West Nottingham Academy reinvents its teachingDec 07, 2022 10:59AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Creativity, leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship are among the key themes of a massive rethinking of education that started this fall at West Nottingham Academy in Colora.
“Schools haven’t changed much in the last 150 years,” said Sandy Wirth, who started last year as the head of school. “What we are doing is creating a school of tomorrow today, and we like to say that the oldest boarding school in the country is paving the way for the future of education.”
Those four themes, in sequence, define ninth through 12th grades at the academy. “Freshman year has a thread of creativity running through it, and it’s not just art and music, but out-of-the-box thinking,” she said. “It’s creative problem-solving and looking at things through different lenses.”
Those lenses are important because of how the world is changing so fast. “We know that many of our students will be involved in a new company, a new organization, even in a new field that hasn’t been thought of yet,” she said. “We want students to find their passion and unleash their potential. As it’s our focus, we give them lots of opportunities to find that passion.”
“We needed to bring a program that wasn’t just the next generation of what worked in the past, but a rethink of what the future could look like through the lens of the oldest boarding school of America,” said Rehan Choudhry, a 1998 alumnus and chairman of the academy’s board of trustees.
“This campus has seen every twist and turn of this country’s history,” he said. “So why not be a part of its future?”
Passions and skills
The academy was founded in 1744, and its early alumni include two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton. Its 100-acre campus offers lots of educational, athletic and artistic amenities, and it escorts students quarterly to thought-provoking events and leading institutions from Washington to New York.
The school has weathered a lot recently, Choudhry and Wirth said, with the economic woes of the late ’00s, the current pandemic and other challenges reducing its enrollment. About two-thirds of the 100 or so students are juniors and seniors, and only one-third are freshmen and sophomores. A few international students are awaiting visas, Wirth said, and the school accepts midyear students.
“We needed to rebuild the level of trust and confidence in the school by the community and its alumni,” Choudhry said.
“Through all of the economic turbulence of the last couple decades, small boarding schools, especially independent private boarding schools, were trying to re-establish what they had before, going back to the glory years and legacy years,” he said.
That was wrong. “We realized that the world had changed pretty dramatically, and the needs of young people changed along with it,” he said. “Schools trying to pretend like they were still relevant using academic models that were built 200 years ago are just doing a disservice to that generation.”
He said the beauty of being a small school – just 38 employees – is that it can quickly change. West Nottingham’s rethinking doesn’t yet have a nifty name, but he described it as “largely taking the opportunity to control your future, based on your passions, your interests and more importantly your skills that can be nurtured and developed on this campus, which is as close to a home as you can get.”
A student’s perspective
“I wanted a curriculum that set me up for success in my career,” said senior Odanys Almonte, who wants to be an engineer. “I didn’t want to do basic classes in things that I don’t care about. That’s the main thing that we have here now. Whatever career you have an idea of taking, you can have a head start here already, which is very exciting.”
Almonte, a New Jersey resident who started boarding at West Nottingham in ninth grade, said underclassmen still get “the opportunity to be well-rounded, taking classes to see what you like and what you don’t like – to explore everything. It’s hard to make it wrong choices, if that makes sense.”
He’s on an engineering career track, but he also enjoys the school’s athletics, was elected president of the Student Government Association and this fall is especially enjoying his journalism class, which goes more deeply into a personal interest than he thinks that public schools could do.
About 75% of West Nottingham students board. The rest commute, but day students can stay late and participate in weekend activities. A third of students are international.
Tuition for the 2023-23 school year is $17,949 for day students. Tuition and boarding ranges from $41,200 to $63,140, depending on the number of days and whether the student is international. For students who need special help, fees range from $5,850 to $9,750 for the Chesapeake Learning Center. About 40 percent of students receive need-based financial aid.
Some perspective: Tuition at local private schools include $9,100 at The Tome School in North East and $33,800 for high schoolers at Tower Hill School in Delaware. Tuition at local boarding schools include $64,150 at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware and $66,000 at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania.
To support the redirection, West Nottingham went from 90 courses to 120. “Instead of traditional English classes for each grade level, we offer specialized classes, such as Immigrant Voices, Antiheroes, Ancient Legends, and the Art of Comedy,” Wirth said. “And we do the same for history, STEM, languages and the arts.”
“We’ve also added a whole new realm in our STEM department and offer business, management and finance courses. All of our freshmen take engineering. We have courses in forensic science, organic chemistry,computer science, mobile app design and web design. West Nottingham offers a highly individualized program for students.”
From her experience in higher ed, “I was able to see where our students are going next and that really informed me, in terms of how high schools are failing to prepare students for college – socially, emotionally and academically. By looking at what students need to know to be successful, we created an exceptional program. It’s highly individualized, with independent studies and many electives, but students are also unified through shared core courses. Those are focused on personal growth and the knowledge and skills that they need to realize their dreams.”
