Out of the Mainstream

Education Next Issue Cover

Staying there isn’t easy



By Lynne Blumberg

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Summer 2010 / Vol. 10, No. 3

I spoke recently with a teacher at an alternative public high school. His students had been kicked out of their neighborhood schools for fighting, truancy, and drug abuse, and his job was to remedy the students’ behavior so they could return to their neighborhood schools. I wondered, what happened to the alternative school I remembered from the 1970s? It seemed so different from the alternative schools of today.

Alternative East High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, was modeled after the famous Parkway alternative school in Philadelphia. From 1971 to 1983, Alternative East drew students from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban school districts of Abington, Cheltenham, and Springfield. The principal, Gisha Berkowitz, took the job after first becoming known as an “active parent.”

At Alternative East, 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.

Alternative East was continually evaluated and received positive reviews. Berkowitz carefully kept the budget from getting “out of balance.” So why did the school close?

As is often the case, the answer at the time was money. In 1983, Abington’s school board, in a 5–4 vote, withdrew the district’s participation, forcing the school to close its doors. Nevertheless, minutes from board meetings praised Alternative East and its programs, which included production of a children’s play at a local mall and learning activities in genetics. The board justified its decision by saying that district schools had “highly skilled, highly paid people, and we should be able to provide for the needs of these [students].”

The underlying causes were probably more deep-seated. Times had changed. When the school opened, according to Berkowitz, students were politically alienated by the Vietnam War, racial segregation, and traditional schooling. There was a passion for hands-on, personally relevant education. But by the 1980s, Berkowitz explained, the students at Alternative East were “less interested in exploring.” The teachers weren’t as enthusiastic either, and that sapped energy out of the school. “The political milieu has to be [there]—everything has to be ‘right’…and unfortunately, [that] doesn’t happen enough.”

Even the storied Parkway Program, 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.

Dr. James Lytle, Parkway’s first principal, said that by the late 1970s and early 1980s the middle-class students angry at the system had disappeared. Parkway became a safe alternative to the neighborhood schools and had to recruit “very aggressively” to maintain a diverse student population.

In 1990, the district asked Ms. Odette Harris to become Parkway’s principal. For more than 30 years, Harris had been the principal of William Penn, a large, traditional urban high school. Her style and Parkway’s had little in common, and she remained principal long enough to alter most things alternative. As Ms. Catherine Blunt, Parkway’s union representative at the time, put it, the school changed “because we were in the district.”

As districts like Philadelphia seek to “turn around” their public schools, let’s not forget the lesson of the lost alternative schools. Inventive programs, even when successful, are easily swept aside and replaced by standard fare.

Lynne Blumberg is an ESL and English instructor and freelance writer.




Comment on this article
  • Richard Fischer says:

    I was referred to this article and I have to respectfully disagree that the Wyncote Alternative School was a success, at last for those who intended to go to college. I attended for the first two years of the school — from ABington in the first incoming class slected by lottery, and it was a disaster. I recall staff tasked with evaluation, but that their so-called evaluations showed the school to be effective , to me, is totally nuts.

    In brief, I went to college with a 10th grade education to the extent that it took my first three semesters to overcome.

    Founder Allan Glatthorn bailed after Year One. I recall the “chemistry lab” being in the bathroom and learning nothing there or most other classes because of the misplaced emphasis on “student freedoms” — which most 16 year olds have yet to develop. I also recall moving to three separate locations in three years, from the Christian Brothers facility on Washinton Lane (now a housing development), to a building on Easton Road, followed by, finally, a big building on Greenwood Avenue in Jenkintown.

    An easy class is known as a “gut class:; this was a gut school. I remember being asked to speak before the Abington School Board in 1982 to give my impression during the funding debate which, happily, ended this charade in about 1983. I declined, but was glad Abington pulled out, finally.

    I can only speak for the first two years of this fiasco when I was a student; perhaps it improved over time to focus more on academics. But my time there was not well-spent, regardless of what so-called “evaluations” during that time may have found.

    Richard Fischer
    Alternative East
    Class of 1973

  • Steven Austin says:

    I graduated AE with a lopsided education; slanted to my interests (art/photography/writing).

    I regret not being involved in other classes but I will never forget the passion of my teachers, the unique manner in which classes were taught, & the environment (both physical & intellectual).

    It wasn’t perfect. I suspect that students who craved a more academic style were uncomfortable there. (Why were they there in the first place?)

    For me, it was a place that I looked forward to attending every day. Being that it took a bus AND a train to get to, it was worth it! The “alternative” to AE was getting a GED or just dropping out. My sending school (George Washington High in NE Philly) was like a prison. AE sent me on to a path in the Arts.

