M-T History Page 2a

Tender, Loving School

Newsday Article 
by Sylvia Carter

Thursday, October 9, 1975

Students lounge about on the carpeted floor, resting their heads on bean bags or looking up at the parachute draped from the ceiling.  Some students go barefoot.  The scene is not nursery school.  It’s high school – The Maslow-Toffler School of Futuristic Education – for 160 Brentwood students.  The students are encouraged to lie on the floor, teacher John Sherin says, as a result of psychologist Robert Ornstein’s theory that when a person is sitting upright, the more rational half of the brain is in control, but that when lying down, the creative half takes over.

The school is housed in one wing of the Brentwood School District’s former South Elementary School (the rest of the building is used for Special Education and other programs).  It is considered part of the School District, but staff members make most of the administrative decisions, rather than the building principal.

Any third or fourth year student whose graduation would not be jeopardized by attending the school, and whose parents give permission, may choose it instead of the regular high school program.  Students say that education at the Maslow-Toffler School is something they look forward to.  They like it, they say, because the school seems more friendly and more like a community than the crowded regular high school, and because they are treated like individuals.  They actually look forward to school, they say.

“I come here all the time,” says Teri A. Willis, who had arrived one morning at 8:30 even though her only scheduled class that day was at 1:30 PM.  “It’s like a home away from home.  I would never go to the high school because I wanted to.”

Parents, the school board president, and Maslow-Toffler teachers are enthusiastic too.  One teacher, Johanna Fogliano, says, “It’s not like coming to work.  It’s like coming to be with friends.”  Sherin, the teacher who handles Maslow-Toffler’s work experience program, says, “I don’t think there’s a staff member here whose whole life hasn’t been changed . . . “

“Very positive,” says Maureen Belenger, president of the board, of her reaction to the school, now in its second year.

Selma Kelson, whose daughter Andrea, a senior, attends Maslow-Toffler, says “She likes the idea of learning, which she never had before.”  Mary O’Conner, whose son, James St. Pierre, also is a student at the school, says that he gets up at 6:00 AM voluntarily to go to school, and “he stays after the bell rings.”

“Most people think that they’re doing nothing but dancing up and down in the halls” Ms. O’Connor says.  “They’re not,” Ms. Kelson says.  “I don’t know what they’re doing there, but they must be doing something right.”

What the Maslow-Toffler School is doing right isn’t an easy thing to determine.  Nor is it easy to define exactly how it differs from other alternative schools.  Even the name isn’t easy to get right; it has been called, because it sounded vaguely right, the mazeltov school.

The Maslow-Toffler School is named for psychologist Abraham Maslow and Alvin Toffler, author of the book “Future Shock.”  A question and answer sheet prepared by staff members asks, “How does it differ” from other schools.  The answer: “You will not find such things as homerooms, study halls, cafeteria and security guards, P.A. announcements, passes, suspensions, bells signaling classes, grades, detentions, tracking, and 7:30 A.M. classes.”

This is in sharp contrast to Brentwood High School proper, where there are 4,500 students, and where classes for juniors and seniors start at 7:30 A.M.  Sophomores start class at 1:30 PM and don’t finish until 6 P.M.

“What can you expect if you go?” the question sheet asks.  The answer sounds at once terrifying and a little corny:  “Tremendous pressure, sensational satisfaction, unbelievable frustration, incredible self-discovery, painful disconnection, periodic alienation, improved social relationships, skill development, personality growth, intellectual motivation, emotional liberation, spiritual renaissance, and a vocabulary of new definitions for old words – like love."

Those philosophies do not translate into a traditional class schedule, and for one student, who retreated back to regular high school, “looking at his empty schedule was like looking at an empty life,” Sherin says.

At Maslow-Toffler, courses in such subjects as humanistic psychology and consciousness-raising last for an hour and a half, but there are blocks of independent time in which students may study, read, or start classes of their own.  There are coffee breaks during class if the students decide to take them.  The class size is kept at about 22, to allow for individual attention.

Students get grades only in two college-level courses offered through Syracuse University’s Project Advance.  Credit also is earned through independent study and work experience (at jobs approved by the school staff, such as with Islip Town or at Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center), and teachers give written evaluations of the students’ work.  The independence allowed in managing their own time helps prepare students who choose to go to college for the college experience – “including getting closed out of classes” – one staff member says.

Several other Long Island districts, most notably Great Neck, which offers a variety of choices, have alternative programs at the secondary level.  Those on Long Island, besides Great Neck, are Glen Cove, Lawrence, Farmingdale, Herricks, Roslyn, West Hempstead, Westbury, Jericho, East Williston and Three Village, in Setauket.

