The Park School of Baltimore
“I Would Never Want to Go Back to 50-Minute Classes”
The Park School of Baltimore was founded in 1912 in the formative days of the Progressive era when John Dewey and Francis W. Parker were sweeping away the educational orthodoxies of the past. Park was to be a new kind of school, where students would “learn because they were interested, because they loved their work, because they loved the school, because they were inspired by the highest type of teacher….” (Dr. Hans Froelicher, founder and President of the Board of Trustees, 1912-1928)
Nearly 100 years after its founding, Park remains true to its heritage. Its curriculum is a shared enterprise, in which both students and faculty play a defining role. “Our faculty model the idea of life-long learning,” said Mike McGill, Upper School Principal. “We’re generating new courses all the time that are responsive to student interests and also reflect faculty passions.” In addition to essential classes in science, history, modern language, English, and math, Park offers electives like Game Theory; Modern Iran; Molecular Biology of Health and Disease; Mad, Bad and Dangerous: Madness in Literature; and the Harlem Renaissance. “Park gives us so many choices,” said one student, “I have to decide from among 10 courses I want and I can only take 6. The school has really opened up new areas of interest for me.”
The Upper School curriculum expands opportunities to explore subjects and themes in depth. The spring Shakespeare production class, for example, is preceded in the fall with a related English class. In addition to reading and watching films of Shakespeare’s works, students become dramaturges by researching the history of the play, the time, and Shakespeare’s theater; by analyzing major plot issues; and by composing analytical and creative pieces for a program that is distributed at the performance.
“Park gives us so many choices,” said one student, “I have to decide from among 10 courses I want and I can only take 6."
Students have the option of exploring a single topic from different perspectives by taking two courses in the same semester. An English elective, Literature of Immigration, focuses on the conflicts and tensions of trying to learn a new language while maintaining a native culture and personal identity. Students read memoirs, study the history and political issues of immigration, and explore what it means to become a United States citizen. Through readings, oral histories, and written work, they consider the meaning of “American.” This course is paired with an accelerated elective, Latinos en los Estados Unidos, which is conducted entirely in Spanish. Within a context of mastering vocabulary and grammar, students learn about the countries of Central America and write a position paper suggesting resolutions to the major political and economic issues surrounding immigration. The two subjects merge in a very real way as participants make regular visits to the Esperanza Center in downtown Baltimore to teach ESL to recent adult immigrants.
Such intense study demands a sophisticated degree of commitment and time. Most school days consist of three 90-minute periods, interspersed with shorter ones for class gatherings, assemblies, and co-curricular meetings. “We can give students time to reflect and think things through,” said English teacher Greg Brandt. And how do students feel about 90-minute periods? “I actually love them,” said a senior, “I would never want to go back to 50-minute classes. Our periods give us more time to really engage.”
Faculty must stimulate engagement through group work, discussions, simulations, and layered activities that require students to think before they act and then to analyze what they have done.
While long periods create new opportunities, they also dramatically increase demands on faculty, and student participation is essential. Faculty must stimulate engagement through group work, discussions, simulations, and layered activities that require students to think before they act and then to analyze what they have done.
Few schools can match Park’s investment in professional development for teachers. The F. Parvin Sharpless Faculty and Curricular Advancement Program (FACA) offers grants for up to four weeks work at full salary and benefits to faculty, whose proposals are selected by an advisory committee of faculty, trustees, and administrators. This teacher-driven model reflects Park’s belief that fine teaching is at the heart of the school. In addition to supporting the school’s commitment to attracting, retaining, and sustaining teachers, FACA provides time for reflection, research and program development. Over the past 21 years, teachers have studied the adolescent brain, written a series of Upper School math textbooks, implemented and revised modern language curricula, and explored the difficult terrain of race and social class. Other grants have given faculty time to write, paint, or travel abroad to improve language skills and take part in service learning programs. One particularly notable project produced Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, the 2008 Newberry medalist for the most important contribution to Children’s Literature.
Park is not a custodian for curriculum created elsewhere. Its founders believed passionately in the value of individual minds. “Students and faculty create most of the experiences here,” said Brandt.