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A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-run High School and a New Vision for American Education

reviewed by Sarah Bradley & Joi Dallas - April 29, 2017

coverTitle: A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-run High School and a New Vision for American Education
Author(s): Susan Engel & Samuel Levin
Publisher: The New Press, New York
ISBN: 1620971526, Pages: 240, Year: 2016
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A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-run High School and a New Vision for American Education, written by the mother and son duo of Samuel Levin and Susan Engel, documents the story of the first student-run high school in America. Their aim is to explain how a teenager created this type of school located within a school. Named for its emphasis on the idea that students should take full responsibility for their own education, the Independent Project grew out of what Levin saw as widespread disengagement or boredom in his local high school’s classrooms.

The book opens with Levin attesting to the idea of the school isn’t so bad in theory. In practice, this educational institution constitutes a tedious waiting room for both students who do well and those who struggle. His journey toward a new school began when he came home one day frustrated and overwhelmed by the lack of passion for learning he observed in his classmates. As Levin put it, “[m]any of [his classmates] were getting bad grades. Sometimes it was because the work was too challenging. But most of the time it wasn’t. They didn’t care about anything they were learning” (p. 11). Throughout the text, he shares the personal challenges of developing and implementing the Independent Project with anecdotes revolving around his peers and participants in the program. Engel contributes her point of view as a mother and a developmental psychologist. She earned a Ph.D. degree in adolescent psychology and has experience as a faculty member at Williams College. As a result, Engel’s background lends academic weight to their effort to merge theory with practice.

Each chapter revolves around progressive steps one needs to take to start a school. The book begins with “Realize You Need One” and ends with “Open Your Door to the Community.” The text also includes an “Extra Nuts and Bolts” section outlining how individuals can alter the suggested design of the school to fit their unique situation and needs. The volume constitutes at once a case study of a successful pop-up school and a manual that might inspire students, teachers, and parents to move toward a new method of schooling.

In terms of theories to ground the text, Engel relies heavily on literature supporting the argument that what happens in most high schools is not developmentally appropriate for adolescents. According to her, and most researchers would probably agree, there exists a huge gap between what we know scientifically about adolescents and how we treat them. One of the biggest differences that she focuses on is how teenagers are often not given the opportunity to practice true autonomy. This is also seen most clearly in the structure of the Independent Project. With adults dictating most aspects of their lives, especially in school, teenagers do not receive the opportunity to practice real responsibility. She uses big ideas such as Erikson’s theory of identity development, Duckworth’s idea of grit, and her own research on the development of higher reasoning skills to critique the ways many public schools currently teach their students. By doing this, Engel makes the case for her son’s alternative school.

Instead of writing a dense text that is packed with research, Levin and Engel present their case study in the format of a story. The narrative moves back and forth as each author takes turns writing in the first person and presenting the progression of how Levin’s alternative high school came to be. This format lends itself to Levin and Engel’s goal of making the book readable for high school students.

The main strength of this volume is that it is accessible, is readable, and it presents a fascinating presentation of what happens when students determine their own schooling experience. Levin and Engel present an engaging story that is heightened by their decision to write it as a narrative with a loosely formatted case study. As a result, the dialogue and the characters help it come to life and feel real. This makes their ideas immediate to readers by helping them understand the importance of the endeavor through its impact on actual students.

Yet A School of Our Own’s weakness is the opposite side of its strength. The story is specific to the context of Levin’s school and the students who participated in the Independent Project. As a result, it does not consider the larger context of schooling in America. Despite the contribution of telling the story of this particular case, we were left wondering how this model might fare in different contexts. Near its end, the book provides general statements about how the Independent Project should be applied in different settings. Yet the authors do not provide any concrete action steps to implement their project in school contexts very different from their own. This leads us to question whether this model is viable in the many distinct contexts of public schooling. The volume also does not acknowledge the relative privilege in the area where the first Independent Project was established. For example, students self-selected into this program due to the fact that it was a pilot initiative within the school district. The result was that learners who opted into the program already had a certain level of intrinsic motivation to choose to participate in this new form of schooling with the exception of one student. The school also had sufficient resources and high enough state test scores to allow these students to try the Independent Project for a semester.

However, what about schools that want to establish an Independent Project, but may not have the resources to do so? How about schools with students who are struggling to pass the state standardized exam to graduate? What about schools that have high numbers of students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) or low English Language Development (ELD) levels? How about schools with large numbers of low-income students without the time to spend on these academic projects outside of school? The problem with the Independent Project as pitched in the volume is not the idea itself, but the way it is presented as being available and helpful to all students. A school that builds autonomy in high school students by granting them the academic freedom of choosing what to study is refreshing and can offer insights about re-thinking the schooling process. This criticism is not to diminish the success that Levin’s Independent Project experienced and how it helped the students who did participate in growing or going on to attend prestigious colleges as the book illustrates. Yet the text fails to acknowledge the larger policy context by assuming that the Independent Project can be replicated across all school contexts without issue. The book stands alone well as a unique story of one school’s Independent Project, but this how to guide fails to reach all schools and all students.

In conclusion, we wonder how Levin and Engel’s Independent Project might be altered to be more accessible to every student across diverse school contexts. We believe that the authors present a promising model for increasing student autonomy in secondary schools in A School of Our Own. However, we would be curious to read additional research exploring how the Independent Project might be enacted in districts with more limited resources. Specifically, we would be interested in seeing how the ideas behind the Independent Project could be incorporated into schools with less flexibility to support such a project for their students in more high-stakes schooling contexts.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21954, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:54:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Bradley
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    SARAH BRADLEY is a member of the Boston College Class of 2017, where she completed a degree in Secondary Education & English. Sarah plans to pursue a teaching career. With Joi Dallas, both have worked as Undergraduate Research Fellows in the Lynch School of Education, where they presented at AERA 2016 and studied under Dr. Rebecca Lowenhaupt to research policies and best practices for working with bilingual students.
  • Joi Dallas
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    JOI DALLAS is also a member of the Boston College Class of 2017, where she completed a degree in Applied Psychology and Human Development. Joi plans to pursue a Masters in School Counseling. With Sarah Bradley, both have worked as Undergraduate Research Fellows in the Lynch School of Education, where they presented at AERA 2016 and studied under Dr. Rebecca Lowenhaupt to research policies and best practices for working with bilingual students.
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