Paideia was started in 1971 by a small group of parents who wanted a school that educated children with respect for their individuality. The school was founded on the idea that children have different interests and learning styles, and that they progress at different rates. The ancient Greek word Paideia conveys the concept of a child’s total education: intellectual, artistic, and social. After many years and considerable growth in size and programs, Paideia remains true to the ideas that inspired it and brought it into existence. Today, Paideia is the leading progressive school in the southeast. Paul Bianchi has been head of school since the school began.
The Paideia Creation Story
In 2004, Paul Bianchi, head of school, gave a speech at the faculty and staff retreat about the beginnings of Paideia School. Below is an excerpt from that talk. Bianchi has been head of school since its founding in 1971.
All of us live in an historical context. Paideia is, without a doubt, a school of the sixties. It opened in 1971, which is technically not the sixties. What we think of as the sixties actually began in the mid-1960s with the March on Washington, the arrival of the Beatles, birth control pills, drugs, the flowering consciousness of youth, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the ensuing antiwar movement.
The sixties were a search for alternatives: alternatives to political authority; alternatives in race relations and to legalized discrimination; alternatives to conformity; alternatives in lifestyles, in gender roles, in childrearing, in what was believed to be the good American life.
The yearning for alternatives occurred most everywhere, including in institutions and in the professions.
It was a liberal era when significant numbers of people were happy to call themselves liberals. And while we know that not everyone who so self-identified was comfortable with all the implications of the change that was happening, the context of the time was to be open to change. It was an era of reform.
This yearning for reform was found not only among young people and among minorities and women who had been denied full citizenship and privileges; the restlessness for change seeped into other age groups and parts of society, people you wouldn’t expect to be looking for something different from what they had.
That first year many real grown-ups signed up for our unabashedly alternative school that was to be run by young people and housed in a decaying old mansion on Ponce de Leon. They were lawyers, public health doctors, doctors in private practice.
Of course, while schools often spring from ideas and dreams, one can’t get started on ideas and dreams alone. It takes people–parents, teachers, students–and money, and a place to have the school. When I was asked to do this job in November 1970, we had only one of those things, parents, and not very many of those, maybe 10 or 15. There were no students signed up, no money at all, no faculty, and not a clue about where the school was going to be located.
This lack of anything necessary to have a school explains more than anything else why the original trustees, on the recommendation of Wood Smethurst, chose a headmaster who was twenty-five years old and had a foreign accent. If the trustees had any of the other variables of a school in place, they would have been able to get someone who knew what he was doing, or at least appeared to know what he was doing and didn’t sound like a carpetbagger.
The previous spring, May 1970, the trustees had asked me to do the job, but at that time I did not feel that I was mature enough to run a school. I was only twenty-four at the time. The school didn’t open in the fall of 1970, and when Wood pushed them to try again and asked me in November, for some unfathomable reason, I felt that I had grown up immensely over the summer.
A group of parents came up with the idea for Paideia, specifically two women, Bette Turlington and Susan Brachman. Some of these original parents fell by the wayside during the first few years: the reality of the school did not match their expectations, or some of us did not. Many creation stories involve a fall from grace. But in the months before we opened, there was no reality to intrude upon our dreams, and we all got along famously. It was like those months before the marriage–you cannot imagine that there will ever be problems, or that someone is going to have to take out the trash and do the laundry. As the Zen phrase on the painting in my office says, “After ecstasy, the laundry.” We had not yet gotten to the laundry days.
But there were practical issues to deal with: remember, no students, no teachers, no money, and no building–i.e., no school. What is true about our creation is that the first thing I did after the trustees asked Barbara and me to be involved, within twenty-four hours, was to ask Robert Falk to come to Paideia. I didn’t know anything about running a school then or how to get started, but I knew one thing: it should be built around great teachers, bright and interesting people who liked children and honored learning. Without such talent, nothing else would count very much; it would only be words and buildings and false promises.
Robert said yes. He had been teaching first grade at Galloway down the hall from my third grade class (third grade, that was something I also knew nothing about, having never thought about it or done it until the first day Galloway opened). Robert and his wife Sue and Barbara and I had become friends, “the teachers from Harvard” they called us those first two years at Galloway, which assumed that we knew something special and had to be watched closely, feared and listened to at the same time.
