CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Barbara Lounsberry vaguely remembers her first day of first grade.
It was the fall of 1953, and the second-generation lab school student was among the first to attend a class in the newly built laboratory school on the University of Northern Iowa campus. She remembers the excitement on that first day in the new building that continued through her graduation in 1965.
"There was a constant air of experiment. They were always trying things out on us," said Lounsberry. "It was part of going to that school."
As a student she remembers being in school plays, athletic events, speech contests and choir.
"They made you feel like you could do anything," she said.
Years later, Lounsberry got to be part of that experience again when her son, Jackson, attended the school. And while the teaching mechanisms may have changed, that push for greatness remained.
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"I would go watch my son have a small part in a play, then go see him play basketball and then watch him in the orchestra," she said. "It was like seeing my own life be relived again."
Now memories may be all that's left of the lab school. On Feb. 28, the Iowa Board of Regents voted to close the school June 30 per UNI President Ben Allen's recommendation. A group of educators, parents and residents filed a lawsuit in late March seeking to overturn the decision. The judge has yet to issue a ruling on the case; a hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Lounsberry and other members of the Alumni and Friends of Price Lab School and Northern University High are using money contributed to the Ross Nielsen Fund to collect photos, video and written memories for a project they hope will "preserve the legacy of the school."
The group will collect memories during the annual all-class reunion picnic Saturday in the Nielsen Fieldhouse following the Sturgis Falls parade.
A long history
As early as 1878 children were being instructed by teachers in the Model School on the university campus while Normal School students observed, but it wasn't until 1892 that the campus school officially came into existence. Classes were held in several buildings until Sabin Hall was completed specifically for the lab school in January 1914.
In the early 1950s the university began work on a new lab school at its present location at 19th and Campus streets. Work on the elementary school was completed in 1953, the high school opened in 1955 and the fieldhouse in 1957. In 1959 President James Maucker announced the entire complex would be named in honor of Malcolm Price, president of the university from 1940 to 1950.
The high school name continued to evolve. In 1961 the PLS yearbook bears the name "Teachers College High School." Yearbooks from 1962 through 1967 use the name State College High School. In 1968 the school adopted its final name, Northern University High School.
Joan Duea, a former lab school teacher, is part of the group collecting memories from the lab school's glory days. Duea did her student teaching at the school in 1957-1958. She knew when she graduated she wanted to go back. She got that chance in 1965. Over the course of the next two decades, Duea said, there were always people --- university students, teachers and administrators from other districts, parents --- observing her classroom.
Duea particularly remembers a visit by three administrators. When she left the room to take a phone call, those administrators asked her students why they sat so nicely and continued to work.
"They said they had a job to do," she said. The conversation continued and ended with one little girl saying, "It's all we know."
Duea said that respect was "built in" to the school's environment from the administrators down to the students.
"And many, many, many years later, what does the school do? They get awards for all kinds of things that was part of that environment," she said, speaking of the Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award, which the school received in 2010.
Gary Kroeger graduated from the school in 1975.
"We called it the heyday. The '60s, '70s and '80s really were a magical time there," he said. "It was sort of a conspiracy of elements. The teachers, the professors, that were brought into Price Lab, the commitment to the student teachers, the commitment from the university, everything seemed to be working really, really, really well."
Kroeger, one of the school's more notable alumni, went on to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live," appear in numerous movies and host game shows, like revivals of "The Newlywed Game" and "Beat the Clock."
He says his love of acting started inside the PLS walls where men like Ken Butzier and Les Hale gave him "Broadway caliber instruction" as a high school student.
Hale said he was able to do so many great things, in part, because he had support for anything he wanted to try.
"That was one of the earmarks of the lab school," he said. "You were expected to delve into the possibilities. If you wanted to try something new that was great. What I discovered after the third year was the faculty was incredible. ... They were leading the nation in about everything you could imagine."
It wasn't just the arts. Kroeger said his brother developed a love of science at the school. He graduated and later went on to earn his doctorate in astrophysics. According to Kroeger, he is now "one of the premier physicists in the country."
That doesn't mean the school was without faults. Kroeger just has a hard time remembering them.
"There were people who fell through the cracks. I don't think everyone came out well-rounded and open-minded," he said.
Kristin Teig Torres moved back to her hometown so her children could experience the Price Lab learning environment. Her daughter just finished kindergarten and a son just finished third grade. She is part of the parent organization that has fought tirelessly against the looming closure.
"I don't think anyone has said the teachers in Waterloo or Cedar Falls are any better or worse; it's just a different experience," Torres said. "To have the field experience students in your classroom is great. The students get to see another perspective. They are still trying out new things. It's not just a formulaic way of learning."
A rocky road
But the school's future has been challenged several times over the years.
Jim Kelly, who was hired in 1969 to teach biology and chemistry, had been at the lab school just two weeks when a legislative review team came through to "determine if they were going to keep it open or shut it down."
Other notable attempts were made in 1986, 1989 and 2002.
"People always felt they needed to do something to shut down the school. They thought it was a financial drain on their department," Kelly said. "I just kept thinking, 'You folks don't understand the value of what we have here or the teacher education component.'"
All education majors --- there are about 2,400 students --- complete three levels of in-class experiences before student teaching. Almost all of the Level 2 placements were done at the lab school. In all, UNI students received more than 20,000 hours of teacher training by lab school faculty each year.
Though university administrators are optimistic they can re-create the lab school experience in other schools, those who have taught at both the lab school and in traditional districts said the model will be difficult to replicate.
"We are going to have to find ways to build a cadre of people who will be able to accept that same challenge and fill the void of no school, where direct observation to fit in with classroom information can be available," Duea said. "It will be interesting. It will be challenging. It will be exciting. And I hope that we can think outside the box. I'm not sure what the model is going to be, but I certainly have faith that people will create a whole new structure that will be able to provide for the kind of experiences that our undergraduate teacher education students need."
Lynn Nielsen entered second grade at the school in 1954 and graduated 10 years later. After a stint in the Army and college he returned to the school as a teacher in 1974 and was named the elementary school principal in 1988.
"I heard it many times when I was principal at the lab school: 'Well this isn't a real environment.' ... If you wanted to study how a school board impacts a school district or building, the lab school is not the place to go. But I maintain that where teachers and students meet in classrooms, that's as real as it gets," Nielsen said. "Now the culture of the lab school, on average, was different than other places. There was a culture of the lab school that was part of progressive education. It involved multi-generational learning environments. The adult-to-student ratio was often positive on the side of students, but it's as real as it gets."