Progressive Education at
Peninsula School

At the dawn of the 20th century, schools in America were places of mass education, where children, seated at desks for hours at a time, were expected to memorize facts and formulas and practice penmanship. Teachers were trained to follow textbooks of lessons, hold students to strict routines and reward them for compliant behavior. Even art classes were meant to train children to copy patterns, essential for work in textile plants. At the same time, a nascent movement in education that had an opposing and revolutionary view of children and schools, appealed to a young transplant to California — Josephine Duveneck.

In 1925, the ideals of fearless thinkers such as Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, inspired Mrs. Duveneck and a small group of parents to search for a school where learning was joyful and exciting, where children could learn by doing, and where both independence and group cooperation were valued. Unable to find one that suited them, they started “Peninsula School for Creative Education,” one of the first progressive schools in California. Those ideals, deceivingly simple and intuitive to us today, have endured as guiding principles for the school for the past ninety years and continue to influence the progressive education movement in America.

Francis Parker is recognized as one of the first thinkers to apply progressive ideals, popular at the end of the 1800’s, to education. Active just before the turn of the century, he believed that schools should teach with the whole child in mind – physical, social, emotional, and cognitive – and he promoted the idea that children were capable of complex, independent thinking.  Slightly later, John Dewey’s propositions that children should be active participants in their education, not simply vessels to be filled with discreet information, that schools should act as models of a democratic society, and that schools should fulfill a social good resonated with the growing progressive movement. Finally, working in Italy, Maria Montessori recognized each child as an individual and advocated for providing children with greater independence and the freedom to choose activities in their days.

Mrs. Duveneck’s beliefs in educating the whole child; in social justice; in the importance of being an active participant in one’s education, one’s nation, and in the world; and in inspiring children to learn through the choices they make each day, coalesced with the progressive ideals of Parker, Dewey and Montessori to form the principal approach to education at Peninsula School.

Recognizing the interrelatedness of the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical aspects of children was an early innovation of progressive education and remains a fundamental component of Peninsula’s approach. In planning activities for the day, teachers provide creative and experiential outlets for children to approach reading, writing, and math, and for imaginative and experiential play. The intellectual curiosity of children is fueled by teachers who skillfully follow the students’ natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn about the nature, the science and the mechanics of how things work, their surroundings and the larger community.

How a school chooses to allot time in the daily and weekly schedule reveals a great deal about its values and its approach to educating the whole child. At Peninsula we provide time EVERY day for children to engage in creative activities such as the arts, in physical activities such as organized and child-created sports games and in unstructured time to play in our lovingly preserved and abundant play areas. By providing children with choice for activities and independence for how they use their free time, Peninsula actively promotes reflection, so important for intellectual, emotional and creative growth, and bolsters the child’s sense of his or her self.

Living in diverse and democratic society requires, at its most fundamental level, a respect and compassion for others. Mrs. Duveneck recognized that this postulate should be the very foundation on which everything rests for a new school. Today at Peninsula, the skills needed to be an active member of a community are infused into every nook and cranny of every day. For two children to come to an agreement, they are guided by skillful adults to communicate, to listen, to feel, to negotiate, and to compromise. In a larger forum such as class meetings or  when children work on group or whole-class projects, their skills are further challenged and guided in another way. As they are in the smaller interactions, in larger gatherings children learn to appreciate that a range of diverse views and lifestyles among their classmates are essential components of a community. They learn how to take the perspective of others, they learn about the importance of empathy, they learn about standing up for principles, they learn about the power of adapting to change, and they learn that a working and healthy community is based on respect for every member of that community. Ultimately, they learn to be a compassionate citizen and an ethical leader.

Josephine and Frank Duveneck’s commitment to social justice was a natural part of their lives. They supported Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement, made Hidden Villa the first summer camp in California to enroll children from a range of ethnicities, worked to help children in the inner cities, and supported Asian Americans who were affected by internment during WWII. “Intolerance is too costly for any of us,” Josephine once said. Peninsula continues the Duveneck family commitment to equity and social justice. Students initiate fund-raising campaigns for people around the world who have been affected by strife, we have a commitment to providing our staff with equity training so that we can be more aware of our curriculum and the needs of all students, teachers lead discussions with students on topics of justice and diversity, and the school continues its commitment to maintaining an affordable tuition and a generous financial aid program which together create opportunities for a broad array of families to send their children to Peninsula.

The simple and intuitive yet profoundly challenging principles that became the foundation for Peninsula School grew out of the ideals of the progressive education movement and the personal values of Josephine Duveneck and they thrive at Peninsula School today. Mrs. Duveneck’s generous and tenacious spirit established a new and innovative school that would provide for children a place of joyful learning where each was recognized as an integral member of the community, a place that celebrated intellectual curiosity, and a place that was commitment to participating in and improving society. These ideals continue to inspire us today.

by Jim Benz, Head of School

Josephine and Frank Duveneck

Josephine and Frank Duveneck

The Big Building

The Big Building

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