipline and basics like math, punctuation, and grammar that parents ranked at the top.

Some parents are blessed with children who have to be ordered to put their homework away late at night and who wake up every morning eager for more learning. We’ve known a few, though we tend to discount the claims of some parents as braggadocio. There may be more than we think. But it’s not the norm. Many kids are comfortable doing just enough to get by. They need genuine inspiration, firm guidance, and a clear sense of what is expected of them. And those expectations need to be high. Our question was whether Celebration School, with its new orthodoxy, would prove flexible enough to deal with the learners who would occupy most of the space in those neighborhoods, and whether the teachers could maintain control of Becky’s classroom and teach her something at the same time.

The problems of Celebration School, we would discover, would continue to plague the town because of a basic flaw-the overly ambitious attempt to do too much. All of the innovative techniques, from multiage classes and the absence of grades to individualized learning projects and cooperative learning, have been employed successfully in schools across the country. Nowhere, however, had there been an attempt to combine all of these concepts in a single school, let alone in a single school designed to serve kindergarten through 12th grade. It may well be that the school will turn out to be a world-class institution, but that will not happen for several years. And the parents who moved to Celebration, many of them expressly because of the promises embodied in the school, did not feel that they and their children had the time to wait.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Nothing To Celebrate


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