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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Clearway School, Inc. - Foundations

Clearway School, Inc. – Foundations

One of the current co-directors at Clearway School asked about how it all began. So I wrote this version of the history trying to capture the best reasons that we did things the way we did them.

With Respect and Love,
Brad Watters, May 2014


In 1974-75 school year, David, Holly, Alan, Sally, John, and I were teachers and Victoria was the office manager of another small school like Clearway. That school had in its past shared the leadership in some sort of co-director model. By September 1974, when I started, there were two co-directors. While these two had experience and skill, they also held information closely and so decisions seemed arbitrary or perverse. Through the year, things grew bad and by March and April, staff began to resign "effective the end of the year." We would gather after school and sit around feeling pretty sorry for ourselves until one day, someone started talking about starting a school. My wife Debbie joined the effort to make us seven. We were all in our 20's and early 30's.

Flatten the Org Chart

As those conversations progressed, our late-60's early-70's mistrust for authority, which had been fertilized by the, "experience" of the school year past, made various alternative models of governance appealing. Think Summerhill. Recall that then current education models had been shown to be discriminatory (Boston busing decision) and inadequate (Chapter 766.) We thought we would create a school that combined a) the best professional practices and innovations in teaching children with learning disabilities and b) the opening of educational possibilities that the alternative school movement was exploring. If avoiding a hierarchical model was our starting point, we gradually made it our hallmark. We postulated that with a clear focus on the healthy growth and education of our students and with the clear advantage that we were all friends, we could make a school work. So that's how we started thinking of ourselves as co-directors.


We were friends and we were also a group of strong personalities. There would be problems because of that (e.g., no founders working at Clearway by 10 years out.) We knew there would be hassles and we wanted to make sure we were at least making a tradeoff. What are the benefits of having a bunch of strong individuals? Well, we varied enough from one another that every kid ended up finding connection with at least some adult. So we figured that as long as every kid was spending some time or had access to every adult, those connections could happen. Tutoring became a mandatory part of each kid's program. Also, we had an expectation of individuality for our staff, as if it was written somewhere, "If you want to roll with us, you needed to stand out." That expectation was exactly our approach to each of our students. We wanted the ones who didn't fit in. We wanted them to learn that what had been a handicap was going to turn out to be their strength.

My Classroom: My Rules

We were idiosyncratic about classroom and playing field discipline. We had the idea that while some people (Hello, parents?) find themselves saying, "I’m not going to let you talk that way to me young man," others are just going to think you're funny. Some behaviors were acceptable in Sally's classroom that made David nuts - so the kids had to practice in school their already somewhat developed perception that those differences existed. In response to "it's not fair! Holly let's us..." my response could be "Oh, it's fair. It's just not the same. You know I’m not Holly!" "Mom and Dad" don't actually agree all the time and teacher independence inside and outside the classroom brought that challenge into the social development curriculum.

It also removed one of the main functions the principal and assistant principal have in most schools. So we made it a virtue that there was no higher authority than the adult on the spot.


The school was going to be small because that's all we could imagine, really. Again, we chose to make this a hallmark. A small school would have a good shot at creating community. We asserted that the power of the community to self-regulate wasn't just a pipe dream of that guy over in England (Summerhill, again.) We turned away from certain things that make some schools run with a different logic. For example, we didn't segregate activities by age. We did use some classroom leveling but we emphasized that we're all in this together; school spirit! (The teams then were the Clearway Bulldozers. Don't know how long that survived!) I think this is the impulse that led to the community coming together on Fridays for an hour or so in a gathering we called "moot." (Some of us were Tolkien fans, what can I say?) There were certain rules and habits about moot and I forget most of them. In my mind, the valuing of each person's contribution was somehow non-negotiable. If you had something to say and were being appropriate, you got to speak. Also, each moot was run by a different co-director. Moot was sometimes an activity, sometimes a film, sometimes ... you get the idea. We tried to take advantage of the differences in style and content. Friday's were half days.

Making Decisions

The biggest problem of having too many head chefs was, of course, decision-making. We had a lot of decisions to make because we were starting something new. We had a lot of decisions to make because we were full of ideas. And, even though having every one of us taking that vaunted idiosyncratic approach to kids was important to us, we needed the counterbalance of a shared understanding of each kid and his or her needs.

School Decisions

Our pattern was to meet in our major meeting from lunch Friday until we were done. Those meetings could run late! We all had thick enough skins to handle them and, as painful and interminable as those meetings could be, the group was very funny and we got through it.

Focus on a Kid

One of our best changes was how after a couple of years, we teamed up with the extraordinary therapist Tod Gross of the Adams Street Associates in Newtonville. Debbie and I had met Tod and his wife Jackie when taking classes for our Masters at Lesley. They taught a class in adolescent psychology that was clear and useful. We arranged for Tod to come to Clearway at the end of school on Mondays. Staff would gather in a circle and one teacher would present one of the kids he or she tutored. Then others of us would fill out the picture of the kid with Tod drawing us out. There were two amazing aspects of this arrangement with Tod. The first was that Tod is one of the more amazing (did I already say amazing?) listeners and he drew out of us our best insights. The second was that Tod is just good about adolescents, and people in general. I think he did share his expertise with us sometimes but mostly, he made us the best we could be. Maybe it would have worked with any outside group leader because it definitely changed the chemistry of this group of co-directors to have outside ears in the circle.

Divide and Trust

I also ought to mention that we did a lot of trusting. Perhaps this flowed from us being friends but not all of us were friends to start with. Still, we trusted each other to take on different roles. Victoria and Sally became the gurus of state approval, of one sort or another. Victoria and Debbie paid attention to how you do payroll and cash flow. I fixed furniture. We trusted the ideas that each other produced. David and I took kids to New Hampshire and stayed in cabins along the Appalachian Trail. At some point, we hired Mark. This was a big deal because in our model, every newly hired teacher would become an instant co-director. Mark fit in fine but I'm not sure if the model could have been sustained any longer than we did.

I am pleased and proud to have been part of Clearway's beginnings. But I'm also clear that it was the arrival of Mary Ryan that positioned Clearway to survive and flourish and grow into what you are today. It is her life's work.