It would have been hard to predict that a small preschool started a century ago would not only remain through the decades but develop into the Harley School, a 500-student independent preparatory school that supports students until 12th grade.
The school began out of parents’ desire for students to break away from the traditional ways of learning, which they felt required a lot of memorization and a lot less thinking than their children should be doing.
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That same spirit continues today, says Ward Ghory, head of the school.
“Back at that time, they had very large classes, 40-50 kids. They’d be seated in rows. Sometimes the desks were bolted to the floor. They would face the front. There would be a blackboard. There was a lot of emphasis on memory and recitation of things,” Ghory said. “This was a group of parents who wanted something different. They wanted to have their kids to think on their own.”
The school developed in a variety of places throughout Rochester including a tailor shop, a church basement, a university corridor and a home on Oxford Street. Today, the school is based at 1981 Clover St.
“It (the start of the school) makes me feel a kind of kinship with all of the educational experiments and charter schools and nonprofits and even the entrepreneurial startups that are coming to life now over the city,” Ghory said. “And just as those are full of people trying to do something new and do something important, we’re proud to have made it 100 years.”
“This school did not have grand beginnings; it was a scrappy place,” he added.
As a progressive school, the idea has been to always help empower students to use their voices in society. That idea has been a unifying thread through the years.
“The commitment to try and develop engaged, thoughtful, active citizens — people who are contributing to the world and doing what they can to make it a better place — that’s been really true for the whole 100 years,” said Larry Frye, head of the Upper School. “The expression of it, the how-to of it changes with time as the world changes and the kids change, but the commitment has been really consistent.”
Debbie Willsea and her husband have 100 years of time at Harley between them. She has taught there, currently serves on the board of trustees, and the couple has sent two of their children to the school.
Willsea continues to see the history of Harley play out in different ways today.
“I think it (the history) has very much carried forth in the sense that the original founders were looking for, creating a school environment that really supported the individual child,” Willsea said. “It’s an independent school, but it has an outreaching philosophy and basis. It’s very focused on the individual but it’s also very supportive of how we connect and support the family in the greater community. I think that the integrity of the quality and the integrity of the teachers are incredible.”
Harley has also been known throughout its history for trying new things. Teacher Len Wilcox first came to the school in 1969 and has seen its ethos firsthand.
“The school was one of the first in the country to get a computer of its own,” Wilcox said. “There was a sense of adventure there and now some of that is showing up in different ways. When I first got there people used to jokingly say it was one of the best-kept secrets in the area. I think one of the great virtues of the school is it has a really wide range of talents and abilities, and yet there is a common core to the whole thing.”
Many of the new approaches pioneered by the school have become commonplace in today’s broader education system.
“This was a school that was co-ed before schools were co-educational. It was the first college prep country day school in the city (and) we’ve long been insistent on the central role of arts and music in education,” said Ghory. “So I think when you look back through the history locally, you see that Harley was trying things before they were tried and people would look to us for ideas.”
Today, Harley has become even more relevant, says Jay Stetzer, a teacher at the school for 47 years.
“When I entered the school I could see immediately that it was unlike any other schooling that I had experienced in the traditional sense,” Stetzer said. “One of the big differences was the kids were clearly oriented towards community work, working with each other, learning how to initiate ideas, negotiate with other people, compromise…those kinds of things that really helped them become community members.”
Stetzer leads Harley’s performing arts program. During his time there, he has seen public schools gradually come around to the same principles Harley has been operating by for decades.
“What’s fascinating to me is to see how the public sector has slowly begun to adopt some of the philosophical tenets of the progressive movement — the idea of mindfulness, the idea of compassion, kindness,” he said. “This is something that’s been bred into Harley for years.”
Looking toward the next decade, Stetzer believes Harley will continue to take risks.
“I think at its base, the whole progressive concept says we’ve got to look down the road,” Stetzer said. “It’s not enough to simply look into your classroom and say, well, we’ve met the requirements that anybody puts on us, whether it’s the state or the individual teacher or the school itself. What do we want these kids to be looking forward to, because their future is right now.”
Rochester has been a great place for the school to be these last 100 years. The world continues to get smaller, which is something Harley students prepare for, Stetzer says.
“These are kids that want to be part of the whole global community,” he said. “What I tell the parents is if you use the word school when you walk into this building, you miss about 70 percent of what this place is all about.”