A New Era of Education

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Independent-school parents consistently report high levels of satisfaction with their child’s academic experiences, according to a 2016 survey designed by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and conducted by the journal Education Next. This is just one reason why independent schools remain a popular choice for many parents in the New England area.

Many families appreciate that independent schools were founded to provide exceptional educational experiences. What they may not realize is that many of the schools belonging to the Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE) have also made a commitment to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. More than a marketing buzzword, these schools are led by their boards of directors to ensure that this critical mission is advanced each year.

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

While students can use an internet search to provide facts and data, the lack of context highlights a defining feature of the Information Age: what matters now is how our schools prepare students to use knowledge. Thus, the work of independent-school educators, the foundation of these schools, becomes even more important. Jonathan Schmid, director of innovation and technology at The Meadowbrook School of Weston in Weston, MA, identifies “empathy, problem-solving skills, systems thinking, critical decision-making, and the ability to work in a team” as modern educational imperatives—and human-centric skills that would be impossible to learn from Google.

Engaging Students with Innovative Approaches

“We can’t just pass information from teacher to student,” notes Shalini Rao, director of teaching and learning at The Fessenden School in Newton, MA. The focus at Fessenden and other independent schools is to engage students in the material, and to that end, many are using educational methodologies, including Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Design Thinking (DT), which are intended to help students learn important concepts in an experiential, interdisciplinary framework that encourages independent thinking and questioning. Two recent examples of PBL successes at Fessenden include a unit on Bird Adaptations, which asked fifth-grade students to consider how a foreign bird would survive in the Fessenden ecosystem and engaged students with maps, data analysis, and journaling as well as a study of birds and the local habitat, and a ninth-grade unit called Food for Thought, which required students to look at food through the lenses of history, culture, biology, and modern business, as well as presented them with the problem of how they would use food to sustain and improve a community.

According to Schmid, The Meadowbrook School of Weston has embraced DT because the model encourages “creative confidence, needs discovery, and a bias toward action.” Within that framework, Meadowbrook has designed age- and subject-appropriate assignments that help students engage with the content in meaningful, authentic ways. Recent projects have ranged from the design of a car for a loved one in the ele- mentary grades to mock trials of Genghis Khan and Harry Truman in the middle grades.

Nevertheless, faculty are mindful to treat these educational methodologies as tools, and coach students to understand when and how to best make use of them. For example, while Fessenden utilizes the best practices of PBL, it also recognizes when this approach will be most effective. According to Rao, for most students, PBL isn’t appropriate until they’ve learned baseline skills at the elementary level. After that, teachers need to remain aware of when a project is a straightforward means to build skills and cover content, and when it’s genuinely a means to explore real world challenges and engage deeply. Finally, the faculty continues to challenge itself to make sure that project work invites exploration into other subjects. At all stages, the most important directive is “to work thoughtfully and with intention,” says Rao.

“Stick with the Student, Not the Lesson Plan”

Thanks to the flexibility and freedom of independent schools, faculty and staff are able to respond quickly to what’s working and what isn’t. As Rao says, the most important objective is “to stick with the student, not the lesson plan.” That means that while Fessenden starts with a goal and works backward from it, teachers are empowered to move quickly to respond to what they learn with each class, as they did when they created the Food for Thought unit as a way to deepen connections and enrich the work for students.

A logical continuation of student-centered curriculum design is student-centered assessment. This approach requires faculty to look beyond final results and asks to what degree a student succeeded based on knowledge, skills, or even talents. Rao acknowledges that this is “a messy process”, but one necessary not only for fairness but to ensure that students are learning and growing, not simply doing busywork.

Content, Character, and Impact

Perhaps the most important strength of an independent school is the community it creates. For Schmid, independent schools are environments where “the focus is on content and character, and where teachers can impact teachers, students can impact students.” Rao agrees that a supportive team atmosphere can be an essential element in helping educators grow and ultimately helping their students achieve their objectives. To that end, Fessenden’s administration offers their teachers instructional coaching when they reach a plateau with a class. The goal is to help the teacher assess whether the issue is around curriculum, teaching strategies, or classroom management, and offer actionable options. Rao stresses that the coaching is optional and non evaluative, which has been important to its success. The ultimate goal is to help both students and teachers grow, not hold anyone back.

Advancements in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

It has long been recognized by educators that a healthy, diverse community provides an ideal academic environment. Diverse perspectives lead to stronger problem-solving abilities and decision-making skills as well as a richer overall learning environment and, ultimately, better preparation for the world. With those benefits in mind, it should not be surprising that many schools have included diversity in their missions since their founding, as is the case for The Putney School in Putney, VT, founded in 1935.

But what is diversity? Michael Eatman, director of community life at The Pike School in Andover, MA, references workplace diversity pioneer Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. in his definition of diversity as “any collective mixture of characteristics which carries similarities and differences and their related tensions and complexities.” According to Zara Marie Spooner, dean of community and multicultural development at Pingree School in South Hamilton, MA, diversity encompasses a range of social identities, including ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class.

Creating a Safe Space for All

Many independent schools work with special academic programs to proactively recruit underrepresented students. For John Barrengos, director of admission and financial aid at Putney, these programs include Beacon Academy, Stepping Stone, and ABC (A Better Chance). According to Barrengos, the key is making sure all students they recruit are a good fit. At Putney, that means students who want to not only engage with the community, but also help shape it; that is to say, students who will not only listen to other voices, but will also share their own.

