Volume 16 • Issue 54 | June 4 - 10, 2004

Longtime school director at Little Red to leave in June

By David H. Ellis

Downtown Express photo by John Whittaker

Andrew McLaren, director of L.R.E.I., with students at the Little Red Schoolhouse on Tuesday.

It might be considered some sort of pedagogical fate that brought Andrew McLaren and one of Downtown’s oldest progressive schools together.

It was 16 years ago that McLaren became director of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School, now collectively known as L.R.E.I. It was clear from the start that it was a perfect match. McLaren’s philosophy of experimental learning and academic excellence meshed with what L.R.E.I. has always espoused.

This month, however, the two will part as McLaren will step down to take a two-year position as the associate executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools.

“There was just a feeling in the air when I arrived here 16 years ago — I felt in my heart that this was the place I wanted to be,” said McLaren yesterday, reflecting on his tenure as director. “I stayed far longer than I ever anticipated and I’ve been delighted to do it.”

McLaren, 63, earned his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College at Cambridge and came to the United States in 1962, where he obtained his master’s degree in educational psychology from Columbia University. Despite a brief stint as a copywriter at an advertising firm, which he describes as “fascinating,” McLaren returned to education. He says that it was the challenge of teaching that brought him back to education, where he worked as an administrator for two schools in Upstate New York before he was selected for his current position at L.R.E.I. in 1988.

L.R.E.I., with its lower school located at the corner of Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave. and its upper school on Charlton St., was started in 1921 by Elisabeth Irwin, a former journalist and psychologist. Little Red Schoolhouse came first, followed later by the middle school and high school.

Irwin wanted to create a school that emphasized academic excellence and social justice while including all members of society. According to McLaren, those same principles are as strong today as they were at the school’s founding.

Today, students of the private school are expected to follow typical grade school, middle school and high school curriculums, but are required to participate in arts and community service programs. What distinguishes the school, said McLaren, is the fact that its students approach learning in a different way and are instilled with “confidence” and “competence.”

“The education this world needs is that which has people arrive at conclusions rather than start from them,” said McLaren, in his light British accent from his office just above Bleecker St. “Essentially the education the world needs is education for dialogue and to help people grope for the truth. That’s my philosophy and I think that sums up our school.”

Another pillar of the school’s mission statement has been its belief in social justice, as students have worked with such groups as Amnesty International. This philosophy of social responsibility has inspired such alumni as African-American activist and writer Angela Davis, political scholar Ronald Randosh and writer Victor Navasky.

“It hasn’t always been easy, because social justice is a tough flag to follow. But its one the school rallies behind and I’m very happy the school has become more prosperous but maintained its commitment to social justice,” said McLaren.

At the same time, being director of this Village institution has not been an easy job either, explained McLaren.

“It’s not always the easiest job being the school head, but this is a community which really agonizes over doing things right and doing things as well as it possibly can,” he said.

Even so, the director has met with success during his tenure, including reviving L.R.E.I.’s high school program that was nearly dissolved due to low enrollment when he took the position of director. Currently the school serves 510 students from grades pre-kindergarten through 12. Enrollment is expected to jump to 540 for the 2004-2005 school year, while there are plans to expand the high school even further.

“It has turned around completely and instead of contemplating closing it we’re actually expanding — our strategic plan includes going up to 240 students in the high school by adding another 100 students,” said McLaren about the outlook for L.R.E.I. “In that time, the high school has made tremendous steps forward in its program and prestige in the educational community of New York and I’m certainly very gratified about that and a lot of people have put a lot of work into that.”

Although he has been a crucial element with the success of the school, he attributes its growth to the teachers who make connections with students.

“I think one of the key things about this school is that what happens in the director’s office is actually far less important than what happens in the classroom,” he said. “The way I see my job is that, along with the board of trustees and the administration as a whole, we are only successful if what we do actually helps out that basic relationship between the students and his or her teacher.”

In the front lobby of the Bleecker St. campus of L.R.E.I. a poster depicting a hulking ocean liner with S.S. McLaren written on its bow is prominently displayed, along with the message “Au Revoir, Andrew,” reminding parents and staff of a June 2 sendoff party for this longtime fixture of L.R.E.I.’s administration. With Phillip Kassen, the current deputy assistant director and middle school principal, slated to serve as interim director during the 2004-2005 school year, McLaren said he’s confident the school is positioned to continue its success.

“I’m thrilled,” he said about his new opportunity. “I’m happy with the 16 years that have gone by and I think the school is well placed in the educational world in New York and there’s some very exciting plans in the air to move forward. I love being here and I think the school is well poised for the next major jump forward.”

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