A living laboratory for Sizer's ideas. Brooklyn school uses creative back-to-classics curriculum

February 1984: Theodore Sizer is at his hilltop home in Harvard, Mass., bracing for reaction to his just-published book, ``Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.'' Dr. Sizer, former dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and former headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has written a blueprint for American education reform. In short, he sets a back-to-classics goal. He suggests that education be simplified and invigorated in a way that r espects the individual natures of schools. It would be reform by local choice, rather than by government directive. ``Can it work?'' he wonders aloud. John Dewey, American education reformer of the last century, gave his theories life in a University of Chicago laboratory school. Sizer would like about a dozen such schools across the United States to explore whether his concepts work in different environments. But how will the book be treated? Will educators and schools take part?

October 1985: Mr. Sizer's nagging question has been partially answered at the Adelphi Academy in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, N.Y. A teacher, Paris Arraamides, asks his ninth-grade history class to consider King David's reign in ancient Israel as recounted in the Old Testament from every possible angle: historical, ethical, political, economic, and literary. ``What I'm trying to give you is a sense of the variety of the man,'' he explains. What was David's legacy to his son, King Solomon? What di fferences were there between the reigns of David and Solomon? It's not the conventional stuff of a ninth-grade history class.

Last fall, Adelphi Academy became the second of 12 schools to adapt Sizer's concepts. Bay Ridge is a middle-income, politically conservative community that looks and lives much as it did 50 years ago. Adelphi is housed in a stately building that is for many here the quintessential ``old school.'' It was founded as Brooklyn's first coeducational private school in 1863.

Two years ago, according to headmaster Clinton Vickers, Adelphi faced facts. ``What came first was people articulating their dissatisfaction with what we had. We had to honestly face alternatives. It took quite a bit of dialogue,'' he says.

Dr. Vickers, who had taught extensively in Africa and Europe before returning to his native Brooklyn, had been weighing matters of education reform. Specific possibilities for Adelphi were occurring to him, he says, when he heard Sizer describe his plan at a National Association of Independent Schools conference. The two educators' visions had much in common, he says, including the influence of Mortimer Adler's Paideia Proposal for schools, a touchstone in current education reform.

Not long after the conference, Sizer joined the education faculty at Brown University and organized a ``Coalition of Essential Schools'' from the Providence, R.I., campus. With the consent of faculty, parents, and students, Vickers agreed to have Adelphi take part in the coalition, overhaul its way of educating, and maintain close ties with the Brown-based team.

``What Sizer is saying is that there's no such thing as piecemeal education reform,'' says Vickers. ``This coalition stresses the integral nature of learning.''

As carried out at Adelphi, this means that Mr. Arraamides's history class is one component in the freshman theme of Hellenic-Judeo-Christian tradition. (The sophomore theme is European origins and the Western world. Juniors concentrate on American culture and society, while the seniors' theme is the modern age and contemporary society.)

There is, for instance, careful coordination between his history class and the curriculum used in the ninth-graders' English class. As Adelphi's integration policy is phased in, freshman-level science, math, and arts classes will also mirror the year's theme.

Other key elements of Sizer's ideas as adapted by Adelphi are:

The use of Socratic teaching methods in smaller groups. Thirty students in the ninth-grade history lecture will leave today's session and divide into groups where the pupil-teacher ratio is 7 to 1. For 90 minutes, students will bring their own thoughts to the reigns of David and Solomon. The teacher-coach's role is to draw out individual students, whereas in the larger setting, the teacher assumes a more standard instructional role.

Exhibitions of mastery, instead of term examinations. These can take the form of pre-distributed lists of topics that students research and write on at a given time. They may also be special assignments: Students in the ninth-grade history course might construct a pyramid or draw a hieroglyphics poster.

Emphasis on four areas of learning. These are: inquiry and expression; literature and arts; philosophy and history; and math and science. Adelphi changed 12th-grade science from elective to required, and gave students in all high school grades ``hands on'' opportunities in the smaller ``coached'' groups.

Elimination of study halls. Adelphi concurred with the Brown team that study halls are wasted time.

Following Sizer's ideas has not meant additional cost to the school, Vickers says.

Are the concepts working here? Response from the school is candid and positive, for the most part. ``Our teachers intellectually agreed to the plan, but then they had to translate that into changed behavior on their parts. At first, it was difficult. . . . This is not a system for the passive teacher. They feel drenched at the end of a class,'' the school's head comments.

One English ``coach,'' who had taught by standard method for 15 years, confirms there has been strenuous adjustment. ``In the small groups, the control is different. Discussion can become a tug of war, but I think it's better educationally, especially for the average kids.'' (Adelphi's K-12 enrollment includes students at all intelligence and achievement levels.)

Science teacher Greg Borman observes that ``the smaller groups let the kids discover for themselves. They enjoy science more.''

His statement is akin to what the headmaster says he now hears from most parents -- ``that their kids are happy in school.'' It was not always so at Adelphi, he adds with a pensive smile.

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