Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School was born of two wishes: Leon Falk, Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy wished to establish a school that promoted progressive methods of teaching children that could be observed and studied by those who wished to pursue teaching as a vocation; and the University of Pittsburgh wished to establish and maintain an elementary demonstration school that was progressive and experimental, and that would become an integral part of the educational mission. In 1931, this wish was actualized and has continued to the present time.
In late 1929, Leon Falk, Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy began discussing a fitting memorial to their mother and father. Their mother, Fanny Edel Falk, had died in 1910 at the age of thirty. Leon Falk, their father, had created a tribute to her memory by establishing the Falk Memorial, built as a recreational addition to Rodef Shalom. Leon Falk had passed away in 1928 so the initial discussions between Leon, Jr. and Marjorie revolved around continuing or expanding support to Rodef Shalom, or looking toward another option to honor their parents. They soon discovered that the need to continue the earlier tribute had begun to fade as public schools and local YMCAs began constructing new facilities to fill this recreational need.
The decision was soon reached to establish a new kind of school for Pittsburgh. The classes would be small and teaching would be adjusted to the individual needs of each child. New methods and materials would be tested and the results of these experiments would be shared with the other area schools. In the best tradition of John Dewey’s School, it would be a laboratory for teaching that would be directly connected to the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Established under a charter agreement between the University and Leon Falk, Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy in 1930, the school has a unique status among American laboratory schools. Falk School is the only one that is known to have a legal charter that stipulates its purpose and functions. The original charter designates the school as a progressive experimental school for demonstration purposes. Marjorie and Leon named it the Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School in honor of their mother.
Land was purchased on the University campus facing Allequippa Street. An early brochure described it as “. . . on a hilltop, high and beautiful. There is plenty of room inside the building and out.” The architectural firm of Janssen and Cocken were selected and they consulted with specialists in school construction from across the country. The project was launched in an elaborate ceremony on June 24, 1931. At this event, attended by city and University dignitaries, Mrs. Marjorie Falk Levy laid the cornerstone for the new building. The cornerstone, marked with the date 1931, is located on the northwest corner of the building, facing Allequippa Street. A University press release from the event listed the following items as the contents of the cornerstone:
- An agreement between The Community School, founded by Gertrude Sunstein in 1922 and the University of Pittsburgh, and an agreement between Mr. Leon Falk, Jr. and Mrs. Marjorie Falk Levy and the University of Pittsburgh
- Copies of The Pittsburgh Record from June 1930, April 1931 and June-July 1931
- Photographs of Fanny Edel Falk taken in 1900, and Fanny Edel Falk and children taken in 1907; also, a record of the services held at the funeral of Mrs. Falk
- A University of Pittsburgh Bulletin from 1929-30
- Pamphlets explaining the concept behind the Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School, a copy of the tribute delivered by Marjorie Falk Levy at the ceremony, and a copy of the address delivered at the ceremony by J. Freeman Guy, First Associate Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools
Construction proceeded rapidly and the building was officially launched at a reception on January 13, 1932. A newspaper account of the time describes the event:
The new Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School of the University of Pittsburgh was formally opened last night with a reception hosted by Chancellor John G. Bowman. the building, erected on Allequippa Street, on the highest part of the University Campus, contains eight classrooms including a nursery, kindergarten and each of the grades from the first to the sixth. The architecture is Tudor and the outside appearance of the building is that of an old English house. The structure, with the equipment of the most modern construction and design, was built at a cost of $200,000. In the school, the University will conduct a practical example of the progressive experimental method of teaching. There are accommodations for 155 pupils.
Upon completion of the building, the school and property were donated to the University of Pittsburgh. From the first day, the school operated as a tuition-based institution. All operational costs including materials, supplies and faculty salaries were sustained through parent paid tuition. The University provided the general maintenance of the building and grounds, custodial support and covered the costs of all utilities. This chartered arrangement has continued through to the present day.
