As a student guide at the Park School a few years ago, Sharna Goldseker, class of 1992, was giving a group of prospects and their parents a tour of the campus.
She explained the school's progressive philosophy and mentioned that grades were not a matter of great emphasis at Park -- not given at all in the lower and middle schools, given in the upper school only because colleges expected them.
"But how," asked a nervous mother, "do kids learn if there aren't any grades?"
The perception of Park reflected in the question -- that it is a place where there are few academic standards, where there is little emphasis on "the basics" and more conversation than rules -- has been a public relations problem for the school since its founding on Auchentoroly Terrace, across from Druid Hill Park (thus, Park School) in 1912.
But Park, though it has made some changes, has not strayed from its founding philosophy, while other schools, public and private, have wavered with the times and the fads, the educational flavors of each year.
The Park philosophy, rooted in the early-century progressive movement of John Dewey, holds that students and teachers are partners in learning, the latter acting as counselors and guides, not authority figures. Children, the philosophy maintains, are born with an innate drive to learn, and they learn through a succession of experiences, not from lectures and rote learning. The duty of the teacher is to guide those experiences.
So Park has always done things differently. It listens to its students, includes them in setting school policy, allows them to vent in the school's award-winning newspaper (much to the occasional discomfort of admissions officers) and encourages them to discuss the moral and ethical issues of the day (including those at Park, even those that cut to the core, such as racial and ethnic diversity).
Perhaps only at Park would there be a history course on the ethics of violence and nonviolence taught jointly by a former Vietnam Marine (Butch Ashman) and a Vietnam war protester (John Roemer).
Instead of grades, pupils in the lower grades get narrative reports from their teachers. Students read, read, read and write, write, write. They get a ton of homework. But they don't take multiple-choice tests. There are no valedictorians and no ranking of seniors. There is no honor roll. (When the yearbook listed top students in 1928, it said the list was "merely to recognize those who have rendered service.") No study halls but time built into each day for extracurricular activities. Trimesters instead of semesters.
Hans Froelicher, one of Park's founders, wrote 83 years ago that the perfect school would feature "no rewards and no penalties," the "abolition of open grades" and "examinations used only to stimulate efforts, especially of sluggards."
Park has compromised to adjust to reality. "We do struggle with the question of how to balance the egalitarian principles of progressivism with the appropriate recognition of each student's strengths," said Louise Mehta, the assistant head. Translate that to mean that Park keeps close tabs on where its graduates go to college, and it publicizes its students' accomplishments, even if that means slightly tainting the pure progressive philosophy.
And of course there are rules, though there are fewer than in most schools. Adam Dunn and his fourth-grade classmate, David Weintraub, last year led a protest against a rule banning hats in the lower school. The rule violates "what Park School is supposed to stand for," the two said.
The lower school principal subsequently praised the two students, saying they had learned about rule-making with a "real-life experience that is easy to relate to." It was pure Park. ( The rule was not changed).
The school was founded at a time of public school turmoil. City superintendent James H. Van Sickle, who had been reform a corrupt system for a decade, and three of his school board supporters had been fired by Mayor James Preston in 1911, an event that Froelicher said "seemed to predicate a general
disorganization and a lowering of standards." That was, remember, 84 years ago.
But Jewish parents who wanted to move their children to private schools has only on choice. Only Friends School among private schools accepted Jews 1912, and Friends had a quota system. Froelicher warned those who were organizing Park that to attract Gentiles, the school "must offer a superior type of education, so superior that neither Gentile nor Jew can ignore it."
Today, Park is about 55 percent Jewish. "It wasn't founded as a private school for Jews," said Walter Sondheim, the grand old man of Baltimore civic affairs who entered Park in 1913 and graduated in 1925, "but it's never completely shaken that image."
A review of the school's records over the decades shows a remarkable consistency, even during the Depression, when Park came perilously close to bankruptcy. Fifth-graders studied the Middle Ages in the early 1920s, for example, and they still do. Latin, once required, has disappeared, but students still read Homer and Shakespeare. Music and art always have been stressed as critical to student's liberal education.
Park moved from near Druid Hill Park to a hillside on Liberty
Heights Avenue and finally, in 1959, to a wooded 100-acre tract off Old Court Road in Brooklandville. Tuition, which ranged from $50 to $160 in 1912, will vary next year from $9,600 to $10,900.
Park has always been small -- it will inch over 800 students this fall -- with an average class size of about 16 and a faculty with an average teaching experience of 16 years. The school has no more than 1,300 living alumni, but they represent a cross-section of independent, sometimes cussedly independent, people.
They range from Edward Witten, the Princeton theoretical physicist some call the "smartest man in the world;" to David Perel, who supervises National Enquirer reporters covering the O.J. Simpson trial; to Zoh Hieronimus, a feisty talk-show host; to A. Robert Kaufman, gadfly Baltimore socialist who is running for a City Council seat; to Mr. Sondheim; to Ms. Goldseker, a senior this fall at Penn; to Suni Kia Eubanks, a 1995 graduate who switched to Park from Garrison Forest while she was in high school.
