We had the good fortune of connecting with Rexford Brown and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rexford, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I didn’t start a business. I designed, and ran, an inner city charter school, offering a non-traditional school culture, a-non traditional curriculum, and non- traditional forms of teaching and learning. If I have to give my thought process a name, I would say I tend naturally toward being a dialectical thinker, but sometimes I’m not.
My thought processes in this particular case evolved over many years of writing about student achievement patterns for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), now known as “America’s Report Card.” When I saw that Basic Skills in reading and writing were slowly rising nationally, but performance of higher order skills such as critical thinking, complex writing, and deep understanding, was plummeting, I decided to look into the apparent paradox. I wrote a letter to the MacArthur Foundation and was given two large grants to pull together the best minds I could find, design a creative research plan to get answers, and write a book about what I (with the help of countless others) thought was going on. The book that emerged after we did case studies in Mississippi, Pittsburg, the Navajo Nation, Denver, Toronto and other places, was “Schools of Thought: how the politics of literacy shape thinking in the classroom.” That’s the best place to see my thought process. Another book I wrote a decade later–“It’s Your Fault: an insider’s guide to learning and teaching in city schools”–contains five essays that further lay bare my approach to solving complex problems, reframing issues, seeking the views of diverse thinkers, and building communities. Here is a sample from my essay “On Leading, Misleading, and Un-leading:”
“The key to success [of our school] would be a kind of leadership that created and sustained a kind of discourse that led consistently to learning, rather than to curricular fragmentation. polarization. ethnic or class gridlock, or the erosion of belief in a common Good….For us, learning is a social, not just an individual, activity. Individuals learn with and through others, and knowledge is a group possession. The school would have to be set up to facilitate social learning, to enable people from all walks of life to share their expertise and tap into group knowledge…We summed up what we wanted to emphasize about learning in seven statements: learning begins with what the learner is interested in; learning is an active, constructive, meaning-making process, not a passive experience; learning is a consequence of thinking; the best learning is coherent, connected, memorable, and useful, like a story; learning requires truthfulness, humility, courage, respectfulness, tolerance, civility, and faith; learning requires diverse perspectives around the table; anyone can learn whatever he or she is motivated to learn, given appropriate opportunities…If these were going to be the thoughts around which the instructional program and, indeed, the school culture, would be built, they also had to be the touchstones of our design process itself…” (“It’s Your Fault,” 2003, Teachers College, Columbia University, pp 116-117).
Against the odds, PS1 enrollment started at 60 and doubled every year until there were almost 400 students and 35 teachers. My job was to design and build and lead the school over 5 years until it could be granted a second five year term by the Board of Education. We accomplished that. That was a success, in spite of the fact that we had much more work ahead before the school would become what a lot of us envisioned it could be.
However, in the fifth year, as I was planning to go to Honduras with students and teachers, I began to feel chest pains. After some quick tests, my cardiologist determined that blood flow to my heart was 92% blocked. I had a quintuple bypass the next morning. I called my staff and told them they would have to take over the management of the school for two months. They all rose to the challenge. They learned that they could do more than they thought they could. I learned that they did not need me as much as they did in the beginning. I had accidentally empowered them. When I returned, I was weak and depressed, and knew that this was the end of my tenure. I found a new principal, promoted some staff, stayed in the background to finish up loose ends, retired and became a consultant, then the principal of the Denver University High School, and then the interim Director of Teacher Education at DU for two years, and, finally, retired for good.
PS1 went on for ten more years, but finally succumbed to the constant pressure of DPS and the State Board to be the kind of traditional school it was never designed to be.
So was I “successful?” It’s hard for me to judge. I will say that creating it was the best and most exciting thing I’ve ever done, but by far the most complex and difficult. I loved it, but It almost killed me.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I was born in Elmira, New York, in 1942, and raised in Sea Breeze, New York, a suburb of Rochester that runs along Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay. My parents—Ruth Rexford and Wilbur (Bill) Brown– came from families rooted for many generations in the Finger Lakes region.
I went to Durand Eastman, a K-8 school in Sea Breeze, and after that, I and my big sister Patty had to take a bus downtown to attend Benjamin Franklin, the largest and most racially diverse High School in Rochester. At first, Franklin was frightening to a skinny white kid from an all-white neighborhood and school, what with its populations of Black, Puerto Rican, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish students, plus white tough guys and gangsters who got into fights at the drop of a hat (“You lookin at my girl? You lookin at MY girl?”etc). I had a lot to learn about other people and other cultures.
Academically, I was a good student who liked being told he had the POTENTIAL to be better, but didn’t want to do the work necessary to BE better. “Good” was good enough for me. In those days, students were tracked according to their IQs and whether they were college-bound or work-bound. (Today, it is clear that they were, and many still are, tracked according to their caste.) I was in the college-going track, so I was required to take at least 2 years of Latin (I wish it had been four) and all the subjects that were assessed by the yearly state Regents Exams. To get college credit, you needed to score at least 75 on the exam; otherwise, you would have to take the course again. The first time I took Physics, I scored 73, so I took it over again the next year and scored 76. Students who were not aiming for college had a wide range of practical courses like cooking, car repair, construction, home economics, typing, secretarial skills, etc. I took typing. I was the only male. Few girls took Shop. These useful kinds of courses have pretty much disappeared since national education policy shifted toward the notion that everybody must go to college whether they want to or not.
