Indiana University

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Last modified: Monday, November 17, 2008

Nationally-renowned progressive education leader donating papers to IU

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Nov. 17, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Lilly Library announced today (Nov. 17) that Deborah Meier, considered the founder of the small schools movement in the U.S., will donate her personal papers to the library's collection. The announcement came during today's commemoration ceremony for the Indiana University School of Education's 100th anniversary. Meier gave the keynote address during a dinner celebration Sunday night.

"Deborah Meier's papers will provide invaluable insights into the nature and history of the modern small schools movement in America," said Breon Mitchell, director of the Lilly Library. Mitchell traveled to New York to meet with Meier earlier this year and discuss steps to preserve the papers at the Lilly.

Meier is a leading voice in education reform. Her ideas have influenced schools heavily across the country, including Bloomington's Harmony Education Center, where she is a senior advisor for new initiatives. Meier started a New York City alternative elementary school in 1974, later founding two others and a secondary school based on the progressive school model. Meier's books include The Power of their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, and Will Standards Save Public Education? Her success in innovative school reform earned her the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the "genius grant," in 1987.

She said her work with Harmony and familiarity with the reputation of the Lilly Library made the decision to store her papers here a logical choice. "Because of my work with Harmony School, I thought that makes it somewhat more likely that they would be used by the people that will keep them," Meier said. She added that she also felt warmly toward the state of Indiana because she had an uncle from Indianapolis.

"She's really an icon of democratic education, progressive education and the small school movement," said Steve Bonchek, executive director of the Harmony Education Center. "We're honored to have her associated with Harmony."

The collection contains a trove of archive material from three schools Meier worked with, including faculty and parent newsletters, as well as yearbooks, but also letters, drafts and finished essays Meier wrote and other notes. "It will be a place where people who want to understand better the tradition of progressive education in this period of history will have a chance to do so," Meier said.

Meier said she hopes the donation will be the start of a new collection of school stories. "I think schools have not preserved their stories," she said. "These stories are a wonderful way to spread ideas."

Mitchell said the collection will complement the large Lilly collection about the "Gary System of Education," documents from the superintendent of schools in Gary, Ind., in the early 20th century. "The Deborah Meier papers will fit perfectly into our collections and form the centerpiece of a wonderful archive for future research," he said.

Harmony administrators intend for the Meier papers to be a start to a larger archive of school materials.

The Lilly Library plans to have the papers ready for examination within two years, thanks in part to a grant from the Peck Stacpoole Foundation with matching funds from the IU Bloomington Office of the Provost to pay for processing and digitizing.

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Meier says preserving the papers at the Lilly Library puts her work close to a school using her theories in daily practice:

"Because of my work with Harmony School, I thought that makes it somewhat more likely that they would be used by the people that will be able to keep them."

The materials she is donating to the Lilly should be the start to archiving more school material, she says:

"I'm hoping that it's the beginning of collecting other school stories. I think schools have not preserved their stories. These stories are a wonderful way to spread ideas, through storytelling. So I'm hoping that embedded in my archives is the story of three schools that I was very closely connected to -- an elementary school, then a secondary school, and a K-8 in Boston. And within, there's not just my story, but the story of three schools, starting three schools, what happened to them, and hoping -- which is part of our arrangement -- that they will add other schools archives to this. So that it will be a place where people who want to understand better the tradition of progressive education in this period of history will have a chance to look at them."

Meier says that the papers include a wide variety of information:

"There's a lot of writing. And then we also have kept in touch with the kids who graduated from the schools, so we have a lot of the stories of what they thought about the schools. And then there is all the political stuff about trying to get these started and who was against us and who was for us, the difficulties we had sustaining the work at these schools."

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