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CMS: Westledge School Lives ...
Aired:
10/08/2009
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In this episode:

No grades. Not many rules. In many ways, West Simsbury's Westledge School was the epitomy of the 1960s.

 

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49:27 minutes (23.74 MB)
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Westledge -- forty years later.  

In the late 1960s, a group of progressive educators and parents founded an experimental school in the fields and woods of West Simsbury. No grades. Students setting most of the school's agendas. A mix of inner city students attending at no cost and affluent suburbanites paying compensa tory high tuition. 

Westledge only lasted a few years, but it produced several hundred remarkable citizens who say the lessons of the school lasted a lifetime. They're finding each other now on -- where else? --  Facebook

Share your memories of Westledge below! Or e-mail [email protected].


 
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Listener E-mail from Shoshana

I completely enjoyed the Westledge show. The school had a big influence on my life in many of the ways expressed by your guests- encouragement to take responsibility for my own learning, getting to know people from many backgrounds, forging a very strong relationship with my advisor, Keith Johnson.  It is an amazing twist of fate that his widow is now my stepmother!

I would add two things: One, for all the positive aspects of Westledge, there was a dark side- lots of drugs, at least one teacher having sex with a student, several tragedies (including suicide) affecting the community.  

Second, I am happy to say that in my town of Portland, Maine, the public schools have incorporated many of the principles that were central to Westledge.  Both of my daughters went to an elementary program with a focus on project learning and no grades.  Experiential learning and connecting the school to the community are central aspects of what is now known as Expeditionary Learning- and we have it available from kindergarten through 12th grade in the Portland Public Schools.

Finally, the next time you see Eric, say hi for me.  

Thanks for the show,
Shoshana

Listener E-mail from Ruth

I could not believe my ears when you rattled off the verb list when describing your own junior high experience.
    I am 80 years old and thought I was the last remaining one of my generation who enjoyed the fine points of sentence diagramming and could still recall " be, am is , are, was were, being , been, appear, become, continue. feel, grow look , remain, seem, sound, smell, taste, and turn".
    What a delight it was to find that someone in my children's generation was exposed to a good old fashioned English curriculum, even when my own children did not have that benefit.