In my junior year, my best friend and I were both nominated for Student President and Vice President. Jimmy suggested that he run for President and I be his running mate, but something made me want it the other way around, so we ran against each other and I won by 8 votes.
My mother’s sister, whom we called “Auntie Doc”, was a child psychiatrist in Boston who seemed to think that there were no good colleges outside of New England, so I followed her advice, applied to the usual New England colleges, and chose Middlebury. As a public-school kid, I never felt I belonged among all the prep school kids, but I pledged to a fraternity with a good mix of guys who are still friends after half a century. I started out as a pre-med major, but calculus and organic chemistry discouraged me, and Reginald Cook, the director of the American Literature program, enticed me to change my major. A mind-blowing stint at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference further impelled me toward more liberal arts and more writing. After Middlebury, I went to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and got a Masters degree in British Literature. I taught English at Heidelberg College for two years and then returned to Iowa because I would be able to teach, read more, and write a creative Ph.D dissertation. When the time came, it was clear that my dissertation would not be the great American novel I had been dreaming of, but, instead, a book about Anthony Burgess, whose “A Clockwork Orange” was thrilling or upsetting readers (and eventually, movie-goers) everywhere. No such book had been written about him and it happened he was teaching at Princeton so I could talk to him personally. Which I did. The resulting 350-page book was “Conflict and Confluence: The Art of Anthony Burgess “(1971).
1971 was not a good year for aspirant English professors to find decent jobs. However, as I was about to despair of finding an opening at a good university, an officemate told me that his father was running a little college in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and needed an English and Art teacher. I did not want to become a house painter as I had been the last summer, so I called his father and he gave me the job, plus one way plane fare to Luxembourg. I talked it over with my wife and two children and we decided it would be a fun adventure. It was an adventure, all right, but that’s another story.
Four months later, we were back in the States and I was starting a new job in Denver, Colorado, with The Education Commission of the States, an education policy think tank overseeing the newly formed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and helping Governors, legislators, and chief state school officers with their education policy needs and ambitions. My first task was to write up the results of the first national assessment of children and adults’ literary knowledge and understanding. The survey involved 70,000 nine-year olds, 13 year-olds, 17 year-olds and young adults. I stayed at ECS for 23 years, summed up by this short bio:
I am the author of “Schools of Thought: how the politics of literacy shape thinking in the classroom” (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Oxford, 1991); “It’s Your Fault! An insider’s guide to learning and thinking in city schools” (Teachers College Columbia University, New York and London, 2003); and dozens of reports and articles on literature, writing, thinking, literacy, art, schooling, and teaching. I was a writer, policy analyst and Senior Fellow at the Education Commission of the States; the founder of an inner city charter school based on experiential learning; a college, university and high school English teacher; the director of the MacArthur Foundation funded Center on Policy and the Higher Literacies; a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy; and the Director of Teacher Education at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, from which I retired in 2010.
My wife, artist Sharon Brown, and I have lived in an abandoned 1906 industrial building for 30 years and we were among the eight founding members of the River North (RiNo) Art District in 2006. We own The Pattern Shop Studio, which is both our home and an art gallery. I think of myself more as a writer and a teacher than an “Artist,” though I have been involved in the arts in various ways much of my life–e,g., studying Americans’ attitudes toward art, teaching art history, teaching philosophies of Beauty, developing schools that foster creativity in the arts, learning how to make prints, and serving on the Education Board of the Denver Art Museum for twenty years. We have made it through the pandemic so far by her painting and me writing and both of us reading, almost every day.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I live in the River North Art District (RiNo), so my friend would already be in one of my favorite places. Plenty of restaurants, bars, cideries, marijuana dispensaries, music venues, artists and galleries, breweries, wineries, places to dance, places to learn how to pole dance, the bizarre Denver County Fair, the Mission Ballroom, The Train Museum, the Coliseum, and The RiNo ArtPark, opening soon on the Platte River, not to mention miles of murals, many done by some of the best muralists in the world. (confession: Sharon and I have been here for 30 years and are among the 8 founders of the Arts District, plus I’ve been on the board of directors since its inception in 2006).
If my friend wants to get out of RiNo, I would take take him or her to the Denver Art Museum, which will soon reopen a totally remodeled and upgraded Gio Ponti building and feature a host of new programs to broaden its outreach to minority communities, children, and the elderly. (confession: I have been on the DAM education board–now known as the Learning and Engagement Board–for 20 years).
RiNo is full of fun, interesting, exciting people. So is Denver, so is Boulder. Most of our friends are fun and interesting, if not exciting, at our age.
Then there are the mountains. I usually drive guests up to Dillon, Vail, Central City, Estes Park and places that are within an hour and a half drive. Flatlanders always want to see the mountains.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’m indebted to so many professors, teachers, writers, researchers, students, foundations, publishers, family members, staff members, secretaries, philosophers, story tellers, readers, politicians, and strangers, that I can’t begin to list them. For purposes of this particular Shoutout focus, I would thank once again all the brave parents who helped me and my co-conspirators design PS#1, took the risks to enroll their children in a new and different kind of school; and all the brilliant, imaginative teachers who dared to break the mold and gave students experiences they would never get anywhere else (e,g, took students to Ireland, where half of them lived with Protestants and half lived with Catholic children who were throwing stones at the Protestant kids going to school). If our students learned anything, it was that no one succeeds alone.
Other: mobile phone: 303-945-6522