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What’s the Big Idea?

Independent school leaders address their challenges
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Pittsburgh Quarterly invited the heads of the region’s top independent schools to address, in 200 words or less, this question: What is your school’s biggest challenge and how are you addressing it?

Scott D. Fech, Head of School, Winchester Thurston School

From our very beginnings, our founder, Miss Mitchell, issued the imperative to the Winchester Thurston School community, “Think also of the comfort and the rights of others.” This guiding beacon is even more challenging for our students today with the discourse that they read and hear around them. From polarized debates on gun control to studying the spectrum of political opinion, and so much more, our students must listen to understand and not reject the many opinions they encounter. Winchester Thurston’s commitment to creating safe learning spaces for our students at all grade levels supports their exploration of a variety of viewpoints as they shape their own. For example, Our City as Our Campus program provides opportunities for students to study the history, cultures and ethnicities of Pittsburgh and to partner with Pittsburgh City Council to write and propose policy drafts for legislation consideration. And, in computer science and math courses, they analyze city data to provide recommendations for systems improvement, resulting in crime reduction. Through experiences like these, our students develop the framework to understand their community and the world in a broader perspective and to live our credo in all that they do.

Macon Finley, Head, The Ellis School

As the leading all-​girls school in the region, we spend a lot of time thinking about the opportunities and challenges facing today’s girls. We know our graduates will enter a world in which they will be challenged to tussle with difficult, yet-​to-​be-​solved problems, and we prepare them to do so with great authenticity and openness in collaboration with ever more diverse colleagues. At The Ellis School, we develop young women who are secure in themselves — who stand firmly for what they believe, who know their own strengths, and who speak up for themselves and others — in short, we are uniquely positioned to cultivate brave, bold changemakers. We are particularly proud of the distinctive interdisciplinary, hands-​on learning experiences woven throughout a girl’s time at Ellis, whether it be a second-​grade deep dive into urban design, the middle school entrepreneurship program through which girls develop their own small businesses, or our hallmark senior capstone project where girls do an extensive study of a topic of particular interest to them. Ellis graduates are poised, confident, and aware of the world around them — ready to use their powerful, creative minds and voices to change the world for the better.

Amy Nixon, Interim President, Shady Side Academy

One of the large challenges any school faces these days is that of student stress and anxiety, and how to help our children and families manage and minimize it. Surprisingly or not, this can begin in the lower grades and comes to a head in the high school years, with social media combining forces with the pressure of college admission looming large. Helping families navigate between “normal” social growing pains and unhealthy levels of anxiety is challenging in a society that places great value on product, at times over process. With national levels of youth depression and addiction running high, we are partnering with students, faculty and parents in multiple ways. At Shady Side, we are working with Dr. Suniya Luthar, author of “Youth in High-​Achieving Schools: Challenges to Mental Health and Directions for Evidence-​Based Interventions,” to help us to identify trends within our student and parent body and ways to help mitigate them. We also bring in speakers on age-​specific topics, such as bullying or substance abuse. With teams of school counselors, nurses and safety and security personnel on each of our four campuses, we are working on a comprehensive approach to the health and safety of all students.

Justin Zimmerman, Headmaster, The Linsly School

One of the biggest challenges facing all schools, including Linsly, is the reality that we are preparing students for an unknown future. The careers and jobs that exist today will be nonexistent, or will be at least very different, when our children enter the working world. As schools, we must learn to adjust to new norms, cultural expectations and adopt newer methods of learning that focus on what really matters for students today so that they are prepared for the world of tomorrow. To address this complex issue, Linsly has refocused our attention on preparing students to have the skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing and global environment and is doing everything possible to ensure students graduate with the skills required for success in college and beyond. We have focused faculty professional development on methods to enhance student engagement, and framed our college prep curriculum around mastering fundamental skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, technological literacy, creativity, inquiry and leadership. To accomplish these high standards of educating students, we have strategically focused on brain-​based learning and have adopted practices such as problem-​based learning, Understanding by Design, interdisciplinary learning and community partnerships. Utilizing these methods has created more student-​centered classrooms and has enhanced the development of fundamental skills so that our students can make a powerful impact in communities around the world starting with the foundation they receive today and long into future.

