M-T History Page 8

Alternative School Survives Period of Retrenchment

by Ronald Gross

Brentwood, New York, 1981

Milt Siler and I first met Ronald Gross and his wife Beatrice -- who co-authored a previous book -- at the Great Neck Village Community School. He wrote this article for us after he visited us at M-T and at a time that we needed all the support of 'experts' we could muster. Ron was a friend of M-T. He continues to write about education and has gone on to build a successful corporate consulting business. - John Sherin For more information about Ron Gross, please visit these helpful links:

"Alternative Schools" are shriveling throughout the country, as Boards of Education batten down the budgets and re-emphasize the three R’s. But one such school is flourishing in Brentwood, Long Island, a suburb of New York City.

"We believe there’s a fourth ‘R’ -- Responsibility," says Brentwood Board President Anthony Felicio. "But you can’t teach responsibility unless you give students some of it. So our philosophy is that students who want it should have a choice, an alternative form of education -- if they are willing to accept responsibility for it. As to the budget, we've found that it costs no more than it would if those students were in the regular school."

The school is named for Abraham Maslow, the pioneer psychologist who inspired the "human potential" movement, and Alvin Toffler, futurist author whose book FUTURE SHOCK gave the new term to the language. "Most schools are named for dead people," said the student who showed me around the school. "Here we read Maslow’s and Toffler’s books, and can even call Toffler on the telephone to ask him about the future." (Maslow died in 1970.)


An M-T student chooses from three programs, in addition to courses which may be taken in the regular High School. There’s a College Program, in which students can earn regular college credits by taking Psychology courses from Syracuse University; Career Apprenticeship or Work Experience, in which students earn credit and/or pay; and a Performing Arts Center with opportunities for acting, lighting, choreography, music, set design, and sound technologies. Courses offered in these programs have ranged from Science Fiction through Statistics to Semantics. If none of these options meet a student’s needs, a supplemental program of independent study can be devised.

I talked with representative students, students and parents. Typical of the parents' comments were: "Our son was on the verge of dropping out of school -- and into Lord knows what. We really feel this environment saved him from that."  "The school has given our daughter a chance to express herself and thus relate to other people in a way she never could before."  "Attending Maslow-Toffler has turned our youngster into a learner for the first time since she entered school."

Among the students, things like this were said: "I grew, I cried, but most of all I became a man."  "It has helped me and is continuing to help me develop my own insights and personality."  "M-T helped me to realize that I am a very family-oriented person and feel I am most productive in the home."


Feelings are considered important at M-T. In virtually every class the participants are invited to share their personal reactions to the subject, and to the group process in the class. "It fosters integrated growth," says John Sherin. "Action patterns tell what we feel and what we know. Our bodies never lie when they speak to others in the non-verbal language of the learning process. We only kid ourselves." Consequently, students and teachers get to know each other far better than when a desk and a rigid class structure separate them.

Unlike some alternative schools which see their mission as permitting young people to "do their own thing" on an individualistic basis, at M-T there’s a strong commitment to participate and strengthen the school. The students play a critical role in hiring and evaluating faculty, making planning decisions, and establishing guidelines and procedures. They even teach classes -- but only after developing a syllabus which shows what will be accomplished in each session of the proposed offering.

Respecting and involving the students pays off, M-T has found. Vandalism in the annex that has been housing the school (it moved this Fall) is minimal. Morale among the students is so high that a national drug prevention center funded by the U.S. Office of Education uses the school regularly as a model of how a healthy school environment can discourage drug use.

Two pillars of the school have been Milt Siler and John Sherin, who started the campaign to establish it when the regular high school became overcrowded in the early 1970’s. Siler, who resigned (from his Social Studies Department Chairmanship and Special Assignment at M-T) last year and who is currently writing a book on education, is continuing his supportive association with the school.

Commenting on the role education will play in the coming decade, Sherin had this to say: "Schools are going to have to listen to and respond better than they have in the past to the cries of help from young people. Teenagers are literally dying to get this society’s attention. Suicide, cancer (which is increasingly being proven to be stress related), and alcohol-related auto fatalities are already among the major causes of death among the youth of this nation. That really makes quite a desperate statement when you think about it."

Referring to Board President Felicio’s statement, he continued: "The fourth R must be applied to Educators and Boards of Education as well. We bear great responsibility here. Our reluctance in this country to make the changes so desperately needed to generate alternatives within the public educational structure are at least partially responsible for the growth crisis in schools. You see it everywhere. The larger the school system, the larger the crisis. Families and parents are already the unwitting victims of Future Shock. They literally don’t know what to do anymore. They are unable to help themselves. As Educators and Board members there is much that we can do. We must begin by listening to the children, to the young people’s cries for help -- to what they are saying they need, and then seeing to it that those needs are met at a price we all can afford. Even more important than economic considerations are the human costs which are already too high. We can save dollars while saving lives."


A major focus of the M-T program structure is on the work of psychologist Robert Ornstein, whose investigations of the dual hemispheres of the brain and their respective functions has shed much light in recent years on a heretofore neglected area of cognitive research by educators.

"In helping people to know if they are mostly right brained or left brained, we can assist them to tap into their own vast unused intellectual and creative potential. Most people are using a very small percentage of their potential," Sherin added. "As the powers of their right and left brain are integrated, we find students able to accomplish tasks that they never before would have dreamed possible."

The greatest source of untapped psychic energy of the human being resides in the right hemisphere of the brain. Conventional education, however, has tended to reinforce our cultural bias in favor of left brain teaching and learning. Emphasis upon punctuality, external teacher authority, competition for recognition and grades, sequential learning -- all these and more left-brain functions have for years been an integral part of the lock step system of yesterday’s classroom.

The needs of the future demand that we learn to develop in students those areas of our right brains that as a culture we have previously relegated to functions of relative unimportance in our lives. Long-range planning, development of our intuitive and even psychic abilities, interpersonal and international skills of cooperation and accommodation and an increasing awareness and familiarity with the various levels of human consciousness. These are the very areas that young people are anxious to get involved in. What they are telling us is that they want right-brained nourishment. One student from a nearby school commented after visiting M-T, "Please help save poor under brain nourished children like myself and extend futuristic education to my school. I can barely survive here. My creative intelligence is dying."


Over half of the graduates in the school’s five-year history have gone on to college, including some to prestigious institutions including Yale, the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the Julliard School of Music. Minority students are represented in M-T in the same proportion as they are in the regular high school population.

The school works well, according to several outside evaluations. A student’s reading level almost always goes up after entry, sometimes astonishingly. Two years growth in reading comprehension (in one year) is quite usual, and some students leap ahead three, four or even five years.

What does the author of the recent bestseller THE THIRD WAVE, Alvin Toffler, have to say about the school that bears his name? "I think the people of Brentwood are lucky to have such a school. I was unlucky, because it was too late for my daughter to have a chance to attend a high school like it."

(Photo: Ron Gross and John Sherin, 1981)