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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

guidance counselors.

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.

Parkway attracted

over-and under-achievers,

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.

Parkway garnered

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.

Good parts:

I became a free-range 12th grader

and learned how to navigate

public transportation.

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

ambulance exhibit.

They can’t all be show bizzy.

Another entry:

“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.

After graduating,

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

school students

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

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