In 1975, about 20 Cambridge parents met to figure out how to have their kids attend an open-classroom style school, where both parents and staff took an active part in the education process. Their children had been denied places at the Cambridge Alternative Public School (CAPS, now Graham & Parks) because there weren’t enough places to meet demand. The parents called themselves The Committee to Extend Alternative Education, arguing that once the City of Cambridge undertook to provide alternative education by establishing CAPS in 1972, it had a responsibility to provide that education for all who desired it.
They enlisted the help of School Committee member Alice Wolf, and with her guidance met with School Committee members and School Department staff and visited possible sites for the new school. Their efforts coincided with a new school superintendent, Bill Lannon, who also gave his support. On August 5, 1975, the Cambridge School Committee accepted a proposal for two kindergarten/first grade classrooms for the 1975/76 school year. By the end of that summer it was decided that space would be made available at the King School. The parents named their school The Open School at the King School and hoped for the best.
The Open School was part of the fairly new federal “Magnet Schools” experiment, which brought kids from all over the city to one school to end racial imbalance. Our parents were strongly committed to integrated education by race and economic class.
The Open School’s first years were pretty rough but filled with heady idealism and lots of meetings. We couldn’t have done it without our amazing staff, who were committed to parent involvement and individualized education. But each year was a struggle for space to expand, for the right to hire teachers interested in open education, and for funding for teaching assistants. Many of us found ourselves at endless School Committee meetings. Our architect parents drew up studies of the King School to find unused space for more classrooms. Lawyer parents studied the budget and busing rules. Activist parents spent hours on curriculum committees and hiring committees. Even with these efforts, in 1978 and 1979 our fourth and fifth graders were bused to the Tobin School, while the rest of the Open School remained at King. Then, finally, we were reunited, given an Administrator of our own, Sandra Darling, and a feeling that we were finally permanent.
During the rough times and the smooth times, the Open School forged ahead bringing a new kind of education to Cambridge. Parents, teachers, and assistant teachers made policy together and worked side by side on budget, space, testing, record keeping, mainstreaming, admissions, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and racial balance committees. Innovative programs, such as the Algebra Project, groundbreaking efforts at mainstreaming disabled children, and Science Club for Girls started at the Open School.
At the end of the Open School’s first year, parents and staff adopted the following principles:
- We believe in racially and economically integrated public education. We believe that public education should offer parents a choice in programs and educational styles. Half of our students live in the King School district, and although we think of ourselves as a program with its own existence within the larger school, our ties to the King School and the surrounding community are strong.
- As the “openness” or quality of a classroom is largely determined by the teachers, we think that it is important to hire people who encourage and respect differences in personality and learning styles among children. We feel that this is a good way to maintain high academic standards for all our children.
- We want our children to have the experience of working and playing within a strong community of people who support and care for each other. While we respect differences, we don’t encourage competition. Two traditional grade levels share each classroom, and children are evaluated by informal conferences and written reports rather than by tests, grades, and report cards.
- We believe that communication and the ability to use language well are learned most easily in a situation where children are able to talk to each other and move freely about the room for a good part of the day.
- We believe that our children’s happiness and ability to get along well with other people should develop right along with their skill in “regular” school subjects. Open School classrooms respect the need for both work and play and for self-expression as well as self-control.
The 2002-2003 school year was one of dramatic change for Cambridge Public Schools. “Consolidation” resulted in the list of CPS elementary schools shrinking from 15 to 12. As the King Open, Harrington, and Ola communities prepared to come together as King Open in the Harrington building, the challenges seemed enormous–the new population would be almost double what anyone was used to, class size would grow, new staff members would have to be hired and trained in the King Open curriculum and teaching method and enlarged staff teams would have to learn to work together, and all children and families would find some aspects of the “new” school unfamiliar, and yet all knew they had to make it work.
As the new school year started in September 2003, we knew that no one had chosen to make this change. And yet, the children came ready to learn and the teachers ready to teach. Of course, there were hiccups along the way. We all learned the hard way at music recitals, Mayflower boardings, grade-level pot-lucks, and the Cape Cod and Washington, DC, trips that it’s not as easy to organize any event for 120 kids and their families as it is for 60. But we’re all learning. And the King Open model, established more than a quarter of a century ago in very different times, continues to prove itself. We continue to look at each child as an individual, to see each child’s strengths and needs, to push to make sure that each child reaches his or her potential and then looks even farther, and to ask the question that sparked the Algebra Project, “If I want something for my child, will I try to get it for all children?
In 2012 King Open became a K-5 as part of a citywide initiative that converted all elementary schools to K-5 and created four new upper schools serving grades 6-8. The school’s essential mission and philosophy remains a motivating and unifying force as we now focus on grades K through 5th.
Parts of this history were written by Janice Campbell (alumni parent) and Susan Freireich (former family liaison) on the occasion of King Open’s 25th anniversary in 2000 and additions were made by members of the King Open Community.