    Steven Austin
    Class of 1977

  • Susan Aptaker says:

    I also graduated from A.E. in 1977 and never regretted a moment of it. I DID attend college, graduating with honors with a degree in Education. Nice to see a mention of the old school here and to see another alumnus who has become a teacher. I think we were inspired by some of the best.

  • Melinda Lewis says:

    I graduated in 1973 from Alternative East after attending one year; I had been at Girl’s High for 3 years and was succeeding academically, but I felt lost and alienated in such a large, all-city school. In the fall of 1972, Alternative approved me to work in the McGovern for President campaign office in Center City Philadelphia, so I missed most of the time at the Easton Rd building but had a blast learning about campaigning (silk screening t-shirts, doing clerical work and public outreach). After the election in November, I attended classes at the Wyncote location, where I did a lengthy research paper on Mexican Americans in the U.S. and the Farm Workers movement; learned about female anatomy and sexuality in a class just for women; took a cooking class from a fellow student where I learned recipes I still use today; and made lifelong friends. Alternative East remains to this day one of my most cherished and valuable experiences.

  • Melinda Lewis says:

    Forgot to mention that I went on to graduate from college with a BA (summa cum laude) and an MA (3.94 GPA). So AE did not harm me academically!

  • Lee I. Lippert, AIA says:

    The last several days I’ve given great thought to this article, my experience at ASPE, and the comments posted by Richard Fischer (’73). While ASPE wasn’t a positive experience for Richard Fischer, the second year for the program was a real struggle for all of us. Alan Gladhorne did leave to take a prestigious position at U. of P., and the school was relocated to a cramped (sub-par) office building up on Easton Road. But, under the direction of Gisha Berkowitz the school did recover, and we found suitable quarters at the Wyncote location. 

    The true test of the success or failure of the ASPE education can only be measured by each of us individually, and whether afterwards you thrived along the path you choose in further education, careers, family life, and friends in the years following. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it wasn’t for ASPE, my fellow students, our parents, and the caring and patient faculty.

    To this end I look back on my full three years at the ASPE, and thank my lucky stars for a wonderful experience.

    Happy 40th. Anniversary Alternative School Project East alumni, faculty, and friends.

  • Audrey Godshall says:

    I attended Alternative East for my last three years of high school and I still consider it to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

    I felt totally invisible and lost in the huge, impersonal Abington HS system and felt like I’d won the lottery when I got into Alternative Projects East (as, indeed, I did: students who wanted the chance to attend Alternative submitted their name and then names were drawn from that pool – not everyone who wanted to go, got to).

    While I’m sure I would have slogged through to graduation at Abington HS, I thrived at Alternative East. Attending AE allowed me to gain self confidence and begin to know who I really was. It is where I first began to see myself as a worthwhile individual. I can’t imagine who I would be now, if I hadn’t gotten lucky enough to go to Alternative East High School.

  • Matthew Chapman says:

    I went to 4 years at ASPE, from 1972 to 1975. I had the credits to graduate in 11th grade, but loved the school so much, I went all the way. Being a gay teenager in the larger school system of Springfield, I would have dropped out if I had not won the lottery. But at Alternative school, I was able to just be me. Though I did not come out until I was 20, I was comfortable there. That made me excel, and I got my first A’s in math! I even was able to earn high school credits and college credits at the same time by attending classes at colleges and a study tour to Colombia with Temple U. My experience was outstanding, and I have had a great career in finance as a Director of Operations at a regional stock exchange (huh?) for 25 years, and then a professional Feng Shui consultant! College was actually boring after ASPE, and I never got my degree, but I did earn honors masteries in Chinese Astrology and classical Feng Shui, where few Americans can’t even get past the first courses. I can read Chinese characters and do complex computations for geomagnetic readings, as well as having helped design, test, build and implement 3 electronic trading systems for options. I own 2 homes, 4 cars and have travelled extensively. And all with an alternative education. Thank you Gisha!

  • Paulo (then Paul) Gregory Harris says:

    I attended AE, graduating in ’78. The lottery entrance strategy created a diverse and beautiful spectrum of individuals from three different surrounding school districts, and very differing life experiences. The students arrived from challenging inner-city, to palatial suburban privileged environments, and figured out how to work, learn and explore together. This created a dynamic community of purpose. Sure, there were some costs to allowing the community of teachers and students to create something new, but the benefits in my experience far outweighed the losses.

    Being a creative, there was no relationship to the way I learned in traditional public and private schools of Abington in which I received my prior eduction. Walking into the old stone building in Wyncote was the first moment since Grace Land’s kindergarten class that I felt at home in an academic institution. Most of my previous years were spent looking out of the window of dry, un-engaging lecture style classes, with irrelevant text books, and nothing to stimulate my once-excited early childhood passion to learn and explore.