"At Garrison Forest, you knew in the third grade what classes you would take for the next eight years," said Ms. Eubanks. "Here, you have an idea of what's ahead, but there's always flexibility. If you don't get along with your math teacher, you can take another course with another teacher. And the teachers are always there, pushing hard but not dictating. It's impossible to do nothing at Park."
"The school has a living curriculum where the the content doesn't overwhelm the thinking, the analysis," Ms. Goldseker said.
Ms. Eubanks, who is black, is in a minority of 13 percent African-American, Asian and Hispanic students. While Park admitted blacks in the mid-1950, at a time when most private schools in the area were segregated, school officials are uncomfortable with how long it took.
"It's a matter of some embarrassment," said Ms. Mehta, the assistant head, "especially since integration was forced on the school by the students themselves."
Mark and Yvonne Gay visited several private schools a year ago in search of a landing for their first-grade daughter, Alana, whom they transferred from an all-black Randallstown public school.
"We liked Park from the minute we walked in," said Mr. Gay, who is black. "Schools run these introductory sessions all the time, but we had no feeling that this was routine for Park. They made us feel like they were waiting for us.
"Alana was ready to take off, and she really has. She expresses herself much better. They really stress writing, and they keep parents informed constantly. We got a written report from her teacher, Megan Ford, every week. When she was in the public school, we never heard a word."
Yvonne Gay said she felt more comfortable than her husband in the Park atmosphere. "Sometimes I've felt a little odd over there," said Mr. Gay, "but maybe it's my natural paranoia. I'd like to see more of a black presence at the school, but so far I can't complain about Alana's education."
Unlike many schools, Park confronts its own record of race relations, studying it in history classes, examining it in the student newspaper. This summer, a group of teachers is spending a month in a seminar titled "Understanding Racial Issues for Park Students."
Mr. Roemer, who teaches history, said Park, with a progressive program that was controversial from the first, would never have survived its lean years had it admitted blacks. "It's a question for the ages," he said. "Should an institution compromise its principles in order to survive?"
On the other hand, many say Park's survival depended on girls and women. Most of the private schools in 1912 Baltimore were single-sex; some still are. Park accepted both sexes from the beginning.
"We had only a vague idea how advanced the school was," said Clementine Kaufman, who attended from 1928 to 1942. "We had modern dance, unheard of in public schools. I learned how to wire a lamp. I take care of the wiring around the house to this day because of what I learned at Park School. I went to shop, and I learned how to cook along with the boys.
"Park gave me the courage to try things and the ability to be curious about all kinds of things. But I never knew if I was bright or not bright until I took the College Boards."
In a conservative private school community, Park held tight to its progressive traditions through a succession of headmasters, notably Hans Froelicher Jr. (1932-1956) and F. Parvin Sharpless, who retired this year after 19 years. When Dr. Sharpless retired, Park again did the unusual; it hired David Jackson, a 50-year-old public school superintendent from Long Island, N.Y.
There is no apparent danger Dr. Jackson will abandon the tradition. He talks like a Dewey, repeating Dewey's most famous phrase that children "learn by doing." And he says that people "who believe that progressive education is not as rigorous as what is believed to be its opposite are repeating a complete myth."
For a time, the progressive movement had such a bad name that its proponents tried to ban the name; Hans Froelicher Jr. said on his retirement that the word was "dead from multiple crucifixion."
But in 1995, progressivism is back in vogue -- in theory if not in practice. When Baltimore City teachers declare that "every child has gifts and talents, and it's our duty to nurture them," they may as well be at a Park School workshop.
"In the last five or 10 years," said Dr. Sharpless, "there has been something of a resurgence [of progressive education]. Now it's more widely practiced, particularly in public schools, and there's a great deal of research in schools of education and developmental psychology to confirm it. But I emphasize that I speak with caution. It may not last."
Not a few students, however, have been removed from Park -- or taken themselves out -- because progressive education wasn't right for them.
"The school lacks structure," said a student who left Park after the seventh grade and is now at Gilman School. (He requested anonymity because his mother, a proud Park alumna, "would be embarrassed.") "I needed reinforcement in the basics, which I wasn't getting there. A lot of us were falling through the cracks, and the sad part is that my parents didn't recognize it, and I was too young in the early grades to know the difference."
Andrew Sachs, the 29-year-old producer of "Woody Guthrie's American Song," said Park "was a godsend to me. I got there in the second grade. I was dyslexic and hyperactive, a real problem child. They figured out what was wrong and gave me extra attention. They said, 'This is how it's done. What do you think about it?' instead of 'This is how it's done. Now do it.'"
But Mr. Sachs, a 1984 graduate, said he also knew "quite a few students who didn't belong there. When it's right, you fly. But when you're not eager to jump and take command of yourself, when you need more discipline, you should be somewhere else."