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New York City
December 2002

Reuel Jordan, Principal, Bank Street School for Children
By Marie Holmes

On the third floor of the modest, red brick building that houses Bank Street’s School for Children, a small girl with long blonde braids is wielding a large saw. She holds the toothed tool, almost taller than she, in the air, leaving the visitor to wonder whether progressive education might be, literally, a dangerous idea.

Shop classes for seven year-olds are not simply a perk of private school facilities–they also exemplify Bank Street’s child-centered approach to education. Children, principal Reuel Jordan affirms, are capable of doing “real work.”

“They actually do have the confidence to be careful and understand where their bodies end and others’ start,” he explains with a smile.

Many people think that child-centered means “the child is in control,” says Jordan. What it actually entails, he asserts, is “education professionals who understand children and their development.” Another common misconception, he claims, is that progressive education doesn’t have “high expectations.” The School for Children, he says, has high expectations for its students “because they have to be productive members of society.” The school is subject to the same scrutiny as other private schools, as anxious parents seek out programs that will guarantee future admission to selective high-schools, colleges and universities.

In New York City, says Jordan, who also serves as President of the Guild of Independent Schools, which he describes as a “support group” for headmasters and principals, there is no shortage of high-quality private instruction. “The issue is about how we do it.”

At Bank Street, ‘how they do it,’ both in the School for Children and the affiliated College of Education, means progressive education.

He recalls a new parent asking about the progressive approach, “So this is the reason why my three year-old doesn’t study the solar system?” In a way, says Jordan, that parent was correct, as the school’s commitment to creating developmentally appropriate curriculum generally discourages memorization of names, dates or facts. A three year-old can learn the names and the order of the planets, says Jordan, although the child won’t know what he’s talking about; the child’s recitation is “like a parlor game.”

The progressive model, on the other hand, focuses on material appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. “The idea of respecting each child as a learner is important for us,” he says.

The curriculum at the School for Children is social studies-centered. Three year-olds concentrate on themselves, four year-olds learn about families, 5/6’s and 6/7’s (students are grouped by age and ability rather than traditional grade levels) move into thinking about neighborhoods and 7/8’s begin looking at “long ago.” In their last year at the school, 13 year old students study government. “It’s your social world expanding,” Jordan says of the curriculum’s progression. Additionally, as many as 30 trips per year are planned for various classes. One group of students visited a clay pit in Long Island, bringing back their own material for school art projects.

Spanish language instruction is introduced to the youngest children, and at age 11 students decide whether they will continue with Spanish or begin studying French.

Jordan believes that instructors “can’t just march through curriculum.” Students, he says, must have time “to make meaning” as well as “put an investment into what they’re learning.” Ideally, students will have ample opportunity to “invest” in the topic at hand, “digest” the information and then apply what they’ve learned, a process which Jordan refers to as an “experiential” approach.

Classrooms are divided into two spaces: a “meeting area,” so-called to express the expectation that students will participate rather than passively listen to the teacher, and a work area with four-person tables for group assignments. “It’s important for kids to learn from the environment and the teacher, but also [from] each other,” says Jordan. Students at the School for Children learn that they are dynamic members of a class, he says. One of the things that they take with them as they move on to high school, says Jordan, is the ability to ask probing questions.

The School prides itself on its diversity. “It’s not about assimilation, it’s about inclusion,” explains Jordan, “and that’s very, very hard because someone has to give something up to let [someone else’s] perspective through.”

A students of color group for children in the Upper School (ages 10-13) holds regular meetings, as do similar groups for teachers and parents. “We don’t pressure kids to come,” says Jordan. Occasionally, each group holds ‘open-door’ meetings so that white students, teachers and parents can sit in.

Connections forged in parts of the Bronx and Harlem in the 1980’s, when the school first began trying to improve its racial diversity, provide a steady flow of Black and Latino applicants. Approximately one-third of the students also receive some financial aid. Jordan believes that the School has the second highest financial aid (as a percent of the budget) among private schools in New York City, providing for a certain measure of socio-economic diversity as well. Jordan is vocal about extending this commitment to diversity to include gay and lesbian parents and their children. At sessions for prospective parents, Jordan tells them that if anyone have a problem with this, then they probably should not apply. “I’ve had people get up and leave,” he notes.

While defending the School’s (and also the College’s) ideals of progressive education and diversity requires a continuous effort, and, by Jordan’s own appraisal there are “scores and scores” of good independent schools in New York City, the Bank Street School for Children continues to attract families “from lots of different backgrounds,” according to Jordan. “[That] they come from different political persuasions is interesting,” he adds.

“They are looking for their child to grow up in a diverse society,” he says, and they “understand how a developmental approach is good.”#

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