Please let me introduce myself. My name is Philip Kassen, or “Phil the director” to all here at LREI, your school, LREI—Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School. When the high school opened it was named after you, giving us a very long name which we have since condensed to LREI. I thought to write today as it is the eve of Founders Day, a day when we celebrate the school, it founding and its future and, well, when we celebrate you!
Each year on Founders Day the whole school gathers together. Much as was done in your day, when we are together we sing. We will sing and talk and then the “big event” will take place. Each year we perform a play about the founding of the school—about how you created a progressive public school which was then closed by the City but was saved when the school community came together to fund the future. This performance is the highlight of the day. To be truthful, for some the highlight is that we give everyone ice cream to commemorate the famous meeting in the ice cream parlor where the parents hatched their plan to create a private school.
Founders Day is an important day in the life of Little Red. The assembly is so very much fun, but more importantly, the day is essential for us as it reminds us of from whence we came, about the founding of the school and your work in creating a powerful laboratory for progressive educational practice. We celebrate the founding of a school that puts children and childhood at its center, without giving way on high expectations for student achievement. We celebrate a school that connects the classroom to the world, still accomplished in ways initiated by you, Miss Irwin. For example, with our youngest students, we use blocks to teach a variety of concepts and to truly build the world in the classroom. (Some believe that there are blocks in the classrooms that may have been there when you were in the school, the same for the blocks on the roof.) We often rebuild the world on a large scale—restaurants, Lenape villages, Colonial museums and Egyptian tombs. We connect the school to the world by going out into it—we take many trips, hundreds each year, some around the corner, and others around the world. On behalf of school kids everywhere, thank you for inventing school trips. We also connect the classroom to the world through the arts—singing, painting, building, and acting—which are as integral to our program as they were when you started the school.
We spend significant time during Founders Day thinking about another way the school is connected to the world. We ask ourselves, how can we help students to feel the power of being involved citizens, to develop the skills that allow them to participate and to be thoughtful, decent, and just people? This is not separate from the commitment to the world as an academic exercise, they are part and parcel of a progressive education, as you well know. Recently, I have been reading the collected writings of your successor, Dr. Randolph “Rank” Smith. I don’t know if you ever met him. In a lengthy note to the parents in December 1943, he wrote of the type of school he would want for his children. (N.B. Rank used phrases we see as biased today. I chose to leave them in to be historically accurate.)
For just as successful happy living must have its emotional base, so it must have its contemporary social content. This second question might be put something like this: Does this school steadily help children extend the range and variety of people with whom they can feel at home, both those from the “wrong side” of the railroad track as well as those from the “right”: in short, does it take its democracy seriously pledging allegiance to the constant need for safeguarding and extending democracy through all aspects of our social, economic, and political life?
Later in the same piece, he wrote, “I would like for my youngsters, therefore, the chance to go to a school where teachers would help them have richly human experiences helping build democracy in world-important terms.”
If it has not come through clearly enough, we think about you and your goals quite often and are just so very grateful for your efforts. We try to use our heritage, your work and the work of your immediate successors, as a guide towards our brightest future. We ask ourselves if you would recognize the school if you would be proud of the somewhat bigger “Little Red School House” as a worthy successor to your school? I hope you would and feel confident that that would be the case.
I wonder what you would suggest we do next. How do we teach for the future when the world is changing so rapidly? (I am sure that you thought the same thing, though I imagine you would find the pace of change today to be dizzying.) To use one of our favorite of your comments about the school, as the school grows, making room for new coats, how to choose the best new larger coat?*
Thank you again for the foresight and effort that went into creating “your experiment.” It is still such vital, hopeful place.
*“The school will not always be just what it is now, but we hope it will always be a place where ideas can grow, where heresy will be looked upon as possible truth, and where prejudice will dwindle from lack of room to grow. We hope it will be a place where freedom will lead to judgment -- where ideals, year after year, are outgrown like last season's coat for larger ones to take their places.” - Elisabeth Irwin