Lowell School’s History

Lowell School Beginnings

by Judith Grant

How mysteriously a tiny seed may flourish! What gracious and challenging events will determine how it grows? The seed planted in the spring of 1965 has been cultivated by many people over the years to become the Lowell School we know today.
In 1965 Susan Semple and I, classmates in New York City, were in a small Cleveland Park playgroup. We had taught a few years and, newly married, were each at home with two very small children. We wanted to teach again and still be with them. We decided to start a tiny nursery school with the half dozen children in our playgroup using the third floor of my family's 28th Street townhouse. Immediately, Jim Brown, the minister of the nearby Cleveland Park Congregational Church on Lowell Street and the father of one of the children in our playgroup, offered the use of the large church hall and three adjoining Sunday school rooms. It was early summer, and we had three months to conceive and create the school we named The Lowell Street School.


Now we had space for twenty-five children. We valued multi-aged classes, and our roster was quickly filled with one class for children from two and a half to five years old. So that we could provide three teachers, mothers volunteered to assist us in turn. We clarified the philosophy and values we had internalized from our own early education at the Dalton and Brearley Schools and later in graduate study at Bank Street College of Education and Harvard University. We were steeped in the works of Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Haim Ginott. We were also inspired by the current ideals of the War On Poverty, the Peace Corps, and most important Dr. Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights. We strove to create a diverse school community and sought out children from various backgrounds. As part of that effort, we offered as many full scholarships of the yearly tuition of $325 as we could. Our supportive journalist husbands encouraged us to take no salaries to fund the scholarships and equip and supply the classrooms.


We wanted to offer what had meant so much to us as small children and to our own three year olds, Baylor Semple and Kate Grant—a hands-on, child-centered environment that would stimulate children’s curiosity and creativity, give them the opportunity to make choices, and encourage them to empathize and cooperate with each other. We planned to start each day by gathering in a circle for the morning meeting, welcoming each child, and inviting them to share their news and concerns. After that we might read a story to spark the particular activities of the day. We would sing nursery and folk songs, often those of Burl Ives and Ella Jenkins, accompanying them with rhythm instruments and spontaneous dance. Then, children would choose which of the three interest rooms they would enter first and be encouraged to explore the others, as they were ready.


The largest room would hold several centers—one for blocks, one for cars and trucks of all sizes, a corner for dolls and housekeeping furniture, and a dress-up corner for role play and shows. The adjoining room would be the Project Room with a variety of art materials and kitchen equipment for counting, measuring, cutting, mixing, and cooking. There, children would make their own play dough and cook and eat Stone Soup. Next to the Project Room would be the Quiet Room with many books and puzzles to enjoy and guinea pigs or rabbits to hold and care for. We planned many field trips as well. We would buy provisions for our Stone Soup and visit a cardboard box factory to learn about assembly lines. We would board a fishing boat at the Potomac dock and bring back fresh fish to first cover with paint and make fish prints and then to dissect and explore the organs.


But, late that summer before school opened, Susan learned she was pregnant with twins and could no longer be my partner. I was alone with an empty school building and twenty-five children. Then, a miracle happened! The Washington Post hired a new reporter from Jamaica, Sheila Lammie. My husband Jerry, who also worked at the Post, met her and suggested that she board with us in exchange for her assistance in the classroom. She accepted our offer, and we gained a superb teacher. As the September deadline loomed, many parents, Sheila, Jerry, and I worked feverishly to build and paint cubbies and to furnish the classrooms. We made it and seemed to float through that first year.

The second year on Lowell Street was 1966–67. Now our daughter Sarah was old enough to join her sister Kate, and the seed planted the year before continued to grow. Gail Shandler, as impassioned with the school’s mission as I was, stepped up from being a parent assistant to become my partner when Sheila Lammie married and moved to Africa. Gail invited Arlene Semple (no relation to Susan) and her child to join us and add her guitar playing to our morning meeting. Now, Pastor Jim Brown and his Board spoke of building an addition to enable us to add a grade each year. Excited, I was also immersed in exploring possibilities with the new Head Start program. I dreamed of bringing a class of Head Start children to join Lowell's student body. Neither the new addition nor the Head Start vision came to fruition, but they added passion to our developing thinking. How stimulating it was to work with Gail and plan together! Then, near the end of that second year Jerry won a Neiman Fellowship to study at Harvard the next year. When he continued there to earn his doctorate, I gave the school to Gail, and it is for her to tell how under her leadership the seed took root and blossomed.

Our History

Judith Grant

Founder and Director (1965-67)
Judith Grant and Susan Semple decide to start a nursery school.

That fall, The Lowell Street School opens its doors in the Cleveland Park Congregational Church with room for 25 children.

Gail Shandler

Director (1967–1988)
Gail Shandler becomes Director.
Kindergarten is added.
The school moves to the Sixth Presbyterian Church on 16th and Kennedy Streets and becomes known as Lowell School.
Theresa Anderson (whose teaching career at Lowell spanned from 1969– 2007) steps in as Acting Director for two years.

The Fall Bazaar is created.
The Board of Directors is established (renamed the Board of Trustees in 1987).
The Primary School is launched when a combined Kindergarten and 1st grade class is created.

Second and 3rd grades are added in subsequent years.

The school celebrates its 25th year by launching a public lecture series, which lasts for many years.
The Parents Association is formed (renamed the Lowell Parent Community in 2014).

Abigail Wiebenson

Director (1988–2007)
The school graduates four 3rd graders, the first students 
to have gone all the way through the school.

The school buys the Himmelfarb mansion at 16th and Decatur Streets and renovations begin.

Abigail Wiebenson becomes Director.
The Primary School moves to 16th and Decatur.
The school celebrates its 25th year by launching a public lecture series, which lasts for many years.
Lowell becomes accredited by the Maryland Association of Independent Schools.
Susan Piggott becomes Acting Director for one year.

Lowell celebrates its 30th year.

The school launches a campaign to establish Lowell’s endowment.
The former Marjorie Webster Junior College campus on Kalmia Road NW is purchased, and renovations begin.

4th grade is added.
The entire school moves to the Kalmia campus.

5th grade is added.
6th grade is added, and the first 6th grade graduation takes place in 2001.
Lowell celebrates its 40th year.

Debbie Gibbs

Head of School (2007–2019)
Debbie Gibbs becomes Head of School.
The 2008 Five-Year Strategic Plan calls for the expansion of Lowell's program through 8th grade.
In a school-wide vote, the leopard is selected as Lowell’s mascot.
7th grade is added.
8th grade is added, and the first 8th grade graduation takes place in 2013.
Lowell’s Middle School moves into its new home 
in the renovated Parkside Building.
Lowell celebrates its 50th year.
Donna Lindner becomes Head of School.

Donna Lindner

Head of School (2019–present)
Lowell School is a private PK-8th grade school located in NW Washington, DC. Our mission is to create an inclusive community of lifelong learners in which each individual is valued and respected.