Publication Date: Wednesday, June 20, 2001
The Peninsula Way: Progressive school marks its 75th year of creative education for children
The Peninsula Way: Progressive school marks its 75th year of creative education for children
(June 20, 2001)
By Jane Knoerle
"I fell in love with the school 30 years ago when I drove in the driveway with my daughter, Alison," says Florrie Forrest of Menlo Park.
Ms. Forrest taught at Peninsula School for more than 25 years, retired two years ago, and "realized I missed it, so when the position as archivist came up I applied for it."
This week Ms. Forrest is knee-deep in memorabilia preparing for Peninsula School's 75th anniversary celebration on Saturday and Sunday, June 23 and 24. It will be a time for gathering with old friends and classmates at the Menlo Park independent elementary school, with a Saturday morning panel of students, teachers and parents across the generations. There will be old movies, displays of photos from over the years and newspaper clippings about former Peninsula School students.
On Sunday Dorothy Fadiman will present her award-winning film, "Why do these kids love school?", inspired by her years as a Peninsula School parent.
A forum on Peninsula School's impact on high school and college students, set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 24, is open to the public; all other anniversary events are private.
It has been 75 years since noted humanitarian Josephine Duvenck and a group of friends decided to form an independent school based on the teachings of the American philosopher John Dewey. They wanted a school that would be exciting for children and free of conventional curriculum; a school that would involve children in "learning by doing" and by giving them room and time to follow their own inclinations.
They wanted a school without authoritarian controls, rewards, or punishments. No grades, no testing, and, of course, no spanking or raps with a ruler.
Today the school is thriving. Located in the unincorporated Menlo Oaks neighborhood of Menlo Park, the school has an enrollment of 254 children in grades nursery school through eight.
Average class size is 16 to 21. All classes through the sixth grade have one or more assistants, many of them parents, who share teaching responsibility. Additional teachers provide special instruction in areas, such as music, physical education, science, Spanish, art, weaving, clay, woodshop, jewelry, dance and drama.
The early years
In her autobiography, "Life on Two Levels," the late Mrs. Duveneck of Hidden Villa Ranch tells how the school came to be. When the four Duveneck children were ready for school, their mother visited the Palo Alto public schools and found them "overcrowded and lacking in constructive activity. Most of the busy work I saw there had already been done by my children at home. The songs were insipid and there was very little freedom of movement in the classroom."
Mrs. Duveneck and other parents, many of whom were associated with Stanford University, decided to form their own school, progressive schools were being formed throughout the East Coast. Mrs. Duveneck made a trip back East to visit several of them. "They filled me with excitement," she wrote.
Hunting for a suitable site for a new school took the group into barns, rundown houses, even into an abandoned dog kennel. Then someone mentioned a once-grand mansion in Menlo Park. It turned out to be a stately Victorian in the Italianate style completed in 1882 as a wedding gift to James Coleman and his bride, the former Carmelita Nuttall, from his mother Maria.
There are conflicting stories as to whether the young couple ever lived in the mansion, but it's known that Carmelita Coleman died in 1885 in San Francisco from a gunshot wound. She was 24.
Over the years the house had several owners. In 1903 much of the property was subdivided to become what is known today as Menlo Oaks. After the Hibernia Bank foreclosed on the property in 1917, the mansion was abandoned until the Archdiocese of San Francisco took it over, using it as a dormitory for students while St. Joseph's Seminary was being completed in Los Altos Hills.
Mrs. Duveneck and friends were able to rent the mansion (which cost $100,000 to build) and surrounding 10 acres of property from the diocese for $100 a month. "Thirteen high-ceilinged rooms offered us unlimited freedom of movement, and the fields outside were beyond our wildest dreams of space," she said. In 1929 the school purchased the property from the Catholic Archdiocese for $26,500.
Forty-five children between ages 5 and 13 were present for opening day in September 1925. By the end of the year there were 70 children in grades one to eight.
Most schools start modestly with kindergarten or first grade and build up by degrees. But, because the families interested in the project had children of all ages, the school started from the beginning with all eight elementary grades.
It was an exciting time. Parents, teachers and children felt they were embarking on a great adventure.
That first year Mrs. Duveneck was "alternately receptionist, telephone girl, accountant, trouble-shooter, hot lunch cook, first-aid dispenser and general handy man." The next year she became director of the school as well as group teacher for seventh and eighth grades. She continued as director for 16 years, until all her children had graduated.
Throughout those years her husband, Frank, an accomplished artist, served on the school's board, taught mathematics and shop, and pitched in to help with school maintenance.
A statement of ideals
In its fourth year, 1928-29, the Peninsula School of Creative Education, as it was then known, issued a statement of its ideals. Those ideals haven't changed much in more than 70 years.
"In starting the Peninsula School we had ... the belief that children ... learn through doing. We have felt undue emphasis has been placed on acquisition or information and not enough on the ability to apply what one knows to actual life situations.
"We make a special effort to cultivate the hand as well as the head, encouraging creative expression. Education means the natural growth and unfoldment of all the faculties. We want each child to learn the secret of his own personality and to acquire satisfactory outlets for his physical and emotional life."
Today the school continues its tradition of treating children as people and as active participants in their education, starting in nursery school.
Parents get involved
Many of Peninsula's teachers first came to the school as parents, including co-directors Kacy McClure and Mary Lou Lacina. Ms. McClure started as a volunteer after her daughter, Alexandria, entered kindergarten in 1974. Daughter Kristi followed.
