Home News and Features The Experiment: Happy 50th Birthday, U-32!

The Experiment: Happy 50th Birthday, U-32!

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A classroom scene with teacher Sandy Mohlman presiding (standing, far left). Photo by Suzanne Opton, originally published in “Vermont Life” and reprinted with permission.

Fifty years ago, the residents of Berlin, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Worcester, and Calais celebrated the inauguration of a new middle and high school. No longer would their children be tuitioned out. In 1971, these communities now had their own district and their own school. This was Union High School District No. 32 (although seventh- and eighth-graders were included from the beginning), later to become just U-32, and currently Union 32 Middle and High School.

The modern facility sat on top of Gallison Hill off Route 2. It was a building to be proud of, a sprawling two-storied structure surrounded by green fields and with a view that could inspire a symphony. In September of 1971, the students who entered were greeted with classrooms but few walls, just carpeted spaces that included science labs, woodworking shops, art and pottery studios, a leather working shop, a soaring two-story library, and a state-of-the-art auditorium. Some of the younger students who had come from one- and two-room schoolhouses may have wondered what planet they’d landed on. 

This was an “open school” designed to offer its students a new kind of learning experience, one that would exemplify the “Vermont Design for Education,” a document created in 1968 that emphasized the progressive ideals of individualization, community connections, experiential learning, respect for each learner’s unique style, and the development of personal responsibility. 

For some students it was a dream of what school could be. They could take part in math classes in which you learned by doing, not just listening. And there were choices, everything from studying Russian to producing plays. If a high schooler had a special interest, they could opt for an independent study. Students might even sign up for real-life learning in a hospital or local business. 

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Girls were encouraged to learn how to wire a lamp during Industrial Arts classes and boys were expected to cook in their Living Arts classes. Only 60 percent of a student’s time was scheduled to be spent in class; the remaining 40 percent could be used as they chose.

Betty Keller, who entered the school when it first opened says, “I loved every minute of it. I wanted to take advantage of everything. I loved the hands-on aspect, learning about geometry by building things. It seemed wonderful that all of this was free, and I wanted to wring all I could out of it.”

But the openness was problematic, and there were students who struggled. Many didn’t know what to do in a setting that offered minimal rules and much free time. 

Some parents were beginning to be alarmed by the stories they were hearing. Were traditional subjects being neglected? If these young students were spending hours making pottery, when were they going to learn to spell?

Candace Page, a writer for “Vermont Life” magazine, described what she saw during a visit in the fall of 1975. She noted the noise level as teachers, separated only by partitions, tried to make their voices heard over each other. Page wrote “Students call teachers by their first names, smoke openly, wear faded jeans, and spend a lot of their time sprawled on the carpeted floors, studying, playing cards, or socializing,” She also saw enthusiastic, mostly young teachers, a wealth of opportunities, and students who, like Betty Keller, had found a school that seemed made for them. Many used their free time to meet with their assigned teacher advisor, a combination mentor and friend, who was usually easy to find because there was no teacher’s lounge. Students, faculty, and interns hung out in the same cafeteria, which served lunch all day long. You headed there when you were hungry, sat wherever you liked, and left when you were ready to go.

A group of students hanging out in the smoking lounge. Photo by Suzanne Opton, originally published in “Vermont Life” and reprinted with permission.

In November of 1971, parents confronted the school board with a list of complaints, vowing to have the members of the school board replaced. Their opposition fired up supporters. School board meetings became contentious (and crowded). Emotional letters to the editor were filling columns and, to add fuel to the firestorm, Principal Bill Grady, the guiding force in the creation of the school, had rejected some local talent in favor of applicants from Iowa, Illinois, Boston, and New York. Ultimately, the community became polarized. 

Was U-32 an exemplary model of progressive education? Or was it a waste of taxpayer’s money? 

The educational philosopher John Dewey believed that a child’s education should begin with his or her needs and interests. He or she should have the freedom to choose learning tools and most learning should come from hands-on experiences rather than lectures or textbooks. This was the kind of education that Principal Grady envisioned. 

Opponents of these methods, such as parent Ruth Towne, felt that the school was not serving the true needs of the students. When were they going to learn the three Rs? How could they learn if there were no real consequences for cutting classes? And, what would they do when they were out in the working world and tried calling their bosses by their first names? 

Betty Keller, although she thrived at U-32, understands the feelings of those who opposed it. She notes that if you were not a self-disciplined individual, you struggled with the freedom of it all. In addition, if you came from a troubled or chaotic household, you had a special need for structure. Keller also remembers that many were children from rural settings. They seldom saw anyone but their own family and they craved the opportunity to socialize at school. Keller says, “It was easy for me to make time for my friends. I could do my homework after school, but some of the other kids had to do chores when they got home. It was really hard for them to make these choices.”

To quell the uproar, Bill Grady resigned in May. He felt that since a lot of the animosity was aimed at him, things might calm down when he left. (He was subsequently hired by the city of Passaic, New Jersey at twice his Vermont salary). Ruth Towne was elected to the school board, and the board decided that the middle schoolers were not ready for the freedom the older ones might be able to handle. As the years passed, other changes gradually took place.

Although the classrooms now have walls and doors, U-32 has retained something of its uniqueness. Students seem to feel a sense of ownership about what is taught. The school draws young people from areas as far as Lyndon for the art and drama programs and almost everyone still goes by their first name. 

In some ways, other schools have become more like Union 32. Personal learning plans are a part of Vermont curriculums everywhere, and many Vermont students opt for independent studies. The popular Community Based Learning programs resemble the opportunities U-32 offered to their first classes to go out to work in the community. And the “faded jeans,” which writer Candace Page remarked on, seem to be everywhere. 

Are you interested in helping to create a history of U-32? Do you have memorabilia, news articles, or just memories to share about your experiences at the school from the planning stages through 1977? Maybe you can help by recording and editing interviews or digitally scanning documents? If so, please get in touch with Betty Keller at u32historyproject@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: The editor of this issue, Carla (Neary) Occaso attended U-32 from 1977 to 1982, where she started her newspaper career in the eighth grade — and also where she snuck into the smoking lounge on many occasions without parental permission.