While alternatives in themselves aren’t new, the contrasts offered by an alternative program in the over-burdened 21,000-student Brentwood district are even sharper than they would be in some of the more affluent communities like Great Neck and Jericho.  And since the school accepts anyone “whose graduation would not be jeopardized” because of a problem with course credits, the small student body is a mixture of students from different backgrounds, and from one end of the ability grouping system to the other.

“Here there’s no tracks and you can associate with everybody,” Teri Willis says.  Brian Bleistein, another senior, told about becoming friendly with an honors student he never would have had a chance to know, because they never would have shared classes in the regular high school.  Ken Reed, who attended Maslow-Toffler last year and graduated, says that in the ordinary high school, “I would close up and withdraw.  Here, I’m very outward . . . You were looking constantly at people’s heads, sitting in rows, and you never got to talk to them.”  Reed’s reading ability jumped from 9th to 12th grade level in one year, although there was less required reading, because he was motivated to read more, he says.

On a bulletin board at the school there is posted Maslow’s definition of a “self-actualizing person”: someone “who is able to fully use and exploit his talents, capacities and potentialities.”  One of the school’s goals is that students become "self- actualizing.”

Toffler, according to the same bulletin board, believes that the “educational system must change itself and begin to prepare students for their future, instead of the traditional industrial society expectations.”

One of the schools strongest precepts, Sherin says, at least at the first of the school year when students' egos are tender, is that “we will never reject you.”  The students’ behavior is, at first, unconditionally accepted.

On a recent day, Ken Moss was conducting an acting workshop and found that nobody had brought anything for a “taste test”.  "I want you to have the experience, but I will not do it myself.  Call it a mild lecture, call it whatever you want . . . I feel a certain amount of resentment . . . “  They decided to try again, on a day the following week.

In a “Views of Nature” session, John Sherin was exploring with his class the view that “nature is an obstacle”.  The students all were asked to try to think of times when, because they were small children, they had felt powerless, limited by their helplessness.  They told about waves, hurricanes, confrontations with parents, running away but not being allowed to cross the street, starting a fire and not being able to put it out because the kitchen sink was out of reach.

At one point Sherin said candidly, “Stop me if I’m getting too wordy, or if you’d rather do something else.”

Students constantly are encouraged to talk about their experiences and feelings.  In Ms. Fogliano’s Consciousness Raising Class, the discussion began with the differences between words such as lady, woman, girl, man and boy, and then moved on to feelings and attitudes about sex education.  “I think it’s in fifth grade they have a film in the cafeteria and put paper over the windows so the guys can’t see in,” Dorothy Hughes said.  “It’s almost like a porno movie,” Ms. Fogliano agreed.

All the teachers, six full time and several part time, had taught at Brentwood High School.  The school was created, Moss says, when it was announced at a school board meeting that South Elementary School would close.  Other alternatives were proposed, but only Maslow-Toffler survived.  It has been a new experience for the teachers, Moss says, because “we have been involved in all the decisions.”  The building principal is a “co-worker and service person” in this school, he adds.

Moss says that the teachers in the alternative school pose something of a threat to the regular teaching staff.  “We have encouraged a community feeling, from which others feel excluded,” he says,“ and there is some hostility.”  Jack Zuckerman, the President of the Brentwood Teachers Association, says that “relations between that faculty and the regular faculty are not as good as I would like . . . At this point, it’s not seen as a threat.”

And Zuckerman adds, “The evaluation of the program is something we’re concerned with . . . We’re going to have to come up with criteria that everyone agree on.  I don’t think you would find that most teachers are prepared for that approach.”

Gerald Cohen, co-chairman of guidance at one of the two regular high school buildings, says, “I like the program myself.  I don’t agree with everything they do, but I think it’s working . . . Psychologically, it’s positive for quite a number of the kids.”

Moss says that last year’s students gained a great deal of confidence and “ability to talk to adults” by giving presentations on the school at colleges, for which they were paid.  “It’s not just the normal development of maturity that happens in the senior year,” Sherin says, “It was something super.”

Does the school make a difference in academic achievement?  Last year 20 students who had been at least one year below grade level in reading gained an average of 1.5 years in their reading levels.  One student, who later made the highest score in his group on an entrance test for the Marines, advanced five years in reading grade levels.  And about 72 percent of last year’s students were reading more books at the end of the year.

“I’ve retained more learning here,” Eric Price says, after three weeks of alternative school, “than in three years.  I’ve learned to like myself.  I was always uptight there.”

Teri says that in the regular high school, a counselor told her she couldn’t be a veterinarian because her marks weren’t high enough.  “I don’t think I want to be a vet anymore, but if I wanted to, I could.  I really believe I can be anything I want to,” she says.

“Brentwood will be like Great Neck,” Sherin says.  “One day, we’ll have eight or nine alternatives.”

(Photos:  Newsday article photo; Students and staff playing, 1974; Forum, the community gathering, 1974.)