His Progressive Education Has Come Full Circle: Gabriel Kuriloff ’90
The student-centered, progressive education Gabriel Kuriloff enjoyed at The Miquon School laid a strong foundation for the career he has had and the position he now holds.
Kuriloff, who graduated from Miquon in 1990, is now the principal of Vaux Big Picture High School in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia, one of the city’s poorest areas with one of its highest crime rates and lowest positive outcomes in high school graduation rates.
The original Vaux High School closed in 2013 and reopened, transformed, just last year, as part of a massive half-billion-dollar plan put in place by Philadelphia’s Housing Authority (PHA) to reinvigorate some of the neighborhoods struggling the most. The PHA and Philadelphia School District are working closely with Big Picture Learning Philadelphia, a subsidiary of the national education nonprofit, to lift and stabilize the struggling neighborhood.
Big Picture has a five-year contract with the school district to run the high school and tapped Kuriloff to lead it.
“The school is profoundly student-centered, and all learning is project-based around traditional subject areas,” Kuriloff explains. For example, as freshmen, students visit a wide range of professional sites around the city, talking to those who work there and learning from them. Based on their interests, students choose areas in which they will spend more time, so by the time they are sophomores, they will work two days a week with an onsite mentor and accomplish meaningful projects.
“This can be in horticulture, culinary arts, health care, architecture, and so much more,” he says. “It is a powerful and meaningful experience for both partners.”
Two of the school’s guiding principles sound as if they came straight from Miquon’s playbook: Students who are encouraged to follow their passions as they find meaningful places in the community and the insistence on strong, nurturing and mentoring student-teacher relationships.
This approach requires faculty and staff who are willing and able to meet the students where they are, understand them and hold them accountable without being reactionary or punitive and help them understand their choices and behaviors.
Kuriloff is committed to this approach and is well-versed in it with an educational background well-suited to his leadership.
“My Miquon education is incredibly relevant to the work I’m doing now and is such a good Progressive education story,” says Kuriloff, who continued his education after Miquon at Friends Select School in Philadelphia and then Brown University, where he interned with the Coalition of Essential Schools, the organization that helped sponsor Big Picture Learning.
“That school became a national network of Progressive schools. . . passion schools. . . totally student-passion driven,” he explains. “So, at Miquon, I was steeped in [educational] Progressivism, then went to a Progressive college and encountered the start-up school and now, 20 years later, I am the founding principal of a Big Picture high school.”
As Kuriloff recounts the fascinating circle of his life, he chuckles and explains that of all his accomplishments, it is his Miquon diploma that hangs in his office and reminds him of his roots.
“I share it with all my teachers,” he says. “I say, ‘This is what it means to have an honorable education and to be treated with honor and respect by your school. This is a diploma that is a true capture of your personhood and a statement of being known.’”
The fact that learning should be joyful and students respected as powerful individuals is just a given for Kuriloff, although he recognizes those beliefs can be lacking in traditional public schools.
Having fun while learning
Kuriloff shares a memory of a time at Miquon when he recognizes how he learned a wide range of skills by choosing an area of interest and building a project around it.
“We wanted to put on a pet show, and so to organize it required writing a plan, making lists, keeping records, event planning,” he says. “In real life, [humans] ‘take on a project’ and there will be all kinds of skills involved in it. All subject matter is inherently integrated, and we should approach it that way.”
Recently, he says he learned about new kinds of hominoids and the reason he knows about Homo Erectus and different branches of humanity is thanks to Aileen Gardner in Miquon’s fourth grade. “And I basically never learned it again. They [Miquon teachers] did a wonderful job helping me understand things in the universe.”
He also recalls Will Delamater, Miquon’s principal at the time, who figured out why Kuriloff was having such a difficult time learning to read. “He realized I need to see whole words. All this requires a lot of modeling and careful attention and correction,” he says. “Connect students to subjects they’re interested in … Miquon figured out for me what was going on and I recall [understanding how to read] happening instantly. Within a week, I had it.”
By turning students into their own agents, finding and doing what they believe in and want to do, Kuriloff says it’s possible to help a young person get anywhere they want to go. “And getting the core principles while teaching less, more thoroughly, is key. This is a better way to learn about the world and something all students should get, and I realized that most people don’t.” It is something he got at Miquon, which he says prepared him for every other school he attended and for his life.
A true community school
While an Urban Studies major at Brown, Kuriloff learned that communities need holistic care, so for the Sharswood community, for example, he knows the school plays an integral part in the neighborhood’s success, and believes the high school is a key part of a “wonderful, holistic community redevelopment project.”
After a successful first year and with a second class of 126 students having joined the original group, Kuriloff remains committed to meeting his students—and the whole community—where they are, taking what was learned in year one, and incorporating it into continuing to run a true neighborhood school.
An excellent grounding in the benefits of progressive education is not Kuriloff’s only take away from The Miquon School. He is married to a fellow alum, Valerie Klein, class of 1988. The couple believes they are the only married “Miquon couple,” and they have three children, Ruth, 10, Nate, 8, and Lucy, 4.
Valerie earned her bachelor’s degree from Amherst College and her master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Today, she is the head of teacher education and professor of Math Education at Drexel University. Both Gabe and Valerie have two siblings who also graduated from Miquon, and Valerie’s mother is also an alumna.