Education: Park School celebrates 100 years of green
It has always been easy being green at the Park School. In fact, Western New York’s only progressive pre-kindergarten through grade twelve school has been a green enclave for 100 years. Back then, the idea that kids learn best when they’re not confined indoors—and that the outside environment is the original and best classroom—was a novel concept. Much like some of today’s charter schools, Park was born out of parental frustration with standard, traditional educational methods. Those unhappy parents decided to create their own ideal school.
In 1912, a small group traveled to Columbia University to meet with Mary Hammett Lewis, a student of John Dewey, the ground-breaking progressive education advocate. The parents were sufficiently impressed to offer Lewis the opportunity to become the first head of what became known as the Park School, sited then in a cottage on Bird Avenue near Delaware Park. There, Lewis required little more for her young charges than a rug, which became a magic carpet where students read, discussed, planned, and dreamed.
Later the school was moved to Jewett Parkway near Main Street, where old photos depict the open-air, treehouse-like classroom. By 1920, the population of Park had grown, and so had the city. Lewis deemed it was time to seek a more rural site. Serendipitously, Chauncey Hamlin, a prominent Buffalonian, offered his sprawling estate and farm on Harlem Road. The board of trustees promptly purchased the land, which remains the site of the Park School today.
The old family farmhouse, known to generations of Park students as Hamlin Hall, is still in active use on what is now a thirty-four-acre campus. Park students were used to the rigors of rural life; in the city, they had raised rabbits and tended gardens. Though traditional classrooms were established, and the new property also featured a Primary Village with bungalows for the youngest students (designed by prominent local architect and Park parent Duane Lyman), outdoor education remained a prime feature of the school.
The grounds included a pond, greenhouse, gardens, barn, and orchard, tended by a succession of dedicated groundskeepers/gardeners who enlisted the help of students in their efforts. Herbert Belcher was brought on board by Lewis in 1921. He planted seeds on the Jewett Parkway grounds, and later created flower borders and a vegetable garden on the Snyder campus, where he worked for three decades. In 1921, Herman Landel was also hired to do general maintenance. He, too, moved to Snyder with the school, where he also gardened and taught manual arts for some twenty-six years. Until 1979, he provided large bouquets of peonies for the Park commencement every June.
Still in place on campus are the stone lanterns built by Sammy Yokota. This gardener, who worked at Park until 1975, found refuge at the Snyder school after his family had lost all their property following a stint in an internment camp with other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
The institution’s beautiful grounds “were the perfect fit for a school that was founded as an ‘open-air’ experience for students who wouId spend much of their time outdoors,” says Chris Lauricella, head of school. “Subsequent generations of Park students have been connected to the surrounding campus through curriculum, projects, and play.”
In this setting, altered over the years but with many features still recognizable to those long ago Park Pioneers (the official name for Park’s modern day athletes), math becomes a hands-on learning activity when you are using it to construct an animal shelter or a canoe, or calculate a garden plot. Theater productions need a stage, so students were once called upon to help build an outdoor platform. Today the Park Players perform on an indoor stage.
Students, from pre-K on, trek across campus to classes. And though there is a new gym and a recently renovated older gym for phys ed classes and basketball games, there are also athletic fields for soccer and lacrosse, as well as tennis courts.
A pond, marsh, and bird sanctuary help make every part of Park’s campus a learning tool. A new greenhouse provides year-round botanical and science study. The Stone Garden is used by all grades as they learn about agriscience and the food production cycle from germination to composting food waste.
Park has recently instituted a Green Pioneers program as a signature experience of a Park School education, and the school continues its longstanding partnership with naturalists from the Earth Spirit educational service, who provide field adventures for all classes. A Park School field guide, featuring student writing, photography, and artwork, is in production, under the auspices of the Western New York Writing Project at Canisius College.
Student gardeners, who’ve tended seedlings in the greenhouse as part of science lessons, are planning for an early fall harvest of corn, tomatoes, basil, and gourds in the new garden outside the science building. Geometry students are working on plans to build efficiently designed raised garden beds, along with creating a plan to best utilize growing space for maximum crop yield.
Sums up Lauricella: “Park has a rich history of teaching kids in and about the natural world. We are simply rekindling and reinventing it for the twenty-first century.”