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Irwin Avenue Open School records

Identifier: MS0356

Scope and Contents

Collection contains a wide assortment of papers generated as a result of the transformation of Harding High School into Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School in the 1970s. Open education is an innovative and experimental approach to teaching, developed as an outlet for new theories in education and racial integration. The IAOS Records contain documentation concerning such things as school admission, classroom demographics, educational funding and fundraising, open education theory, student curricula, student writing assignments, school newsletters and newspapers, newspaper clippings, the PTSA, team-teaching, yearbooks, photographs and more. These records span from the founding of IAOS in the 1970s until 2004.


  • Creation: 1957 - 2004


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material may be copyrighted or restricted. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections.

Historical Note

Following a national trend, interest in "open" education began in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in the early 1970s, coinciding with the upheavals of court-ordered busing. At the college level, ideas about open education had been percolating since the 1960s, and there was a heightened interest in innovative educational methods based on a renewed examination of American progressive education of the early 20th century and contemporary British informal schools. In Charlotte, a group of interested parents and educators came together as "People for Open Education" in 1972, with the intent of convincing the school board to create an optional open elementary school. They were united behind the philosophy of open education, believing that education should be more child-oriented and less teacher-directed, it should emphasize discovery in learning and should offer a curriculum that emerges in response to student interests and needs. By April of 1973, the board had approved a plan to establish Charlotte's first optional open elementary school in the building formerly used as Harding High School. Deane Crowell, principal of Beverly Woods Elementary School, was appointed as the principal, and the school was renamed according to its location, "Irwin Avenue Open School." During the next few months Deane and the staff she selected built the foundation of a program which would sustain the school through the next three decades. The initial faculty of twenty five was drawn from a pool of 230 student applicants, and from this pool Crowell was able to choose strong, veteran teachers as well as enthusiastic new teachers. With 2400 applicants and only 600 places, students were assigned to the school by lottery, making Irwin Avenue the first "magnet" school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, though the term was not applied until much later. Following district policy, the school was required to maintain an integrated student body. The school attracted leaders from a diverse range of Charlottes' political, educational and business communities, including: architect and future mayor Harvey Gantt; president of the UNC system, Dick Spangler; associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, Jack Claiborne; civil rights lawyer, Julius Chambers; and 5 members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. In its early years the school was forced to be very self-sufficient. Teachers and parents salvaged extra furniture and supplies wherever they could find them, painted the walls themselves, and funded their own buses (the latter at a time when many were aggressively opposed to the whole idea of busing). As Charlotte's first optional school, Irwin Avenue Open School quite clearly piqued parents' interest in educational choice, and within a year three additional optional schools were opened: Elizabeth Open Elementary School, Piedmont Middle School and Myers Park Traditional School (the latter as a response to parental demands for an optional school that did not stress progressive approaches to education). An open component was also established at West Charlotte High School in the same year. Bill Mauldin was appointed principal at Piedmont Middle School, which became the continuing school for Irwin's rising 6th graders. Sam Haywood was appointed as principal of West Charlotte, succeeding Gerson Stroud. As the principal of West, Mr. Haywood assumed the role of shaping the new open program and was closely identified with it. In addition to the optional schools, open education had something of a general impact on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system as pockets of principals and teachers adopted the new strategies and central administration created open neighborhood schools; though sometimes they did so more for perceived budgetary advantages than for sound pedagogical reasons. The open school movement in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system has also been home to some important subsidiary developments, most importantly in efforts to serve students with special needs. In 1975 Irwin became the home of the BEH (behaviorally and emotionally handicapped) program, enabling BEH students to experience a mainstream classroom and in some cases to permanently rejoin regular school life. Similarly, in 1980 the ESL (English as a Second Language) program was moved into the open schools, bringing with it increased ethnic and cultural diversity. This relationship continued and flourished until about 2000, by which time the ESL population had become too large to contain in one program. In 1992 Irwin became the home of "A Children's Place," a program for children experiencing homelessness. Such initiative reflected a central theme of open education, namely a respect for diversity and a desire to serve all children. Since the 1990s, changes in the city and in educational theory have undermined the strength of the open program to varying degrees. The rapid expansion of magnet programs under the leadership of Superintendent Murphy created more competition among programs for mobile students and open programs have been forced to adapt, for example by adopting elements of the IB curriculum. In the early 2000s, the growing emphasis on neighborhood schools has raised questions about the system's commitment to magnet programs. A particular problem for the open educational philosophy is the growing emphasis on standardized testing. The needs to ascertain academic performance, as well as the use of standardized college admission tests are fundamentally at odds with the ideals of open, flexible and unstructured education; making it difficult for the open schools to maintain their original purpose. However, there remains a strong reservoir of support for the principals of open education in the community-a fact which became clear in 2004 when the Superintendent's office proposed the elimination of the Open Program at all grade levels. The reaction from parents was swift and vociferous and the program was reprieved.

By Emily Stephenson-Green


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Language of Materials



Collection contains a diverse assortment of papers concerning the Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School, mostly from 1973 to 2004. These records include such things as administrative, statistical and demographic information about the IAOS, promotional materials, papers concerning theories in alternative forms of education (with particular emphasis on the "open school" approach to teaching) and other papers generated by students. Though Irwin Avenue Open School is a public school, it is run in large part as though it were private, and depends largely on parental volunteerism and participation.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Emily Stephenson-Green in January 2007.

Processing Information

Processed and encoded by Robert A. McInnes, 2008.

Irwin Avenue Open School records
Robert McInnes
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Manuscript Collections, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives, UNC Charlotte Repository

Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte
9201 University City Blvd
Charlotte NC 28223 United States

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