Later rechristened the Van den Berg Learning Center, The Campus School was a K-8 public institution located on the west end of the SUNY New Paltz campus, connected by a long stone staircase to the Old Main Building, to which it bore a derivative parent-child architectural relationship.
The Campus School provided SUNY’s hopping education department (housed in Old Main) a facility at which to place and observe student teachers and to test drive experimental programs, including video surveillance in a few rooms, open-plan fifth-grade classrooms with no desks, and several passes at solitary and self-paced curriculum enabled by early-Seventies technology — portable cassette decks and cubicle desks with cork-like sound treatment, scarred by the jabbing pencils of kids who had no idea what was being asked of them.
My years there — approximately 1967 to 1976 — coincided with a renaissance in educational experimentation, and we felt the flux year to year. Some grades were as strict and conventional as parochial school, others both feely and groovy, and still others weirdly socially engineered. The lack of continuity was probably a blessing. More educational models with fewer opportunities to do lasting damage. Of course, this might suggest that a robust self-negation is about the best education can hope for.
Despite a reputation for being a lab school for the children of the professoriate, the student body of the campus school represented the community broadly. Faculty families may have been offered some preference, I don’t remember, but the small school (entire grades averaged 35 kids) played out the standard class dramas, comedies, and traumas of any school USA, with a bit more invasive pedagogical fiddling. A good bit more.
Still, in the mythos of this town, the Campus School-Middle School polarity continues to define relationships, nearly 40 years after the Van den Berg Learning Center closed. When the two streams of students finally met at high school, we campus school kids were as soft as warm bread in the hands of the Middle School’s angriest bullies. But by the end of the tenth grade campus-school kids had plenty of chances to distinguish themselves as the arty and cool ones. Believe me, I tried.
But it was just a public school. Small, nothing radical about it. Funny how, even now, nearly a half-century on and in a town that has purportedly changed so much in the image of its imperial New York City transplants, my Campus School attendance remains, to a number of people here, the single most important fact about me.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.