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Researcher seeking individuals who attended platoon schools

Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist

It was something innovative in public education: the platoon school.

It first came to North Dakota in 1923 at Fargo's Jefferson School. Seven other Fargo schools then adopted the plan: Woodrow Wilson, Horace Mann, Roosevelt, Hawthorne, Lincoln, Clara Barton and Emerson H. Smith; Smith was the last Fargo school to adopt the plan in 1931.

Now, if you attended a school with the platoon system, Steve Grineski would like to hear from you.

Steve, professor emeritus of the School of Teaching and Learning at Minnesota State University Moorhead, is writing a paper on the platoon schools.

He says in 1906, William Wirt, the superintendent of schools in Gary, Ind., being pushed by over-crowded schools and with a belief in progressive education, created the platoon schools.

Under the plan, (sometimes called the Gary Plan), elementary students were divided into groups (or platoons) and rotated through their fundamental as well as their special subjects.

For example, Steve says, if there were four classroom sections or groups of fourth grade students, two sections (Platoon A) would begin the morning with their homeroom teachers while she taught basic skills of reading, math and so on. The other two groups (Platoon B) would be divided into six smaller groups and receive instruction in special subjects taught by content experts. These subjects included such things as physical education, industrial arts, music, penmanship and art.

Platoon A would then rotate to the special subjects and Platoon B would rotate to the basic skill subjects.

This process would be repeated in the afternoon, so that all the students received one-half day of basic skill subject instruction and one-half day with the special subject teachers.

A unique part of platoon schools, Steve says, was how the school auditorium was used.

There would be a regular daily period in which the auditorium teacher would work with the students on various learning they experienced throughout the day. Many times the auditorium would be the place/period in which the students performed music, dance and other performances.

"Records from the North Dakota State University archives reveal that Superintendent Moore was motivated in 1923 to use platoon schools in Fargo for reasons similar to Wirt's," Steve says. "His recommendation was met with open arms as the board of education was very concerned about using portable classrooms, shortened school days and all-too-often changing school boundaries to compensate for overcrowding.

"In Fargo and around the country," he says, "the platoon school was a hit in over 202 cities and in thousands of schools. It provided for continuous use of building space through platooning, which saved money for the district.

"Jefferson school, via this plan, for instance, could educate several more hundred students as a result. Platooning offered a curriculum rich in progressive education principles, such as critical thinking, authentic and not contrived learning experiences, and hands-on and engaging learning, with plenty of variety. Under this plan the special subjects were viewed as just as important as the basic skills subjects.

"An outstanding feature of platooning was the way the basic skill and special subject teachers worked together to correlate their subject matter. This feature was school-wide and directed by the principal. The Fargo platoon school teachers were masters at working together and integrating the school's learning."

Steve says that "nationally, there were accusations of classism and racism, overpricing and too much work and unrealistic expectations for the staff; however, platoon schools were the long-running progressive education applications in the history of American education.

"But the Depression, World War II and the changing social, economic and educational landscape took the wind out of this innovation and ultimately it ran its course, as thought of by Wirt, who died in 1938. Most likely the platoon's end in Fargo was the late 1950s."

Steve's paper is for submission to "North Dakota History."

If you have information to share about your experiences in the platoon plan, or the experiences of others, or if you're willing for him to interview you about them, Steve asks you to contact him at this email address: grineski@mnstate.edu. Or you can call him at (218) 443-4174.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.

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