Innovative school celebrates 40th - The Explorer: Import

Innovative school celebrates 40th

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Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

When the students at Lulu Walker Elementary School found themselves divided about whether to keep a pet snake that ate cute, furry mice, they decided to ask a high school debate team to argue both sides of the issue for them.

That was the Walker school of the 1960s - an institution that attracted national awards and international attention for the freedom it gave its students and teachers to reinvent classroom learning.

Now, in an age of the federal No Child Left Behind act and AIMS tests - two examples of government's tightened control of education - Walker fans gathered May 7 to celebrate its 40th anniversary and remember the school's unrestrained past.

It all began with Marion Donaldson, an Amphitheater Public Schools superintendent who believed in being on the cutting edge. When he hired Evelyn Carswell to be the principal of Harelson Elementary School, he told her to not look to other principals for modeling, but to do her own thing.

Carswell, a former Prince Elementary School teacher known for unconventional ways, ran with that advice. A fan of the Britain-rooted Open Classroom Movement that had started to show up in American classrooms, she wanted to experiment with one of its main components - learning centers.

Before she even settled in at Harelson, she found a two-sided blackboard and wrote a question on each side - What would teachers most like to change about school? What would they be most angry to see taken away?

And she listened.

When Donaldson appointed Carswell principal of the yet-unbuilt Walker Elementary School for kindergarten through fifth grade, he invited her again to be inventive. With no staff yet hired and no architectural plans in motion, that was quite an invitation.

It was like "Let's assume there never was ever a school before - how would we like to make this one?" Carswell said.

First, the architecture.

For its newest, most cutting-edge school, Amphi did away with classrooms. Instead, it opted for four large learning centers that could house anywhere from one to 80 children at a time, depending on the time of day and the activity.

No longer would one teacher instruct a small group of students in one classroom in nearly every subject. The new architecture was about flexibility.

Teachers had flexibility too, Carswell said.

They agreed on a handful of goals at the beginning of each school year, and then they gave their imaginations the task of getting them met.

With the days divided into 20-minute "modules," and with any day's schedule planned only one day in advance, teachers who wanted time for extra research could easily excuse themselves from the schedule for three days.

"Teaching has to be a mind expansion for the teachers," Carswell said. "That helps them know the struggles in learning and the joys in success."

The school's emphasis on autonomy filtered down to the children.

Students progressed at their own individual rates, shooting ahead on lessons that came easy and finding extra time for lessons they found harder to master.

They also solved their own problems.

So when anti-snake signs began cropping up on doors and walls at the initiative of bold, young sign makers who didn't like to see school pets eating mice, the teachers backed away.

Some of them tried to intervene at first, saying "we need to do something about this," but Carswell said the children had introduced the issue and they would find a solution for it.

A pre-adolescent student council convened to figure out what to do with the snakes. They could vote, but they would need well-developed arguments for and against keeping snakes. So they called on a high school debate team.

But what if the anti-snake argument was the best, but the students still wanted to keep the snakes? That's exactly what happened. The student council knew it did, because they held two votes - one for the best argument, and one for the fate of the snakes.

The snakes stayed, but the student council made a rule that they could not be fed in the presence of anyone opposed to snakes eating mice.

It was this kind of unconventional educating that brought observers from 39 states and 21 countries into Walker's classrooms.

The school received awards from the National Education Association, was featured in Parade magazine, and hosted a national symposium on teaching.

Though traveling educators steadily popped into Walker classrooms, the students weren't distracted from their tasks at hand, said Kevin Green, a Walker student from 1966 to 1973.

"At that age, you're not really aware you're under the microscope," he said. "We really didn't have anything to base it against. It was part of the everyday thing going on."

Despite Walker's growing reputation, though, it turned out that the school wasn't destined to keep its nonconforming ways.

"It was an opportunity at a time when America was open to expansion and innovation," Carswell said. "But the lid came on in a hurry."

In 1967, Carswell abruptly resigned as principal. She told Tucson's newspapers that an unnamed governing board member had asked her to resign. The board accepted her resignation.

According to an article that year in the Tucson Citizen, the action "generally was interpreted in the district to reflect a new "go-slow" policy on the part of the board allowing modern educational procedures to be used in schools."

Walker parents protested with a petition. It supported Carswell, along with Walker's progressive educational program.

Soon after, the progressive superintendent Donaldson retired.

Carswell said she left without a fight because a fight would not have been good for preserving the school's quirks.

"We would have lost faster, because I would not have been able to acquiesce to any degree," she said. "How can you do that with children? It would be like selling them out, I thought."

Carswell went to Washington D.C. to work for the National Education Association for a year, exchanging education research with her collaborators at universities including Stanford and Harvard. Then she became a consultant, helping schools across the United States join the Open Classroom Movement.

Before retiring, Carswell started a program at the University of Arizona for education students wanting to employ the open-classroom philosophy.

Carswell now lives in Marana.

Slowly, over decades, Walker shed its open-classroom method. In the 1980s, the school's large learning centers were divided into regular classrooms with permanent brick walls.

Now, nothing remains of the innovative philosophy that drove Walker school in the 1960s, said Roseanne Lopez, the principal.

"To be perfectly honest, it's gone," she said.

In an age of school accountability, neighborhood schools everywhere are directing their attention to just trying to meet government-mandated standards.

But even in today's more restrictive environment, Lopez said her school has managed to sneak in an innovation or two.

Last year, the school introduced a new math curriculum to the district that shows students several ways to solve a math problem, rather than just one.

"The walls went up, but the feeling still is that we have to do what we think is right to get results - not what outsiders think is right," Lopez said.

And Lopez walks in Carswell's footsteps, she said, by doing what she can to keep her teachers' creative sparks alive.

"I get things moving but then get out of the way so they can do their work," she said. "I try to remove as many obstacles as possible to them working with the children."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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