To Honor Renegade Educator

After five decades of work as an educator on the South Fork, Tinka Topping will be honored by the Hayground School. Judy D’Mello

In Finland, Tinka Topping might not be anyone special. Not in the world of education, anyway, where she advocates an alternative system — most simplistically described as favoring “how you learn” over “what you learn.” For in that tiny Nordic country many of her unorthodox values are instilled at the core of an education system that has made its schools the envy of the world.

But Ms. Topping lives in Sagaponack, and here she is practically legendary. On Sunday, her relentless pursuit of a less authoritarian approach to education will be recognized as she is honored at the 13th annual Chefs Dinner fund-raiser for the Hayground School and its kitchen and garden programs.

“Nonsense,” she exclaimed, swatting away the significance of being lauded. “They just needed someone to honor. Preferably someone old.”

Ms. Topping is a nonagenarian (there’s a reason that word is not commonplace): a plucky, outspoken 92-year-old still championing the importance of sending students on an intellectual adventure rather than through the Yale-or-fail pressures often experienced by regular children at regular schools.

Her legacy spans a half-century of education reform she brought to the South Fork. Arriving in the 1960s, divorced and with three children, she noticed a rigid public education system. “Why aren’t kids more respected?” she wondered. “Why isn’t there more flexibility in the system?” She pushed to institute alternative teaching models in the schools out here but was met with opposition.

In 1966, she was a leader in the opening of the Hampton Day School in Bridgehampton, modeled after the one-room school concept that existed in many rural areas around the world, utilizing one room and one teacher overseeing multiple grade levels and multiple skill levels. By 1991, however, the South Fork’s population had ballooned and the school became more conservative, and Ms. Topping, along with half the board members, left amid much controversy.

In 1996 a group of 24, including the late Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, an elder of the Shinnecock Tribe, the late actor Roy Scheider, and Ms. Topping, opened the Hayground School, also in Bridgehampton, offering an alternative education for prekindergartners through eighth graders, replacing what Ms. Topping calls “unhealthy teaching conventions” with an emphasis on giving children the tools to become confident, informed citizens.

Ms. Topping seems to belong to a disappearing generation of iconoclasts who became decision makers during the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when anything seemed possible, especially if it involved replacing the established with a new utopia. If this area lacked a school with progressive education, then they would simply build one.

Hayground, which has an enrollment of about 85, picked up where the Hampton Day School left off. According to its website, the institution was founded “on the conviction that all children can live as intellectuals. All children can become serious and passionate readers; all children can engage in genuine conversation in which people exchange information and ideas, change their minds, and work and study in a community where art is at the center, not the periphery, of life.”

Ms. Topping is clearly proud of what the school embodies today, 21 years later. “Hayground explodes with art,” she said. “It is a joyful place where teachers’ passions are brought to the classroom. Kids seem very happy, engrossed in the process of learning and making. There are mixed ages in the classrooms and an ethnically diverse student body.”

Teachers are not straitjacketed, she explained, by bureaucrats or excessive regulations but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as trusted professionals.

In many ways, it is a microcosm of the Finnish system, where before kids learn their multiplication tables, they learn simply how to be kids — how to play with one another, how to negotiate conflicts, and how to help one another. Competition is not as important as cooperation, and playtime is sacred. Finland scorns all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework. The first six years of school are not about academic success, but only about finding one’s passion.

Yet whatever success Hayground might tout, it can be judged only within the American education system, which appears to be hurtling in the opposite direction of Finland’s. Detractors of the school sometimes refer to it as “Playground,” mocking its lack of structure, homework, grades, or testing, which they claim leaves students ill prepared for more rigorous high schools and colleges.

Again, such thinking is swatted away by Ms. Topping. “Children who succeed at Hayground will succeed anywhere,” she said, pointing to Max Cheng, an alumnus who graduated in June from Bridgehampton High School as valedictorian of his class. “Max did great. He went from being a big cheese in a tiny school to a medium cheese in a small school, and he shined.” He finished his senior year with a 95 grade-point average and will attend the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in New York City this fall.

“We’ve never had any of our students go to Harvard or Yale,” Ms. Topping said without a hint of apology, underscoring her belief that academic or personal success cannot be defined by acceptance into an elite college.

For now, she can only watch as American parents continue to etch a hopeful trajectory from nursery school to elite college to making lots of money — “which is driving me nuts,” she said. “The world has fallen apart. So, it’s even more important for us to continue to nurture this small little kernel of a place, full of integrity and knowledge that will make a difference to the lives of a few kids by giving them the confidence to go out into the world as good, mindful citizens.”

As for future plans, Ms. Topping said, “Between now and death, I’ll remain actively involved in the school for as long as they want me” — and enjoy her large family, which she calls “my anchor,” many of whom will be there on Sunday to see her being honored.

The Hayground Chefs Dinner on Sunday, which starts with hors d’oeuvres at 4:30 p.m., will also honor Bill Telepan, the executive chef of Oceana restaurant and the nonprofit organization Wellness in the Schools. It will be officiated at by Toni Ross, a founder of Hayground and of Nick and Toni’s restaurant, and the chef Eric Ripert. Tickets are $1,200 and can be purchased at haygroundchefsdinner.org or by calling 631-537-7068, extension 113.