Ruth

Listner E-mail from Abbott

I attended Westledge school from the first year starting in 1968 until graduating in 1974. What was considered radical then was really the leading edge of what many people today consider common place. To various degrees many of those ideas have been brought into our families, schools, workplaces, government, and society. Westledge was an an effort to combine academics and a social awareness. There was a "buy in" when you decided to go to Westledge. A small community of students and teachers, where learning was not by the numbers. All were expected to engage, learn, partake, contribute, and to spread what we learned to the world. Lou Friedman's focus was creating a prep school for life, no mater what route you might take. You made a commitment to Westledge and the school made a commitment to you. It was not an easy transition for many students, and a completely new environment for all. There were no grades but your adviser knew if you were not reaching your potential. You negotiated your goals with your adviser. As the faculty wrote your evaluation you also responded with your own evaluation of your performance. You also evaluated the performance of the faculty. In many ways it was like entering a university setting at a much younger age. The course list covered a wide range of subjects and changed frequently. Teachers engaged with students, and in many cases the students helped push the courses into new areas of discovery. You were free to explore your interests. You were treated with respect and expected to do the same in return. It was perfectly normal in every part of the school to see students and faculty interacting, discussing, negotiating, and working through issues as equals. Speak up, believe in yourself, hear what the other person has to say, look past disabilities, express your creativity, have confidence in your ideas, and above all take responsibility for your role in your own education. Lou Friedman set a vision and often spoke to those goals during Morning Meeting. It was like a guest lecture series and group therapy rolled into one. Lou never talked down to us as kids. Instead he would paint a picture of how things could and should be. Then he would say it was up to us to change the world. There were special guests at Morning Meeting and it was also a time to hash out issues among the community that needed attention. Sometimes one of the students would use the meeting to make a presentation or start a petition. I know a number of people who learned how to be comfortable speaking in front of a group because of Morning Meeting. The creativity within the Westledge community was absolutely amazing. People brought their outside interests forward and others joined. PK Allen was an English teacher with a passion for the performing arts. He shared that excitement and interest with everyone. As a result Westledge had an active theater program with a level of excellence far exceeding what might be expected for such a small school. Faculty and students were encouraged to bring their interests into the school, and with that came a more intense involvement on a personal level. To this day on the list of people who influenced my life you will see a very high percentage who were part of "my" Westledge community. As part of that diversity of interest, and focus on the "whole person", we studied ecology and environment before there was an Earth Day. Our sports program included a ropes course, rock climbing, ski area, as well as soccer. The performing arts included theater, dance, music, mime and more. The study of "Humanities" took on a whole new direction when you consider the composition of the school. It was different to outsiders, but for those of us within the community it seemed just "right". It was said a number of times on the show that the student body had a lot of diversity. That is true, but the same was true of the faculty. That diversity was not just about skin color or economic backgrounds. There was a diversity of religion, family situations, personal goals, and more. The teachers were each very unique, and throughout their careers more than a few have carried the Westledge experience with them to other teaching positions. The school was very small, and when you walked in the door you were a member of a community somewhat isolated from the outside world. For many students what you heard or saw back in your home neighborhood was very different from what you experienced every day at school. I heard people outside the school talk about minorities and the disabled that I knew was completely untrue because I had first hand experience. The parents deserve credit for ignoring the norm and supporting a school that proved education and society could be different. When I went to elementary school a friend quietly told me why he had been out "sick" from school. He was Jewish and it was Rosh Hashanah. He made every effort not to let people know he was Jewish. At Westledge the school celebrated Christian and Jewish holidays, and also celebrated Martin Luther King day long before it was a federal holiday (law 1983). I'd gladly make a bet that the majority of Westledge students never even considered race when forming opinions on Barack Obama's qualifications for President. I am sure there would be lively discussion on many sides about his qualifications, but not the color of his skin. It was truly "our" school. We were there as it was being built around us. We cleaned it as part of Work Program. We had a say in how things should be run. If we had an idea we could present it at morning meeting. The concept of being an active participant in directing our education was heady stuff indeed. To question authority was not rebellion but instead the common byproduct of being an active part of an ever changing community. Authority was not assumed it had to be earned and in many ways granted by the community. The activism came in many colors. Politics was discussed and part of the curriculum. There was a school sleepover on presidential election night so you could watch the results flow in. We were not old enough to vote but here was a whole school aware of the candidates, their positions, and the election process. I was 12 years old for that first election night and I paid attention! Did the school have a lasting impact on my life? Absolutely and without question. I built my own house. I live in a small community governed by Town Meeting. My children went to nearby schools that have some aspects similar Westledge. I have tried to raise them to instill the same confidence and values I found at Westledge. The work I do today is a direct result of things I learned at Westledge: creative thinking, exploration of alternative solutions, communicating to diverse interests, public speaking, questioning the status quo, asking why not, and believing anything is possible if you want to make it happen. Don't think is was perfect because we all were far from perfect. There were problems of all kinds to work through. The late 60's and early 70's were turbulent times and the school was not completely isolated. The difference is we kept working through the issues with intensity and great passion mixed with laughter and trust. There are certainly some holes in my education from a traditional measure of facts, dates, and figures (thank you Google), but for being prepared for life my education was unequaled. My thanks and gratitude to Lou, a dedicated faculty, some very special individuals, and my fellow students -- friends and mentors for life. The path I am on was greatly influenced by all of you. In a box carefully stored away I still have all my Westledge academic evaluations. They are far more special to me than any report card could have been. Abbott de Rham, Westledge '74

Westledge/Kingswood

 

Colin: I found the Westledge show interesting particularly because I had lots of friends there. Dick’s response to your comments on Kingswood, however, prompt me to write. “Submissive urination” at Kingswood was not something I recall specifically, having attended there 67-70. But your comment was in the context of a jock culture – something I saw as a definitive part of the school back then. I did not take it to be a “cheap shot” at Kingswood, and certainly did not take you to intend to comment on the Kingswood of today.   Looking back to those years, Kingswood and Westledge each reflected much of what was going on in the world around them. Upon reflection, I confess to finding it hard to separate the discomfort with what I then perceived to be fascist-like authority at Kingswood from the frustration I feel currently when my trainer tells me to do 10 more push-ups. I wonder how the world would appear to me in 1969 with my 54 year old eyes. Thanks Colin and Dick for keeping it interesting. Best. Stuart

Listener E-mail from Dick

Yesterday while driving to a meeting at Kingswood, I caught the last twenty minutes of your broadcast re Westledge. As with you, I had Lou Friedman as an English teacher at Kingswood though some years earlier. He was nothing but outstanding. I returned to Kingswood after college to join forces with guys like Jim Goodwin, Steve Watters and Steve Davenport. For a couple of years we ran a 60's style program, a school within the school where we exposed ninth graders to a very nontraditional experience. By then, Lou had left to start Westledge.

My purpose in writing today derives from my reaction to your "urinate submissively" remark. I recall your years at Kingswood and am more than a little surprised about your sense of being subjected to unfair treatment. As I remember you had pretty free reign to express yourself as you wished and that you were truly respected as an individual. Your remark yesterday was a real unnecessary and unwarranted cheap shot.

