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Laurel hosted educational experiments in the 1970s [History Matters]

Student activism in the late 1960s spawned a wave of educational reform, and students were emboldened by the new national attitude inviting their participation. One of the initiatives created during this period was the Experiment in Free Form Education, or EFFE. Touted at the time in the News Leader as "a new kind of educational experience attempting to make education more meaningful to students," EFFE was designed to be "as flexible as possible in order to explore non-traditional educational concepts and teaching methods. Learning will be entirely self-motivated, and no grades will be given."

In 1971, Laurel High School devoted two days to the radical idea of scrapping the standard curriculum for a non-traditional, student-designed one that was taught, in some cases, by students themselves.

Prior to coming to Laurel High, EFFE was held at several high schools across the country. In a 2013 column, Washington Post writer Robert McCartney mentioned experiencing EFFE during his high school days in Montgomery County. In a recent interviews, McCartney said he taught a class on "The Lord of the Rings."

Laurel was the first school in Prince George's County to apply to the school board to implement EFFE. According to the News Leader, students at Laurel High "felt the need to experience a more open form of education than the usual day-to-day routine." Once the schools superintendent approved the idea for April 29-30, 1971, the student government began organizing. Students were surveyed for ideas and the student organizing committee used the results to compile a catalog of courses and activities, then contacted teachers, students and people from the community to teach. The walls of the cafeteria were covered with a giant master schedule of more than 120 offerings.

Jill Scagliarini Hetterman, a member of the committee, recalled that "It was a great exercise in the alternative and those of us who actually ran the thing worked really long, hard hours making sure everyone had a schedule. It was the coolest part of my years at LHS."

The environment at the school during the two days of EFFE was very different. Class times varied from 20 minutes to two days, and there were no bells. Some activities took place off-campus. Students experienced a freedom that resembled college life.

The courses offered read like a college catalog: philosophy, religion, social science, anthropology, education, languages, math, dance, drama, history and other traditional courses. What made EFFE unique, however, were the non-traditional offerings, such as the "Saturday Morning Bubblegum Brigade," taught by student Richard Adams, concerning comic books and science fiction. Students signed up for bridge, chess, folk singing, modeling and cosmetic instruction; a "Ladies Beware" female self-defense course; needlepoint; macrame;, physic phenomena; and poetry, among many others. Also offered was motorcycle maintenance, taught by Vice Principal Charles Cockrell.

Was EFFE a success? The News Leader called it "an experiment that succeeded. ... The students loved it. It was a day to be different. A day for fun and a day to do what sounded the most interesting. No one cut classes because the courses were of their own choosing."

Actually, many students took advantage of the freedoms and cut classes over the two days. In the school newspaper, The Tatler, student Don Keesey wrote that EFFE "for many … turned out to be an enlightening experience. For others, it was two free days from school."

The students who took advantage of EFFE were thrilled. Hetterman remembers that the organizing committee declared it a "huge success." Karen Zurawski Montgomery recalls that football coach Ron Ladue "taught us how to make spaghetti and I still use his recipe."

College campus

A few years after Laurel High experimented with EFFE, Prince George's Community College took the bold step of expanding its daytime, degree-seeking curriculum to a new fulltime campus in Laurel.

In the spring of 1974, PGCC officials announced plans to open a fulltime campus in Laurel. Night classes had been offered at county high schools, including Laurel, for years, but there had never been a daytime alternative to PGCC's Largo campus. From the beginning, PGCC officials had a vision of expanding the Laurel site to a regional college concept that would include community colleges from Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

The Northern Regional Center, however, started small. Tuition in 1974 was $13 a credit hour for county residents. In contrast to the state-of-the-art classrooms and labs that the current Laurel College Center boasts, students at the Northern Regional Center in 1974, located in the old Laurel High on Montgomery Street, used desks, chairs and blackboards left over after the high school moved to its current Cherry Lane building in 1965. Former student Jack Chrobak remembers sitting in "30- 40-year-old chairs."

Renovations were minimal. According to the News Leader, "there have been renovations to accommodate business courses, such as business machines, typing, adding machines, etc. The cafeteria has been divided into an eating area and student activity area," which contained a book store, vending machines, a pool table and pinball machines.

For its inaugural semester, the school offered credit courses in anthropology, art, biology, business, human potential, economics, English, geography, history, math, music, philosophy, physical science, sociology and speech.

PGCC was disappointed when only 150 students registered for the first semester at the Laurel daytime campus. Another 300 registered for night classes, which were still offered at the new Laurel High School. Andrew Rennie, coordinator of the Northern Regional Center, told the News Leader that "20 to 30 classes…were canceled because not enough students registered. Approximately 20 classes, however, will be held."

Rennie's optimism was not affected. He "noted that it will take a few semesters for the center here to catch on," according to the News Leader.

In spite of the meager accommodations, former students remembered their time there fondly. Convenience was a common theme. Ruthann Lloyd Clark said she "could walk to college" and Christine Brooks Jacobs "loved it — no commute on 495."

A bonus for the students was that the Washington Bullets used the tiny gymnasium as their practice facility. The Bullets that year boasted quite a lineup, including Phil Chenier, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, and went on to the NBA finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors. Students were welcome to watch practice, and sometimes encouraged to join in shoot-arounds. Chrobak recalled getting his shots ejected by Bullet Nick Weatherspoon.

PGCC offered another full slate of credit courses for the spring semester in 1975, but only 160 registered. The low enrollment figures, combined with the college's estimate of needing $100,000 for substantial repairs to the building, put the future of the Northern Regional Center in doubt. The county government turned down the college's request for the funds to renovate. PGCC President Robert Bickford told the News Leader, "We want the Laurel people to know they aren't going to be left out in the cold. No way that will happen!"

By the end of March, however, the decision was made to shut down the Northern Regional Center. For the next school year, PGCC expanded its nighttime offerings at the new Laurel High School and started some classes at 3 p.m.

In 2001, the Laurel College Center, located in the former Arbitron Building on Marshall Avenue, opened as a collaboration between Prince George's and Howard community colleges. The collaboration has since grown to include the Notre Dame of Maryland University, the University of Maryland University College and the University of Maryland College Park.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society. E-mail Kevin Leonard at

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