Strange Times at Innovative Program High - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Strange Times at Innovative Program High

Strange Times at Innovative Program High

By Libby Coleman


Because if you thought your high school was weird, think again.

By Libby Coleman

Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — high schools have lagged woefully behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special seriesHigh School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

Instead of the snoozefest that is first period, mornings at Innovative Program High School began with psychocalisthenics and tai chi stretches.

That’s just where the differences between traditional schools and this 1970s education experiment began. In 1970, a handful of teachers set up shop on the campus of the public University High School in Los Angeles and created an offshoot, with philosophical underpinnings like Zen, Erhard Seminars Training (aka Est, which gained prominence in the ’70s) and Scientology. Admittance was by lottery at first; in the school’s tenure, the ranks grew from some 100 students to around 200. Little, if anything, was typical about the school, which survived long enough to see Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam War end and the 1973 oil crisis.

A conference with a teacher … could become a debate over one’s deserved grade.

At IPS, grades weren’t traditional. A conference with a teacher, for example, could become a debate over one’s deserved grade. If your argument stunk, “you wouldn’t get a grade,” former IPS student Karen Hampton says. Reasoning and rhetoric were key. Hampton recalls earning an A in a class taught by one of the school co-founders Fred Holtby — students called him by his first name — and being elated.

So were extracurricular activities the way to stack your résumé, as they are today? Not in the least. There were no clubs at IPS, says former student Joel Drucker. There were many types of students, according to Michael Apstein, who also attended IPS. Some were too smart to be engaged by typical classes; others bombed out of school because of family issues or chemical difficulties and needed something else.

Experimental education existed in the United States long before IPS. The modern birth of educational experiments began with John Dewey’s progressive education back in the 1890s. The core of progressive education formed a Montessori-like approach: hands-on learning, personalized accountability and emphasis on critical thinking rather than learning by rote, aka memorization.    

At IPS, sometimes the students learned from one another. Other times, the faculty taught what they called “frames,” a perspective-focused class that eschewed traditional tests. Some activities were built to break a person’s crunch-o-meter. “We’d have weekly withholds,” says former student Laurie Wagner. “It was a chance to go up to another student and talk about something you had been keeping from them. Maybe you had a crush on them, or maybe they had said something that hurt you. It was a weekly chance to clear all of that.”

Then there was an exercise in some classes called the “death process,” Drucker says. Students would lie down and close their eyes while peers talked like they were at their funeral. “There was a philosophy behind IPS and an exploration of what it is to be a human that was completely foreign to the regular curriculum of high school,” says musician and former IPS student Paul Roessler. The different curriculum meant that the transition to college was difficult for some. “I have a lot of friends from IPS who I know would tell you college was a shock to them,” Apstein says. Some traditional abilities lagged behind. “Some of the skills, because we didn’t do as much writing, were made up for later,” Hampton says.  

Sure, it was the ’70s, and plenty of drugs were in play even if drug use wasn’t condoned by the teachers. Affluent schools, Hampton says, saw students smoking pot and taking mushrooms or other mind-expanding drugs. “Inner-city schools would get cracked down, but anyone who knew, knew more was going on at affluent schools,” she says. But mostly, Drucker says, love and emotional intelligence were honed at the school. Hugs abounded. Drucker, who used to play tennis competitively, says he remembers two IPS teachers playing tennis and not taking advantage of their opportunities. He critiqued one of their shots for not being aggressive enough, and the teacher told him, “Oh no, this is cooperative competition. We’re not about winning at all costs. That’s what cost Richard Nixon.”

The school dabbled in religion, layering in Zen, Est and Scientology (the first Scientology church opened in Los Angeles in 1954). “Est and Scientology were both parts of the program, but sort of veiled,” Wagner says. “I think they picked parts that they thought would be the most helpful to us.” Later, Scientology received more emphasis, but many students weren’t buying it. “I left five weeks into [my senior year] because of Scientology — I was not getting involved in that,” Hampton says.

By 1978, IPS was nearing its end. A new principal at parent school University High was determined to end the experiment. Students knew the fate of their school, and at graduation, when the principal of Uni High handed out IPS diplomas, the students enjoyed one final act of defiance to the establishment. “Our rebellion was to not shake his hand when he gave us the diploma,” Drucker says.

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