In the early 1900s, Elisabeth Irwin, John Dewey and other progressive educators developed a new educational approach based on active learning instead of passive absorption of facts. “The complacent formalism of schools, its uncritical and therefore uncreative spirit, must be replaced by an honest hospitality to experimentation,” Irwin wrote.

Elisabeth Irwin founded the Little Red School in 1921 as an alternative public elementary school. Parents and students loved the new dynamic learning community. It was an exciting place to learn, with a palpable spirit of curiosity, creativity and challenge. However, during the Depression, the Board of Education could not afford to keep the school open. Parents pledged their own resources, establishing Little Red School House as an independent elementary school. In 1941, the program expanded to include a high school at 40 Charlton Street. For nearly 70 years, we have been a pre-K through twelfth grade school: LREI.
LREI remains faithful to the spirit of its founder — testing new ideas, finding new variations on tried and true principles, and challenging our students to discuss what Elisabeth Irwin called “possible new truths.” Our students are active learners and thoughtful decision-makers. Our faculty remains involved in every aspect of our program, and works together with enthusiasm and astuteness to conceive of fresh responses to students’ needs.

Phil Kassen


Archives Project

In the fall of 2014, LREI began the LREI Archives Project, a multimedia endeavor to organize, digitize, preserve and share the school's nearly 100 years of history in Greenwich Village. As LREl prepares for its centennial celebration in 2021, the project's goal is to create proper hard copy and electronic archives of the school's rich history. The first formal task will be digitizing yearbooks, a gift from the Class of 2015.

Longtime Soho resident and LREI parent, Yukie Ohta is lending her expertise as a professional archivist to the LREI Archives Project. Read her blog below for updates on the project, or follow directly at 

Writings about LREI & Selections from Elisabeth Irwin

List of 6 items.

  • The Little School That Could

    Read more about LREI's history: An article by our resident historian, Nicholas O'Han.
  • "Our Symbol of Democracy"

    Click here to enjoy "Democracy," with a foreword by Elisabeth Irwin. This collection, written in the early days of the Little Red School House, likely sometime in the late 1930s, describes examples of how the school fulfilled one of its founding principles. As is promised in our current mission statement, "Students graduate from our diverse community as active participants in our democratic society,..." Elisabeth Irwin and three of her early colleagues, in the language of the times, share their thoughts on this important endeavor.
  • Elisabeth Irwin: from Fitting the School to the Child, 1924

    If this attitude of anxiety concerning the goal and the way stations were replaced by a faith in the principle of growth, much-needed experimentation with the curriculum would then be encouraged. We all know the folly of pulling up a bean to see how it is growing, but we have not yet learned to trust the human plant to flower without a periodic panic about its rate of progress. Under our present educational system, every pupil is conscientiously yanked up by the roots at least twice a year. With this official inspection always impending, neither teacher nor pupil creates an atmosphere of freedom, which is the first condition of unself-conscious growth.

    We did not enforce the taboos, restraints, and prohibitions of the ordinary classroom. The interests of the children were largely allowed to initiate and guide the activities within and without the school.

    To get immediate, showy results something must be added to the child – hung on like a decoration. Real organic growth is so gradual, so unobtrusive that it does not satisfy the anxious parent or teacher. They wish to be assured at every turn that the child is being visibly improved. The new education, like modern farming, believes that the place to put the effort is the environment. If the soil is made rich enough, yet not too rich, growth takes place normally.

    Why do we have to hurry things along so fast? There is enough educational experience that is wholesome for six- or seven-year-old children, without overdrawing their account with life in advance. It is like paying a high price for strawberries in February when you can have them abundantly in June at moderate cost.

    Schools have for too long been modeled on the mediaeval monastery where formal education began. The classroom has for years been a place like the monastery where the world is shut out. The original scholars, the monks, were those who found life in a real world too perilous, and retired from it to find satisfaction in learning. Reading and writing were a substitute for reality. Modern psychologists and mental hygienists tell us that those people are happiest and healthiest who can best adjust to reality, can meet life face to face. The school then, if it is to help individuals to be efficient and active members of society, must introduce children into life rather than shelter them from it. It must be a laboratory rather than a monastery. Just this, I should say is the task of education today – to change our school from monasteries into laboratories, laboratories not where educators experiment with children but where children experiment with life. This is the true meaning, so often misunderstood of experimental education.

    Above all things, the progressive schools believe that childhood is a part of life and not just a preface to something more important, and that at every age children should have a chance to respond to the romance and adventure of the world around them.
  • Elisabeth Irwin: from A Real Life Plan - New York Times – May 15, 1932

    Happiness comes from many sources but primarily, we believe, from an ability to make good social relationships and to find adequate express for normal creative impulses.  These abilities do not emerge fully developed in adults not yet in adolescents.  They must grow from earliest years through opportunities to exercise them in everyday life.  The “progressive” school tries to supply an environment in which from the beginning, children feel free to function physically, socially and intellectually.
    The new type of teacher shares experiences with the children rather than imposing tasks upon them.  This means that the age-old conflict between the interests of adults and children is minimized, and the relationship to authority through adolescence and adult years is not spoiled by the feeling of revolt that is so often engendered by the old school of discipline.
  • Elisabeth Irwin: from Psychology: October, 1935

    Before a person is ten or twelve years old patterns are developed that determine such important things as whether he will be solitary or sociable, moody or even-tempered, idle or industrious, bigoted and full of prejudice or reasonable and open-minded, pessimistic or happy, fearful or courageous.  We even think that if you have children young enough you can develop a sense of humor to brighten their day.
    Children nowadays encounter so many ups and downs in family life, economically and emotionally and just plain geographically, that is, moving so often from one home to another, that they need to look outside the home for their feeling of safety.  Some of them are over-protected and pampered at home and need help to face their problems.  Others are somewhat neglected emotionally if not physically and need special consideration and help in building up their egos in a desirable way.  These things are accomplished in school not by personal influence so much as by intelligent planning of the environment and materials for work by the child becoming part of a group of contemporaries under intelligent guidance day by day.
  • Elisabeth Irwin: from Opening Address at P.E.A. Panel Discussion on New Methods in Education May 4, 1936

    But it is not chiefly the physical fitness with which we are concerned.  It is rather the state of mind in which a child approaches his day’s work.  Probably the greatest enemy to growth, which I use synonymously with education, and to learning, is fear.  By this I do not mean terror or panic, but a mild form of fear perhaps better described as dread or apprehension or even more mildly as lack of complete confidence.  Many schools, and they may be either public or private, are full of threats to a child’s confidence.  He is afraid he may be late.  He is afraid he may not be promoted.  He is afraid he may not get a good mark.  He is afraid the monitor will report him.  He is afraid he may be sent to the principal’s office.  He is afraid of being embarrassed by having his name called out loud for whispering or inattention.  These are only a few of the typical threats, which assail a child in many a school environment.  Terrible to him but merely a matter of course in many a classroom, where a perfectly kind teacher had inherited a certain technique of stimulating work and good behavior by time honored methods.  When, however, we turn the light of mental hygiene on these time honored methods they begin to look as the stock and the ducking stool looked to people who abandoned these instruments about one hundred years ago.  When schools gave up the ferrule and the dunce’s cap they gave up only the objects and not the ideas.

LREI: A Chronicle of 75 Years

Making the Cover

Little Red School House
and Elisabeth Irwin High School

LREI. Powered By Questions.

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  • Since 1921