Teaching with Wolves

For months a drive down Klem Road would provide a mere glimpse of a mysterious new silhouette rising in the distance. The evolving structure was placed at the end of a long, newly cut roadway, just far enough away to reveal little.

The first day of school always comes with a feeling of excitement especially for elementary school students. In that September of 1971, with the school building finally completed and set to open, the mystery of what lay beyond the front doors was soon to be answered. The days and weeks to follow would soon demonstrate that the excitement had only just begun.

While not a typical school building it wasn’t one of a kind either. Local architect, Ronald Sattelberg’s design was so good, Webster built three! Klem Road South, Plank Road South, and Schlegel Road Elementary were all constructed simultaneously and from the same blueprints.

The building’s distinctive salt-glazed tile facade was reminiscent of agricultural silos constructed half a century before. The scale of the individual tiles helped to show off the unique colorization captured during the firing process.

The same reddish tile continued through the front doorway and across the walls of the school’s lobby. While the initial space was small and confined, a quick right turn into the heart of the school revealed the true character of the school building. Rather than cinder block and linoleum corridors filled with doorways, Klem South’s carpeted hallways opened out into common areas known as “centrums”.

At the rear of each centrum were three classrooms, most separated by a motorized folding wall that could be opened at lunchtime or for shared activities across the grade level. Stationary walls were covered with metal panels capable of holding magnets in place. Interior windows were used to help keep the classrooms connected and not closed off spaces.

While the classrooms had motorized walls, the school library had no walls at all. It sat in the center of the school surrounded by the multiple centrums and was approachable from nearly any direction.

A unique school requires a unique principal.

The ideal principal candidate was found at an elementary school housed on a college campus in Cortland, NY…. Dr. Gerald Clarke.

Clarke grew up in Buffalo and earned a bachelors from the Buffalo State Teachers’ College (today known as Buffalo State College). Following a 3 year stint in the Air Force during World War II, he completed his masters degree through the GI Bill at Columbia University in New York City.

While principal at Cayuga Heights Elementary in Ithaca, NY he completed his doctorate in Philosophy at Cornell University.

From 1963-1965 Clarke was principal of the Ella Van Hoesen Campus School at Cortland State College (known today as SUNY Cortland). Like Klem Road South, the Campus School was a new state of the art building, however it was designed as something of a research laboratory to test new ideas in education while simultaneously training the next generation of teachers. “Our central purpose is research and development in education and teaching education.” “We must experiment (judiciously) in new methods and materials for teaching children and preparing teachers.” said Dr. Clarke. 1

In the fall of 1965, Dr. Clarke landed in Webster as the principal of the aging West Webster Elementary School. It was the closure of West Webster Elementary in 1971 that brought Dr. Clarke to the helm of the newly opened Klem South Elementary.

In his spare time, Dr. Clarke wrote poetry that was often published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and in several books he authored. His research into standardization of Merit Pay for Teachers, was featured in a national education magazine.

Dr. Clarke was not the typical elementary principal. When asked about Dr. Clarke, retired Schroeder high school principal Oscar Cochi remarked, “He wasn’t like the rest of us, we didn’t really know what to make of him.”

“E” is for Ecology

Rivers were never intended to catch fire, but when Cleveland, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in June of 1969 it began to wake people up to the dire state of the environment.

From day one, Klem South was on board. Not with carbon credits, but through education and action.

Each year, under the direction of school nurse, Helen McGill, Klem South hosted an Ecology Symposium which brought a wealth of information to the classroom through films, and visiting speakers.

John “Wolfman” Harris traveled the United States with his wolves for people to see first hand the beauty of the animal and to tell the story of their plight. He and his wolves had appeared on Captain Kangaroo and the Today Show. He visited Congress with a wolf by his side to promote the Endangered Species Act and at the request of Dr. Clarke visited Klem South with a wolf named Rocky.

Dr. Clarke was completely taken by the wolves and their story. Before long the school was sponsoring a wolf at a preserve in Arizona through popcorn sales at the school. John Harris and his canine friends continued to make yearly visits during the annual Ecology Symposium.

Another well known visitor to the school was Astronaut Fred Haise Jr. who was a member of the Apollo 13 space mission. Haise baffled students with his demonstration of a gyroscope. A student was asked to carry a case across the school’s stage which proved to be easy, until the gyroscope inside the case was turned on. It quickly became impossible to move. Captain Haise also brought along a model of the soon to be built space shuttle, similar to the shuttle he would one day fly. In the audience that day was Klem South student and future astronaut, Edward Lu.

