School’s progressive education model at stake in struggle

by Jordan Green

The evening of Oct. 30 was a wilderness moment for a group of parents and teachers who support a learning model known as open education. And while they might have glimpsed the possibility of a new kingdom in public instruction, they also acknowledged that many of those not inclined to support their vision were not present at their meeting at Peeler Elementary to express their objections.

“It’s my belief that we’ve gone through this incredible emphasis on testing and it’s going to swing back,” said Margaret Borrego, a curriculum consultant who helped the school develop student teachers from 1999 to 2004 as a professor at Guilford College. “Parents and teachers are saying it’s time. It might be in the next administration.”

Peeler Elementary, a magnet school with a focus on the performing arts in southeast Greensboro, has found itself embroiled in a struggle over whether to continue the open education model or conform to more traditional methods of teaching. Part of the tension comes from confusion over what exactly open education is. Borrego described it as a teaching practice established by American educator John Dewey in the 1930s that stresses individualized and hands-on learning with an emphasis on improving society rather than maximizing social efficiency.

The meeting’s sponsor, Partners for Open Education, has come out of exile but whether the group’s favored educational philosophy will prevail at the school remains far from certain. Not all the school’s teachers share its views; the Guilford County School Board has not fully endorsed open education much less demonstrated a full understanding of its precepts; and parents said a succession of first-time principals has not always seemed to understand the school’s mission.

Randy Johnston, a member whose children have matriculated at the school, said Oct. 30 was the first time Partners for Open Education was allowed to meet at Peeler, describing it as “a big step,” and said he appreciated that Principal Terri Collins showed up to listen to concerns. Collins took the helm at Peeler Elementary at the beginning of the current school year. Her predecessor, Denise Francisco, was reassigned to Greensboro Middle College.

Some teachers told parents they were willing to learn how to use the open education method, but would need support from their administration.

“I’ve been here three years, and each year I’ve been doing things differently,” said Karen Phillips, a second-grade teacher. “You have master teachers in open education. You ask them [what it is] and they can’t say.”

“You’re saying there’s no model and no mentoring?” asked Alma Purvis, the curriculum facilitator at Jones Elementary and the mediator of the meeting’s steward.

“No, no,” Phillips replied.

Jennifer Smith, also a second-grade teacher at Peeler, told the parents: “Since I’ve been here it’s not been a priority to make sure teachers understand what open education is. It comes back to district support for open education. It has to be consistent and it has to be supported, and it has to be supported by the county.”

Even Amos Quick, the vice-chairman of the school board and the representative whose district encompasses Peeler, admitted that support and even familiarity with the open education concept was uneven among his colleagues.

“I am committed to this school and open education, but what does open education mean?” he asked. “There are eleven board members and I’m only one of them. I’ve heard some board members say it’s an idea whose time is in the past. We have not clearly defined what open education is.”

Whether open education remains at Peeler is unclear, but Quick said district’s leadership will train its focus on Peeler regardless.

“For a long time the board of education has not paid enough attention to Peeler and its philosophy,” he said. The vice-chairman said he told Superintendent Terry Grier: “Our attention has be on Peeler before there is an explosion over there.” And he told the audience: “It has been neglect on the part of the board.”

Members of the school board are not the only ones divided about the future of the school. More than once during the meeting participants alluded to a circulated e-mail calling for the parent-teacher organization to be disbanded. And Todd Moore, who has a child in first grade at Peeler, said he sympathizes with parents whose children are drawn from the immediate community who do not approve of the open education model. That understanding does not extend to objecting parents who send their children to Peeler from across the county, or to teachers who resist using the model.

“I made a suggestion that if you are a teacher that is not willing to learn open education you need to walk about twenty feet and find a traditional school,” he said. But like many others, he placed ultimate responsibility for the school’s difficulties on the district’s elected leadership and its administration.

“Definitely the board is not here in support,” Moore said. “They’re putting principals in a position to fail. We’re having higher teacher turnover because they aren’t supported.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at