Santa Monica’s PS1 Pluralistic School celebrates 50 years
Story by Andres de Ocampo | PHOTOS BY Marissa Roseillier
PS1 Pluralistic School, a Santa Monica-based private elementary school, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.
The school, which serves kindergarten through sixth grade, offers a creative and impactful approach to education, which it calls pluralism. PS1 “nurtures children’s socioemotional development, creativity and interconnectedness using pluralism as both the goal and the method,” according to its website.
Joel Pelcyger, PS1’s founder and head of school, explains that the idea behind the school was birthed in 1970, in collaboration with Eleanor Coben and Mel Suhd. They questioned the traditional school system in America and wanting to change the way children were schooled.
In 1971, PS1 opened with six students and twelve teachers. Twenty-eight students enrolled by 1972 and in 1975 PS1 settled in its permanent location on Euclid Street in Santa Monica.
“My path (in education) was to start our own school,” he says. “Sometimes schools are named after the street they’re on or the person that started it; ours is based on an idea. With the questions, ‘How do you make society a better place?” and ‘How do you make life better for each child?’ in mind… you build on those ideas and out comes the school.”
“E pluribus unum,” a Latin phrase and the nation’s motto meaning “out of many, one,” is the inspiration for PS1’s name and, coupled with a vision to change schooling for children, provides a unique cornerstone for the school.
Pelcyger explains how the Latin phrase ties into the school’s philosophy of pluralism: “You start realizing everybody’s different. It’s the differences among us that are the most interesting, it’s not how we are the same as everybody else. It’s the uniqueness of each being, that our backgrounds are different from each other. The idea of pluralism is, ‘Out of many,’ or recognizing our differences, and ‘one,’ what can we build together.”
John Waldman, a 26-year PS1 teacher who has the experience of teaching both of his children when they were in fifth grade, says PS1 is about helping with the development of the students alongside teaching them.
“When this job became available to me, I thought that this job is what my philosophy of education is, which is speaking to the individual and helping to develop the individual to be a part of the community,” Waldman says.
Pelcyger elaborates on how PS1 strives to make an impact on their students, which speaks to their philosophy, by making them feel like they matter.
“You have to start by making everyone feel empowered, like they make a difference,” he says. “If you have that idea in mind and you work toward it, then pluralism can happen.”
The idea of pluralism manifests itself in many ways at PS1, according to Pelcyger, in students and the teaching staff. For students, it might be that during circle time they talk with their classmates about what it means to be different or what they are proud of.
For staff, pluralism shows in their teaching and their evaluations. Before writing an evaluation, all teachers must discuss what they honor, value and cherish about each student, Pelcyger said.
There are no grades given to students at PS1, and from a teacher’s perspective, Waldman explains PS1’s no-grade approach to education: “In a graded environment, the grade often becomes the end all or be all. It becomes defining and, in that environment, a child can perceive themselves to be something, and it can be inhibiting. At PS1, that’s not our perspective.”
Though there are metrics for student evaluations from teachers, Pelcyger says he believes elementary school is more about engagement, expressing yourself, being open to opinions of others and developing critical thinking. Performance and achievement have a place in elementary school, along with meeting academic goals, but it should start later, he says.
“It makes you step back and think that it’s more than reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than a project that students work on,” Pelcyger says. “Those things are important but, in the end, it’s about who the students are as a person and what they’re going to take from this school when they go on in life.”
Richard Turner, whose daughter attends PS1, recalls a time when everything was academically well with his daughter, but that she was quiet and observant and he wanted her “to advocate for herself.”
After discussions with teachers and Pelcyger, they suggested to Turner his daughter should join the student council to find her voice.
“It was out-of-the-box thinking,” Turner says. “She got to meet other friends and she felt like she was doing something to help the school and she found her voice in the process.”
The 50th anniversary and upcoming events the school has planned are exciting for everyone involved in the PS1 community, with the biggest events being held in April and May. The plans for the anniversary include bringing alumni back to the school to see their classmates and organizing the events by decade, which coincides with who students might have known during their time at PS1.
There will also be a speaker series where PS1 will bring in people from different backgrounds to talk about pluralism in their career field and how pluralism comes together and plays a role in their thinking. Pelcyger encourages people to visit the PS1 website for updates and more information.
Coupled with the 50-year anniversary, PS1 will be going through another big change in 2023 when Pelcyger will retire from being the head of the school.
“It feels good,” Pelcyger said. “PS1 has always been my baby, but my baby is 50 years old…Something that I’ve been able to give the school through the years is stability and I think that the school will continue to have consistency and stability. The people who will run PS1 will make it better.”
Pelcyger says he is optimistic for the future of PS1 and that he embraces the future changes and evolution that the school will go through.
Waldman’s perspective as a teacher is a hopeful one and he has confidence that the PS1 community will carry on the essence of the school navigate changes accordingly.
“The essence of the school is not going to change because people are here for of the essence of the school,” he says. “Be excited by the prospect of change. (Joel’s retirement) is not going to change who PS1 is fundamentally but expect that who we become is going to speak to the needs of the children and families in the future.”