Metro, Newton

Historic Newton’s Upcoming Documentary Explores a 19th Century Experiment in Education

For the next three weeks, colorful panels will adorn an exhibit in Newton’s City Hall that details the 19th-century West Newton English and Classical School, Nathaniel T. Allen’s progressive education project and the subject of Historic Newton’s upcoming documentary film, An Uncommon Education

“We got a grant from Mass Humanities last October, [and] we started working on the film,” said Sara Goldberg, curator of manuscripts and photographs at Historic Newton during Wednesday night’s reception. “We want to make sure that more people know, kind of, how Newton got its reputation for excellence in education—this particular man and school were very key to that.”

Allen, an educator and social reformer, founded the school—known as the Allen School, according to Historic Newton—in 1854, providing students, regardless of race or gender, a radical and holistic education that included debates on contemporary issues, lessons on morality, and physical education.

“The fact that no one’s really talked about this or made a film or anything, it tells you that there’s still many stories to be told, especially ones where in traditional history maybe, women’s history wasn’t considered important, or black history wasn’t considered important,” said Lisa Dady, director of Historic Newton.

According to Historic Newton, nearly 5000 students graduated from the Allen School over the course of its 50-year existence, with many graduates using their education to find success in fields such as education, law, and art. 

“It had the first kindergarten that was ever part of a larger school, and it had the first gymnasium that was ever in a high school, and it was co-ed and not just co-ed but co-ed with serious education,” said Marya Van’t Hul, the curator of the exhibit. “Girls were learning science and math and just the same curriculum as the boys.”

The project is Historic Newton’s first documentary, made with the help of Newton-based director Joe Hunter and Needham-based production company Last Minute Productions. The collaborative effort made the work less daunting, according to Goldberg, who originally suggested the project.

“[It took] a lot of coordinating schedules and people in costumes,” he said. “I had a great team behind me, and all of my colleagues as well. I couldn’t do that without their support.”

The documentary medium gives the story longevity and greater reach, which is warranted due to the historical importance of the Allen School, according to Dady.

“We’re using Newton as the lens to look through, but it’s definitely a Massachusetts story, because Massachusetts has this long prideful history of education reform,” she said. “And in some ways, it’s an American story, and some of the things that were being tried right here are things that went on and became part of our standard US student curriculum.”

Ultimately, Historic Newton is excited to share the story of the Allen School as an example of Newton’s more optimistic history, according to Van’t Hul. 

“We definitely try to tell hard history and sad history and history about things that are nothing to be proud of,” Van’t Hul said. “But this is an example that it is something to be proud of, you know, and Newton folks can feel good too, as well. So that’s kind of nice to be able to do that sometimes.”

An Uncommon Education will premiere on Oct. 21 at 7:00 p.m. at the Allen Center. The exhibit will be available in Newton City Hall until Sept. 29.

September 10, 2023