Heads of Private Schools Reflect on the State of Education | In the Classroom | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Heads of Private Schools Reflect on the State of Education 

Last Updated: 09/26/2018 11:23 am

click to enlarge Mountain Laurel students at the 2018 graduation.
  • Mountain Laurel students at the 2018 graduation.
In these curious times, how do we prepare the young for a future that seems likely to confound any linear assumption we make about progress? So much of what exists today, in terms of geopolitics and information, would have been unimaginable in 1990, and things seem unlikely to slow down anytime soon. How do we get the kids ready to cope with an ever-changing world?

Much of the best pedagogy is stuff great teachers have known forever and a day: every scholar learns at his or her own pace, square pegs don't fit in round holes, mentoring beats memorization, and kindness and honesty matter. Our local independent schools continue to apply these truths to the state of the various arts, focusing on imparting to each youngster the spirit of inquiry, a sense of social responsibility, and tools for a life lived joyfully and proficiently. Sustainability, service learning, and collaboration are in the DNA of these schools, engaged more than ever with Hudson Valley communities, organizations, and research institutions. We spoke to the heads of five local independent schools about their institution's educational philosophies and what they have planned for the upcoming school year.

Ben Chant, Poughkeepsie Day School

click to enlarge Ben Chant
  • Ben Chant

Ben Chant believes that Poughkeepsie Day School's long-standing core principles have enormous relevance in the present moment, and resonate well with young parents "who experienced education under No Child Left Behind for themselves, and know they want something different and deeper for their children."

Experiential, hands-on and community-based learning has been the Poughkeepsie Day way since the school's founding in 1934, as a means of fostering "curiosity, creativity, and collaboration." Chant says that a recent deep dive into core values and mission has led to fresh commitment to those ideals. "We focus on getting students to own what they are learning at every grade level," he says, noting that Poughkeepsie Day is the only PreK-12 progressive school in the region. "The world needs collaborative, flexible thinkers who are able to synthesize new information and generate creative solutions."

Poughkeepsie Day School students aren't graded or ranked, instead they get in-depth feedback. "We create a situation where they're eager to delve deeper," says Chant. "Students are actively engaged with Poughkeepsie and all over the Hudson Valley, from caring for animals at Sprout Creek Farm in PreK, creating design solutions at The Landing (an assisted living center) in Middle School, to working with Hudson River Housing on their fundraising in Upper School." Over the summer, the faculty read Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as part of their study of diversity and dialog.

This fall's elections will be studied in real time. "We focus on fostering intellectual discourse with the important ideas," says Chant, "and look at both sides to see what's well-thought-out and what assumptions underlie the arguments. We work on learning to converse in ways that will lead to a continued, deep conversation, rather than shut ideas down."

Laura Danforth, The Masters School

click to enlarge Laura Danforth
  • Laura Danforth

At The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, Head of School Laura Danforth is excited to be adding a five-day boarding option for students within the greater New York region. "It's going to be great for them," she says. "Students can join the boarding community from 30 countries and 20 states without two solid months away from family."

Masters uses the Harkness table instructional method; students gather around an oval table to collaborate and reason together. "You won't find rows of desks, or a lot of laptops open on the table," says Danforth. "We're there to communicate and debate."

The school's Fonseca Center, 75,000 square feet of integrated art and athletic space, recently obtained Gold LEED certification. Students lead the sustainability committee, taking a hand in land use, energy consumption and other areas, give Tedx talks, produce and record albums and create original puppet operas. "We don't see arts and athletics as an either/or," says Danforth. "We seek to define 'best,' fund for it and do it." The next big project, made possible by a $10 million gift last year, is space dedicated to a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a 21st-century library.

Masters, says Danforth, leverages its 12-mile proximity to the city both by trips there and in the caliber of mentors handy. "We have international venture capitalists who actually come and look at what the kids do; one of the best known in China wants to help us become an entrepreneurial hub and host a conference in 2019-20," she says. "This is my eighth school, and I love the excitement and joy in the air—that, and the culture of kindness. I saw some 11th-graders intervene when a couple of 9th graders were disparaging a student who wasn't present. 'We don't do that here,' they said. I didn't need to say a thing."

