Bank Street began in 1916 as the Bureau of Educational Experiments, signaling founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s resolve that education begins with the scientific study of children to understand their needs and interests. It is just not possible, she argued, to design the right school, or change a failed one, if we do not know, first of all, how children learn.
Mitchell set out to research child development in experimental schools to discover how children learn best. When the Bureau first opened its doors its staff included a social worker, a doctor, psychologists, and teachers, laying the groundwork to welcome children to a new kind of nursery school in 1918 — the forerunner of today’s School for Children.
When it moved to 69 Bank Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1930, the Bureau expanded its nursery school and opened a Cooperative School for Teachers. 20 years later, the school began conferring master’s degrees when it formally became Bank Street Graduate School of Education, which today remains known for its intensive fieldwork and advisement component.
What potentialities in human beings—children, teachers, and ourselves—do we want to see develop?
Our credo demands ethical standards as well as scientific attitudes. Our work is based on the faith that human beings can improve the society they have created.
Each spring, from 1935-1951, excluding the years of World War II when the trips were suspended, Lucy Sprague Mitchell led the entire class of approximately 25 to 35 student teachers, all traveling together by bus over a thousand miles, to areas of the country dramatically different from New York City.
These week to ten-day trips placed the student teachers in a position to confront directly social and political issues of their day—the labor movement, poverty, conservation, government intervention programs, race relations—all the while considering the lives of children and their families, and the educational implications of what they experienced.
Growing out of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the federal government established Head Start to provide comprehensive educational and social support for young children from low-income families across the country. Bank Street faculty members, led by President John H. Niemeyer, played an integral role in the formation of the national Head Start program. Head Start’s first concept paper—by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity—pointed to Bank Street classrooms as models for Head Start settings.
From 1968 to 1981, following the success of Head Start's service at the prekindergarten level, Bank Street was a prime sponsor and designer of Project Follow Through, a federal program to provide educational support services for Kindergarten and early elementary school children and their families in economically disadvantaged areas.
Bank Street led the 42nd Street Early Childhood Model Head Start Training Center in the 1960s and 70s, and revived its Head Start programs in the 1990s. Today, Bank Street's own Head Start program serves 68 families each year in New York’s East Village.
In Bank Street’s early years, founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell became a student of children’s language, observing and recording their interactions and the stories they told. She concluded that straying from a traditional model and creating a more child-centered classroom, best seen through play, opens up their natural expression and reflects an insatiable interest in the world around them.
In subsequent decades, Mitchell would see her modest experiment grow to become a source of exceptional literature. She opened the Bank Street Writers Lab, which encouraged authors to produce children’s literature that reflected an understanding of the language of growing children, was responsive to their real and imagined worlds, and affirmed each of their social and cultural heritages. Members included prolific children’s book authors like Margaret Wise Brown, who played around with “storytelling” in Goodnight Moon, and Maurice Sendak, often called the Picasso of children’s literature for his brilliant illustrations that complemented language to create meaningful experiences for children.
In 1965, The Bank Street Readers were published as the first multicultural, multi-ethnic books to teach children to read — amplifying two of Bank Street's most important goals: helping children explore the world through language and reaching them by reflecting the real settings and contexts in which they live and learn.