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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Staying the Course of Open Education

Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School has maintained its open-education philosophy through decades of reform and change.

Open education? Oh yes, I remember—those schools with no inside walls." That is the typical and inaccurate response I get, if indeed I get more than a blank look, when I mention open education to educators today. But 30 years ago, the open-education movement was as familiar as the standards movement is now. Open schools featured active learning opportunities, such as learning centers, field trips, and manipulatives. Learning was often individualized, with students completing learning contracts at their own pace. Open schools commonly used multiage groupings and team teaching, and students moved about freely among activities.
Open education was part of a progressive alternative schools movement that began in the late 1960s and peaked in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, the back-to-basics movement overshadowed it. Many alternative schools that had flourished only a few years earlier closed; others became more conventional in curriculum and practice.
In spite of the short history of the early alternative schools movement, enthusiasm for schools of choice has by no means declined over the decades. An equitable system of school choice promises to be a vehicle for educational reform, but this promise will never be fully realized if schools of choice are destined to be only passing fads. Educational leaders who hope to establish successful charter schools, magnet schools, and other schools of choice would be wise to look back on the early experiences of alternative schools, particularly those that have maintained programs consistent with their original visions. Irwin Avenue Open Elementary is such a school.

Irwin Avenue

Established in Charlotte, North Carolina, Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School has been a progressive school of choice since 1973. Like all alternative schools, it has been subjected to trends and pressures that have threatened its integrity and even its survival.
The school's vision of open education has been consistent throughout its history. Formal philosophy statements have emphasized helping the child develop a positive self-image, engaging students in learning, employing concrete learning materials in a rich and varied environment, and providing interaction between the classroom and the community.
A group of educators and parents who shared a common interest in, and some experience with, progressive education founded the school. The original families included prominent politicians, civil rights leaders, professors, and members of the local media. The school was housed in an empty high school in the center city. Students were chosen by a lottery designed to ensure racial diversity.
The educational plan included a self-paced curriculum that emphasized team teaching and active learning. Students learned in large, multigraded classrooms that were informally arranged. Learning centers, frequent and extended field trips, and minicourses were central to the program. Today, Irwin Avenue offers all the same programs except minicourses, which have been replaced by learning centers.
Built into the corridors of the school, these learning centers, called Centers of Exploration, give Irwin Avenue the appearance of a children's museum. The learning centers are interdisciplinary and highly interactive. Themes include communications, sound, the unseen world, and the natural world. One center, MicroSociety, is a mock city, which includes a bank, stores, and a post office—all run by students. Students may visit these centers alone or in groups. A teacher works full-time to design and lead lessons in the centers.
Irwin Avenue must cover the same academic objectives that all city and county schools do, but the curriculum's organization, breadth, and special features are unique to the school. Irwin is one of 15 schools in the ASCD Consortium on Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. When possible, the curriculum is organized around themes; for example, a whole-school production of The Magic Flute, staged with the help of the North Carolina Opera Company, incorporated art, music, social studies, and drama.
The curriculum has historically emphasized individualized, student-centered learning. One-fifth of Irwin students work with an enrichment teacher on special projects. Students in this program must only be highly motivated; they do not have to demonstrate advanced skills. As a group, students identify a project that they want to pursue together, such as rebuilding a park.
By their intermediate years, many students also work on independent study projects. Within classrooms, the extent to which students pursue individual interests varies. Some teachers work with students to help them develop learning plans specific to their individual needs and interests. Others incorporate individual students' interests into whole-class and small-group lessons.

Pressures and Changes

The school has been subjected to both internal and external pressures since its earliest years. The concept of open education was challenged throughout the school district as traditional and open-school proponents vied for limited resources. Political pressures to move Irwin Avenue onto a conventional school campus, as well as pressures to abolish open education, also existed. By the early 1980s, the school no longer had to defend its right to exist, but curricular and instructional practices were subjected to influences of the back-to-basics and direct-instruction movements.
At the same time, the 50-year-old building and the surrounding neighborhood were deteriorating. The 1990s brought both a new building and improvements in the surrounding neighborhood, but the standards and accountability movements intensified district pressures on the curriculum. The challenge for this decade will be maintaining Irwin Avenue as a diverse school of choice in the face of a recent court challenge to Charlotte's racially stratified magnet school program.
The school population has reflected changes in the neighborhood and in the district as a whole, with more students coming from low-income backgrounds today than in the 1970s. The faculty has also changed. Although Irwin Avenue has retained several veteran teachers, younger teachers are unlikely to have experience with, or even know about, open education.
Such factors as district attitudes, physical facilities, and the community of the school have affected curriculum and instruction throughout the school's history, at times enabling and at times inhibiting its ability to implement a curriculum consistent with an open-education philosophy. Within the classrooms, instructional practices range from student- and activity-centered models—highly consistent with the school's open philosophy—to more traditional, teacher- and text-centered models implemented within the framework of schoolwide practices, such as multigraded classrooms and integrated thematic units.

