More than a century ago, before child development experts had taken a close look at how the young brain develops, most children were schooled through lectures and an authoritative model of teaching that required a stunningly small amount of actual participation by students.
It was also around this time that philosophers like John Dewey and others began espousing a more “progressive” form of education that was more child-centered, interactive and embraced the notion of nurturing development of the whole child.
That laid the foundation of the Park School in 1912. And 100 years later, the small private school in Snyder that has churned out everyone from a Pulitzer Prize winner to a Hollywood movie producer remains committed to that ideal, said head of school Christopher Lauricella. “The 100 years, since then and now, have really validated how kids learn,” he said.
Today, the school, which boasts an alumni roster of many of the region’s movers and shakers, launches its weekend of Centennial Celebration events. Nearly 1,000 alumni are slated to return for some part of the school’s commemorative activities, Lauricella said.
Of course, the idea of hands-on and experience-based learning is no longer unique to Park School. Neither is the idea that schools are more than a place where children learn to read and write, but a place that develops character, values and a sense of self-worth.
Lauricella, a proud product of public schools, said Park School has had the advantage of not being part of a large system that demands efficiency, looks at bell curves and frets over standardized testing.
“If a teacher feels they need to cover something deeply, they’re not under pressure to move on because they have a standardized test next week,” he said. “We develop kids who are joyful, who love to learn. Our independence lets us do what we think our best work is.”
Like other small schools, Park School bills itself as a place that fosters a sense of community and belonging. The school isn’t as big as it used to be in the 1970s, when it had around 400 kids. These days, the 32-acre Harlem Road campus has about 260 students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12.
In response to the perception by some that Park School is more of an exclusive club for rich kids, Lauricella said that the school is more diverse than many people might think. The school provides tuition assistance to 43 percent of its students, has a strong international student contingent, and 31 percent of its students are identified as nonwhite, he said.
A slew of special events are planned to mark the centennial, including a “Big Finger Painting” project at the school led by artist Charles Clough, an art show and performance by students and alums with the Centennial Park School Orchestra, a soccer game featuring teams of alumni from odd and even years, and a formal “100th Birthday Gala” on Saturday at Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
And, the Peace Bridge and Electric Tower in downtown Buffalo will be lit up in Park School orange this weekend.
Lauricella said the school will embark on a major fundraising campaign to support a new science facility, fund scholarships and the endowment, and help focus the school as a place where students can be environmentally, ethically and globally literate in the 21st century.