A pamphlet created for prospective families that further describes the completed building:
(Each room is) planned for their special use, for beauty and for health. The structure is fireproof, and has been made doubly safe by providing exits from each floor to the sloping ground. The nursery rooms are complete units in themselves, with their own washrooms, cloakrooms, storage space, and open play decks from which the sturdier play of the older children will be barred. Each room that houses one of the grades will open on a small study for the work of individuals or smaller groups, and each will have its own library. The auditorium will be made full classroom size, and when cleared of chairs it can be turned into a gymnasium or playroom large enough for most games. The kitchen, on the ground floor, is to be used for preparing the noon-day lunches and for a demonstration laboratory.
The school opened in the autumn of 1932 with a nursery classroom for children, from three to four years of age. There were also classes for students in grades kindergarten through sixth. As interest in the new school grew, grades seven and eight were soon added. The Falk School was new in many ways. It had a new facility, and a new focus; however to a large extent, it grew out of the teaching philosophy of the Community School, a well known and highly respected Pittsburgh institution. The initial student body was mostly comprised of students who had attended the Community School. The person chosen to be the first Director of the Falk School was Dr. Martin Chworowsky who had previously been the Head of the Community School., Several of the teachers from the Community School also followed their students and Dr. Chworowsky into the newly established Falk School.
By all accounts, Dr. Chworowsky was an excellent leader, as evidenced by the individuals who followed him into his new school and by the rapid growth of the school during those early years. The new school was popular from the first day and the student body and the teaching faculty continued to grow despite the harsh conditions of the Great Depression. The early philosophy of the school was consistent with the progressive movements of the 1930’s. The school sponsored lectures on progressive education and was a member of a regional progressive education association. By 1937, "individualized instruction" was an explicit goal of the school. By the time Dr. Chworowsky retired in 1940, the school had added seventh and eighth grade classes, was at capacity and was already considering adding additional classrooms.
From the end of Dr. Chworowsky’s tenure, and for approximately the next twenty years, the school went through a series of changes and a number of administrative models. Some Directors were employed in the usual manner and served for several years. Others were given the directorship as part of an assignment for the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh and served as head of the school for one or two years at the most.
However, 1941 saw the outbreak of World War II and all thoughts of expansion were put on hold. Instead of growing the war caused the school to reduce its numbers. A lack of available teachers due to the drafting of males and the pressing of females into work for the war effort caused the school to cut the top grades and by 1943 Falk was again a PreK-6 school.
The end of the war brought the beginning of the Baby Boom and both faculty interest and numbers of students quickly grew. In 1946 the charter was amended to include practice teaching as one of the school's functions. The grade levels that had been removed during the war were gradually phased back into the system, and the Class of 1950 marked the first “graduating eighth graders” since before the war. The increase in student numbers also prompted a renewed interest in expansion. Finally, in 1951 ground was broken for the long proposed building addition. The new wing would be attached to the rear of the building on what was, to that time, the playground area. The new addition would include a gymnasium and shower facility on the lower level, and would add two much needed additional classrooms on the second floor. The 1952 school year started with the new gym and classrooms in place and the gymnasium was described as “among the finest facilities in any Pittsburgh school, and perhaps among the finest elementary school facilities in the country.” Despite the growth in facilities, faculty and student population, few instructional innovations were attempted during the 1940s and 50s, this period being more occupied with efforts to evaluate and redefine the school's purpose.
It was the selection of Dr. Harry Sartain in 1960 that stability and consistency returned to the leadership at Falk. Dr. Sartain served as Director from 1960 until 1972. The decade of the 60s brought an era of social upheaval to America and to its schools. At Falk, an aggressive recruitment of black students was begun while academic initiatives included the introduction of teaching machines for programmed learning in several subjects, new curricular models in science and social studies, and vertical enrichment units for advanced students. It was Dr. Sartain who reinforced the notion that Falk School was to serve as a laboratory and a demonstration center for elementary and secondary teaching for the School of Education. In 1966 an organizational design was developed to enable teachers to focus more sharply on the individual differences of children.