Staying Power

The implementation of this program has been supported by opportunities, initiatives, and outlooks that the school community has taken advantage of since its inception.

A Strong Foundation

Irwin Avenue's founders took time to understand the philosophy of open education, to build a sense of unity and a shared vision, and to plan the program. With such solid foundations, the Irwin Avenue program was well on its way before it had even opened.

Supportive Location and Facilities

Irwin Avenue is located in a growing city with a strong economy. The city has the means to support innovative schools both financially and through ample community resources. The commitment to education is strong, and citizens are willing to advocate for school reforms and improvements. Irwin Avenue's location in an African American community has also been advantageous. Its accessibility to low-income and minority families has made it more diverse than many schools of choice.
Centrality is also an asset because it minimizes the burden that students bear traveling to and from school. Because the school is within walking distance of the uptown area, staff take advantage of such facilities as the public library, a hands-on science museum, an art center, numerous art galleries, and a performance center.
Rebuilt in the early 1990s, the school is designed to support open education. The Centers of Exploration are prominent in the school's corridors. The spacious classrooms are designed for team teaching within classes, and forums between classrooms facilitate sharing. Most classrooms have doors that open to the outside.


With more than 700 students, Irwin Avenue is unusually large for an alternative school. The effects of the school's size have been mixed. Meeting the school's staffing needs and hiring teachers committed to the school's philosophy are difficult, which may account for discrepancies in implementing open education among classrooms.
At the same time, size may also work to the school's advantage. Unlike smaller alternative schools that are lost in the system, Irwin Avenue is big enough to be taken seriously. In addition, small alternative schools often cost more per student to operate, perhaps compounding their need to continually justify their existence. By contrast, the day-to-day operation of Irwin Avenue costs the school system no more than that of any other school.

Positive Community Relations

Community support has helped generate and sustain the program. Advocates in the community argued for the school before the school board in 1972, supported the concept of open education when it was attacked, and protested a recommendation to move the school in 1980. Preschools with similar programs recommend Irwin Avenue to their families, providing an influx of new students whose early childhood experiences have prepared them for open education.
The role that the community plays in the school program contributes to its depth and diversity. From volunteer tutors to content-area experts, members of the community provide abundant opportunities to enrich the students' learning experiences.
The support of the community has been cultivated by the school. School personnel have made a special effort to enroll neighborhood children. They included graduates of the original Irwin Avenue High School in decisions and celebrations associated with building the new facility. Irwin Avenue's sensitivity to the needs of the community has been reciprocated by financial and political support at turning points in the school's history.

Parental Involvement and Advocacy

Parents have always played a crucial role in the school's survival and success. Although politically connected families have advocated for the school, parents from all socioeconomic groups have also rallied behind the program and contributed by assisting with renovations, volunteering regularly in primary and intermediate classrooms, serving on committees, and fundraising.

Experienced Faculty and New-Teacher Support

Faculty members at Irwin Avenue are there by choice; they are not assigned to the school by the district. Current teachers are involved in hiring and training new teachers. When hiring, most principals screen for teachers whose backgrounds and philosophies support an open program. New teachers are acclimated into the school through a training program that describes both the philosophical and the practical issues of open education. Support is ongoing through new-teacher coffees, mentoring, a three-year plan for learning about and implementing open education, and informal support from veteran teachers.
The long-term employment of many faculty, both in the building and in the district, is one of the most important positive influences on the school. Former teachers and principals have gone on to become principals, supervisors, and superintendents in the district, giving Irwin Avenue a strong network of supporters at the district level.
Irwin Avenue employs three teachers who have been with the district's open schools since the beginning. The principal was also among Irwin Avenue's first teachers. The original faculty members bring years of experience with open education and are able to pass on the school's traditions and to serve as models for newer teachers. Experienced faculty members show persistence in defending their values. One senior teacher put it bluntly: With years of teaching experience, she feels confident that she can teach in a way that is consistent with her beliefs about learning, in spite of district pressures about the curriculum.

