Jordan, Principal, Bank Street School for Children
By Marie Holmes
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.”
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
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
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.
are looking for their child to grow up in a diverse society,”
he says, and they “understand how a developmental approach is
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