Chad Barnett, Head of School, St. Edmund’s Academy

This summer, St. Edmund’s Academy will break ground on a transformational facility expansion and renovation. Inspired by compelling research in cognitive and behavioral science, these improvements will provide space for dynamic experiential learning opportunities augmenting our traditional core curriculum. As we put this knowledge into practice, we also disrupt some long-​held assumptions about education. How do we maintain clarity on the good things that led to our success in the first place during a time of programmatic evolution? St. Edmund’s families have always believed that an effective education begins with outstanding teachers offering individual attention to help children reach their highest standards. Today, children need more than ever a coherent set of core values to guide them and caring teachers to support them. They also need learning experiences that develop core competencies — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity — so that they may thrive in their lives at school and beyond.

Inspired by the support of our community, we could easily become enamored by new opportunities made possible through our improved facility. Yet, we know that nothing matters more than the individual attention we provide our students to shape their character and intellect. We will reaffirm these fundamental beliefs as we prepare for the nearly limitless opportunities ahead.

Leslie Mitros, Head of School, Aquinas Academy

Aquinas Academy has a specific mission since the time of its founding — to provide both moral and intellectual formation in the best Catholic tradition for students whose future accomplishments are of service to others and give glory to God in the midst of the world. As that world is becoming less convinced of the merits of Christ-​centered values, and their compatibility with academic excellence and respect for others, our increasing challenge is helping our students develop the virtues necessary to reaffirm those truths by their example —and to be countercultural in doing so. It is challenging to teach moral truths in a relativistic culture. While Aquinas Academy provides an outstanding academic foundation, teachers must continually develop skills to cultivate right reason in students. With that compass, students can appreciate moral and intellectual truths and yet be participants in charitable and fruitful conversations about the difficult issues in popular culture. Many students are yearning for that positive moral compass, and providing that along with a rigorous academic program has undoubtedly fueled our recent growth. That growth requires additional staffing and space accommodations — issues that will be addressed through the five-​year strategic plan adopted by the Board of Directors this past winter.

Christopher D. Burner, Head of School, Western Reserve Academy

I know all heads of boarding schools deeply believe that our schools offer the best education in the country. But today we live in an era of abundant school choices and greater reluctance to send teenagers out into the world. For WRA, it becomes increasingly important to articulate the unique boarding school effect, from philosophical and practical standpoints. Philosophically, WRA provides an education where teachers, history, innovation and support immerse our students (and in a beautiful environment — this year, Architectural Digest named WRA “the most beautiful private school in Ohio”).

From a practical standpoint, living where you learn works for today’s parents — students are in an enriching and all-​inclusive place where after-​school activities mean a walk across campus, not a drive across town. Teachers are partners, always available. Increased competition means we are charging harder at excellence than ever before, most notably with a curriculum that Stanford called one of the 25 most innovative academic programs in the country. Even in the face of top-​flight independent school options, boarding is different. It delivers a mix of friendships, discipline, community, sport, structure, passion, success, guidance and independence that embeds in students a zeal for wanting and achieving more in life.

Christopher A. Brueningsen, Headmaster, The Kiski School

The biggest challenge schools face is transforming their approach to education in order to keep pace with the rapid changes under way in technology and the global workforce. For parents of boys, it is not uncommon to have the sense that your son — regardless of his academic, athletic, and artistic ability — is not achieving his full potential in school. There are legitimate reasons for this. Numerous studies show boys learn differently than girls, and girls often are more successful in traditional educational settings. At Kiski School, a boys’ boarding school east of Pittsburgh, we continually refine and enhance our ability to take on these challenges and ensure every student thrives. That begins with combining a boy-​centric approach to college preparatory academics and a wealth of athletics, arts, and extracurricular experiences with the 247 focus on individual, social, and leadership growth facilitated by our all-​boys boarding environment. Within that framework, we develop boys’ ability to engage in hands-​on learning, character development and more.

For our students, it’s a life-​changing experience. We’ve seen it in boy after boy, year after year, as they realize and develop their full potential in the world. It’s exciting, and it’s the best way we know to position Gen Z boys for success in college, careers and life.

Jeff Suzik, Director, Falk School

When philanthropists and siblings Leon Falk Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy approached Pitt about developing a progressive elementary learning environment in 1931, a core wish was that the proposed school be both diverse and inclusive and reflect the demographic characteristics of our region. Achieving this foundational commitment undoubtedly remains our greatest contemporary challenge and provides our most exciting opportunities. It should go without saying that diversity and inclusion work simply cannot end with our admissions and enrollment strategies. We must commit to assessing and interrogating everything about our schools — the macro and the micro — applying, with intention, the lenses of equity and justice as we do so. We must provide experiences for all in the community that are rich, vibrant, rewarding and safe. We must secure a space where all voices are valued, appreciated and heard. And we must ensure that children’s experiences are steeped in social justice and civic engagement. We do this through a continual reassessment of our curricular and programmatic choices and via our willingness to create the conditions for critical and sometimes uneasy conversations to be had. Without discourse and dialogue, there can be no appreciable change.

