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On a hillside overlooking the Pittsburgh campus, a shy fourth grader, plagued by nightmares, blossoms into an outgoing, artistic person—just one facet in the sparkling adventure called successful education at Pitt’s Falk Laboratory School.

Well Schooled

Elaine Vitone

Lesgold and McConnaha (Michael Henninger photo)

At night, in her sleep, it’s a witch chasing her down the stairs. By day, it’s the harsh reality of growing up during the Great Depression without a father. The child, Nancy Richter Brzeski, is caught between two nightmares.

In elementary school, she’s withdrawn and timid, a fourth grader overwhelmed by the noise and crowded halls of public school in Pittsburgh. Against the advice of friends and despite the financial hardship, the girl’s mother decides to take action: She resolves to pay tuition to enroll her daughter in another school—the Falk Laboratory School, part of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

“This place was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Brzeski now about the Falk School. On a bright fall day—nearly seven decades after she graduated as an eighth grader in 1938—the 82-year-old artist, mother, and grandmother peers across the school’s auditorium, delighted to see so many children gathered before her. A slideshow of her artwork flashes bright colors across the screen behind her. The nightmares are long gone; instead, for several decades, she has expressed her complex, intriguing dreams in drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures. The shy girl who spent recess alone on a public school playground is a ghost of the past.

Instead, she proudly tells the assembled children about the night she played the lead in a production of Alice in Wonderland in this very room. “My whole attitude toward art and toward life—to try something new and fly off to the moon—developed right here,” she says, beaming.

As the Falk School celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, it boasts many successful alumni, including New York Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel, Tony-award-nominated actor Fritz Weaver, director Rob Marshall (his Academy-award-nominated films are Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha), and Brzeski, who recently traveled from her home in Davis, Calif., to visit the school that changed her life.

Laboratory schools like Falk are university-affiliated institutions that serve as training grounds for new teachers and testing sites for educational research. They help to define successful education and produce generations of new, innovative teachers, as well as transform students into productive adults. And, for alums like Brzeski, the school has a much more personal significance. Across the years, something special happens here.

In 1931, Leon Falk Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy bought a piece of land high on a hill overlooking Pitt to establish a school in memory of their mother, Fanny Edel Falk. The family donated the two-story gray stone house they built there to the University on the condition that it be used to promote progressive teaching methods for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Today, Falk School is one of several Pittsburgh-area sites where Pitt’s School of Education students observe teaching in action and also where about a dozen of them each year fulfill their internship requirements for the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree. MAT interns observe and assist Falk instructors and lead lessons under their supervision. Many of Falk’s faculty are also School of Education faculty, so Pitt’s education students learn from instructors who are firmly grounded in theory and practice.

Wendell McConnaha, the school’s principal and a former president of the National Association of Laboratory and University Affiliated Schools, has nearly two decades of experience working within laboratory schools. He regularly offers his expertise to schools around the world, giving presentations and consulting on the development of new lab schools from Nigeria to China to the United Arab Emirates. “I think it’s vitally important if you’re going to improve education in any demographic region that there be a solid connection between the preparation of new teachers and the students in the community,” he says.

When McConnaha—who is also a clinical associate professor of instruction and learning in Pitt’s School of Education— joined Falk School in summer 2005, he made it a priority to better integrate the school into the University. Now more than ever, Falk is committed to participating in research conducted by Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)—one of the nation’s premier educational-research facilities—as well as the School of Education and several other Pitt schools and departments. The projects run the gamut from a dental-hygiene unit, courtesy of the School of Dental Medicine; to curricula experiments designed by Falk/Pitt faculty; to an LRDC study on risk indicators for late-onset reading difficulties.

At one time, virtually every university-level school of education in the country had a laboratory school, but over the years they’ve dwindled to about 100 nationwide (roughly a quarter of their original number) owing to budget constraints and other difficulties in serving simultaneously as teacher-preparation resources, research sites, and viable learning environments for children.

Alan Lesgold, an education professor and dean of Pitt’s School of Education, says the key to Falk’s longevity and success is its nurturing culture, which is precisely what helped Brzeski and so many others become successful, self-motivated learners. “You have to have an environment that’s strikingly positive,” he says.

The school has a kind of small-town air about it. Two of Falk’s teachers have taught there for 27 years, and most students enter at kindergarten and stay through eighth grade. Students are called by name often, not just by their current and former teachers, but by everyone. “We consider these our children,” says McConnaha.

