Reflections on Fall Academics

Shane MacElhiney
Academic Dean Shane MacElhiney discusses engagement and WMS students as they are in the classroom.
The air is a little crisper up here in the North Country, the ground is beginning to firm up, and we have had our first dusting of snow. The rhythm of school life often parallels the seasons in New England and we are seeing it here at WMS. Students are conditioned to the School’s daily expectations and move through their days more crisply, their good habits (which we work to maintain) and their bad (which we can recognize and interrupt) have firmed up, and the forward momentum of the year blankets the memories of the start of the year. With the midterm complete, it is a good time to take stock of how far we have come and where still we need to go.

I had been wrestling with what to write about until the other day when I went to see the doctor. In general, I have found that doctors are really curious about education and ask really great questions. (Actually, most people are curious about schools, teachers and education because most everyone can relate to being a student at some point!) The doctor was asking me about vouchers, school choice, and the educational landscape and I found myself discussing the merits of small, independant schools. I would like to take a shot at summarizing what I shared.

I learned in graduate school that there is strong research to support the notion that small schools more effectively educate kids, especially teenagers. Intuitively, we know that good learning is a relational activity and that context matters. Small schools more effectively develop school cultures and a sense of community which impacts what Mary Anne Raywid described as “the relationships teachers share with one another, the way they connect with students, and the way students interact with each other.” As additional research by Kathleen Cotton notes, “students and staff generally have a stronger sense of personal efficacy”, “students in small schools take more responsibility for their own learning” and “their learning activities are more often individualized, experiential, and relevant to the world outside of school.” At small schools, there is a sense that you are in it together, and at an independent school, there is the flexibility to better meet the individual needs of students.

My personal experience working in a small/medium size school (high school pop. 360) and in two small schools (high school pop. 100-160) is consistent with the research. Students and teachers form strong mutually rewarding relationships and students learn to be self-advocates and to believe that a personal connection with a teacher is an important part of the academic process. The latter serves them well in college as they proactively seek out professors during office hours! That said, I am finding that small schools (pop 100-160) do something exceptional: they help students to develop intellectually as well as academically. At small schools, students build a deeper sense of who they are, who they want to be, and how they fit within and impact the world around them. Maybe because, as Cotton writes, “everyone’s participation is needed” in a small school, students experience more intimately that they are part of something (a school community in this case) that is bigger than themselves.

A single word to capture why this all happens at small school had eluded me until I arrived at The White Mountain School. The word is Engagement. As I have heard our Head of School, Tim Breen, say on numerous occasions: “The White Mountain School exists to engage students in learning for college success and lives of purpose and joy.” The White Mountain School takes engagement seriously. While some small schools simply rely on the natural benefits of being small, The White Mountain School leverages its size by being intentional with its program. I see this in self-directed classroom projects, engaging classroom discussions, experiential project blocks, and energetic extra-help sessions. I see it in our diverse course offerings as well as our diverse course models, including field courses, independent studies, tutorials, AP courses and honors courses. I also see our School’s intentional nature in its weekly planned community activities, including family style dinner and morning meeting, our broad and diverse after-school and social offerings, and our work jobs program.

Let me take a moment to offer a few specifics from different programmatic areas to illustrate what I am talking about. Just in the last couple of weeks, a history class watched the debates as a group then produced a display on one of the walls of the academic building summarizing where each presidential candidate stood on key issues; roughly 50% of the student body committed to taking at least one honors course; at morning meeting on a election day, a faculty member used a multi-media presentation on his experience traveling in Chile to highlight the awesome civic freedoms and responsibilities we have in America; and a group of students traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts to participate in a weekend conference on sustainability. And this is normal!

Just a few months into my tenure, I continue to be amazed and surprised by the thoughtfulness, creativity, care and passion that is so pervasive in our students and faculty. From the formal programs and curriculum to all those informal moments at the lunch table, in the hallways and in the dorms, our School’s approach to learning and living engages students in healthy and productive ways. The White Mountain School believes in the impactful nature of our small community and that the work we do with kids adds significant value. We hope that you do, too!

At this time of Thanksgiving, we give thanks to you for the gift of your children and your trust in allowing us to work with them. They truly are a wonderful group of young people. We look forward to having them back on campus on the evening of Monday, November 26. Until then, on behalf of our grateful School, I wish you a safe and joyous Thanksgiving break.

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