LREI [Little Red Elisabeth Irwin] remains faithful to the spirit of its founder — testing new ideas, finding new variations on tried and true principles, and challenging our students to discuss what Elisabeth Irwin called “possible new truths.” Our students are active learners and thoughtful decision-makers. Our faculty remains involved in every aspect of our program, and works together with enthusiasm and astuteness to conceive of fresh responses to students’ needs.
—From the LREI Website
I was walking down Bleecker Street the other day, and as I crossed Sixth Avenue, I was greeted by a wave of joyful boys and girls. It was three o’clock, and the students of the LREI Lower School had just finished their first day of school. I have passed the building hundreds if not thousands of times, and I am always struck by the vibrant energy coursing through its student body.
This joie de vivre can be traced back to Elisabeth Irwin (1880-1942), educator and champion of progressive education. Born in Brooklyn and educated at Smith and Columbia, Irwin sought to bring progressive education curricula into New York City Public Schools. She founded the Little Red School House curriculum, named for the red-painted annex of P.S. 61 where she worked, in an attempt to bring educational opportunities to public school children that until then had belonged only to privileged children in the city’s private schools. Irwin explains:
The curriculum is based upon first-hand experiences which the children share with one another. They are introduced to their environment through a series of trips, first to the neighborhood and then to more distant part of the city. They visit docks and boats, tunnels and bridges, railroad terminals and markets. They have a chance to talk to the men who work in varied basic occupations, mechanics, store keepers, street cleaners, food handlers and many others. These exciting excursions are discussed in the schoolroom and become material for play. (The New York Times, May 15, 1932)
In 1932, after the NYC Board of Education terminated Irwin’s programs due to lack of funding, members of the staff at PS 41 in Greenwich Village announced that they would open a school of their own called The Little Red School House with Irwin at its helm using funds raised by neighborhood parents. The school would charge $125 per year tuition, an amount on par with the $105.11 allocated per child by the Board of Education to public schools and far less than the average of $600 it cost to send a child to private school. The school would also set aside funds for as many scholarships as possible. A New York Times article written shortly after the school’s founding reports:
The Curriculum of the Little Red Schoolhouse carries into every nook and corner of the city. The 6-year olds as well as the older children will go on visits to the Coney Island lighthouse, to see the Sheepshead Bay fishermen, on dock inspections and so on. The learning process of this school thus is to take place chiefly through experience. (NYT September 25, 1932)
No wonder the children lingering at the corner of Bleecker and Sixth look so alive. They are shown, from day one, that they are living beings in a living city with a living economy. They are taken beyond the page, beyond the two dimensions of the written word, into the “real” world to experience firsthand what many of their peers only read about. I do not mean to disparage the written word—it is, after all, how I have chosen to make my living. In life, however, one must strike a delicate balance between action and contemplation. While most students must ruminate on the rumination of others in their homework, he says this and she says that, these children will go home to write their stories in the first person.
For further reading:
LREI Website: http://www.lrei.org/welcome/history
De, Lima A. The Little Red School House. New York: The Macmillan Co, 1942. Print.
Northrop, Pratt I. Elisabeth Irwin and the Little Red School House: An Experiment in Progressive Education., 2003. Print.