A question of duty

Independent school leaders address community responsibility
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Editor’s note: Pittsburgh Quarterly invited the heads of the region’s top independent schools to address, in 150 words or less, the following question: Your students are fortunate to be receiving an education at one of the region’s finest schools. What message of responsibility for the greater society does your school seek to instill in them?


The Ellis School

Robin O. Newham, Head of School

Citizenship and integrity are among our core values. As individuals and a community we work to make a difference in the world. Our students are acutely aware that, in many parts of the world, girls and young women risk their lives for the right to go to school. Our students respond by organizing showings of “Girl Rising” on campus, raising money for our Afghan sister school, and donating books to other schools. Some are surprised to learn that 34 percent of our students are women of color, making Ellis twice as ethnically diverse as Allegheny County. The rich cultural diversity of our student body means that our girls understand that they are part of a global society. As educators, our challenge is to deepen their curiosity and engagement by providing real-​world opportunities in the form of internships, research projects, peer tutoring at Ellis and in neighborhood schools, and community partnerships. Through service experiences, Ellis students become thinking, caring women of action.

Sewickley Academy

Kolia O’Connor, Head of School

Sewickley Academy seeks to instill in our students the idea that just having the best education or best character is not enough: It is the actions that one takes in one’s life that matter. Being good is not good enough: Doing good is really what it’s all about. Thus, Sewickley Academy requires our students to look beyond themselves and use their critical-​thinking and problem-​solving skills to tackle important and worthwhile community and global issues. Being able to act constructively in collaboration with others, especially across racial, ethnic, religious and national lines, and communicate persuasively, with a sensitivity to differences between and among people who represent a range of personal experiences, becomes the signature element of a successful education. At Sewickley Academy, character education is an immersion experience, and our graduates leave us ready to put their hard-​earned skills in the service of a greater good.

The Campus School of Carlow University

Michelle Peduto, Head of School

The campus school of Carlow University seeks to instill in our students an understanding of responsibility to our community that is rooted in the heritage and values of our founders, the Sisters of Mercy. Like many schools, the Campus School provides a variety of organized service opportunities for students from preschool to grade 8. We also strive daily to demonstrate and encourage the personal responsibility we have to all people around us. We not only teach our students about the need for mercy and charity in the world but also model this in our own interactions. Children learn from these interactions and seek to imitate that which they experience. We provide opportunities for older students to mentor younger students, and we find our students assisting younger students independent of teacher direction. It is our sacred mission to provide students with a spirit of compassion, personal responsibility to others, and merciful understanding that they will carry beyond the walls of this school into the communities in which they live.

The Kiski School

Christopher Brueningsen, Headmaster

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the purpose in life is “to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” A noble goal — one to which any good school aspires on behalf of its students. At Kiski, we work hard to inspire our boys to “make some difference” through a variety of strategies, including a robust community service program and a new environmental sustainability program meant to help them develop habits of responsible stewardship. But the most important way we prepare our students to give back is by equipping them with the skills they will need to be strong leaders in their communities. High school is a time when young people form an identity. If an essential part of their identity is “being a leader,” then they expect that from themselves and will be well-​positioned to have a positive impact on their world.

Mercersburg Academy

Douglas Hale, Head of School

Mercersburg is a place of transformation — a place where students can explore new concepts, push past their limits, and truly define themselves. We teach our students to value hard work; to think for themselves; to approach life thoughtfully and creatively; to thrive physically; to act morally; to value the spiritual dimension of human existence; and to serve others. Living and learning together in a boarding community prepares young women and men from diverse backgrounds for college and life beyond. This is just as tremendous a privilege and opportunity for us as educators as it is for our 430 students, who come to us from 40 countries and 26 states.

Shady Side Academy

Tom Cangiano, President

Instilling the value of service has long been a hallmark of a Shady Side Academy education. We also believe that we need to move our students beyond what is often an episodic and superficial engagement with their community. In order to become thoughtful, engaged citizens, it is imperative that students have an intrinsic understanding of the region in which they live — its history, its human and physical geography, its economy, its politics and government. At Shady Side, we strive to inculcate in our students not only the obligation to give back, but also a deep understanding of the Pittsburgh region, its triumphs and its continuing challenges. As a result, our graduates are equipped with the desire and knowledge to be a force of positive change in the community.

St. Edmund’s Academy

William Kindler, Head of School

St. Edmund’s Academy’s 67 years of operation continues its daily commitment to providing learning and teaching experiences that give our children what they need to succeed in the exciting world that is unfolding before them. The emphasis on acquiring academic skills that are blended with opportunities for developing the seven capacities for 21st-​century learning in a nurturing environment are fundamental to the school’s mission. Yet these could not happen without a genuine ongoing partnership of parents and educators that is sustained on mutual respect, confidence and trust. This partnership enables the school to provide the tools for the positive development of its students in the areas of boundaries and expectations, commitment to learning, social competencies, empowerment, constructive use of time, positive values, and positive identity that are firmly grounded in the school’s six core values. These remain ageless and provide the foundation and integrity for all societal interactions.

Winchester Thurston School

Gary J. Niels, Head of School

From the earliest grades, WT students learn to actively, intellectually and empathically embrace their community through our City as Our Campus program. A combination of research and service deepens students’ intellectual engagement and broadens their world view. Second-​graders visit the many entities that comprise a community, create their own simulations, and tackle real-​world problems introduced by teachers; seventh– graders study and adopt a cause — such as storm drain cleanup — and develop projects to advocate for and support it; 12th-​graders study Pittsburgh as an urban system, fanning out to neighborhoods to understand complex problems, working with fellow citizens to develop solutions, then presenting their work to organizations that can make use of it. Embedded in WT’s credo, “Think also of the comfort and the rights of others” is an essential tenet that our students internalize: Each human being is an indispensable part of an interdependent system, and each individual’s actions have impact. Through City as Our Campus, we teach students not only to think of others, but to become actively engaged citizens, agents of positive change.


PQ Staff

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