Administrative Commitment

Four of Irwin Avenue's five principals had had prior exposure to open education, and two of them had taught at Irwin Avenue. They understood and were committed to the principles of open education. The current principal, for example, taught at the school during its formative years and is strongly committed to progressive education. She promotes open education outside and within the school walls, working with teachers to help them understand and grow into the school's philosophy.

Public Information

Irwin Avenue staff have not simply depended on the media to publicize their program; they have been proactive in informing the community about the school. In early years, this was particularly true of efforts to reach the African American community. Because minority and low-income parents may not have as much access to information about optional schools as white and higher-income parents do, public information is particularly important in ensuring racial and socioeconomic balance.
Since the early 1990s, the school has been part of a district magnet program, which has increased its visibility. At the district level, magnet schools are publicized through videos, brochures—including newspaper inserts—fairs, and tours. Irwin Avenue also holds coffee hours, during which parents are invited to learn about the school and to meet secondary school students who have come through the open-school program. Parents who have a clear understanding of the school's philosophy can judge whether it is the best environment for their children.


Irwin Avenue is part of a continuous system of open schools and programs. Parents know that they can expect a consistent education for their children throughout the school years. Recently, the school has brought seniors from the open high school program to recruitment coffee hours so that prospective parents can see what the "end product" will look like.

The Help of Magnets

Irwin Avenue began idealistically with a firm commitment to open education, but some faculty believe that it lost touch with its values and became a more conventional school in the 1980s. The introduction of magnet schools to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system initially brought more attention and validity to the older optional programs. The magnet schools are revitalizing the school and keeping it focused on its distinctive qualities.
However, the optional school's incorporation into the magnet school program may prove to be a mixed blessing. A federal court recently ruled that race may not be used as a basis for school assignments. This ruling has caused the school board to question the assumptions of the system's magnet schools program. Even though the optional schools preceded the magnet schools by two decades, proposals to return to a predominately neighborhood-based assignment system have included these older schools.

A Sense of History

The school has a strong sense of history, which contributes to its continuity. Because the east and west wings of the school evoked memories and had historical significance, they were retained, with the new building constructed between them. Students made memory quilts, which are hung in the entry. A committee of parents collects, catalogs, and shares archives from the school's earliest years to the present day. Retaining symbolic images from the school's history helps the school community preserve and hand on its values. School spirit at most schools focuses on colors and mascots. Irwin Avenue has these conventional symbols but also focuses on deeper symbols that represent the spirit of the school as it has been handed down.

Pragmatic Persistence

A persistent attitude has helped preserve the program not only in the face of district pressures, but also in the face of environmental changes. During the construction of the new building, the school was temporarily housed in another building, and teachers team taught through connecting bathrooms. When crime rose in the neighborhood, students and teachers continued to walk downtown, taking a route through a cemetery to avoid drug dealers and prostitutes. These responses to demanding situations exemplify a spirit of pragmatic persistence that has enabled the faculty to preserve the essential features of the program.

A Proven Record

Success breeds success. Throughout the school's history, test scores have exceeded the district average, particularly in the school's early years. With changes in the student body in the 1980s, the school saw a decline in test scores, but scores have risen sharply in recent years.
Beyond quantitative measures, the school has maintained a reputation for academic excellence. After a quarter-century, the school has a large pool of alumni, many of whom have gone on to be highly successful in secondary schools and beyond. One teacher boasts, Turn on the television, see their names in the credits of different shows coming out of California. We see them as anchors of news shows across the nation; some of them pop up as meteorologists. We've seen them send things up into space.
As a former principal put it, "If it's working, people will come."
A dynamic relationship exists between Irwin Avenue's program and competing programs. Circumstances outside the school's control, such as demographics and district pressures, have made an impact on the school's curriculum and have even threatened its survival. But a combination of built-in structures, opportunities, and attitudes has helped the school resist or at least mitigate negative influences and adhere to its original vision. Idealism may be the spirit that drives educational reforms, but pragmatism is the spirit that sustains them.

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