The price of parenting pressure, and a step back

Judith Warner has a new review of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, by Madeline Levine, which prompts me to share another bit of my idyllic alternative school history.

Levine, writes Warner, has

had it with schools that worship at the altar of high achievement but do everything they can to undermine children’s growth and well-being: eliminating recess; assigning mind-deadening amounts of homework; and ranking, measuring and valuing kids by narrowly focused test scores, while cutting out other areas of creative education in which large numbers of students who don’t necessarily test well might find success and thrive. And she’s had it with parents who profess to want nothing more than “happiness” for their children … while neglecting the aspects of family life that build enthusiasm and contentment, and overemphasizing values and activities that can actually do harm.

It’s not working. The children of privilege are too often miserable and traumatized. It’s not worth it.

I’ve written before about crazy parenting and its backlash. And Stephanie Coontz had a recent column on it, with this conclusion:

Unfortunately, today’s intensive parent techniques continuously up the competitive ante, exacerbating the growing inequality that created this parental anxiety in the first place. The academic achievement gap between low- and high-income children has increased over the past 40 years, as has the gap in rates of college entry and completion. The arms race among high-income parents often does turn their children into winners. But society as a whole loses.

So, about that great elementary school I went to.

In 1975, when I was about 8, the school — an alternative public school in small, liberal Ithaca, NY — put out a newsletter that filled in some details in my memory. First, there was the “normal school day” schedule (paraphrasing):

  • 7:30: School opens, students can go wherever they want
  • 9:00: School starts with homeroom meeting
  • 9:20: First activity block (“A child may have a scheduled group with a teacher, or it may be his time to decide what he wants to do. For example, his choices may be to go to the art room or the wood shop or the library, or to find something to do within the homeroom.”)
  • 10:20 — Break
  • 10:40 — Second activity block
  • 11:30 — Homeroom
  • 12:00 — Lunch (“Students may eat wherever they wish, with the exception of the gym and the library. They may eat earlier in the morning if they wish.”)
  • 1:00 — Third activity block
  • 2:30 — Homeroom cleanup and wrap-up activities
  • 3:00 — Optional after school program starts

You saw that right: An hour for lunch.

The curriculum was based on a sequential math and English program that everyone did, but beyond that it was “the responsibility of the homeroom teacher to help each child receive a well-rounded education.”

The student-teacher ratio at the school was 16:1, according to the newsletter.

In order to hire more teachers, all the teachers at East Hill take a salary cut of approximately 25%. In the process the teachers have to give up the chance to accumulate credit toward tenure.

Yikes. Those were some teachers. Here are a few of them, from an uncredited photo kicking around on Facebook:

That was a great school. I don’t think we had to choose between happiness and success, although it may not have worked for everyone as well as it did for me. (It’s gone now, and the old building is condos.) The school was disproportionately, but not entirely, filled with the children of Cornell-related academics, people with a lot of privileges to be sure, educational and otherwise.

But about that competitive parenting, consider the decision the parents of these kids made to send them to East Hill. Would they take a chance like that today?

12 thoughts on “The price of parenting pressure, and a step back

  1. Thanks for posting that Philip, as a classmate I remember the freedom to spend large amounts of time in the library and the epic snowball fights we had during lunchtime. When we went to a more tradional school in 5th grade, even though many of the teachers came with us it wasn’t the same…


  2. My kids’ high public school restructured their day to allow an hour for lunch when my son (second child) went through. This was linked to an initiative to allow more time for community development. The lengthened the school day by maybe 5-10 minutes and shaved a couple of minutes off each class. The teachers said it was great. It really made the job a lot easier to have an actual lunch break. And then there was time for clubs and things during lunch.


  3. I believe most of the people who went to East Hill have very good memories of it, and consider it to have been formative in their world views and life experiences. I know I do.
    Even the “schedule” you have posted above doesn’t tell nearly the whole story of what freedom existed there, and what we chose to do with it on a daily basis.
    It isn’t only parents who might not choose such an option today, but we were blessed with teachers who were true pioneers, brave and bold.
    I find it delightful how many of us are in touch with each other now, including the teachers and principal. I don’t know anyone else, anywhere, with such a strong connection to their elementary school.


  4. I liked Easthill the education I got was solid and they were the first to diagnose my dyslexia. I love fact that we’re allowed to play in the dark room and develop any film we shot without teacher supervision. we did a lot of creative stuff actually. It was definitely way hippie in the style and substance (in one of the classes called famous people I had to write a report on the Ku Klux Klan and someone else had to write one on the John Birch society. I wanted to write one on Lee Majors from the 6 million Dollar Man). In retrospect I felt the curriculum worked unlike many so-called alternative schools. fond memories!


  5. An experiment based loosely on the Summerhill School( ), East Hill School was a free or open teaching environment that gave the students unprecedented freedom to choose amongst a wide range of activities. Students at an early age were encouraged to explore their interests freely, and introduced to learning opportunities that are rarely available at the elementary school level. I feel quite lucky to have been a part of such a radical educational experiment. In second grade I learned to develop and print black and white photographs, do complex math calculations, design and build woodworking projects and I also worked on the school newspaper selling ads to local businesses. The possibilities for learning were incredible, and the teachers were amazing. I will always cherish the memories of that time. I know that the love and nurturing that I received at East Hill helped guide me through the rest of my education and into the career that I have such a passion for. To all those wonderful people, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 🙂


  6. East Hill was special – and so was NJHP. Thanks to all the parents, teachers, and kids who made both possible.


  7. Wonderful to read this story. I was one of three who founded this school in 1969. Dan Lee, Bob (whose last name escapes me at this moment) and I lobbied the Ithaca Board of Ed along with a slew of local parents to turn the empty East Hill school building into an alternative school. My name at that time was Linda Moraff, and my three children, Ken, Judy, and Steve also attended East Hill.


    1. I went to East Hill for kindergarten. When I moved to one of the “high pressure” town in Westchester Country,I was ahead of my classmates in reading!


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