Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
/inˈvent/
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

4 Responses to “Ch. 8: Inventing a school”


  1. 1 rickrepicky November 13, 2019 at 10:13 am

    You were assigned quite a task at an early age, Dennis. Great list. Here are beliefs that might complement yours:

    For Admin & Staff
    – Because all students can learn, we must provide extra time & support for those who learn at a slower pace (DuFour).

    – Because focused teacher teams have a higher capacity than isolated teachers, school improvement boils down to teacher teams quickly reflecting and reacting to their students’ learning of competencies defined by the team. Everything else is just details.

    – Because of “Reciprocal Responsibility,” if leaders ask teachers to elevate their practices (perform differently), leaders have a responsibility to help the faculty develop and practice those capacities (Elmore & DuFour).

    For Staff & Students
    – Because relevance is a motivator, demonstrating WHY/HOW learning is rmeaningful should be part of every lesson.

    – Because the person doing the explaining (oral or written) is the person doing the learning, lessons will engage students in using higher order thinking skills to demonstrate their understanding of new topics.

  2. 3 Joellen Killion November 14, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    One belief I would write is that students deserve the opportunity to be fully engaged in designing their own learning experiences.


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