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Heads of Private Schools Reflect on the State of Education

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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

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

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."

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