Elisabeth Antoinette Irwin (August 29, 1880 – October 16, 1942) was an American psychologist and progressive educator. Her influence helped transform early twentieth-century American education. In 1921, Irwin founded the Little Red School House with the spirit and public mission to be a vital part of the life around it, not an exclusive refuge from it. In 1941, a high school division was established and LREI (the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School) was born. LREI retains its historic commitment to social justice, preparing its students for lives of active citizenship.
Elisabeth Antoinette Irwin is regarded as a powerful force in the freeing of education from the strictures that had developed. Her life was an attempt to break free from the limitations on creativity, bringing energy and a force of change toward an ever improving educational system and resulting society. While she had such inspiration and energy, she did not always have answers to her questions; she had not found any absolute truth.
Elisabeth Antoinette Irwin was born in Brooklyn to William Henry Irwin and Josephina Augusta Easton. Her father was a cotton merchant. She attended the Packer Collegiate Institute and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Smith College in 1903. Irwin first became a journalist, and later earned her Master's degree in psychology at Columbia University in 1923.
In 1916, as a staff psychologist for the Progressive Education Association, Irwin began an "experiment" in education that was part of a extensive rethinking of American education. This resulted in the founding of one of the most well known schools in the world, the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School. Irwin went on to become a respected spokesperson for educational reform.
She died on October 16, 1942, in the New York Hospital in New York City. She was survived by her life partner, Katharine Anthony, and their two adopted daughters. Her funeral was conducted in Gaylordsville, Connecticut where she and Katherine Anthony maintained a summer home. Irwin was buried there.
Elisabeth Irwin began her career as a freelance writer in 1905, often writing about the poverty in New York City. In 1910, she became a field worker, or social worker, for the Public Education Association and later worked as a staff psychologist.
In 1912, she began work at revising the curriculum for the children at Public School 64. She founded the Little Red School House curriculum, in Manhattan in 1921, in the red-painted annex of Public School 61. Her work there, and then at Public School 41, a New York Times article described as an experiment to demonstrate that "the broader, more active program of the so-called progressive schools could be carried out under public school conditions."
Faced with funding cuts, it appeared the experiment would end, but a group of parents came together in a candy store, urging her to start her own school and promising financial support. In September 1932, the "Little Red School House" obtained its own building on Bleeker Street. At first only primary education, in 1941, a high school was added. Irwin directed the school until 1942.
Irwin coauthored a book about school reforms entitled Fitting the School to the Child. It remains a significant document in the history of educational thought, expressing the excitement and openness to change and spirit of improvement that have remained characteristic of LREI:
The school will not always be just what it is now, but we hope it will always be a place where ideas can grow, where heresy will be looked upon as possible truth, and where prejudice will dwindle from lack of room to grow. We hope it will be a place where freedom will lead to judgment—where ideals, year after year, are outgrown like last season's coat for larger ones to take their places.
The Little Red School House was founded in New York City as a joint public—private educational experiment. The school was designed to test the notion that the principles of progressive education, advocated since the beginning of the twentieth century by John Dewey, could be applied successfully in the crowded, ethnically diverse, public schools of the nation’s largest city. However, despite the success of Irwin's school and the interest her work has generated in the ideas, this method of progressive education in totality has been tried out mainly in small, private school settings. Nevertheless, a number of her ideas have been adapted to public school education.
In the 1940s, the high school students at the Little Red School House decided that they wanted the high school to be named after the founder, Elisabeth Irwin, making the full title of the school The Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI). It is recognized by educators around the world. Over the years, thousands of visitors have observed every aspect of the program.
“The complacent formalism of schools,” Elisabeth Irwin wrote, “its uncritical and therefore uncreative spirit, must be replaced by an honest hospitality to experimentation.” She believed that in order to remain relevant, guiding educational principles must be continually revisited, tested in the context of contemporary issues and reaffirmed by current practice. This may be her greatest legacy. LREI remains faithful to the spirit of its founder by always reinventing itself, by testing new ideas, and by finding new variations on tried and true principles.
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