Sucked back into the mainstream

Alternative high schools  “without walls” or schedules may flourish for awhile, but they tend to get sucked back into the mainstream, writes Lynne Blumberg on Education Next. She remembers Alternative East High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.

. . . students could create their own courses. As long as the course met college entry requirements, students could develop it, find a faculty member to teach it, and then advertise the class on a poster. If 15 students expressed interest, they could register for the course during master scheduling days held twice during the year. Students seldom sat in classrooms all day. Instead of looking at slides, for example, an art class piled into a van to visit local galleries.

Despite good reviews and a balanced budget, Alternative East closed in 1983 when one of the feeder districts withdrew its students, saying that district schools had “highly skilled, highly paid people, and we should be able to provide for the needs of these [students].”

Even the storied Parkway Program (in Philadelphia), which in 1970 Time magazine called “the most interesting high school in the U.S. today,” fell victim to the changing political climate. Parkway was known as the “school without walls,” because students learned about journalism at local newspapers, auto mechanics at auto shops, and art from museum historians. I spoke with Dr. Leonard Finkelstein, the second director of Parkway, who said that as a concept, Parkway was “magnificent.” But reality did not always match up to its promise. Some students thrived in the loosely structured environment, while it became a “free-for-all” for others.

In 1990, the district assigned a traditional principal who turned Parkway into a traditional school. 

 As Ms. Catherine Blunt, Parkway’s union representative at the time, put it, the school changed “because we were in the district.”

 It’s hard for special schools to stay special, once the original principal or the key teachers leave. In some cases, principals and teachers have taken a school charter to fight against the centralizing, standardizing impulse.

As Michael Lopez says, I’m on vacation and shouldn’t be blogging. But I’m really in Chicago visiting my husband’s relatives. Tonight we set out for Budapest, Vienna and Prague.

About Joanne


  1. Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. Rub it in!

  2. If you go to the Kozma ut temeto don’t be too disappointed if you can’t find any relatives. While their records have been computerized, so it’s claimed, they’ve managed to “lose” a few people.