    I remember classes with “Chip” on Asian religions in which he would conjure meals of brown rice and vegetables I had never seen, prior to conducting stimulating, highly-interactive sessions exploring the diversity of thought and flavor. We studied biology by reclaiming a dead stream-fed pond in a near by arboretum. I remember the joy of finding the clogged drain, and literally watching the pond come alive after the class cleared it. We studied flight by building functioning air vessels from planes to hot air balloons.

    It is impossible to overstate the impact of this school on my life, my creativity, and my sense of confidence having learned I am able to solve virtually any problem with sustained focus and the collaborative involvement of individuals representing diverse perspectives. It is precisely this kind of education that is needed NOW. The speed of change is too rapid, and the demand for continuous problem-solving to meet life’s challenges needs to become the underpinning of today’s education, not the failed model of teaching to irrelevant tests.

    The school moved from Wyncote to a traditional school building in Springfield Co. which was a devastating blow to the incredible vibe of the place. Moving, metaphorically and actually, squeezed the life out of the school as it struggled to retain its alternative roots. It only lasted a couple years after that move, and was never the same. It was a blessing to be a part of that successful, though short-lived experiment. As a life-long educator and social change activist, I have always used that model to bring reality to education. It is now time to bring education to the reality of our times.

  • Glen Goldstein says:

    Alternative East helped make me the wack-o I am today (and probably saved my life) and I couldn’t be more pleased.

    I was drowning in the traditional Abington High School. My grades had dropped from A’s to D’s because my life at school was miserable every day. I would sit in class and stare out the window and wish I was ANYWHERE else.

    There was not one day when I woke up and DIDN’T want to go to my classes at AE. The school taught me how to think for myself. I didn’t realize it at the time but AE was basically a college environment.

    Need four years of math credit? Take them as your schedule allows, as long as you get them done. Want to do an independent study? How about scheduling all of your regular clases on M/W/F so you have T/Th free to pursue other projects. (I got to volunteer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum — a dream come true for me).

    Want to cut class? No one will chase after you, and you won’t get detention — you’l just flunk and get no credit. (Surprise! We’re treating you like a grown-up, and actions have consequences!)

    If you really had a hankering to attend a traditional high school class, I was allowed to attend any class at my sending high school. (Good for expensive, equipment-intensive classes like chemistry).

    Basically, I’ve found that if you want to work in highly structured, traditional careers where they have lots of rules and hierarchy, you probably ARE best getting a traditional education. Your bosses all followed the straight and narrow and they want to hire people just like them. So if you’ve always dreamed of being the Assistant Regional Manager/Northeast District 17 at the IRS, stay in a traditional school.

    But if you want to think for yourself and create your own path through life, AE was a great place to start. Or put another way, those people who wouldn’t hire you or accept you into their college because you had an alternative education? You didn’t miss anything because you wouldn’t like being around them anyway!

    My only regret is that I now have a four-year-old and at present there is no AE to send her to when she’s ready.

  • Marlene Cogan says:

    I’m so glad I came across the article today. It’s so nice to see the names of some of my former classmates.

    Alternative East literally saved my life! I was flunking out in of Abington HS in 9th grade and my home life was horrible. It was so bad in fact that I had decided to runaway if I didn’t win the Alternative School lottery. Thankfully I made it!

    What I found was an educational environment that respected me and my intelligence. I found teachers who were passionate and helped me to discover the love of learning. The expectation was the students would take ownership of their education and would do the work because they wanted to, not because they would get punished.

    I understand that this model is not going to be effective for all students but in 1974 when I joined AE, I found a group of students who were exceptionally bright who felt stunted and stifled by their school of origin. As stated in this article things changed over time as things do.

    What I observed is that by the time I graduated in 1977 the students choosing AE had changed. The students that were arriving weren’t the best and the brightest but rather troubled kids who had bigger issues than getting an education. However, AE continued its teaching model with all its attending freedoms and student input without adjusting to realities of those students.

    The other big change for AE was losing the building in Wyncote. That was for me the beginning of the end. The building was so integral to the spirit of the school and its loss coupled with the incoming students were the sign that the 60′s were over.

    I too went onto to college and a degree. Indeed I was infinitely more prepared for college than my fellow freshman. I owe so much of who I am to the amazing teachers I had – John Accardi, Sue Stein and especially John Davis.

    I believe that this school, like Parkway were successful because of blip in time. Though in sense it was a Voucher program and may yet have relevance to a future educational model. Treating students with respect and teaching students the joy of learning is something that should never go out fashion.

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