In the spring of 1975, members of the Calhoun community waved flags and held signs as they marched together down West End Avenue to the newly completed 81st Street building. The march was a monumental and symbolic moment in Calhoun’s history. Marco Aurelio ’80 can still vividly recall everything from that day—from the smell of the carpet, to “just the feeling of being in this school without walls.” With its open floor plan and unique, “futuristic” exterior, the 81st Street building matched the school’s newfound commitment to an open learning style. The community was excited to embrace the new space and everything it represented. As Marco said, “We were all together in this one kind of mission…to experiment with learning in a profoundly New York way.”
Five years earlier, Head of School Gene Ruth, then a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Teachers College, had pioneered the concept of "learner-centered instruction" in Calhoun’s sixth grade. The program was soon expanded to include fifth, seventh and eighth grades, and became the basis of the curriculum for the entire school in the 1970s. The new five-story, $2.7 million building, which featured areas rather than walls, allowed Gene’s innovative approach to take root. Over the course of the decade, the school became a fully co-educational institution, implemented a cluster advisor system, and created opportunities for cross-grade interactions. These changes paved the way for the Calhoun we know today.
The 81st Street building’s open concept stripped away barriers between teachers and students, best exemplified by Calhoun’s signature practice of calling teachers by their first names. “Everything about the environment was conducive to interacting,” remembers Charles Oppenheim ’80, citing the first names as a key part of this. As longtime science teacher John Roeder, who has been at the school since 1973 reflects, “We treat students as fellow learners and I think the first name basis helps…We're all in this learning boat together, and there's nothing that says the faculty can't learn as much as the students.” This sense of mutual respect allowed teachers and students to develop strong relationships and form a sense of community.
When the new 81st Street building opened in the 1970s, classrooms were full of thoughtful dialogue and lively discussions guided by student interests. Teachers encouraged exploration of different topics--embodying the openness of the space in every way possible and empowering students to be active participants in their education. As Marco Aurelio ’80 explains, it “was learner-focused rather than a pedantic, fixed style. The experience liberated my curiosity … it was hugely impactful to my ability to succeed in both life and in college.” Susan Joyce ‘80, adds “Because of the open environment and the teaching style, you felt like anything was possible.” That same openness––to new ideas, innovations, and connections––continues to guide Calhoun in its 125th year.