A Tradition of Progressive Education

Our neighborhood is rife with educational institutions and schools which have blazed trails and tread new ground.  Today we will look at two schools which have benefited the younger members of our neighborhood for a century, and continue to this day their original missions of progressive education.

The City and Country School and the Little Red School House

The City and Country School and The Little Red School House-Elisabeth Irwin High School were founded in the early 20th century and as part of the progressive education movement. The City and Country School was pioneered by Caroline Pratt in 1914 and originally named the Play School. In 1921, it moved to its current location at 146 West 13th Street, but was originally located at the corner of West 4th Street and West 12th Street, and after that on MacDougal Alley.

Caroline Pratt, c. mid-1920’s

Pratt’s educational philosophy and approach were centered on the philosophy of creating conditions which fostered individual expression and communal problem-solving. At the early ages, this was fostered through the use of unit blocks, which she invented, and which in their versatility and simplicity gave the children the means for the expression of their experiences. In 1945, Life magazine explained:

At the City and Country School, the children grow up with the blocks and use them for their most important thinking during the years from 2 through 7. With three or four blocks a 2-year-old is able to reconstruct the thrill of his first sight of a locomotive. A 5-year-old assembles dozens of them into an aircraft carrier. Working together as a group, the 7-year-old explores mechanics of their city environment by building, and operating a city of blocks.

Other materials were also employed such as crayons and clay. Older students were responsible for different jobs, depending on grade level, which contributed toward the functioning of the school. Another important part of the curriculum was excursions outside of the school which would enhance their learning and problem-solving.

The Little Red School House-Elisabeth Irwin High School at 272 Sixth Avenue has been a part of our neighborhood since its founding in 1921 and was a 2012 GVSHP Village Awardee. Elisabeth Irwin founded the school as an experimental curriculum within the Village’s PS 61, changing both the layout of the classroom as well as the rote curriculum of the day. Like at City and Country School, students explored the community around them on frequent field trips, and expressed their ideas through storytelling, writing and painting, block building and mapping, singing, dancing, and performing. In essence, students learned by doing.

Elisabeth Irwin founded Little Red School House in 1921. Image via LREI.

During the Great Depression, budget cuts forced the closure of Little Red, at least as part of a public school. Parents and reformers raised funds to continue the program, but the school system would not reopen the school. Irwin, along with parents and other reformers, successfully opened the school as a private institution. The school remained committed to its origins, serving a diverse student population at a low cost. In 1941, the school experienced another big change when it opened a high school on Charlton Street. The high school expanded in 2010 with the purchase of a neighboring townhouse.

Both schools have remained committed to their origins of public service, serving a diverse student population and continuing their ideals of reform and progressivism, ideals that speak to and build upon the larger history of the Village.

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