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Dalton School

The Dalton School, founded by Helen Parkhurst in New York City in 1919, was one of the important Progressive schools created in the early part of the twentieth century and the home of the internationally famous Dalton Plan. In the early twenty-first century it is a competitive, elite, coeducational K–12 independent day school located on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Parkhurst opened her school in New York City, naming it after the hometown of her benefactress, Mrs. Murray Crane, of Dalton, Massachusetts. The Dalton School followed Parkhurst's particular philosophy, "education on the Dalton Plan," an innovative synthesis of the ideas of the American educator and philosopher John Dewey and Progressive school superintendent (Winnetka, Illinois) Carleton W. Washburne, which featured House, Laboratory, and Assignment, designed to individualize instruction and, concurrently, create community.

Parkhurst's Dalton Plan reflected the child-centered Progressive movement of its time: often chaotic and disorganized, but also intimate, caring, nurturing, and familial. It focused on child growth and development, community and social service, and it strove to effect a synthesis between the affective and cognitive domains of the child.

In 1942 Parkhurst was forced to resign due to financial irregularities. By the time she did so, the Dalton Plan was firmly established from the nursery school through the high school. In addition, the Dalton Plan was internationally accepted as an important model for schooling and Parkhurst's ideas had been implemented in such places as Japan, the former Soviet Union, and the Netherlands.

Charlotte Durham, a teacher and administrator under Parkhurst since 1922, was headmistress from 1942 to 1960. She inherited an innovative, experimental, but financially troubled institution. Under Durham, Dalton was able to retain its child-centered pedagogy and its caring and familial orientation, while placing more emphasis on academic rigor. It was also administered in a more orderly and rational fashion and became perhaps less experimental and more a part of the traditional New York City independent school community. In essence, Durham's genius was to create a tradition out of a Progressive experiment, using the Dalton Plan as its guiding ritual.

Donald Barr served as Dalton's headmaster from 1964 to 1974. His educational background included attending the Progressive Lincoln School in New York City. He came to Dalton having been assistant dean of the Engineering School at Columbia University. Although a product of Progressive education, Barr had developed an educational philosophy closer to that of such conservative critics of Progressivism as Arthur Bestor. He thought Progressive education anti-intellectual and permissive and he sought to inject a rigorous and traditional curriculum into the Dalton Plan.

Under Barr, the parent constituency began to change, including a greater proportion of the recently affluent. The curriculum and physical plant expanded, enrollment more than doubled, the high school became coeducational, and the emphasis on academic rigor and achievement intensified still more. Reflecting an actual antipathy for Progressive education, Barr began the transformation of Dalton into a large, academically competitive, fashionable–and even trendy–institution. Although Barr created a desirable school, his administration was rife with controversy, and in the end, he resigned under a cloud.

Gardner Dunnan served as Dalton's headmaster from 1975 to 1997. He came to Dalton in 1975 after a career as a public school administrator in a number of affluent suburban school districts–the first head to come from the public sector, rather than from the independent school world, or in Barr's case, the university. Dunnan continued Dalton's transformation into an organized, efficient, selective, and academically rigorous institution. He enlarged the physical plant and initiated the Dalton Technology Plan, which he promoted as the link between the Progressivism of Helen Parkhurst and the Dalton of modernity. The school's graduates continued to enter prestigious colleges and universities, reflecting the goals of its parent body. By the time Dunnan resigned amid financial and personal problems in 1997, the Dalton School had become a traditional, elite college preparatory school with only vestiges of its Progressive past.

After four years of uninspired leadership, in which certain members of the board of trustees filled the leadership vacuum, Ellen Stein, a former Dalton student, became head in 2001. Although the school continues to pay lip service to the Dalton Plan, and the school is more progressive than most public schools, it is a far cry from the school Helen Parkhurst founded.


SEMEL, SUSAN F. 1992. The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School. New York: Lang.

SEMEL, SUSAN F. 2002. "Helen Parkhurst." In Founding Mothers and Others: Women Educational Leaders During the Progressive Era, ed. Susan F. Semel and Alan R. Sadovnik. New York: Palgrave.


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