Like the students it serves, Stevenson has remade itself several times over the past century. In every incarnation the school has consistently provided an alternative for students who might not have succeeded otherwise. Its longevity bespeaks an ability to adapt to changing times, and more importantly, the resourcefulness of all those, faculty and students, who worked so hard to make it happen.
Details are scant on the school's early years, and little is known with certainty of the founding purpose except that it was a school for girls. Derived from the Scoville School (Est.1882), and named for Robert Louis Stevenson in homage to his work which explored themes such as non-conformity, independent thinking and the duality of all things human, The Robert Louis Stevenson School opened in 1908 as a progressive alternative to Scoville which then offered students a classical education based in the medieval concept of the Trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, along with a religious component. Progressive education as defined by John Dewey, was not only about gaining content knowledge, but also learning how to live. As such, a Stevenson student was "free to realize her full potential, and make ready use of all her capacities towards the greater good.
In the early 1900s the extent of one’s education was largely determined by one’s gender and social class, and schools such as Stevenson were "patronized by girls from leading families" who appreciated "the social and academic advantages that a private education offers", and the "high standard of scholarship maintained in intermediate, college preparatory and finishing courses."
The school was bought in 1920, and flourished under the auspices of its new Headmaster Dr. William J. Whitney. A stern disciplinarian, Whitney held students to an eighty percent daily work average and expected all to attend college. He believed that "human activity means something to make better and more desired the place through which you have passed,” and acted accordingly; during his tenure enrollment increased, and in 1930 the school was admitted to the University of the State of New York as a registered secondary school. At this time the student body was made up in part by girls who had been denied entrance to some of the cities’ prestigious private schools because of the anti-Semitic admissions policies then prevalent.
Whitney’s most important legacy was his decision in 1932 to hire Dr.AnnetteRubinstein. No stranger to Anti-Semitism, Rubinstein had been admitted to Barnard College only to have her acceptance revoked on her first day of classes because the school had filled its Jewish quota; she instilled in her students a sense of social justice and empowerment, and in the process elevated the school to a new levels of academic and intellectual status.
Graduation ceremonies of the era included distinguished speakers such as the writer Christopher Morley and dramatist Susan Glaspell, and even a performance by a young Pete Seeger. Among the 1936 graduates was Dorothy Ruth, the daughter of Baseball great, Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile the effects of the Great Depression were pandemic, and perhaps compelled by the Hoovervilles that lined Riverside Drive and the "teachers who would wander into the school seeking work in exchange for dinner money," Rubinstein pursued a whirlwind of activities both in and outside of school, serving as a member of the New York City Unemployment Council, the American Labor Party, The Communist Party, and the Spanish Refugee Committee, all of which made the school a vibrant learning environment. So great was her belief in Stevenson and education’s potential as a vehicle for social change that she used her savings to buy the school (for less than one thousand dollars) in spite of its massive debts and overdue mortgage.
In 1942 the school moved to a larger quarters on West 80th St, and in the wake of WWII began offering special evening classes to returning veterans anxious to utilize their Educational Benefits as mandated under the G I bill. It was a bold move, not the least because for the first time in its history Stevenson admitted men. The Adult Education program was so successful that it continued into the 1950s and eventually eclipsed the girl’s school.
As it happened Rubinstein hired several blacklisted public school teachers which aroused the attention of the House Committee of un-American Activities. Ultimately the Veterans Administration threatened to cut off funding, and the State, to withdraw the school’s charter, if she did not resign as principal. Dr. Rubinstein stepped down in June 1952 and her brother, Leo Rhodes, took over as Headmaster.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik effectively redrew the face of education in America, with a renewed focus on Math and Science, which in turn contributed to an increased disaffection among high school age adolescents. In an effort to draw these disenfranchised students back into a more congenial orbit, Rhodes, with the help of his wife Lucille, again infused Stevenson with new life, purpose and vision. Together they devised a curriculum drawn from the Free School Model which synthesized elements of experimental pedagogy and clinical psychology, designed not only to raise academic achievement, but also to relieve anxiety and foster personal development. The approach was decidedly non-authoritarian and ran counter to the ruling ethic of the American learning system which systematically demeaned and ostracized non-performing students.
With Leo’s passing in 1968, Lucille became Director, and continued to refine all aspects of the program. By this time the school had gained a reputation as a haven for underachieving students who could succeed despite the apparent disparity between their inherent intellectual potential and their history of academic and social failure.
Success in its highest degree is self-perpetuating, and measured not only by the number of students a school graduates, but also by the caliber of professionals it attracts. Testament to this were psychologists Ruth-Jean Eisenbud and Helen Silver who helped Lucille to streamline disparate aspects of the program, and, Bud Henrichsen, who, as Headmaster from 1975 to 2010, marshaled Stevenson through its longest and most stabile period.
Psychology is an integral part of learning, just as learning is an integral part of any kind of therapy, and has in fact become synonymous with behavior change. Henrichsen synthesized this tandem and in the process, along with staff, created a therapeutic milieu conducive to profound academic and personal growth; an environment defined by an inner cohesiveness which permitted a student to develop a consistent frame of reference, where he become part of a well defined hierarchy of meaningful interpersonal relationships. Henrichsen believed such relationships were key to effective teaching and advising. In addition, advances in the understanding of learning behaviors, the diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, and the rise of psychopharmacology, gave both reason and remedy for many of the problems confronting students, and thus enabled the staff to increase the scope and degree of the program’s effectiveness.
Under Henrichsen’s leadership Stevenson became what it is today: a safe, welcoming environment with a clearly delineated structure and ample opportunities to make decisions, which accords each student individualized attention in every facet of the program. More recently he oversaw a fundraising campaign, which, with the overwhelming support of alumni and the board of trustees enabled the school to buy its building, a landmarked brownstone, insuring the school a permanent home for years to come.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word alternative as the choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities and, in its adjectival form, describes something existing outside of traditional or established institutions or systems. Since it’s inception, Stevenson has been both for its students, and yet by choosing Stevenson, those students, rather than precluding all other possibilities, enabled themselves to partake in a world of them, and therein lies the irony.
Bettelhelm & E.. Sylvester, “A Therapuetic Milieu”. in Children Away From Home. J.K. Whitaker & A.W.Trieschman. (1972)
Bolger, Mary. The Annette T. Rubinstein Reading Room” The Brecht Forum 2007 July 22, 2010
Dewey, John, "My Pedagogic Creed", School Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1.(January 1897), pp. 77-80. August 4, 2010
Joseph D. Learning How to Learn. Cambridge Univ.Press. New York 1984
Henrichsen, Bud. "Essential Elements of RLS". Board presentation. September 2009
Mishne, Judith. The Concept of Parental Force in a School for Adolescent Underachievers: A Spenser: Foundation Study of the Robert Louis Stevenson School. NYU 1987
Sargent, Porter. The Handbook of Private Schools for Girls; Vol.5. New York. 1920.
Schlesinger, Evelyn. The Treasure Chest, ”An interview with Dr. Whitney” School Yearbook. 1931
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Child’s Play.” Virginibus Puerisque and other papers. C. Kegan Paul & Co. London, 1881 September 30, 2010
Meyer, Gerald. “Annette T. Rubinstein: Author, Educator, Activist” Vito Marcantonio Online June 2005 July 22, 2010
The Monthly Reveiw. "Annette Rubinstein 1910-2007". June 2007. July 22, 2010
The New York Times, “School loses V.A.Suit”,May 30, 1952
Rhodes, Dr. Leo D. “A New Frontier of Education”. Paper. c.1961
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York. 1996.
Robert Louis Stevenson School Promotional materials 1961 - 2010