Chad Cianfrani, Oakwood Friends School

click to enlarge Chad Cianfrani
  • Chad Cianfrani

"We've been reaching outside the classroom a lot," says Chad Cianfrani, head of Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie. "Our humanities chair is in Beijing presenting published research right now; he teaches globalization, economics and philosophy. There's a growing global movement to integrate philosophy into the curriculum earlier, so we have sixth graders working their way into existentialism texts, and the excitement spills over into other classes. Our art and ceramics instructor is in Standing Rock meeting with a recent grad from the Rosebud reservation—that relates to a rotating installation of art pieces and testimonials that we've got going on in Poughkeepsie through October. Our music instructor's been doing a lot with service learning; students work on composition two days a week and spend three out in preschools and assisted living facilities, sharing their work. Students share visual and musical art with incarcerated boys their own age at the Red Hook Residential Center; it's eye-opening and powerful. We run a summer science and math camp for middle school age girls from all around the Hudson Valley: circuit design, robotics, water quality with Beacon Institute, meeting local female engineers and scientists. We've got 150 graduates from that program now and we're starting to hear from them as young adults; it expanded their sense of the possible."

Throughout the curriculum, engagement with real-world context is emphasized. The solar array and four-season greenhouse "make great science labs, but it's important to connect with local CSAs, farmers, and organizers," Cianfrani says.

About half the students receive financial aid; eight to 10 different countries are represented. "Diversity enhances the classroom and so does just lounging around, eating, playing sports, and discussing culture with kids from Kabul, Rwanda, Poughkeepsie, and Spanish Harlem," says Cianfrani. "They sit and talk and listen. It's powerful."

David Penberg, Woodstock Day School

click to enlarge David Penberg
  • David Penberg

David Penberg, whose career has spanned the Lower East Side, Barcelona, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, says that recently becoming Head of Woodstock Day School feels like a homecoming. Partly because he's a Bard graduate; partly because he finds Woodstock Day School such a good fit. "There are so many wondrous things to build on," Penberg says. "The media and literary arts are extraordinary. We're trying to grow a Woodstock Day School radio station; it seems like a natural way to connect to the community.

Penberg sees new opportunities for the school all around. "There's such potential here: a K-12 school with 50 acres," he says. "It invites one to imagine and conceptualize. I'd like to maximize the campus as an eco-hub for research and stewardship."

As a new face, Penberg's busy learning himself. "I've been talking and listening to teachers, kids, and parents about what they care about, how they envision the school in five years. Continuity in leadership is important. It's not a short-term romance but a relationship that needs to grow over time, in the right conditions. This school has always been grounded in building the program and the school around students' natural inclinations and curiosity instead of trying to fit the kids to a program, and I love that."

Penberg says he's got "a lot of little things" in mind as part of a broader vision. "One of our buildings and grounds guys is a rice farmer from Africa, and we're going to get the kids involved in cultivating rice. I'd like to find a way to fund a microbiologist or diversity specialist to come teach stewardship and sustainability. It's very doable because we're surrounded by outstanding organizations: the Woodstock Conservancy, the Farm Hub, the Cary Institute. What better way than utilizing young people to do your stewardship? I don't think anyone really learns anything without a sense of purpose."

Judith Jaeckel, Mountain Laurel Waldorf School

click to enlarge Judith Jaeckel
  • Judith Jaeckel

Mountain Laurel Waldorf School in New Paltz will be participating this year in the 100th anniversary celebration of Rudolf Steiner's opening of the first Waldorf school in 1919. "It's exciting to be a part of the fastest-growing independent educational movement in the world," says Administrator Judith Jaeckel. "Across the globe, students and communities will be planting trees and establishing beekeeping programs and pollination gardens. The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America is partnering with Gunther Hauk from the Spikenard Farm Honey Bee Sanctuary, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, The Children and Nature Network, Green Schoolyards America, and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood to form a new 'continental park system' in backyards, playgrounds, schoolyards, and public spaces—green spaces developed with birds, insects, bees, butterflies, praying mantises and biodiversity in mind; creating a food-web for native species and wildlife. Imagine the map! Mountain Laurel is also participating in the Million-fold Global Postcard Exchange. "Students in 1,100 Waldorf schools from over 80 countries are sending postcards to every other Waldorf school in the world," Jaeckel explains. "Early grades student ambassadors have been designing postcards showing something of their country, school, or self. Our upper grade students are also musical ambassadors, inspiring students throughout the Northeast during their annual orchestra and recorder tour."

Mountain Laurel's music program extends its harmony past campus boundaries. "Our orchestra teacher, Mark Bernstein, created an opportunity for Mountain Laurel alumni to continue playing in an afterschool community orchestra," says Jaeckel. "And by opening the program to other high school students, Mr. Bernstein is growing our music community." The musicians of the Mountain Laurel community will perform at Music in the Field, an annual outdoor, picnic-style music festival at the Field of Dreams in New Paltz on September 15.

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