Its alumni also strengthen the school. Thanks to 1966 alumnus Eric Fischl, graduates of the New York Academy of Art have half-year residencies on campus where they create art and teach.
The Aspire program connects students to alumni and friends of the school, who might be “former faculty and staff, past parents, past trustees, etc.,” Wirth said. “If a student has an area of passion, we’ll connect them to a mentor working in the field. For example, last year, we had a student from Bulgaria who was interested in the space program. We connected her with a senior engineer, who worked on both the SpaceX and Kitty Hawk programs. They Zoomed, and most importantly, he’s now part of her network. I want our students to have a professional network before they graduate high school. I didn’t have a network until after I graduated college.”
A new program called Succeed helps build such networks, starting with the Class of 2022. Students Zoomed together just before they began college. The academy is sending them info about doing well in college and is ready with more help. Succeed etymologically embraces two concepts: Success in school and life and the succession in paying it all forward.
New head of school is a familiar face
Sandy Wirth returned in 2021 to West Nottingham Academy as head of school, after having served as associate head of school from 1990 to 2001.
Rehan Choudhry, chairman of the academy board of trustees, said she topped a short list the board compiled when it sought a new head of school to turn it around. That new approach began this fall.
“She was ready for exactly what we were trying to do,” he said. “She had an incredibly innovative and diverse perspective. She had experience operating boarding schools of all shapes and sizes and all budgets. She had a really deep desire to bring something innovative to the program. She was really enthusiastic about leading that change.
“And we were lucky because our first pick was our first phone call,” he added.
Wirth was born in South Jersey and earned her bachelor of science in pre-physical therapy from Ursinus College. She had planned to become a physical therapist, but “I needed to earn money before I could afford going back to school for physical therapy,” she said. “I never intended to teach, but I took an interview with a private school to practice interviewing. I fell in love with the concept of students and staff living and working together in an educational community.
“Close relationships and strong community are created in private schools,” she said. “I seek private schools like WNA because teachers are not only excellent in the classroom, but they truly care about their students. Students respect one another and have pride in themselves and in their school. All community members have great expectations about the potential of each student. West Nottingham has deep roots in traditions but also has wings to soar toward a vision that best prepares our children for our global community in the 21st century.”
Starting with a stint at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania, Wirth has devoted her career to private schools and colleges.
Along the way, she earned a master of arts degree in educational administration from Villanova University and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware.
She hopes next year to teach in, say, leadership or anatomy, as she has done at other schools.
“I believe my purpose in life is create educational communities where students can thrive. I believe in the incredible potential of every single child,” she said. “Even though some children may not have had success in the past, it doesn’t mean they can'’t have success in the future in the right environment. Each year, I remind faculty and staff of a quotation from a student who graduated in the ’60s: ‘West Nottingham believed in me before I believed in myself.’ ”
School days and school nights
West Nottingham Academy’s school day begins at 8:20 a.m., with school meetings on Mondays and Fridays, student-adviser breakfasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays and special programs on Wednesdays.
On Wednesdays, the assistant head of school leads students through exercises and demonstrations. “The focus is on personal growth through the use of the hero’s journey as a metaphor,” said Head of School Sandy Wirth. “This helps students to learn more about themselves, who we are as a community, how they fit into the world, and then ultimately, how do we change the world.”
The hero’s journey, as popularized by Joseph Campbell, describes how the stages of such transformative journeys have resonated with audiences for millennia, from Gilgamesh to Homer’s “Odyssey” and from “Star Wars” to most Pixar movies.
Students take eight classes each semester, with four meeting daily, 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., with a break for lunch. Sports and other activities finish the afternoon. Students must participate in an athletic pursuit two out of the three seasons. Dinner runs 5:30-6:30 p.m., followed by free time. Study hall runs 8-10 p.m., with lights out at 10:45 p.m. On weekends, lights out is later, and breakfast becomes brunch.
“Each dormitory has several ‘dorm parents’ who live in apartments that adjoint the dorms,” according to the school’s website. “Dorm parents provide mentorship, guidance and serve a critical safety role for our borders.” Returning students called prefects also help out.
Students each year have to earn two credits in culture (often fulfilled by weekend trips) and two in nature (often focused on sustainability efforts). The Kilby Dairy Farm, a mile from campus, provides an unusual outdoor classroom and makes possible a food waste diversion program, which diverts dining hall food waste to the farm’s methane digester, where it becomes clean energy to run the farm and natural compost to fertilize the fields.
Students are also required to participate in service learning hours, supporting activities like food banks and park restoration projects. “We want our students to be well-rounded,” Wirth said.
On top of all that, students are sorted into the Spartan and Athenian teams, with fierce-but-fun rivalry in academic, artistic and athletic competitions.
All this is explained in the school motto: “Nihil sine labore,” which means “nothing without work.”