A popular myth about Paideia’s creation story is that we left Galloway School in angry rebellion because we were deeply disenchanted with it. I still hear this one today, and it is not true. Creation stories sometimes involve false starts when the young heroes go from place to place until they find their way to their true home. We were young, restless, and facetious, and while facetious works better in some neighborhoods than others, Paideia did not begin because parents who had their children at Galloway or a few of us who worked there were mad about something at Galloway. We left because some people in the Emory neighborhoods gave us a chance to have our own school. Opportunity knocked, and the second time, we answered it.
The late sixties and early seventies were an ideological time in education as in other parts of society, and we had read and been influenced by these ideas, but very little time getting Paideia up and running was spent in deep philosophical discourse, or even shallow philosophical discourse. We were not temperamentally so inclined, and furthermore, we didn’t have the time.
A lot of progressive or alternative or “free” schools sweated through endless ideological discussions on the nature of knowledge, or the purity of children’s souls, or the ideal community, or the meaning of “Paideia.” We were not trying to define such eternal truths. I had gone to a university with the motto of Veritas, meaning truth, and I had always thought they were either kidding or overselling the product. We spent no time discussing weighty ideals. Our orientation was more intuitive and pragmatic, a pragmatism that is fairly typical in this country.
Let me give an example. One of the practices of the school that visitors notice and comment on first of all is teachers and students being on a first name basis. One might think that a great deal of discussion went into the psychological, emotional, and political implications of doing that. Not so. As best as I can remember, we had a rare meeting of the original faculty a few weeks before school opened, and the question of what to have the kids call us came up. We had been on a first name basis all summer as parents and teachers rushed to get the 1509 Building ready. Someone said, “Why don’t we just leave it like it is?”
“Why not,” everyone agreed, and we moved on.
There’s an important point in this example. Paideia, which has become Atlanta’s progressive K-12 school and maybe the South’s most prominent progressive school (although there’s not much competition for that spot), was not driven or inspired by ideology, even in its formative days.
One of the reasons for this disposition is that while we were very young, each of us had taught at least two or three years. Even a few years of teaching will knock the fine points of pedagogical certainty out of a young teacher. Another reason, as I said before, is that we were not particularly reverent. If I didn’t buy that Harvard is about Truth with a capital T, I was not inclined to spend much time looking for it in a school in Georgia.
I hope it is obvious by now that Paideia started without a mission statement. We can only imagine what getting the school going today would look like. The room would be full of lawyers, enrollment managers, marketers, people selling expertise in something called “branding,” and land use experts. There would be an audit committee to oversee the money long before there was any money to oversee. And certainly someone would insist that everyone involved, usually called “stakeholders,” spend three days at a retreat center with a consultant in order to come up with an all-inclusive, meaningful compound sentence–the Paideia Mission Statement.
In 1971 we thought that calling it a school, not just Paideia, but Paideia School, was more than sufficiently specific and ambitious. For people who insisted on greater detail, we sent them to a Greek dictionary to look up the definition of Paideia, and they were never heard from again.
The other reason we eschewed ideology is that we were too busy finding a place to house the school, getting it ready, and talking to people about enrolling their children. Having no money limits the places one can rent or buy. Originally, before I signed on, the school was going to rent space at neighboring Jackson Hill Baptist Church and open in the fall of 1970, but the congregation learned that there would be black children at Paideia and would not ratify the deal made by their board of deacons. Some things never change, including our interest in that property.
Then we were going to be located at Callanwolde, a lovely piece of property that we couldn’t afford; or in other churches; we looked at warehouses on Monroe Drive and an empty grocery store in Decatur.
Instead of these building and location options, most of which we didn’t have the money for in the first place, we chose a deserted Tudor-style mansion at 1509 Ponce de Leon. It was cheap, only $600 a month with two years of rent applying to the option to buy at a price of $125,000. We chose 1509 for one overwhelming reason: it was the only choice available to us. We figured that if the school were successful, we could always add a geodesic dome or two in the back yard to get them out of our system.
