50-Year Experiment


When Westland School ran into money problems upon opening in 1949, it turned to its most famous parent for help.

So Charlie Chaplin, eager to help get his daughter Geraldine’s school on its feet, organized a benefit screening of his popular movie “City Lights,” which attracted Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx and other Hollywood luminaries.

The effort helped ensure the survival of one of the West Coast’s first progressive schools, which next month marks its 50th anniversary as an educational experiment in the teachings of turn-of-the-century philosopher John Dewey.


“We were definitely guinea pigs,” said Margery Seid, an original Westland student whose father, Irving Lerner, was a blacklisted editor and director. “Many of us shared the common bond of knowing our dads were blacklisted or in jail, so although the school’s approach to teaching was quite unconventional, we were in the boat together.”

‘Wider Aspects of Human Experience’

Blacklisted writers Abraham Polonsky and Ring Lardner Jr. also sent their children to Westland.

“I would have exchanged places with my daughter any day and gone there,” Polonsky said last week. “The people who sent their kids to Westland were interested in the wider aspects of human experience. [The school’s] philosophy about education was so different; they embodied independence.”

The school began modestly, with only 13 students, a couple of rented rooms at a West Los Angeles temple and a staff that often went unpaid. It moved to Mulholland Drive in the late ‘60s, where today the campus overlooking Encino is surrounded by large estates and tony schools and has about 120 students, whose parents pay tuition of about $10,000 a year.

“Writing often consisted of sending letters to President Truman,” recalled 56-year-old Joan Wohlstetter, who along with Seid was an original Westland student. “I asked the president to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. We sang a lot of Pete Seeger songs and discussed the Bill of Rights.”

“Our philosophy was, ‘We’ll give you the questions, you seek the answers,’ ” said Leni Jacksen, a longtime Westland teacher who, with progressive-education advocate Lory Titelman, helped launch the school. “The whole idea was that the children learn through involvement with the world around them.”

Guided by Dewey’s philosophy--which espoused a developmental, hands-on approach to learning--the parents, teachers and a child psychiatrist created a curriculum that took the children outside the classroom to learn about the world firsthand.

“We wanted the kids to confront the world with all their senses,” said Ruth Hershey, former Westland director and music teacher. “If we studied a culture, we’d visit it first, then cook their foods, play their music and paint their art.”

The founders’ philosophy remains intact: One recent day, a group of first-graders was tending chickens in a yard outside the classroom, while second-graders were busy sawing, hammering and sanding wood for ships, part of a harbor study.

“We immerse the kids in the subject they’re studying,” said veteran sixth-grade teacher Sandy Stead as she observed her students reading one on one with kindergartners. “When I was checking out the school 20 years ago to see if I wanted to teach here, I climbed up on a table with some third-graders who were painting a mural. They didn’t even notice that I was a visitor; they were used to adults other than their teachers pitching in.”

‘I Don’t Know When I Had More Fun’

Governed by a board of directors composed of parents, teachers and the school director, the school encourages parents and children to voice their concerns. Problems are often resolved in sessions in which the involved parties take part.

“I remember one knock-down, drag-out board meeting that lasted all night, and then we ended up having breakfast together,” recalled Olympic great Rafer Johnson, whose two children attended the school in the ‘80s. “But where else could I spend the morning building a harbor for a marine study, working on a plumbing problem and then sit down and have lunch with my daughter? I don’t know when I had more fun.”

Hershey recalled a particularly contentious 1954 board meeting at which the staff and parent body, many of whom had suffered during the McCarthy years, fought bitterly about whether the school should sign a loyalty oath, a state Franchise Tax Board requirement for any school seeking to obtain tax-free status at the time.

“Many of us were vehemently opposed to signing such an oath,” said Hershey, a former member of the liberal Independent Progressive Party. “The pragmatists pushed it through, although we included a letter saying how upset we were.”

With pressure mounting to produce ace test-takers and elementary-school computer whizzes, Westland School Director Janie Lou Hirsch said she is sometimes challenged by parents who question the validity of an educational philosophy that downplays such achievements.

“Although the times and learning materials have changed, kids today are pretty much the same as before,” Hirsch said. “What we know about how children learn has not changed: teaching to their physical, social and emotional development serves them best.”

‘We Survived on the Strengths of Our Beliefs’

To mark its 50th anniversary, the school has a number of activities planned, including an alumni school visit and dinner March 5 and an alumni concert March 6, at which former and current students will sing folk songs.

“Fifty years isn’t that long, really, but it’s pretty long for here,” Hershey said. “We were a poor school and we struggled; we overcame lots of hardships. But we survived on the strengths of our beliefs.”