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Dawntreader School

1971-1974


The Parkway Program Model

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, published in 1952, is a high fantasy novel for children by the author C.S. Lewis. Inspired by Lewis’ tale of self exploration, an ‘alternative’ school named Dawntreader was established in Kalamazoo in 1971. The school drew upon Philadelphia’s Parkway Program and its “school without walls” system.

“We feel that an alternative high school is necessary because we have repeatedly seen high school students who for various reasons have not been able to function to anywhere near their ability. This is not to say necessarily that it is the fault of the school, or of the student: the point is these students can not or will not learn in the public and parochial high schools. They become bored and dissatisfied with school and with themselves, feelings which are often strong factors in these students’ use of drugs. Unfortunately, it is understandable, given the situation as it is: there is no alternative for these students in the present system.”–John Conbere

The early 1970’s saw a rise across the country in the creation of schools conceptualized to address student needs outside of the walls of the traditional school setting. Out of the late 1960’s counterculture came a renewed interest in school reform according to alternative models, values and theories. Not just focused on “dropout’s” and those with drug problems, the school also marketed their student-designed curriculum to families of teenagers who found public school classes dull and uninspiring.  The school’s director was John Conbere, who along with three other certified educators and a counselor made up the faculty during their first year in operation.

The student body of the school was co-ed, with the total number averaging around 45. To ensure fairness, a lottery system was established to choose which students would attend if there was greater interest than the school could accommodate. Students were welcome from “all parts of the community”. The school address was listed at the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 247 W. Lovell Street, but as articulated by Conbere, much of the philosophical grounding of the alternative model was an attempt to move away from classroom settings, which also included institutional buildings. Conbere stated, “other facilities to be used include the Kalamazoo Nature Center, the Regional Enrichment Center, museums and various shops around town.”

Designed with the student in mind who was not reaching their “full potential”, Dawntreader opened its doors on 7 September 1971 after receiving a $50,000 Federal grant administered by the Michigan Office of Criminal Justice Programs. Additional funds were gifted by the Kalamazoo Foundation and anonymous donors. The school was financially and legally “administered by Autos Association, a non-profit organization which also administered Autos House, a home for wayward youths.” Approved by the State of Michigan prior to its inaugural year, the diplomas issued to graduates were considered valid.

“Because of the school’s small size and its individual-oriented educational method, we feel that it will be more successful than the present schools have been in helping such students with their education. We feel that education can be, and must be, interesting for those involved. At the same time it is essential that students be able to proceed from our school to college, trade school or whatever they wish to pursue. We are aiming at developing open, receptive people, able and willing to learn on their own as well as to understand themselves and their relationship to the society around them.”–John Conbere

Alternative Curriculum
  • The use of guest lecturers and “resource people”
  • Classes or seminars will be guided by teachers, as well as by the associate instructor or the students themselves.
  • Independent study, in which a student can investigate some field on his own, with the help and guidance of the teachers.
  • Instruction given by people from outside the school, which could be supplementary to one of the above or self-contained, depending on the circumstances.
  • “Apprentice” type programs, for students who want to learn an area in depth, in which a student would work along with someone skilled in the particular trade or profession. Also, should a student desire to take a course in the public school, this can be arranged.
  • Evaluations between teachers and students would not use a letter or number grade.

“The curricula will be decided upon by the students and the teachers. While the basic skills–reading, writing, the sciences, math are essential, they will not necessarily be offered as such. Instead, students will engage in fields in which they are interested or feel are important. While facts and theories are important, especially in such areas as the sciences, it is more important that a student know how to think and understand, and how to apply facts to solve whatever problems with which he is faced.”

Three years after the school was founded, Dawntreader was closed because of a lack of financial sustainability. The school’s primary funding came from a short-term Federal grant program; money that was tied to a requirement that a local school district would eventually integrate the alternative school into its system once it were deemed successful. Despite the school’s reported achievements, no school district was willing to pay for the alternative school. Without funding, Dawntreader was left to fend for itself, which ultimately it couldn’t do when the grants dried up. Overall, the school served about 200 students, with 92 seniors graduating from the school.

 

Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2023

Sources

Articles

“It’s ‘Dawntreader'”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 July 1971, page A12, column 1

“Interviews for enrollment set by Dawntreader”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 July 1971, page A13, column 3

“A school unlike most”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 August 1971, page B17, column 1

“Dawntreader High School receives $50,000 federal operating grant”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 September 1971, page A10, column 1

“Dawntreader, the alternative school: ‘for some…a different way is needed'”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 January 1972, page D1, column 1

“End of Dawntreader”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 June 1974, page B1, column 4


Local History Room Files

Subject File: Dawntreader

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