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Blue markers = Day schools
Red markers = Weekend, Sunday, or Adult only schools

The most prominent and well-known Ferrer schools in the US were in New York City, Stelton, NJ, Lakewood, NJ, and Mohegan, NY. Unlike many of the Ferrer schools established in the flurry of activity in the early 1910s, these schools had a lasting impact and left numerous records.

The colony of Stelton is original in that it was established from the ground up as a community anchored by a Ferrer school. From the flat land and clay soil of Piscataway Township, NJ, a new community was raised where only a farmstead in disrepair had existed. Established in 1915, by 1920, the colony was home to 150 year-round residents. The community housed many commuting wage-earners, as well as cooperatives and poultry farms. Land was owned by individuals, typically in 1-2 acre plots, while communal land was set aside for the school and its buildings, including a boarding house. Stelton was not without its problems. In the early days, settlers lived a spartan existence as they had to build all modern infrastructure. Personal disagreements broke out, extramarital affairs became more common, boarding students were sometimes given overly restrictive dietary rules, and parents quarreled with school staff over how the school should be run. However, many Modern School attendees remember Stelton fondly.

Ray Miller Shedlovsky, a former student of Stelton, later described his experience to historian Paul Avrich:

We did everything ourselves – we were gardeners, we were typesetters, we were cooks – we did everything with our own two hands. Instead of merely reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we put on the play, and put it on outdoors. The grownups got involved too. I never avoided taking part in anything, whereas in high school everything seemed like a chore, even though I always got good marks… Stelton was not only a school but a community; it wasn’t just education – it was living. (Avrich 231)

Maurice Hollod explained how he came to enroll in the Ferrer Modern School at
63 East 107 Street in Manhattan. A public school student in the fall of 1913, he met a boy in Central Park who attended the Modern School. The boy told him about the school and invited him to visit. He was excited by what he saw.

He led me upstairs to a classroom. There was a long table with a group of kids around it. In the center was a tall man [Leonard Abbott] peering through a microscope at a drop of blood, explaining to the kids what they were seeing under the ‘scope. I be came so entranced that I made up my mind on the spot that I’m going to this school. (Avrich 107)

On his third day at the Modern School, Hollod acted “a little smart-alecky.” The teacher, Cora Bennett Stephenson, said “calmly, without any hostility” that she didn’t think he was ready for class and suggested he play in the yard. Hollod played in the yard for the next two days, then on the third day he told Stephenson that he did not want to go into the yard. She asked him if he felt ready to sit down and work with the rest of the class and he said he was, so that is what he did.

The Modern School declined mainly due to a loss of interest in its program and the inability of its proponents to sustain it. These factors were compounded by the difficulty that Modern School communities had in retaining their identity and cohesion when facing outside influences, for example when Camp Kilmer was built adjacent to the Stelton Colony (see map entry above). Perhaps by the 1950s the Modern School seemed a relic of an earlier era, while a new counter-culture was developing its own alternative schools.

Further Reading

Raritan-Millstone Heritage Alliance on the Stelton Colony
New York Times article on the Ferrer Sunday School in New York
New York Times article on the establishment of the Stelton Colony (.pdf file)

Map data sourced from Avrich, The Modern School Movement, and Raritan-Millstone Heritage Alliance.