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Cecil County Life

West Nottingham Academy celebrates its 275th anniversary

Jun 06, 2019 08:53AM ● By J. Chambless

Finley-Bathon Hall, part of the West Nottingham Academy campus, situated on 100 acres in Cecil County.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

Did you know that the oldest private boarding school in the U.S. is located right here in Cecil County?

West Nottingham Academy is celebrating its 275th anniversary this year. The school, which is situated on a picturesque 100-acre campus in Colora, Maryland, is an incredibly diverse, student-centered day and boarding school for students in the 9th through 12th grade.

According to Dr. Tom Banks, the head of school at West Nottingham Academy, the staff, students, and alumni of the school are celebrating the 275th anniversary with a number of special events throughout the year, while also keeping the focus, as always, on the students and on the future.

West Nottingham Academy provides a strong college-preparatory curriculum that is enhanced by the individual attention that the staff can devote to each student. About 85 percent of the students live on campus, while 15 percent come from Cecil County and the surrounding area. The average class size is 11 students, and the teacher-to-student ratio is 1-to-7. Approximately 40 percent of the students are international students, an illustration of the school’s excellent reputation, which is bolstered by the strong liberal arts program that is developed to meet the needs of diverse learners.

“This is truly an international educational opportunity in Cecil County,” Banks said, explaining that, in the last year, West Nottingham Academy increased the number of countries represented by students enrolled at the school from 13 to 20.

The school was originally founded in 1744 when Samuel Finley, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister and teacher took charge of a newly formed congregation. Finley wanted to start a school that would put the needs of students first. West Nottingham Academy was the first of the Presbyterian boarding schools, and was a forerunner to approximately 1,600 similar academies. The school no longer has an affiliation with the church, but according to Rusty Eder, a history and drama teacher at the school, West Nottingham Academy still remains true to the core principles that guided Finley so long ago.

“I like to say that we’re not a great school because we’re the oldest boarding school, but we are the oldest boarding school because we are a great school,” Eder said. “Samuel Finley cared very much about his students. We have always been about the students. We still keep them at the center of everything. While we’ve maintained the core principles of Reverend Finley, we’re also looking at applying those principles in the modern world.”

Eder serves as the Academy Historian, and one of his duties is to occasionally talk about the school and its history in front of different community groups or organizations. He is currently working on a special presentation for the 275th anniversary.

The early graduates of the school included many prominent colonial Americans, perhaps most notably Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton, who were signers of the Declaration of Independence. Eder explained that two other students, John Morgan and William Shippen, Jr., were both co-founders of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, which was the first medical school in the U.S. when it was founded in 1765. Many other people who have made important contributions to society have graduated from West Nottingham Academy since then.

When Banks came to the school three years ago, it was his turn to lead the school in a way that continues its long tradition of academic excellence. The academic success starts with a highly qualified and dedicated staff. Each year, the faculty and staff will see 30 to 40 students graduate, and they want each student to be fully prepared for college and the life that awaits them.

West Nottingham Academy offers a safe, supportive environment for students.

“Working at a boarding school is a lifestyle, not a job,” explained Banks, who previously worked at the Harrisburg Academy, where he served in a number of roles, as well as at the Milton Hershey School. In addition to teaching students during the day, the teachers and faculty members work with students after school as they participate in sports and activities. The staff also plans out activities for students on the weekends. Many of the teachers live right on the campus, and because so many people live on campus, the school offers top-notch dining services and other amenities to make it feel like home.

“As a boarding school,” Banks explained, “it’s their home as well as their school. It truly is a 24-7, structured environment.”

Each student is assigned to an advisor so that they can work together throughout the student’s time at West Nottingham Academy. The advisors make sure that each student is developing emotionally and socially. As each student progresses through the school and becomes a senior, the advisor then writes a few paragraphs about him or her, and at the graduation ceremony one of the school’s academic leaders will read these statements. It is a very important part of the graduation ceremony, Banks explained.

Banks said that, with the support of the Board of Trustees, they have been able to implement a number of changes during the last three years that have enhanced the experience for students.