Tawana Cook Purnell, Head of School, The Campus School of Carlow University

As we confront the independent school business-​like concept of disruptive innovation, we strive to maintain the integrity of the Campus School model — an independent, Catholic lab school. Competition, cooperation and community charge us with marketing, branding, relationship-​building and creating a place that is uniquely excellent. Seeking to affirm our niche in a community of spirited colleagues forces challenging conversations about our mission, values and philosophy. “Bells and whistles,” technological trends and the latest new phrase in the educational lexicon add to the conversation about how to do what we do — and, most importantly, why. As we move forward, ever mindful of the need to address the past, the present and the future, The Campus School will continue to maintain its reputation of promoting civility, “radical kindness,” and intellectual vigor. More importantly, however, my colleagues and I in the independent school (and public school) world will always be motivated by the aspirational good. Molding students into able thinkers of integrity, despite living in a world that challenges logic and deep understanding, is our mutual charge. Regardless of our individual school journeys, all roads lead to a better community for all of us.

Avi Baran Munro, Head of School, Community Day School

How do we raise optimistic and empowered children in a destabilized time when role models are hard to find? At Community Day School, we anchor the academic experience in a strong and vibrant community, in being part of something bigger than oneself, and in a moral paradigm that transcends politics. We focus on history and society through the lens of individual action. As students explore the complexities of the past, they think critically about the ethical choices they confront today and consider how they can make a positive difference. To prepare our students in the event of fire, we hold monthly fire drills. To prepare them for a potential intruder, we hold periodic lockdown drills. How do we prepare them for a tumultuous and divided society? We teach them that they are not free from responsibility for the trajectory of their world. We equip our students for global engagement. Then we get out of their way. I have no doubt that CDS students have the knowledge, self-​confidence and empathy to be vigilant protectors of democracy, justice and human rights. Giving children these tools is our greatest challenge as educators — and watching how they put them to work is our greatest joy.

Katherine M. Titus, Head of School, Mercersburg Academy

At Mercersburg Academy we just celebrated our 125th anniversary as a secondary boarding school, though our educational roots date back more than 180 years. Throughout that time, an enduring value of the school has been a deep humility and egalitarian spirit. As educational costs have grown, outpacing inflation and putting an independent school education out of reach for many families, it has become increasingly difficult for schools, including Mercersburg Academy, to align our enrollment with our mission. Access and affordability is an important initiative for Mercersburg Academy and we are committed to leveraging our financial strength to both address rising tuition costs and increase available financial aid. Following a successful capital campaign which raised over $300 million, Mercersburg Academy’s endowment allows us to tackle the tuition challenge from a position of strength. For the 20182019 academic year, we increased our boarding tuition by only 1.5 percent and decreased our day tuition by 10 percent. In addition, our financial aid budget has increased by over 20 percent in the last five years. These initiatives signal our intent to lead the conversation on tuition costs by example as we consider more ways to align our enrollment practices with our enduring values. As we complete our strategic plan this fall, we will continue to promote access and affordability as a key initiative of our plan.

Kolia O’Connor, Head of School, Sewickley Academy

Our greatest challenge is to continuously strengthen our programming in academics, athletics and the arts to ensure that we are preparing students for the opportunities and challenges of an unknown future. In a world where artificial intelligence seems ascendant, we must be sure that our students are supported in the strengthening of the collaborative, leadership, intercultural and creative skills that will not be replicated by machines in the foreseeable future. Meeting this challenge also requires us to educate our families about how we approach teaching this generation and why. Explaining the effectiveness of our play-​and inquiry-​based Early Childhood program in developing the skills necessary to be successful in school; helping parents and students understand how group projects are structured to support the development of critical collaborative learning skills; and increasing their understanding about the power of experiential learning in our “World Health” class’s partnership with Duke University where student learning is put into action in Belize, all require time and effort. We are committed to fostering and nurturing the relationships for learning between and among our community members. Such partnerships bring energy and innovation to our work and allow us to continue to provide an exemplary educational experience for the young people who have been entrusted to our care.

PQ Staff

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