While Westledge stood for a lot of right ideals it also had its difficulties which were significant in limiting its lifespan to eight years. In the same light, as you well know, your high school alma mater is celebrating its centennial, no small feat for a day school. Families lay down $30,000 a year for their kids and as I'm sure you well know, these are smart folks who understand value. At KO, diverse groups of individuals continue to be respected for who they are and what they do.
Faculty like Rob Kyff continue to extract intellect and accomplishment from students everyday.
The School continues to employ the same standards that you experienced, which it might be added, seemed to have paid off for you through the years.

All this having been said, I continue to enjoy your work in the Courant and on WNPR. I simply feel that you should know what your listeners think.

Best,

Dick

Westledge

I stand corrected.  My mother taught French. :-)

Westledge

    My parents met while working at Westledge School in 1968.  It was each one's first job out of college.  My dad worked with finances and coached and my mother was a Spanish teacher.  They left in 1970 when my dad enlisted in the Army and they later settled in Simsbury.  My mom has spent the fourty years since working in Hartford area boarding schools, but has always talked about the great vision of Westledge and how much she enjoyed working there.  The memory of Westledge and its accomplishments has been a consistent story in our home while growing up in the 80's and 90's.  I'm glad you are talking about the school today!

I'm a Westledge alum (71-77)

I'm a Westledge alum (71-77) from Seattle, ended up as a research psychologist.

I wanted to add more about the feel of Westledge, something Colin was trying to eke out of people throughout the conversation.  Part of the individual responsibility and mutual respect that was core to Westledge was the incredible diversity and maturity of the curriculum.

No required courses except something about Conn state history (state law).  There was organic gardening, pottery, philosophy, soccer, african dance.  For high school plays we did Pinter and Kopit.  We read Plato and William Burroughs.

Morning meetings, the daily community gathering, weren't just announcements but also performances - faculty and students singing, reading poetry, dancing.

Yes, a lot of flower-children behavior going on (you should see our yearbooks), but also opportunities to experience art and literature and science as colleagues of the adults around us rather than mere students.

A lot of aspects of the Westledge education began to be incorporated into traditional prep schools as the 70's progressed - arts integration, individual responsibility, written feedback instead of or in addition to grades, mentoring relationships with faculty.  But the curriculum remains unique in my mind.  And a lot of that came from the people.  Lou gathered together an amazing group of talent, let them teach what they wanted, and expected students to engage at the same high level.

Like Lou said, that was hard for some people, both faculty and students.  And when the money ran out for the scholarship program (whether because of 70's economics or the opening up of the other private schools) we lost both talented teachers and students.

Not sure the experiment could be repeated...

Westledge Days...

 Libby,

after reading your piece on your Westledge experience, I wanted to reach out and say that for some reason, I never forgot your name. I know that we knew each other even briefly during that time and we may have even been friends of sorts. I reside in Scottsdale, Arizona these days and unfortunately missed the radio show. However, if you are on Facebook at all feel free to say hello! Once again, I'm Brooks Duvall.

Thanks!

 

 

Listener E-mail from Tim

A similar current incarnation of Westledge might be found in the Big Picture Magnet School in Bloomfield:

"The school is based on the idea that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own educations through personalized learning, authentic work, adult mentors and family involvement."

Another similar, but different school, at the time of Westledge was Shanti, the public alt. h.s. in Hartford's train station.

I went to Westledge for 5 years but chose to graduate from Shanti by spending a senior year there.

Listener E-mail from Gerri

Hello from Nebraska! I attended Westledge School from 1972 to 1976. In answer to your question, "what was Westledge to you?" or something similar, I came to Westledge on a lark, following some friends from a shoreline town after my own family had fallen irreparably apart. From a middle class family, my grandparents paid my way and I fell somewhere between the scholarship students and the wealthy. I saw Westledge as a haven as well as an opportunity to experience the whole world. Of course, it wasn't the whole world, but Westledge was a world unto itself. I took all the college track courses but also took years of Outward Bound, pottery, and community internships with such entities as The CT Citizens Action Group. Without Westledge I may have sunk into the comfort of drugs and alcohol (contrary to popular myth, Westledge actually gave many of us a reason to do things other than drugs) and I certainly would have had a less full experience of the world. I have traveled and worked far and wide and now teach yoga in rural Nebraska. Life is good. Thanks for the show. I'd like to suggest a further study of Westledgians; we are an interesting bunch.

Listener E-mail Gary

A great follow up show would be for you to interview the students at the Sudbury school in Framingham Mass.  Here is a school that was started in the 60s and had miraculously survived into a very successful school.  I am not at all connected with the school but you might suspect that I am.

They have no curriculum, exams, administration, “permanent records”, actual classes. Everyone in the school has one vote.   Everyone runs the school. They have attained state accreditation, 75% of the students that “graduate” go on to colleges of their choice, or start their own businesses. Students get into colleges without transcripts.

I suspect that the West Ledge School is a model of the Sudbury School.  There is one in New Britain also.  I can get you in touch with someone that is connected there.

Do your own search for the school and I am sure that you will be impressed.