History of Friends of the Modern School

In the early 1970’s several people were in the process of writing books about the history of Modern Schools and the Ferrer Colony of Stelton, in particular, and were interviewing former colonists, teachers and students of the various Modern Schools. Laurence Veysey was preparing for the writing of his book The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter Cultures in America (Harper and Row, New York, 1973) and this stirred up some interest among former teachers and pupils of Modern Schools. But, perhaps, the most important influence in the forming of the Friends of the Modern School (hereafter Friends) came from Paul Avrich and he probably planted the seed that matured into the Friends. In the early 1970s he was researching documents and interviewing people for his book The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (Princeton Univ. Press, 1980). In the 1970s and 1980s Paul also interviewed many other teachers and pupils who had attended one or more of the Modern Schools. Some of these are reproduced in another of Paul’s books, Anarchist Voices: an Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton Univ. Press, 1995). Paul devoted a large section of that book to “Schools and Colonies” and many recollections of teachers, pupils and colonists are contained therein. No doubt the former teachers, pupils and colonists were so impressed that a distinguished professor of history was interested in their past that the Friends were formed.

Among the founders of the Friends were Sally Axelrod, Paul Avrich, Abe Bluestein, Harmony (Sernaker) and Tony Coppola, Rina (Winokour) Garst, Eva (Yanpolsky) Knezick, Jim, Nellie and Ann Dick, Valerio Isca, Bea Markowitz, Harold and Lola (Kenner) Pollack, Clara (Freedman) and Sidney Solomon and Jo Ann Wheeler (Scott, Burbank). Sally, Nellie, Bea and Jo Ann were former teachers; the rest were either pupils at Modern Schools or members of the Ferrer Colony at Stelton (NJ) except for Valerio and Sidney who were a devoted anarchists and good friends of Paul Avrich. There may have been a few others not known to this writer. The only one of the former teachers at Modern Schools still alive is Bea Markowitz who taught nursery school and arts and crafts at the Lakewood Modern School for two or three years beginning when she was seventeen, around 1941 (see Anarchist Voices mentioned above).

In the early 1970s Harmony Coppola was working as an archivist in the Alexander Library of Rutgers University and suggested that a collection be made of writings and other items related to the Modern Schools. The library, about three miles from the location of the Stelton Modern School and Ferrer Colony, now contains the largest collection of archival materials about the Modern Schools. (See their website here.) When the Modern School Archives was founded at Rutgers Fernanda Perrone was a newly hired archivist and has been in charge of the collection ever since that time.

At the first meeting of the Friends in 1973, at the Rutgers University Library, Paul Avrich was the keynote speaker. From his passionate talk it was clear that he was devoted to a lifetime of work as an historian of anarchism. At that meeting it was decided that the annual “reunions” should be continued and Abe Bluestein became the primary organizer of the meetings with advisors being mostly the original founders mentioned above. The Friends have met every year since 1973 (usually in September) and in September of 2008 the Friends held their 36th consecutive annual gathering. Many of the original organizers of the annual “reunions,” as we call them, have died including Abe Bluestein, who was the primary organizer of the meetings until 1992 when his health began to fail. At that time he proposed that a younger person do the organizing. Jon Scott (Jo Ann Wheeler’s son) volunteered and has been the “Secretary” and reunion organizer since 1993 guided by a Reunion Organizing Committee.

When the Friends incorporated as a not-for-profit group in April 2004 former Modern School students, and sons of Stelton colonists, Bill Giacalone and David Freedman became the President and Vice-President, respectively and Jon Scott became the Secretary/Treasurer. The original Trustees were Sam Blum, David Freedman, Jim Dick, Bill Giacalone, Fernanda Perrone, Jon Scott and Jack Shapiro. Jim, David and Jack have since died. The current trustees are: Jeffrey Aaron, Samuel Blum, Sam Freedman, Bill Giacalone, Barry Pateman, Fernanda Perrone, Robert Rosen, Jon Scott, Raymond Solomon and Steve Shapiro, with Fernanda Perrone serving as Vice President.

The Reunion Organizing Committee has changed considerably over time. It started out as the original founders of the Friends and now consists of the Trustees plus Styra Avins, Carol Natarelli, Leonard Rico and Raymond and Judy Solomon. They meet annually, usually in April, to decide on programs for the reunion, how to handle various projects of the Friends, to vote on appropriations for projects and the like.