And, From the Beginning from Harriet Cohen, one of our founding teachers
Once upon a time, in the spring of 1976 the Palm Building was the home of Twin Pines School. Their site included the building itself, the lower yard and part of the adjacent yard. A group of parents often met and talked near the dragon. They were not satisfied with the school or other options in the area and, in the spirit of the 70’s, decided to start their own school. Their first job was to convince Susan Erb, their children’s teacher to be part of it. She agreed.
Over that spring and summer they rented the unused classroom section of a Synagogue on Park Boulevard in Oakland and took the street name for the new school. They hired Gerri Shapiro as Director and four teachers: Susan Erb, Mariama Quamia, Tom Little and me. I got the job Labor Day weekend.
We five earnest, passionate, energetic educators talked curriculum as we painted classrooms, defined values and goals as we built cubbies, scrounged for materials other schools were discarding and did our share of dumpster diving.
It was a remarkable, heady experience. Imagine teaching in a school where we were free to create what we described as “a warm, nurturing place for children, where their minds and spirits would flourish, and where we would make sure kids came first.” We opened our doors to twenty-eight children, met in the big room and sang. It was a great beginning.
From Tom's Book, Loving Learning
Come with me on a tour of Park Day School, where
I’ve been privileged to work for the past thirty-eight years, first as a
teacher and then as head of school. Throughout that time, our school,
spreading over four shady acres in downtown Oakland, California, has
been a nurturing oasis for curious creative children and a laboratory
for smart solutions to the crises challenging American education.
THE TOUR BEGINS
Our small private school has an old-fashioned
look, considering its location on the expanding frontier of Silicon
Valley, near Pixar Studios and the University of California at Berkeley.
The tall pines and giant magnolia in the courtyard have stood here even
longer than the Spanish-style stucco-and-tile building—designed in 1928
and originally used as an orphanage – which now houses most of our
classrooms. Yet should you linger here at recess or during the lunch
hour, what will really take you back in time is the way the kids behave.
You’ll rarely see a child standing
alone. Instead, kids line up to hang on the monkey bars, walk
hand-in-hand or with arms circling each others’ backs, or kneel together
to check out the progress of the carrots in our garden or the chickens
in our coop. Even our oldest students, who by this age at other schools
would be standing around in self-conscious cliques, often chase each
other around the old wooden gazebo. They’re likely to be playing a game
of tag they call “Manhunt”: acting, in other words, like the children
they still are.
Now stroll through our hallways, and,
please, feel free to peek inside the classrooms. The first thing that
may strike you is that our students are usually out of their chairs.
Unlike the vast majority of public schools and even most private schools
today, we strictly ban the standardized tests mandated in public
schools, which allows lots of extra time for hands-on learning. You’ll
be less likely to see teachers lecturing or students sitting quietly in
rows than to find kids mixing ingredients to produce non-toxic household
cleaners, or designing a rainwater catchment system for the school, or
grinding wheat to cook muffins for lunch. Some may be acting out a drama
they’ve written, playing the parts of space travelers or inventors,
while others huddle in a group, learning how to use a compass by
designing a compass rose. Reliably, some will be sprawling on a rug or
lounging in overstuffed chairs, holding class meetings or reading to
If you stick around long enough,
you’ll understand why Harvard University researchers have chosen to
visit our school four times a year to study creativity in children.
We’re proud that Park Day School is a place where in an endlessly
hurried world, kids have precious leisure time for creativity – and
IT TAKES OUR VILLAGE
parent body has included firefighters, day-care workers, several
best-selling authors, mechanics, graphic artists, food stamp recipients,
journalists, and university professors. That means our students come
from various socio-economic backgrounds and bring a richness of ethnic,
religious, and gender diversity. We are deliberate in our efforts to
have diverse families because it is valuable for everyone to share the
multiple stories of their lives with each other and to bridge the
divides that often occur in society.
More than 90 percent of our graduates
attend college, compared to barely 68 percent nationwide, and they’ve
gone on from there to careers as engineers, lawyers, business owners,
social workers, actors, artists, and chefs. We also claim a Chilean pop
star, a couple of successful authors, and a higher than average share of
non-profit employees, including the current chief of staff of the
Sierra Club, and –we’re especially proud of this—several teachers, at
least four university professors and two public school principals.
A PIECE OF CAKE
I arrived at the site of the experiment that was
to become Park Day School in July 1976, as a twenty-two-year-old
graduate student, sporting a large red Afro, bushy mustache, and braces
on my teeth.
It was a time of great excitement
about the possibilities of public education. An anti-authoritarian mood
that had grown in the wake of the Vietnam War was challenging the status
quo in schools. Teaching institutions were rediscovering the
decades-old works of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, from
Switzerland, who said, “Education means making creators…You have to make
inventors, innovators—non-conformists,” and Lev Vygotsky, from Belarus,
who said, “People with great passions, people who accomplish great
deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds
and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and
“Child-centered” strategies were newly
in vogue. In a trend imported from Great Britain in the late 1960s,
some U.S. schools were building classrooms without calls, in which
students could wander between “learning stations,” following their
interests. As part of my teaching credential program at San Francisco
State, I was working with a visionary public schoolteacher named Roni
Howard, whose sixth-grade classroom was a wonderland of attractions,
including a large enclosed wooden maze, designed and built by the
eleven-year-olds, to train a group of Norway rats.
In Oakland, a group of ambitious
parents and teachers had just split off from another private school and
were setting up a classroom of their own at Beth Jacob Orthodox Jewish
Synagogue on Park Boulevard, the street from which our school would
later take its name.
We moved locations twice over the next
six years, expanding our enrollment tenfold and finally settling into
our current site at the former orphanage. In 1986, at the age of
thirty-two, I was chosen to lead the school. My hair has since turned
white, and I now keep it cut short. I celebrated my sixtieth birthday in
November, coinciding with my retirement—an event that, were it not for
my illness, I would have happily put off indefinitely.
Over nearly forty years, I’ve watched
hundreds of uncivilized kindergartners grow into interesting,
thoughtful teens, and seen many a nervous parent become more confident.
All the while, our small private school has increasingly cultivated a
public mission. We not only practice our values on our campus but make
an effort to explain them to the wider world. As our Website says: “We
believe a successful learner is one who is confident, caring, and
creative. We believe success is measured by a student’s ability to
define his or her place in the world, guided by intellectual skills and a
In practice, of course, we are much
more specific in the way we face the challenges weighing on all American
schools today. In an era of teaching to the rest, we’ve chosen to focus
our energy on higher-minded goals. We believe our students will lead
more productive and fulfilled lives as resilient collaborators than
insecure competitors. As school curricula become increasingly
standardized, we encourage a love of learning by recognizing and
responding to students’ individual interests. An in an age when young
people are too often cynics, we prioritize social awareness and
None of these policies has interfered
with our students earning high GPAs and test scores once they enter high
school. Often, they excel compared to students who’ve been burned out
by years of high-stakes exams. Many are accepted by top colleges—with
most, even more important, finding colleges that fit their interests and
needs—and go on to interesting and satisfying lives.