After many volunteer jobs, Ms. McClure became assistant to former director Elizabeth Aitken, then served as business manager for 14 years. Since 1996 she has shared the directorship.
Ms. Lacina came to the school in 1983 when her older son Travis started kindergarten; son Joe started in 1985. Taking the familiar route of classroom assistant, Ms. Lacina eventually became director of enrollment and admissions in 1987, and co-director of the school in 1996.
Art teacher Pat English of Menlo Park, who retires this month after 27 years at the school, also has two sons, Aaron and John, who attended eight grades at Peninsula. "Pat is the guardian of the history of this building," says Florrie Forrest about the Big Building, as the school refers to the Victorian mansion now surrounded by separate classroom buildings.
When asked about her plans for retirement, Ms. English says, "I haven't a clue. It will take me until August to clean out my room. I've been teaching art in the same room since 1977."
The Big Building
The Big Building, as the children call the Coleman mansion, is the heart of the school. At one time it also housed the school's boarders, as well as classrooms.
After a small fire in the crafts shed brought the fire marshal onto the premises, he ordered drastic changes, including removing all classrooms and the boarding department from the second floor, installing a ceiling over the first floor assembly room, removing the attic floor, and rewiring the building.
The board of directors even considered tearing down the Big Building, but decided to try to meet the fire marshal's demands.
Eventually separate buildings for preschool, primary groups and classrooms for the third through eighth grades were built on the property.
Today the Big Building houses offices and activities such as arts, crafts, dramatics, music and the library. Its wide porch is where children play on rainy days. Their artwork hangs on its walls, and they love sliding down the banister of the main stairway.
In his booklet, "The Coleman Mansion," the late Barney Young, school director for many years, wrote, "The old building is well-worn, but to us it is beautiful _ beautiful when full of children and activity."
The Big Building became a celebrity when boarding school scenes for the Disney movie "Escape to Witch Mountain" were filmed there for a week in 1974. Every child who wished to participate was used as an extra, and they pooled their earnings. Half the money was used for a paid position for P.E. teacher Karol Jones, who had been interning at the school; the other half was used to buy gym equipment.
Learning by doing
Play is important at Peninsula. "We believe play is one of the most important sources of learning," says a school brochure about its nursery school program. "Children choose activities in which they will participate, whether outside or in, active or quiet, messy or clean. They choose the clothing they wear, and when, what and how much to eat. Children can be inside or out as they choose, and often much of their outdoor time is spent with a hose or in the sandbox or puddles. This often results in wet or dirty clothing, or children may opt to take their clothes off altogether if they wish."
As children enter primary grades, they can choose activities that interest them outside the classroom, such as the science lab, the art rooms, the woodshop, and weaving room.
First and second, third and fourth grades are grouped together, so the child who needs another year in the class can do so without the stigma of being held back.
By the fifth grade, children learn to set goals and deadlines and evaluate results. There are no grades and no testing. The writing program includes writing, spelling, grammar and penmanship, with emphasis on creativity and enjoyment.
Math is the second major focus, with labs and traditional math exercises included. Pre-algebra is offered for all eighth-graders, and an optional high school-level algebra course is available.
Beginning in fifth grade, children choose units of two or three weeks where they spend an hour a day on special study topics. They hold class meetings to plan projects, decide activities, and solve and discuss group and individual problems.
Older kids work with the younger ones, serving as tutors, reading stories and planning fairs and plays. Upper school kids also do the janitorial work for their own classrooms. They plan and raise money for their annual camping trip, which takes place each spring.
This year's June 14 graduation ceremonies marked the end of the Peninsula school years for 23 students, many of whom had been there since kindergarten. Ten of the graduates will enter Menlo-Atherton High School, some will attend private schools, such as Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton or the Athenian School in Danville.
According to a survey of high school teachers at Menlo-Atherton, Peninsula grads are known for the creativity, independence and motivation they bring to the classroom.
Josephine Duveneck would be proud.
(June 20, 2001)
While Saturday, June 23, events at Peninsula School are limited to students, alumni and family, the Sunday, June 24, forum on Peninsula's impact on high school and college students is open to the public. Speakers include John Etchemendy, provost of Stanford University and former Peninsula parent; Ted Lempert, former state assemblyman and current member of the San Mateo County Board of Education; Gary Bacon, founder and director of the Learning Community at Los Altos High School; and Kathleen Bennett, founder and director of the Girls' Middle School in Mountain View and Peninsula parent. The forum begins at 1:30 p.m. Donations accepted.
(June 20, 2001)
**During the 1940s, singer Joan Baez's parents were house parents for the boarding students. When Ms. Baez was a child, her bedroom was the tiny room that is now the school's enrollment office. Her sister, Mimi Farina, also attended the school.
**The five children of noted physician Russell Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, all attended Peninsula. Their mother, Dorothy, was the music teacher. Dr. Lee's granddaughter, Barbie Paulsen, now teaches weaving at the school.
**Wah Ming Chang, who created the models of Pinocchio and Bambi for the animated films produced by the Disney Studio, attended the school during its early years. The artist went on to make props and create costumes for theater companies, award-winning commercials and movies such as "Star Trek" and "Planet of the Apes."
**Emmy Lou Packard became a well-known California artist, and studied under famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Mr. Rivera visited the school in the 1930s.