Creating a safe space for all voices is a key goal for today’s independent schools and essential to creating inclusive environments in which every member feels they have a stake. A fellowship program at Pingree is aimed at mentoring new faculty from underrepresented backgrounds in independent schools, but for all schools dedicated to diversity and inclusion, it also means an ongoing commitment to professional development so existing faculty feel confident to facilitate sometimes uncomfortable conversations in the classroom around diversity. Both Eatman and Spooner emphasize the importance of creating a supportive and informed community for faculty, particularly at the departmental level, to help support teachers who are exploring what may be unfamiliar territory.

Additionally, Pingree, Pike, and Northfield Mount Hermon School in Mount Hermon, MA, have conducted cultural assessments of their schools’ communities. All three schools agree that this work needs to be an iterative, ongoing process that must take into account different levels of challenges in different classes and the “varied levels of experiences and interactions stu- dents will bring into the school,” Spooner notes.

A principal part of this assessment focuses on the curriculum. For Spooner, the questions “what are we teaching and how are we teaching it” are important starting points. In English and history, this means not only examining the text but also asking whose voice is represented in the source material. For math and science, Pingree is pushing the instruction and the class examples to connect to other subjects in a way that reflects the diverse interests and backgrounds of the student body. The arts, an integral focus area at Pingree, naturally leads to conversations about identity and representation, and the school is engaged in an ongoing assessment to make sure the arts curriculum targets those import- ant issues, as well as using the works of artists across the social identity spectrums. Similarly, while classes in French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish have always sparked conversations around culture, Pingree is currently determining the best ways to intentionally incorporate themes of identity, both in the students’ culture and the cultures being studied, into those discussions.

Conversations About Identity and Representation

As important as academics are at independent schools, most student life takes place out of the classroom, and, thanks to technology, students everywhere may easily connect to the outside world. Nicole Hager, dean of students at Northfield Mount Hermon, began a program called Student Life Seminars in 2016, which focuses on health, technology, diversity, and social justice. The program goal is to make sure students have a place to process the various social challenges they encounter on campus and beyond as well as current events.

Although the program was timely given the charged national political atmosphere, it was the explosion of technology available to students that made Hager realize a program like this is needed. While conversations can initially be uncomfortable for both students and faculty, many students later express gratitude for having learned the skills they needed to engage with difficult topics after graduation.

Practical and Realistic Tuition Models

Most agree: Diversity and inclusion are difficult to sustain in the absence of equity. According to Eatman, “equity is ensuring every student is treated fairly, taking into account how each differs in their learning and development. All students must have the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills to succeed.” To create and maintain a diverse environment in the first place, educators need to identify and provide the appropriate resources.

Socioeconomic diversity is a unique challenge at independent schools. Traditionally, many schools have unwittingly utilized the “Barbell model, with one “bell” that represents families who can afford tuition and other school-related expenses without any assistance, while the second “bell” represents families who could not afford to attend at all without significant financial assistance. Missing has been what schools refer to as the “middle tier,” or families who can afford to pay a greater part of the tuition but still need assistance.

A Range, Not a Number

According to both Barrengos at Putney and Amy Chandler-Nelson, business manager at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA, the reality of independent school tuition is that it, like the tuition at higher education institutions, isn’t a number but a range. According to Noni Thomas López, head of school at Gordon School in East Providence, RI, her school found the traditional and often times complicated system of financial aid difficult to navigate for many families, especially those new to independent schools.

As a result of a board directive in 2015, Gordon School made a decision that the school would create a new tuition system that was easy to engage with, equitable (all families are included in one system) and predictable. At the same time, Gordon wanted to strengthen its revenue stream while assuring the school met or exceeded its goals for a diverse student body. For the 2018/2019 academic year, Gordon launched Family Individualized Tuition (FIT). Through the FIT model, families are guaranteed a tuition number ten days after they visit the campus, submit an application, and complete a brief financial overview. Moreover, they are told the cost of their tuition for the next three years.

An Investment in the Community

While Gann Academy continues to offer traditional financial aid, they also have two programs for families who might not normally qualify for this model. These programs, Within Reach and Pioneer, also offer a greater level of predictability. According to Chandler-Nelson, their goal is to move people from thinking about “financial aid” to “income-scaled tuition.” By fostering open dialogues as a natural part of the process, both Gann and Gordon are creating the conditions that will allow for more people to feel invested in their schools’ communities. The goal is for families to feel like partners.

Like Gann, Putney is also striving to distribute aid to more families. Out of a student body of 234, more than 90 students receive financial aid, ranging anywhere from 10 to 20 percent to almost 100 percent of the cost of tuition. For Barrengos, this creates a stronger, more diverse environment than would be possible if Putney gave full tuition to only 50 or 60 students. Gordon, on the other hand, does not have a financial aid budget. Each family is charged customized tuition determined by the FIT system. Gordon worked to create the FIT model that would provide families wishing to invest in education at a sustainable price. Depending on how a family has organized their household budgets, the FIT program may not work without the family making tough choices. However, Thomas López ultimately believes this is a strength: If everyone is stretching to some degree, every-
one has an investment in the community.

Since instituting these new models, Gordon and Gann report both applications and enrollment have increased. Gann reports a net positive financial impact, and Gordon has seen increased average tuition. Finally, Gordon has also seen an increase in enrollment of students of color. While other factors may be at play, it’s clear increasing diversity and strengthening the financial health of an institution are not mutually exclusive goals.

Independent schools have long recognized the intrinsic connection between diversity and healthy learning environments. Ultimately, this reflects their commitments to the communities they’ve built for their students, parents, faculty, and administrations with eyes toward the communities their students will build for our world.

For more information about independent schools in New England, visit aisne.org or search our Find It Private Schools directory. 

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