Into spotlight to join debate on Columbia

Alan Klein turns activist in fight over downtown plan

November 12, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Alan Klein is hardly one who would be branded an activist.

He did stump for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's campaign to unseat President Lyndon B. Johnson at the age of 15, and, in the late 1980s, joined an effort to keep the Ku Klux Klan from setting up shop in a small West Virginia community. Other than those two excursions, though, he has been content leaving the protesting to others.

Klein characterizes himself as a "practicing schizophrenic." But cerebral seems a more apt description.

He is soft-spoken, reflective, punctuates discussions with anecdotes of family and appears to have a genuine aversion to the spotlight.

But Klein finds himself today at the forefront of the debate over downtown Columbia's future, and he promises a passionate fight against the county's plan to transform it into an urban center.

Even he acknowledges the incongruity of moving out from the shadows to form a coalition intent on forcing a substantial scaling back of the plan for downtown.

"It's one of those confluences of the right issue, or set of issues, and right time," he says.

"After the charrette," Klein says, referring to last year's weeklong brainstorming sessions on the development of downtown, "the bottom line is, it activated my sense of outrage. It was almost a betrayal of trust."

He uses words like trust and values frequently, and while they sometimes seem disingenuous flowing from the mouths of politicians, they are, more than anything, what have shaped Klein, as a child and adult.

His parents advised him years ago: "If your goal in life is to be rich, you'll never be satisfied because there's always more money to be made, and there's always someone richer than you, so that's a recipe for unhappiness."

And while Klein knew early that he wanted to be a teacher, he knew almost as early that he wanted to be a different kind of teacher than most.

"The best general name for it would be more student-centered," he says.

The root of that was his mother's remembrances of attending a progressive school in New York. But he also had the ideal model while enrolled in an upper-level math class at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

His teacher, Lois Croft, whom Klein describes as "an elderly Helen Hays [with] the shock of white hair, round face and big grin," treated her students unlike any instructor that he had encountered.

"When she graded papers, she never marked anything wrong," Klein remembers. "She used green ink, and marked what we got right. And at the end of each grading period, she had a conference with each one of us and jointly we decided what grade we'd get. She always maintained that we were harder on ourselves than she would have been."

Klein was born Sept. 1, 1953, in Worcester, Mass., about 45 miles west of Boston. He was the third of four sons of Donald and Lola Klein.

Donald Klein was a clinical physiologist but worked mostly with groups. He joined the NTL Institute, a nonprofit educational company, whose focus is behavioral sciences and the development of effective leadership for organizations.

Lola Klein was a nursery school teacher briefly, but she decided after World War II to forgo a career and raise a family.

The family moved to Bethesda when Alan Klein was in high school. When he graduated in 1971, they left his youngest brother with friends, sold the house, bought a motor home and began traveling the country.

One of their first stops was to visit friends who were renting the historic Richland farm on Sheppard Lane in Ellicott City. In one of those throwaway lines that become prophetic, the Kleins remarked as they prepared to depart: "Oh, if you ever leave, let us know. We would love to live here. It's so gorgeous."

The call came when they reached Oregon. Their friends were moving, and the farm was available. The Kleins decided on the spot to rent the farmhouse. They remained until late 1999, when Lola Klein's health worsened.

Alan Klein enrolled at the University of Michigan. He was not content to declare a major; he mapped out with precision every class for the next four years in several disciplines.

"I couldn't stand to focus only on one thing at any one time," he says.

He graduated in four years with a bachelor's degree in social science, minors in physiology and performing arts and certifications to teach secondary and elementary education.

Klein turned down a job in Key Largo, Fla. "I had the sense that if I became a beach bum, that would be the end of me."

He taught in Ann Arbor, Mich., schools for three years, including a weekend, high school-level self-image development program. He and another teacher were permitted to implement their student-centered theory when a principal turned over to them a three-room wing and they combined the second through sixth grades.

"We created a school within a school," Klein says. "It was based not on age level of the students but on activities."

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