Finding a place was the hardest thing of all. The second hardest was explaining to prospective parents a school that did not exist and could not be shown, a school with a faculty barely out of school themselves, many of whom, then as now, cared about, even loved, their children.
For nine months, from December 1970 to the opening the following September, we had 45 prospective parent meetings. These meetings were small, ten or so people, usually held in someone’s house. I would talk about the school, and Barbara or Robert would chime in, and we would open ourselves up to questions.
Among the many trials and labors involved in getting Paideia opened, I found these meetings particularly difficult. Most meetings seemed to have at least a few skeptical people in the room–disputatious, college faculty types who engaged the world by challenging it and probably doubted that we could pull it off. Who were we to think we could create such a school, they said. What did we know? Why hadn’t we thought of so and so?
The questions were basically reasonable and grounded in reality. They were right: who were we? Maybe starting and maintaining a school wouldn’t be so easy after all. But we plowed on, hoping that there would at least be enough children with adventurous parents to fill the school.
I hope I get to live through another era of widespread reform in this country: this era won’t be a reincarnation of the 1930s or the 1960s, but rather will evolve from the events and opportunities of that time. Despite all the mistakes and fits and starts, these reform eras are exhilarating times of hope and faith and trust.
That optimism prevailed and nurtured the creation of Paideia. We were more inexperienced and younger than almost everyone teaching at Paideia today; we were prone to occasional excess and to humor that we found funny but was not necessarily appropriate to the task at hand, and we were sure that most everyone else was wrong.
It is hard to understand, even in the gauzy memory that rewrites history, how we could have inspired confidence, or enough confidence to make people want to entrust their children to us. But over a 100 families did that first year, and even paid their first tuition payment in mid-July before we could show them where the campus was. We opened with 145 students age two-and-a-half to thirteen, and 96 percent of them returned the next year.
In some sense we were lucky–the right kind of school, the right time, a right neighborhood, and we lucked out with a building on a street nobody cared much about until we got here.
But as Ben Hogan once said, “Golf is a game of luck: the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
In the origin of this school and in its development to this day, there is an unbelievable amount of energy and hard work. At Paideia we don’t always look the part or talk the talk, but so many of us who work here, and among the leading parents throughout the years, are Puritans at heart, early risers in the hope of building a better community and realizing one or another form of salvation.
The best creation story is one that lives on. Paideia is much bigger and more complicated than the school originally envisioned or first opened, and a much better school in most every way, but essentially we have stayed with the date we brought to the dance. And when I say the school “originally envisioned,” I don’t just mean by the few of us who were here when the school opened in 1971, but also the teachers who came shortly thereafter and helped define Paideia those first few years: Paul Hayward, Judy Schwarz, Steve Sigur, Tom Pearce, Bernie and Martha Schein, Pru Collier, Jane Harmon, Walter Enloe, Frank Chew, Sharon Radford, Nancy Wiesner, Thrower Starr, Kathy Bailey, Lynn Minderman, Dorothy Evans, and others like Nancy Isom, Nancy Burr, and Fran Millians who did not teach.
What I like about our creation story, as I understand it, is that it has a balance between meaning and proportion. The meaning is in its message of optimism and reform, a message that can keep us growing and grounded as much today as it did at the beginning. The proportion of the story is that it lacks the pretense of grandeur, or presumed uniqueness, and therefore does not overshadow the present.
I also like that the story, so far, has had so many happy endings, and that it keeps going with much of the excitement and freshness of youth.
We distrust ideology and absolute truth, no matter who is promoting it. We try to laugh an equal amount at ourselves to deflate the puffy inflation of success.
We believe in the power of a community in raising a child and in helping parents do their best job with their children.
We think that a school is working when it is does a good job with an individual child. That’s the only place and difference that count.
We think that school is both heart and mind, and that either without the other will be incomplete, unsuccessful, and unsatisfying.
We want the environment to be fair and safe and welcoming.
We insist that, even though the work is more important than almost any other, we are going to enjoy the day. Enjoying the day is worthwhile in itself, but it also enables us to do our best work.
We believe in the primacy of teaching, a job done by people called teachers, and therefore we believe in the primacy of teachers. In a school, how could anything matter more than the people who are with the children and how they are supported?