When he first came to the school, he ran the faculty in-service sessions himself. He asked the teachers and staff to look at all areas of the school’s operations, and to offer suggestions for improvements or changes. A task force then worked on those ideas to determine which ones could be implemented, and how.

One change that came out of the process was a move to a non-traditional method of scheduling classes. The school now has longer classes so that students can participate in project-based learning.

The school also put in place an environmental sustainability program that has become a model for other schools. West Nottingham Academy is a Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) Certified Sustainable School, which illustrates the commitment to implementing a plan to reduce the environmental impact as a school. They work with a number of different community partners, including Kilby Dairy Farm, on the environmental sustainability initiatives.

Dr. Virginia Kennedy, who holds master’s and doctorate degrees in English and American Studies from Cornell University, serves as West Nottingham Academy’s director of sustainability programs, and Banks said that these programs have really been beneficial for students.

Banks said that because the school is smaller, it is also nimble and can continually evolve to meet the needs of students.

Kelly Dedrick and her husband Jim have had four children attend West Nottingham Academy.

They first looked at West Nottingham Academy when their oldest child, Joshua, was struggling a little bit in school. He was naturally quiet, and was not the type of student who responded to, or needed, a push from his teachers. Some students need that extra push, while others don’t. The teachers and administrators at West Nottingham Academy were able to find out what worked for Joshua. He graduated in 2012.

“They addressed his needs in a way that we had never seen before,” Dedrick explained. “The staff members are extremely capable of finding a student’s strengths and getting them ready to go on to college.”

When the Dedricks saw what a positive experience Joshua had at West Nottingham Academy, they knew they wanted their other children, Austin, Hailey, and Emma, to also attend the school. Emma is now set to graduate as a salutatorian of her class.

All their children have been fully prepared for success at the collegiate level because of the strong programs at West Nottingham Academy, Dedrick said.

She praised the dedication of the staff. When one of their daughters was struggling with AP Calculus, one of the teachers offered to tutor her so that she would be prepared to advance to the next math class.

“The staff is pretty consistent with being there to help the students in any way possible,” Dedrick explained.

One of the most valuable services that the school provides to students, according to Dedrick, is the guidance in planning for college. It starts when the students are in ninth grade, and the assistance doesn’t stop until they are enrolled in a college of their choice.

“I think our college counseling program is really good,” Dedrick said, explaining that the higher education world is always changing. That makes it difficult for parents to provide the kind of help that their children need on their own.

She noted that many of the graduating seniors are able to apply, and get accepted, to a college of their choice before Christmas of their senior year—taking some of the stress out of the process for students and their parents.

The fact that West Nottingham Academy has been able to attract students from not just throughout the U.S., but from around the world, offers some major advantages for students. With international students making up about 40 percent of the total enrollment, students at West Nottingham Academy have a lot of valuable experience interacting with peers from different backgrounds and cultures.

West Nottingham Academy works hard at ensuring diversity. When the number of international students from one particular region of the world increased, efforts were made to diversify so that more international countries are represented. 

“The administration has done a good job of diversifying even the international students,” Dedrick explained.

Banks said that West Nottingham Academy is very sensitive to the needs of international students. Communication is very important, including allowing the international students’ families to keep up with the students’ activities at the school.

West Nottingham Academy has more recently established a new process for interviewing students when they are going through the admissions process.

“We have been interviewing for character as well as academic achievement,” Banks explained. He noted that this has allowed the school to bring in students who are very respectful. Having respectful students, in turn, results in happier faculty and staff members.

Eder has been teaching at the school for 20 years. As a history teacher, he really enjoys teaching at a place with so much history.

“There are many times throughout the school year when I feel the history of the school,” he explained. “There’s so much history all around. It’s nice to be able to present history in very real terms.”

A number of activities surrounding the 275th anniversary have already taken place. There is a 50-year time capsule that students and staff are putting together. An alumni event took place in June. The biggest celebration associated with the milestone will be held in October during Homecoming weekend.

For more information about West Nottingham Academy, visit www.wna.org.

 To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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