The School Within Us: The Creation of an Innovative Public School
reviewed by Angela M. Eilers - 2001
Title: The School Within Us: The Creation of an Innovative Public School
Author(s): James Nehring
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: , Pages: 234, Year: 1998
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In his book, The school within us: The creation of an innovative public school, James Nehring documents the developmental stages and implementation of an innovative high school within a pre-existing comprehensive suburban high school. In a journal-like format, the author takes the reader through the stages of imagining, brainstorming, implementing, and struggling to create the Bethlehem Laboratory High School of Delmar, New York. The book moves briskly, reporting in some detail the initial efforts of a group of Bethlehem elementary and secondary teachers and administrators who imagine a high school that incorporates notions of community and teacher control over curriculum. Influenced by the innovative work of scholars such as Mortimer Adler, Theodore Sizer, John Goodlad, Ernest Boyer and others, the author documents the group’s exploration of a vision of an ideal school. The book explains how the group, longing for a sense of community and driven by a desire to break free of curricular constraints put in place by the New York Regents, goes about creating the Bethlehem Laboratory High School. The lab school founders envisioned: (1) maintaining an interdisciplinary focus; (2) emphasizing fewer topics of study in greater depth than the traditional program; (3) maintaining a project orientation in which students would be mentored in self-designed courses of study; (4) actively building a community spirit with democratic governance; (5) doing all of this at existing per pupil expenditure levels.
This is a story of restructured scheduling, selective adaptation of Coalition of Essential School ideas, and a heavy dose of community spirit and parent participation. The majority of the book reflects on the first two years of the school’s existence, and documents in random fashion the author’s perspective on the experience. The book is meant to be advocacy-oriented, rather than formulaic in its approach. The author writes of one school’s experience in operationalizing the "good school" ideals of its founders. The narrative implies that the school and community context and culture had a great deal to do with the successful realization of these ideals. By the author’s own admission, the Bethlehem public school system is considered an "excellent" school system where students perform very well, and the professional staff has built a reputation for quality instruction and programs.
This is not a school that is charged with reconstitution or comprehensive school reform because of its poor performance. Bethlehem high school is a high performing school led by an exceptional set of educators who questioned the conventional arrangement. From the book, we do not learn a great deal about the socio-economic context of the community, or the educational background of many of the parents. The author does explain, however, that many community members work for the state department of education. This feature of the community may have contributed to the successful realization of the lab school. The excellent caliber of the students and educators may also have supported their determination to pursue an unconventional school. The maverick attitudes of teachers and administrators who envisioned and created a "good school" evidently found strong support in the school and community culture. This suggests that the experience may not be generalizable. The book, in effect, describes a successful experience in a school and community – under favorable conditions.
The contribution made by this book to addressing the question of change within the high school context should not be underestimated. In an era of reform in which change has made inroads at the elementary and middle school levels but rarely at the high school level, an alternative model to the comprehensive high school is most welcome. This book portrays the contribution made by the Bethlehem Laboratory High School and its founders to the concept of creating a learning community that fosters deeper, more rewarding relationships among students and educators. It also examines ways in which the community concept may enrich the intellectual experience of students and better prepare them for postsecondary learning and life-long learning. The Bethlehem Lab School is only one model, but it is a model worthy of attention.