Learning a lesson in the PARK METHOD

July 23, 1995|By Mike Bowler

As a student guide at the Park School a few years ago, Sharna Goldseker, class of 1992, was giving a group of prospects and their parents a tour of the campus.

She explained the school's progressive philosophy and mentioned that grades were not a matter of great emphasis at Park -- not given at all in the lower and middle schools, given in the upper school only because colleges expected them.

"But how," asked a nervous mother, "do kids learn if there aren't any grades?"

The perception of Park reflected in the question -- that it is a place where there are few academic standards, where there is little emphasis on "the basics" and more conversation than rules -- has been a public relations problem for the school since its founding on Auchentoroly Terrace, across from Druid Hill Park (thus, Park School) in 1912.

But Park, though it has made some changes, has not strayed from its founding philosophy, while other schools, public and private, have wavered with the times and the fads, the educational flavors of each year.

The Park philosophy, rooted in the early-century progressive movement of John Dewey, holds that students and teachers are partners in learning, the latter acting as counselors and guides, not authority figures. Children, the philosophy maintains, are born with an innate drive to learn, and they learn through a succession of experiences, not from lectures and rote learning. The duty of the teacher is to guide those experiences.

So Park has always done things differently. It listens to its students, includes them in setting school policy, allows them to vent in the school's award-winning newspaper (much to the occasional discomfort of admissions officers) and encourages them to discuss the moral and ethical issues of the day (including those at Park, even those that cut to the core, such as racial and ethnic diversity).

Perhaps only at Park would there be a history course on the ethics of violence and nonviolence taught jointly by a former Vietnam Marine (Butch Ashman) and a Vietnam war protester (John Roemer).

Instead of grades, pupils in the lower grades get narrative reports from their teachers. Students read, read, read and write, write, write. They get a ton of homework. But they don't take multiple-choice tests. There are no valedictorians and no ranking of seniors. There is no honor roll. (When the yearbook listed top students in 1928, it said the list was "merely to recognize those who have rendered service.") No study halls but time built into each day for extracurricular activities. Trimesters instead of semesters.

Hans Froelicher, one of Park's founders, wrote 83 years ago that the perfect school would feature "no rewards and no penalties," the "abolition of open grades" and "examinations used only to stimulate efforts, especially of sluggards."

Park has compromised to adjust to reality. "We do struggle with the question of how to balance the egalitarian principles of progressivism with the appropriate recognition of each student's strengths," said Louise Mehta, the assistant head. Translate that to mean that Park keeps close tabs on where its graduates go to college, and it publicizes its students' accomplishments, even if that means slightly tainting the pure progressive philosophy.

And of course there are rules, though there are fewer than in most schools. Adam Dunn and his fourth-grade classmate, David Weintraub, last year led a protest against a rule banning hats in the lower school. The rule violates "what Park School is supposed to stand for," the two said.

The lower school principal subsequently praised the two students, saying they had learned about rule-making with a "real-life experience that is easy to relate to." It was pure Park. ( The rule was not changed).

The school was founded at a time of public school turmoil. City superintendent James H. Van Sickle, who had been reform a corrupt system for a decade, and three of his school board supporters had been fired by Mayor James Preston in 1911, an event that Froelicher said "seemed to predicate a general

disorganization and a lowering of standards." That was, remember, 84 years ago.

But Jewish parents who wanted to move their children to private schools has only on choice. Only Friends School among private schools accepted Jews 1912, and Friends had a quota system. Froelicher warned those who were organizing Park that to attract Gentiles, the school "must offer a superior type of education, so superior that neither Gentile nor Jew can ignore it."

Today, Park is about 55 percent Jewish. "It wasn't founded as a private school for Jews," said Walter Sondheim, the grand old man of Baltimore civic affairs who entered Park in 1913 and graduated in 1925, "but it's never completely shaken that image."

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