Backtracking: In Our Times: Open space’ teaching opened new Sidney school in 1969

Mark SimonsonThe Sidney Elementary School, seen in July, opened in September 1969, using the ‘open space’ concept of team teaching, without walls.

A particularly exciting year began for 1969-70 in the Sidney Central School District. Not only did a brand new school open, a new approach to education was introduced to our region.

According to a series of news stories seen in The Oneonta Star during the fall of 1969, a new primary school opened on Pearl Street. This came about after a letter arrived from the State Department of Education in 1967, declaring the old school on Pleasant Avenue no longer adequate for educational purposes.

In the early spring of 1967, architects were interviewed for a new school. One architect caught the attention of Sidney’s Board of Education and administration. The architect had a new “open space” concept of school, and a few local school officials visited a school in Houston, Texas, using the new concept.

Bids were awarded for the new school in August 1968, and ground was broken a month later. Around this same time, Howard Dunbar, school principal, and some 15 teachers visited another school in New Hampshire, similar to the one in Houston.

One year later, the new school opened on schedule. A Star reporter visited the new school shortly after opening day. As described by the reporter in the Sept. 16 edition, “Earlier in the day, when I first entered the new building that housed the primary grades the overall impression was one of subdued color and lightness. The building itself consists of 26 learning areas with a resource center as the focal point.

“Take all the furnishings out and you have what amounts to one large room. Add the soft yellow, orange, green and rust bulletin board dividers, the white chalkboards, the handy storage counters, and the tweed carpeting and you have the functional items of the open space concept school.

“Put in the low movable desks, the colorful lightweight chairs, the bright textbooks, the audio visual aids and the many attractive displays set up by the teachers and you have the learning materials for the school situation.

“Finally, add the children, the most important element of all and the one that will determine the success or failure of any educational program.

“While it’s not possible to do any real evaluating in a one day visit, even the most casual observer can see that the youngsters are for the most part equating learning with pleasure. Needless to say we all pursue things we find pleasurable with more zest than those we find dull.

“With a school such as this where there are no fixed interior walls, the noise factor is the first thing that most laymen as well as teaching staff think about. Yes, there is noise, but surprisingly it is constructive noise and seems to add an element of enthusiasm to the learning going on in each area. The noise is not the distracting shuffle, click and thud of feet, the slam of doors and desks or the other din associated with many schools.”

The interest in the community was high enough to have leaders from the school district invited to the fall meeting of the Sidney Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 2 at the Mason Inn in Masonville.

Chamber members were told by Mrs. Clair King that the use of team-teaching, where teachers share talents and time, were in use. She praised the new set-up which easily accommodated team teaching.

“By planning and working together we can more readily identify the children who need special help,” she said.

Mrs. Eileen Wicks summed up the new approach, saying, “Teaching and learning possibilities in the new primary school are limitless.”

No doubt the teaching team had a good chemistry among them, as the Sidney Primary School was featured as the cover story of American School and University magazine in 1970, and cited as one of the “most successful open plan schools in the nation,” at a time when open classroom space was still a novel concept.

While Sidney had its success, the open school movement faded nationally by the late 1970s, according to a March 2017 report on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program. A backlash set in and traditional schools returned, with a call for a return to the “basics.” In a large open space, noise was a distracting factor in learning, as in one area, students might be singing, while in another there was quiet reading in progress.

The NPR Report also said that while the open space concept may have crashed, many of the concepts and ideas remain, such as collaboration, independent, student-centered learning and exploration.

This weekend: local reaction to war breaking out in Europe in September 1939.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Tuesday columns address local history 1950 and later.  If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Ask Mark... 

Have you ever had a question about a history-making event or a prominent person in our area and didn't know where to find the answer? Well, we've got an expert who might be able to help you. Historian Mark Simonson has spent many years chronicling major local happenings, and he's ready and willing to dive into The Daily Star archives for answers, which will appear in this newspaper and online at www.thedailystar.com.

Write to him at "Ask Mark," The Daily Star, 102 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com

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