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Education Experts Discuss Experiences, 'School Culture' at GSE Forum


Educators and education experts discussed their experiences founding new public schools at a panel yesterday afternoon at the Graduate School of Education (GSE).

The speakers' main theme was the importance of "school culture," which, the panelists said, includes small class sizes, and close, "democratic" relationships between teachers, parents and students. Much of the discussion centered on defining just what exactly the ideal school culture was.

The discussion was moderated by Professor Theodore Sizer, former dean of GSE, and served to complement the GSE course "Secondary School Design" that Sizer currently teaches as a visiting professor.

The panel included Rob DeBlois, founder and director of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, an alternative school in Providence, R.I.; Dennis Littky, co-director of the Metropolitan School in Providence; Deborah Meier, principal of the Mission Hill School, a pilot public elementary school in Boston; and James Nehring, head teacher at the Francis W. Parker School in Harvard, Mass.

The panelists related frequent anecdotes about their interactions with their students.

Nehring shared a scene from a weekly meeting that his school conducts with students, parents and teachers: "At one point, a representative rose and said, 'I have a suggestion to change the homework policy to lift sanctions for not doing homework. The students should just accept the natural consequences for their actions.'

"And then one third-grade girl spoke up and said,~ 'It sounds good, but when a student doesn't do homework, then it isn't just the student that suffers but the whole class,"' Nehring said. "Starting from the older students, there was a wave of applause."

Nehring said that the episode demonstrated the benefits of students having power and responsibility and that a "good school culture" could be passed on from older to younger students more easily than from teachers to students.

Littky also described his student-centered program.

"Our basic premise is 'one kid at a time,"' he said. "There is no particular knowledge kids need to know. Kids develop their own knowledge based on their own interests. I'd rather get people excited about learning."

According to Littky, teachers at his school work in concert with community members to teach students. Littky said the unorthodox approach has actually raised student scores on state tests.

Schools must be very small to make such a personal connection possible, Littky said.

"The size thing is so relative," he said. "In the U.S. 600 students is considered a small school. But can you invite 600 students to dinner?"

Meier remarked that such schools can be accomplished within larger schools.

"Big schools are just big buildings," she said. "You can have lots of schools in it."

Nehring also discussed the advantage of small schools in offering flexibility.

"What you don't do is plug in models," he said. "Schools grow in particular communities. It involves a lot of work, and the community must create the work."

Attendance at the discussion was high, including about 150 GSE students and members of the public.

Linn C. Gerrard, a GSE student in Sizer's class, identified with the panel members.

"I have worked in a Connecticut school which has gone through whole school restructuring," she said. "The discussion was right on the mark-honest, reality-based."

Luke Beatty, another GSE student, said he appreciated the opportunity to listen to the discussion.

"Listening to Deborah Meier and her fellow educators allowed me to look at the utopian experience that is the center of our course creating schools," he said.

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