One Man as an Institute for Ideas

David Weikart, founder and president emeritus of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, died on Dec. 9. Through the magic of cell phones, I learned about his death just as I was preparing to open the Indiana Youth Institute’s annual conference.

I considered altering my remarks and asking the youth workers and advocates in the audience to join me in a moment of silence. After all, so much of what I was about to say can be traced back to the things Dave wrote, said and, most importantly, did with teens.

By the time I reached the podium, however, I discarded the idea. For most, that moment of reflection, I realized, would be a moment of confusion. Many would not recognize his name. And many who did might wonder why I was asking youth workers to pay tribute.

Dave is nationally and internationally recognized for his work in early childhood education. He set the stage for decades of shifts in the availability, design, training and funding of preschool programs for low-income children with the Perry Preschool Project and the longitudinal studies that have followed participants into their adult years.

Closer to home, in Michigan, Dave is known as the founder of the High/Scope Educational Camp for Teenagers – a wonderfully multifaceted environment offering structured opportunities to learn actively, live communally and reflect deeply – and for a range of innovative research, training and program development work with schools and youth organizations that were spun off from the camp and are led by High/Scope’s adolescent division, headed by Charles Smith.

Without attracting the kinds of large research grants that fueled the proliferation of the High/Scope preschool model, the organization has yet to fully leverage its expertise in the adolescent area. But like any gifted educator, Dave deeply inspired and influenced people like me.

I attended Oberlin College in Ohio, Dave’s alma mater, from which he recruited camp counselors each year. I was a skinny, urban, nonathletic 18-year-old aspiring high school math teacher whose only camp experience was vacation Bible school. I signed up for an interview having been convinced by my roommate that this was not just a camp, but a unique opportunity to teach without texts, tests or requirements.

It was that and much more.

Between two wonderful old houses sitting on hundreds of acres of land, Dave and Phyllis Weikart created a powerful environment for 13- to 24-year-olds. Some of we staffers were called campers, some counselors. All of us were engaged in deep, continuous challenges that went well beyond what is typically offered by a recreational or specialty camp, and in more intellectually varied and rigorous activities than are typically offered in school.

As a young teacher/counselor, I was immersed in the same kind of wonderful learning environment as the teens. I chose what I offered to teach. I planned, argued and reflected with colleagues who were equally green and passionate about teaching and mentoring. I was as proud as any camper of the bridge we designed and built and as nervous as the next when it was my turn to lead songs after a meal. And what I now know is that after three years of the High/Scope experience, I was transformed into whatever it is that I am today.

Dave was not a friend or a mentor in the traditional sense. We didn’t exchange holiday cards. But we shared a set of core values about adolescent learning that kept us in touch. I was delighted when I was asked to help document the High/Scope Camp experience; enthusiastic when one of my children opted to attend the camp; and honored when Dave asked me to join the High/Scope Board. Each interaction gave me an opportunity to re-engage with Dave and Phyllis and recalibrate my own ideas against the High/Scope philosophy.

In the early ’90s, High/Scope did get educators to see the camp, renamed the Institute for Ideas, as an intensive educational intervention that could change the life trajectories of talented disadvantaged youth.

But the real “institute for ideas” was Dave Weikart himself.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.


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