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The rise of 'alternative' schools

There was a time when all education in the United States was "alternative education."

That's because home schooling and independent schools - which generally relied on individualized systems with very little standardization - were the norm up until the early-19th century, when the public-school system began to take shape.

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But it was in the 1920s and '30s that much of what we now think of as alternative education began to flourish in the US, says Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., and author of "The Almanac of Education Choices."

Montessori and Waldorf schools became popular at that time, as did the progressive-school movement, based on the work of educator John Dewey.

Such systems were "child-centered" and designed more to nurture a love of learning than to impart facts.

But World War II and the subsequent rise of the teachers unions had a chilling effect on such experiments. It wasn't until the free-spirited 1960s that the movement began to rise again.

The spur came in part from English educator A. S. Neill, whose ideas were introduced in the US with the publication of "Summerhill." The book chronicled Mr. Neill's success in reaching difficult students by appealing to their intellectual curiosity and allowing them to help shape their own educations.

Summerhill is credited with spawning dozens of small alternative schools throughout the US, but it was in the 1970s that educators began trying to adapt such approaches to public schools. Some of the successes of those original alternative public schools helped to fuel a new round of startups in the 1990s.

Today, Mr. Mintz estimates, there are about 10,000 public and private alternative schools in the US.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society