Project Learn can trace its roots to the basement of a home on Glen Echo Road in Mt. Airy where, in the spring of 1969, several families who were disillusioned with the school choices available to their children started a school with mixed age classes. These parents felt strongly about how and what their children should learn and the role of parents in that process.
It wasn’t long before the energy and commitment of those involved brought their small school to the attention of the School District of Philadelphia, which at that time had begun a period of reorganization and innovation under the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Mark Shedd. The fledgling school was adopted as a public alternative.
While this new school, called Paxton Parkway Elementary and situated in a public school building, was in the process of fine-tuning its program, a division arose within the school district between those who supported this new school as a public school alternative, and those who felt all public school students should stay in their neighborhood schools. Not surprisingly, the school district pressured the school to close its doors after only four months in operation.
“For the parents, teachers, and children who had enrolled in this new school, the closing was a problem,” Donna Allender, one of the three founding parent/teachers, recalled. “We had finally found a program that met the individual needs of students and did not squeeze children into a mold designed in Harrisburg.”
The vision of the teachers and the hopes of the parents were too close to being realized to let go of it. As a result, a number of dedicated families resolved to keep the school going and, in January 1970, renamed it Project Learn.
It was in the early years, difficult and often precarious, that the school’s basic tenets and core values were formed by our tireless, visionary, founding parent/teachers Donna Allender, Nancy Bailey and Francine Fox. Guided by the practices of educational reformer John Dewey, and committed to the humanistic principles of considering the needs of individual students before the requirements of the curriculum, these three women and the school's deeply committed families were driven by a vision to build a progressive, community-based model of education.
With inspired mentoring in weekly meetings by Jerry Allender, a parent and a professor of education at Temple University, and with thoughtful input from parents and children, the three developed the following core values and basic tenets:
Project Learn is a school community
Each person – child, teacher, parent – has a voice in the educational and governance process of the school
Learning is based on ownership
For a while, Project Learn moved between rented spaces with the hope that eventually it would be accepted back into the public school system, but, in 1972, the State Department of Education gave the school this choice: obtain a license as a private school or close. “This was not an easy thing for the members of the Project Learn community,” Allender said. “We were all public school people and were seeking to bring change and innovation within the public school system – not create another private school.” Finally, to avoid a showdown with the city and the state, the community resigned, begrudgingly, to become an independent private school. “We chose to become legal because we ultimately cared more about the education of our children than about our politics,” Allender explained.
Now that the school would be dependent on tuition income, however, there was a worry that the education would not remain accessible. To keep tuition low, organizers cemented the cooperative model into the bylaws. Parents and staff developed committees to review curriculum, offer classroom support, maintain the building, review budgets, recruit students, raise funds, contribute program enrichment and provide community outreach. This model would not only reduce costs but also demonstrate community values to the children.
A New Home
In the spring of 1972, Project Learn purchased a three-story building at 6525 Germantown Ave. with the help of ten committed families who co-signed the mortgage, using their own homes as collateral for the loan. The energy of this value-driven, community-centered, alternative school was contagious, and within a decade the school’s need for space had exceeded the capacity of the building, and a three-story classroom addition was completed in 1987.
To provide adequately for the continuing growth of the school, the community in 1994 purchased the three-story building next door and made plans to renovate it as well as construct a three-story classroom and office unit in the space between the two buildings. The current structure was designed by architect Peter Fox, who is a Project Learn graduate. This truly grassroots effort made clear the school’s commitment to the historic districts of Mt. Airy and Germantown Avenue and was completed in 1995 with extensive financial support from the school community and local banks.
A School Community
Today, Project Learn remains true to its roots. The school is administered by a volunteer committee of parents and teachers in monthly Town Meetings. Parents exercise considerable influence over the everyday operation of the school through committee work. The classroom teachers are all paid professionals with a maximum ratio of 15 students to a teacher.
Project Learn continues to be a school community – a true commonwealth where consensus, equality, and regard for the individual is implemented both in the educational program and in the parent-teacher governance of the school.
All quotes taken from The Humanistic Teacher: First the Child, Then Curriculum by Jerome S. Allender and Donna Sclarow Allender, Paradigm Publishers, 2008.