The school keeps its classes small and its teacher-student ratio high. In addition to one teacher and one MAT for each classroom, Falk supports two full-time teachers who run an after-school program, and several more who assist homeroom teachers as needed and fill in when someone is sick, or presenting at a conference, or leading a workshop for Pittsburgh-area teachers.

All of the classrooms except kindergarten are multigrade, giving students the benefit of spending more than one year with almost every teacher. Case in point: Marian Vollmer’s first/second-grade classroom. Each year, Vollmer (EDUC ’82G, ’74G, ’72) needs to familiarize herself with only half the class—the first-graders. The second graders are in comfortable territory, so they’re able to show their younger classmates the ropes. When Vollmer, who also is the school’s assistant director, puts the students into small groups to work together—a hallmark of Falk’s teaching methods—she’s able to differentiate instruction based on academic readiness rather than age, but without the stigma of separate classes.

Instructors have been known to pair students with much larger age differences between them for collaborative projects —reading buddies, for example. “It’s wonderful to see how the older kids support the little ones,” says Martina Wells, who has three children enrolled at Falk. “Their interaction nurtures a sense of respect.”

In the same fly-off-to-the-moon spirit of Brzeski’s student days, Falk’s curriculum is adventurous. Once a year, for instance, the entire student body spends four days and three nights at the McKeever Environmental Learning Center, a camp 80 miles north of Pittsburgh in Sandy Lake, Pa., to concentrate solely on science. A third of the middle-school students’ year is devoted to putting on a musical—from designing and building the set, to making the costumes, to learning songs. “We make a case that they learn more literature, math, art, and music through that experience than from simply reading Peter Pan or learning music,” says McConnaha.

Falk was one of the region’s first schools to adopt the now fairly common teaching method known as inquiry education. The idea is to allow students to discover content in the context of larger projects, rather than giving them bits of information piece by piece. In sharing its successes with inquiry education through a series of presentations, Falk has helped other area schools adopt similar strategies.

“Part of our goal is to make it easier in the age of the Internet to export what’s going on in Falk to the rest of the world,” says Lesgold. In the spring, Falk will launch an 18-month renovation and expansion plan to increase enrollment to 415 students and update the existing building’s capacity to support technologies such as video conferencing for teaching demonstrations.

Because Falk’s students are used to cooperating with peers of different ages and abilities, adapting to and working well with others is second nature to them, and any bullying mentality is altogether absent. The students seem exceptionally focused, flexible in the face of change, and unfazed by interruptions—such as, say, a visit from a 1938 Falk School graduate.

“This was my classroom,” Brzeski says, stepping through the doorway, a portal through time. “We built our teepee right there.”

The day before Brzeski’s arrival, in one of Falk’s two third/fourth-grade classrooms, the students are talking softly as they work. One of them towers over the others—he’s a German major from Pitt. Since the semester began a month ago, he and several other students have been working in shifts, shadowing the girl sitting next to him, translating the teacher’s instructions. When the girl’s family moved to Pittsburgh from Germany this summer, she hardly knew a word of English. Now, thanks to the Pitt students’ help, she’s speaking in full sentences.

This is just one example of how Pitt’s resources benefit Falk’s students. Last year, when Falk restructured its language program, the committee included the heads of Pitt’s German- and French-language programs. And the perks of the Pitt/Falk relationship run both ways. Five of Falk’s faculty hold PhDs, making them excellent collaborators with Pitt researchers conducting studies at the school.

Back in the school’s auditorium, Brzeski tells the children she wants to visit again in the spring so she can volunteer to teach an art or creative-writing class. “I’ve had three dreams about coming back to Falk School,” she says.

She’s not alone. Though Falk has always been small (about 275 students) and has no alumni association, its graduates have organized reunions on their own. Last summer, a man not much younger than Brzeski spearheaded one that attracted alums dating back to the 1940s. “More than 100 people came from all over the country to what was basically an elementary-school reunion,” says McConnaha. “These are people who’ve gone to high school, college, and even graduate programs but still think about this institution enough to come back 60 years later and hang out with people they haven’t seen since they were nine.”

On the night before Brzeski returns to California, she looks out the window of her hotel room near the Oakland campus. She sees a sight that has always comforted her—the Falk School’s chimney peeking through the trees near the top of the hill. She knows the chimney is attached to a little gray stone house, where no child is nameless or alone. “It has been wonderful coming back,” she says. “I’ve come home.”


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