Free-Range Students with Big-Time Dreams
By Naomi Serviss
In 1971, I graduated from the first alternative high school without walls.
Philadelphia’s Parkway Program was the
brainchild of top educators
who thought high school should be
a nurturing environment that would inspire
curiosity and spark creative imagination.
They envisioned a non-traditional, spread-out school
where students would traverse the city to learn
from professionals in fields of their own interest.
Students and teachers would reflect the region’s multiethnic, diverse population.
Despite intense criticism, it came to pass.
It was the perfect moment for future Baby Boomers!
And it was so much fun!
We were left to work out class schedules
with advisors who were essentially our
I wasn’t laser-focused on a career path,
but I knew it would involve writing.
My generation was already in the woes and throes of adolescence.
We hated everything.
Except for certain bands and anything hippie-oriented.
The Vietnam War, the military industrial complex, Nixon, blue-chip polluters, political corruption, hypocrisy, lousy teachers
and our disaffected parents.
slipping through the cracked school system.
Lucky suburban students won admission
through a lottery.
I was one of the lucky ones.
It helped steer my life’s trajectory.
a flood of media attention.
It was featured in magazines, on national, international and local news.
Like anything, it had its good parts
and its bad parts.
I became a free-range 12th grader
and learned how to navigate
I honed my observational skills on the subway.
Classes covered traditional classes required to graduate.
My classes included literature, philosophy,
economics, social science and broadcast journalism.
I needed a language to graduate.
I’d plateaued on four years of conversational French.
The only thing I recall is a bland white family
having a weirdly formal conversation with each other.
Lessons began with students stammering
“Voila Monsieur Thibaud.
Voila Madame Thibaud.”
You get the gist.
The plots of those stories were wanting.
I sought a fresh challenge and chose
It didn’t take.
Local politicians like Thacher Longstreth taught civics.
He ran for mayor and lost to Frank Rizzo.
Longstreth was a famous blue blood, 6’6”, liberalish Republican Philadelphian.
He served decades on City Council. And famous for his argyle socks and bow ties.
A foreign diplomat who lived in my Elkins Park neighborhood taught diplomacy.
John Kenneth Galbraith tried to explain economics.
Didn’t take, either.
Very Bad Part:
A jazz professor with gapped front teeth
and hundreds of records in his apartment,
taught me more than he should have.
I felt unfettered joy
for the first time in my life
when I scored an internship at the CBS affiliate station, WCAU.
A Sixties Musical Hippie Trifecta: The Moody Blues, Woodstock and The Grateful Dead
That year launched my Inner Journalist.
Here’s what I recall:
I entered the squat, unimaginative building on City Line Avenue
and got vetted by a guard.
Then on to the assignment desk where I was sent off with
a two-or three-person news crew for an evening story.
I kept a journal
in a 39-cent stenographer’s notebook
As The Roving Reporter.
My first entry was December, 1970.
Ron Miller was the reporter.
“Tonight I accompanied a crew
to a suburb (Media)
where a man who initiated ‘Brotherhood Day’ was interviewed.
Ron was extremely courteous and respectful.
This was very exciting as it was
the first time I went out on a story.”
Some reporters’ names might ring a bell
with fellow 1971 grads in my CHS Zoom group,
which is one of my pandemic highlights!
I accompanied reporter Hugh Gannon and soundman Phil Carroll
to a workplace shooting
by a disgruntled former employee
of Publicker’s Distillery.
It was chilling and shocking because
it rarely happened 50 years ago.
I rode in a van with a young Marjorie Margolies
to the Roosevelt Boulevard Mall for an
They can’t all be show bizzy.
“A volunteer fireman turned out to be
someone I used to go to school with.
People people people
life life life.”
I had an English literature class
in Ralph’s aesthetically pleasing townhouse.
I sat on his expensive carpet
and tried not to break anything.
Don’t remember what we studied,
but he served
Bigelow’s Constant Comment tea.
The aroma of its
je ne sais quoi (can’t say it in Esperanto)
is a madeleine.
I attended Temple University on full scholarship.
Which probably cost $2,000 a year in the ‘70s.
I found my way to the student publications
and was hired, for actual money!,
as an entertainment columnist for the daily Temple News,
where copy editors used lead pencils, erasers and glue pots.
When “cut and paste” was literally “cut and paste.”
Photographers developed their photos on site,
where editors and reporters swapped insight.
A handful of journalism classes were worthwhile.
Copy-editing class was a dud.
Taught by a veteran copy editor,
who insisted we read aloud from the textbook every class.
Now I think of students returning
to campuses and public schools
with fear and a little loathing of current dictates.
The days of free-ranging public
is passé, or strongly curtailed.
Frankly, if my kids had been tempted
by a free-range high school opportunity in the ‘90s, I know how they would have responded.
They had pretty crappy Long Island experiences.
But that’s not my story to tell.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com