Students saw the plight of the Harp Seal and learned about efforts to save the Canada Goose through film and visits by the filmmakers behind the documentaries. Efforts to save the geese were quite successful as you may have noticed!

What is a school without teachers?

Klem South had a number of remarkable educators. 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. (Marguerite) Donaldson loved to share the story of her run in with a UFO. 3rd grade teacher, Miss Gifford was inevitably compared to singer and actress, Cher on a daily basis. Both were tall, stylishly dressed and had long dark hair. 4th grade teacher, Mr. (Richard) Congdon loved to teach! And his students could tell. He enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the underground railroad and slaves flight to freedom. Mrs. (Gail) Crandall who taught 4th and 6th grade classes at Klem South made learning feel effortless. Mrs. (Dina) Dugan helped her students grow in knowledge and as people. 6th grade teacher, Ms. Woodard was the first “Ms.” anyone had ever known and Mrs. (Nancy) Lutterbein the school’s music teacher put her heart and soul into every musical production.

Dances with School Boards

One of the more controversial elements of a typical day at Klem South was what came to be known as “the open lunch”.

To this day, the vast majority of schools across the United States require students to be escorted to the school cafeteria, where they are to eat and asked to remain in their seats until they are escorted back to their classroom following lunch.

At Klem South students were allowed to visit the school cafeteria when they felt like eating. The remainder of the lunch hour could be used on the playground, engaged in activities in the gym, reading in the library, or playing games and chatting with friends back in their grade level’s centrum. It was truly an opportunity to explore ones own interests and spend meaningful time with friends, while also developing a greater sense of responsibility and independence.

Not everyone embraced the non-traditional approaches to teaching going on at Klem South. School board member, Eric Ohstrom was a relentless critic of Clarke and his approach to educating the students of Klem South. Despite test scores as good or better than other Webster’s schools, Ohstrom felt the school lacked order and discipline.

Dr. Clarke believed strongly in what he was doing and what he had accomplished. “I’ve been to many other elementary schools, and I have yet to see one that is better in atmosphere than at Klem South. By this, I mean orderliness, a sense of harmony, a sense of industriousness. I challenge anyone to find any place better in the entire United States!” Clarke stated. 2

Being the thoughtful man he was, the fierce criticism and pressure to change the schools practices likely influenced Clarke’s decision to retire at the end of the 1977/78 school year.

The open lunch program and afternoon activities were retired with him. The new principal, Jerry Ryan was brought in to “buy back instructional time for the three R’s.”

The Ecology symposiums continued for a few more years until Helen McGill retired.

Over the summers to follow, walls were constructed around the school library and the motorized walls that divided many of the classrooms, were replaced with standard walls.

Dr. Clarke demonstrated that wolves were beautiful animals worthy of protection and not the blood thirsty creatures often portrayed in children’s stories. However, the school’s moniker, “the wolves” was unsettling to some so it was replaced for the more cuddly “Penguins”.

Dr. Clarke, his wife June who had taught at Ridgecrest Elementary, and their daughter Kate, moved to Sun City, Arizona in 1983. His retirement was sadly all too short, passing away in November of 1992. This past May would have been Dr. Clarke’s 100th birthday.

Song for a Warm October Day
by Dr. Gerald Clarke

Should boyhood come to me
improbably a second time around
I shall not waste this one.
No, I shall fly my kite
and follow every sparrow
in its flight.
And I shall photograph
each wispy cirrus cloud
against the azure sky and tape
each song I sing, each melody
that springs unbidden from
some secret sparkling source.
I shall play them all
each winter day to come
and leave the world to wonder
why I sing.

Dr. Clarke in the school library
Dr. Clarke in the Klem South parking lot with Rocky.
Dr. Clarke with his dog Beau.
John Harris with Slick at Klem South – photo by Pam Brown
Shaman at Klem South – photo by Pam Brown
Wolf expert John Harris outside the Klem South main office – photo by Pam Brown
Slick in a classroom – Photo by John Dommers

Many thanks to Kate Clarke for the photos of her father and for her memories of his time at Klem South.

  1. The New Campus School by Phyllis Leventhal The Hilltop Press, Thursday, November 29, 1962
  2. Klem South School Comes Under Fire by Lee Burgess Webster Herald Wednesday, November 16, 1977