Early 1970s Three I Program literature was eager to emphasize that 3Is resembled, in many ways, the regular New Rochelle High School program. In both, students attended regularly scheduled classes, received formal instruction and assignments, and took tests. In both, teachers evaluated student work. And in both, an organizational structure framed student and teacher activities.
But from the beginning, 3Is differed dramatically from the regular school program. Physically, it was a school within a school, beginning in temporary classrooms on a football field, then moving into its high-school-building "White Room" lounge with adjoining classrooms, and finally acquiring its own science lab and art studio. Philosophically, 3Is maintained that "school can be an activity, not simply a place; that school should emphasize learning how to learn, not just teaching; that significant learning can take place anywhere, not only in a classroom; [and] that such learning is more likely to occur if the learners actively involve themselves in making decisions about their education and are not always told."
To implement this, 3Is offered freedoms and responsibilities closer to those of college than to the more regimented regular school. The only requirements for program admission were the student's request and parental approval. Ninety-seven percent of a 1980s 3I graduating class attended four-year colleges and universities, compared to a regular-school continuing-education rate that was much lower despite including vocational schools and military service.
As in college, 3I courses were offered on two or three days a week for 75-minute-long periods, with twice-as-long science labs, rather than at the regular high school rate of five days a week for 45-minute periods. The longer classes were more in-depth, and allowed more time for homework between sessions. In earlier years, a few classes took place in students' and teachers' homes; in later years, this was limited to one weekly class in the home of one teacher. Courses usually spurned textbooks in favor of teachers' own handouts and much original-source reading. Although teachers did lecture, classes were more informal and had more interactive discussion than in the regular school.
Students could sometimes take topical instead of survey courses. In social studies, for instance, one might study "Nazis and the Holocaust" instead of European history, "The Civil War" instead of American history, or "Alternative Political Parties" instead of civics. For this reason, 3I students were exempt from New York State Regents exams, which tested survey-course proficiency at best, and Regents-passing ability at worst. Such a topical approach might mean that a graduating 3I student might not know the difference between a Jacobin and a Jacobite, but could instead be well versed in the issues surrounding one of them, without having spent curriculum time training for a state exam. 3I students did take SATs and other college-placement exams.
It was easier to join a regular-school extracurricular group than to join its curriculum, though the latter was necessary for courses that were unavailable in 3Is, such as foreign-language courses and advance-placement courses that earned college credit. A five-day-a-week regular-school course with sort classes could cut into two or three 3I courses with long classes.
Most 3I courses mixed all grades of students. 3Is originally spanned grades 10 through 12, and in the mid-seventies the program helped create an alternative junior high school program that served grades 7 through 9. But when the board of education closed that second program during the first school-district budget crisis also to threaten 3Is, it added the 9th grade to 3Is.
Besides course work, 3I students were encouraged to pursue projects tailored to their own interests, "teaching [the student] that an education is not something given to you but is rather an active process of self-development." Project work could be independent or with a group. A project could involve apprenticeship (learning a trade), inquiry (investigating a question), academia (research of a topic), action (implementing change), or service (helping others). Community-oriented projects ran the gamut from monitoring a draft board; restoring Ward Acres, a small city-owned farm; creating a community entertainment café; working with children, including the handicapped, in schools or in programs such as Sunshine or the Wildcliff science center; or working with animals.
To earn credit for non-class work, including physical education, students signed contracts that described the goals, resources, and responsibilities of such projects. Students were required to work four hours per week for an academic year to earn credit equal to that of a classroom course. A 1973 white paper said that "most 3I enterprises involve a written agreement or contract," but by 3Is' final years, projects for credit were rarer, the "Project Week" that had been developed to encourage independent study had been rescinded, and students had to attend 3I-faculty-led gym classes.
3Is offered pass-or-fail credit instead of numerical or letter grades. Teachers wrote two midyear, descriptive evaluations of each student's performance, plus a final written evaluation in June. Student self-evaluations accompanied the midyear evaluations. In addition, students evaluated teachers' performance and had roles in their hiring and firing.
Each academic year began with a few days of "Orientation." Teachers introduced themselves by their first names, as they would be known throughout the year. They described their courses, distributed course descriptions and sample syllabi, offered goals, and took suggestions on how those goals could be changed. Students then signed up for courses; the least popular ones might be canceled. In the program's earlier years, community organizations' representatives also used Orientation to promote their groups' opportunities.
Deciding what they would take and when, 3I students designed their own schedules in consultation with faculty, who offered advice in lieu of any formal core curriculum or set of distribution guidelines. They also had the exclusive aid of a high school guidance counselor, who was mindful of college requirements and gave further advice on how to use the regular school's resources. Although 3Is awarded the usual high-school diploma, the counselor had to explain to other schools 3I students' transcripts, which lacked grades except for those of the regular school's courses.
3I students were evenly divided into "tutorials" that met once a week, each hosted by a teacher. Early 1970s program literature said that tutorials comprised "approximately 25 students each for individual and group guidance of discussion, critical discussions of the functioning of the program, and social activities," and called them seminars that were as equivalent in importance to courses and projects. The early 1970s also saw structured student involvement in program governance via a student "Steering Committee" and weekly student-faculty meetings called the "Tuesday Group," which were open to the whole program but usually attracted only the small core of those who were most interested.
By the 1980s, program governance was discussed not in tutorials but at the weekly all-program meetings, which had become "Monday Meetings." Tutorials did not "tutor" students so much as organize them into homeroom-like units, meeting once a week for the sake of announcements and event planning. Teachers were still responsible for individually advising their tutorials' students and writing their evaluations. Throughout 3Is' history, teachers also met in weekly staff meetings, often discussing individual students.
At least in later years, teachers did not take daily attendance since 3I students' schedules varied so widely. Instead, students checked daily presences and absences on signup sheets that were tacked to tutorial doors. Students usually marked themselves "present" for weeks in advance. Teachers noted attendance more carefully in their weekly tutorials and daily classes.
3Is promoted itself lightly. The high school and school district mentioned it briefly in annual literature, and 3Is pitched itself to junior-high students as a future alternative. The program's population peaked from 1972 to 1975, with 155 students and 7 teachers. But in 1982, after repeated attacks on 3Is from a board of education dealing with budget cuts, 3Is' population dwindled to 80 students and 4 teachers. The board finally cut 3Is in 1983. Its remaining students continued their education in New Rochelle's regular school. The final faculty members retired, continued their careers in the school district, or found work outside New Rochelle.