The plan, labeled "The Personalized Progress Plan," included three features that, even then, were not really new, but which were not found in many schools in America. They included multi-age grouping, team teaching and non-graded progress. Each homeroom section consisted of approximately 24 children who had an age spread of two or more years. Classroom assignments were made to provide heterogeneity and classes were balanced with respect to general academic ability. Children typically remained in the same room with the same teacher for two or three years; consequently, the teacher came to know each child very well.
Moreover, teams of teachers who were responsible for the same age clusters of children planned their work together. Using each child's educational history and daily work patterns to assign them to instructional groups, the faculty was able to assure that each child was working with others who were ready for the same educational experiences. Dr. Sartain took Falk to a non-graded system of personalized progress, oversaw the construction of the greenhouse, increased the utilization of Falk as a research site for the University of Pittsburgh, and established the Annual Fund. He also hired well. In 1961 he selected a new sixth grade teacher named Roy Creek; and, in 1968 he hired a new French language teacher named Bill McDonald. In 1972, Dr. Sartain moved to the School of Education to assume a full-time teaching/administrative vacancy.
Dr. Roy Creek replaced Dr. Sartain as Director of Falk School. Dr. Creek continued and expanded the system of personalized progress to assure that classrooms were balanced to provide heterogeneity and with respect to general academic ability. In the 1980s, the University Child Development Center was launched eliminating the need for a preschool program at Falk. The kindergarten through grade eight program has remained a constant at Falk School since that time. Throughout his tenure Dr. Creek emphasized teaching excellence and supported it with teacher empowerment and professional development. Falk teachers became more involved in teaching university classes, presenting at conferences, and in outreach to area public schools. The Inquiring School model, developed in partnership with Stanford University, was an integral aspect of Falk School during this time. A K-5 Japanese Language Program was also launched under his direction in the early 90’s. Dr. Creek’s legacy, and one of his proudest accomplishments, was the creation of the Excellence in Teaching Scholarship, which supports efforts to increase the ethnic diversity of the student population. Dr. Creek retired in 1994, his thirty-five years of service, and his twenty-two years at the helm, are the longest in Falk School history. The Roy J. Creek Library Collection is named in honor of his service and excellence.
Upon Dr. Creek’s retirement, Dr. Bill McDonald was hired as the new Director. The multi-age scheme called “The Personalized Plan” was maintained within Falk’s K-5 program while its middle school returned to being departmentalized with looping, except for homerooms which remained multi-age. An established, experienced group of faculty meant educational excellence continued as expected while Dr. McDonald led a dedicated group of parents and faculty through a strategic planning process. The volunteer committees formed at that time gave impetus to many new initiatives. The faculty created document, Wishes for our Children, grew out of this ferment, and continues to guide and inspire the school community. The parent push to reinvigorate school fund-raising saw the annual fund drive grow to new and unexpected levels. At this time a facilities expansion and renovation plan began to be developed. Dr. McDonald devoted thirty-four years of service and eight years as Director to Falk School and retired in 2004. The Dr. Mac playground is named in recognition of his service to the school community. In 2004, Mr. Greg Wittig served as interim director while the school community searched for a new director.
In 2005, Dr. Wendell McConnaha was chosen as the new school leader. He brought a needed strength for building relationships between university departments in addition to the ability to step in and push forward Falk’s new building project.
As a result, the summer of 2007 saw Falk break ground on the first expansion of its facility since the gymnasium project of 1951-52. When completed, Falk School was projected to increase in size to 400+ students, which came to fruition in the 2015-2016 school year. Multiple options for art, music and physical education, along with providing additional classrooms and handicap accessibility to the entire school were incorporated into the new green design.
During Wendell’s tenure at Falk, faculty members stepped up to introduce new initiatives that have become featured programs of the school. These include, notably among others, the Falk Woods program, previously known as SHERP, the Yoga/Wellness program, and the Artists-in-Residence program.
In 2014 Dr. Jeff Suzik became the new director of Falk School. We engaged in a successful kickstarter campaign to transform our computer lab into a state-of-the-art maker’s space. Jeff also created new faculty positions with coaching components to enhance our K-8 math and science programs.