How Delaware's Private Schools Are Teaching Innovation
From project-based learning to classes about compassion, here's how local schools are preparing students to be innovators, risk-takers and change-makers.
Tower Hill's Tower Term, a project-based learning initiative, can include projects such as boat building.//PHOTO COURTESY OF TOWER HILL SCHOOL
Delaware’s private schools can’t afford to stand still.
In an increasingly competitive environment—both with each other and against tuition-free public charter schools—the First State’s private schools are striving to stay ahead of the educational curve.
Several have designated staff members with specific responsibilities to lead innovation and many are either broadening their curricular offerings or developing new formats for delivering content so it’s more meaningful for their students.
“There’s a danger in resting on your laurels, in not looking to be out in front,” says Anthony Pisapia, who wears two hats at Tower Hill School in Wilmington—assistant head of school for academics and chief information and innovation officer.
For the most part, the changes aren’t radical. Schools with strong academic reputations—places like Tower Hill, Salesianum School, Wilmington Friends School and Ursuline Academy, for example—aren’t looking to depart from the formulas that have enabled them to send almost all their graduates to college and to fill their alumni newsletters with hundreds of success stories.
Rather, they’re building on what they have, applying cutting-edge approaches to enhance their brands. “Innovation is not opposed to tradition,” says Megan Cover, head of Tower Hill’s Upper School.
The reason for these developments is twofold.
Most obviously, the world is changing rapidly, and so are the students who inhabit it. Rather than relying on successful methods of the past, Pisapia says, “we have to meet the kids where they are.”
And then there are the numbers. From 2007 to 2017, total enrollment in Delaware’s nonpublic schools fell from 27,097 students to 20,545. In the same period, enrollment in charter schools increased from 7,679 students to 15,972. So, while total enrollment for the two categories increased by about 1,700 students in that decade, their distribution changed significantly: nonpublic schools lost about one quarter of their enrollments while the charter school population more than doubled. Catholic schools took a disproportionate hit, dropping from nearly 12,000 students to fewer than 7,500.
Needing a solid enrollment base to thrive—or even survive—private schools must do more than play to their traditional core constituency of families in the upper middle class and above.
It’s not something they discuss openly. “I think that is happening, but it’s not the main thing they’re thinking about,” says Erin McNichol, fine arts chair and head of innovation and leadership at Ursuline Academy.
But the schools recognize they need to show that they can provide students with more than they’ll receive in a public school—especially in the special interest and high-performing charters—and that it’s worth the tuition.
While it’s easy to think of innovation as occurring primarily in the areas of science and technology, the changes occurring within Delaware’s private schools cover a much broader landscape. Some involve science or employ new technologies, while others apply newer instructional techniques or take a more holistic approach to developing well-rounded graduates.
Here’s a sampling of the newer developments.
A meeting of minds
“We’re a college prep school with five major subject areas,” Tower Hill’s Cover says, “but we had to figure out how to focus more on 21st century skills: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.”
The solution was the “Tower Term,” now in its second year, a one-week, project-based learning initiative that gives students the opportunity for in-depth exploration of topics not discussed in a traditional classroom. Held at the end of the spring semester last year, this year it will be offered at the close of both the fall and spring semesters.
(From Left): 3D printing escape room components; hiking in Shenandoah.// Photos courtesy of Tower Hill School
The spring sessions blend students from all four high school classes and are usually led by teachers from different subject areas—music and math or art and technology, for example, Cover says. “At Tower Hill we pride ourselves on knowing each other well,” and bringing together teachers and students who wouldn’t ordinarily be in the same classroom helps accomplish this objective.
Beginning after the holiday break, however, all freshmen will explore “positive psychology,” learning about self-awareness and ethical decision-making, and sophomores will participate in community service projects in collaboration with eight Wilmington-area nonprofit organizations; juniors and seniors will choose their topics, and all students will select from the broad project catalog for the spring.
Course offerings cover a diverse range: boatbuilding, forensics, the art and science of cooking, the chemistry of grilling, creating an escape room, jewelry making and creating a small business, and backpacking in Shenandoah National Park. Some classes collaborated; for example, a Maker Space group worked to help build the escape room. A team focused on photos and videos spent their week chronicling the work of the other classes, so all of it could be documented and posted on the school’s website.
At St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, innovation comes through participation in the Massachusetts-based Virtual High School Collaborative, an initiative that gives smaller schools the opportunity to offer credit for classes where subject matter might interest only a small number of students—even just one.
“We’re in our third year and we have 10 students taking a total of 19 courses,” says Joan Mangan, the school’s academic dean.
ST. ELIZABETH HIGH SCHOOL IN WILMINGTON ALLOWS STUDENTS TO VIRTUALLY ATTEND SPECIALIZED CLASSES NOT OFFERED AT THE SCHOOL.// PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. ELIZABETH HIGH SCHOOL
Senior Ryan Woodham took biotechnology in the fall semester and will be studying oceanography this spring. Such classes are seldom seen in the course catalogs of larger high schools, let alone smaller ones like St. Elizabeth. The school builds one period a day into his schedule for the virtual class, but Woodham says he did about half of his biotechnology work at home during the fall.
His teacher, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, works with a group of about 25 students from across the nation. Each Wednesday he sends out a package of assignments, a combination of readings, videos and PowerPoint decks to study, followed by written exercises or projects. All the work must be completed by the following Tuesday.
Students work in groups, exchanging comments and checking each other’s work on an online “team page,” before submitting their final versions to the teacher, Woodham says.
Virtual classes “are opening new possibilities for the students, so we’re providing more opportunities,” Mangan says. They offer exposure to new subject areas, and working online with students in other parts of the country provides a global perspective and collaborative experiences that will better prepare them for college, she says.
The future is today
Many high schools now offer some dual-enrollment courses, which enable students to earn college credits in addition to credits toward graduation. The most common model in Delaware has high school faculty teaching the classes after they’ve been trained by the partnering college or university. This year Saint Mark’s High School began offering a pair of college level health science courses—Introduction to Health Sciences and Nutrition Concepts—through the University of Delaware. What makes these offerings different is that UD faculty travel to St. Mark’s to teach the classes.
In Georgetown, science teacher Tiffany Haley has found a way to blend project-based learning with business partnerships for her Delmarva Christian High School students. To teach her biology students about macromolecules (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates), they learned how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget, then created videos of their cooking efforts and shared them with the Food Bank of Delaware.
Other groups have linked with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control for projects associated with wetlands preservation and plastic waste. “The projects and the partnerships make the lessons more meaningful,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Delmarva Christian High School
To help its students remain attentive and minimize their stress, Sanford School has turned to mindfulness, the psychological practice of focusing on what’s occurring in the moment and calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings. Upper School counselor Sarah Satinsky says the initiative encompasses all grade levels and includes after-school yoga classes for faculty members.
Sanford brought in a consultant to work with staff and students for six weeks in the fall, and faculty members have picked up from there, using approaches that work well with their students. Sometimes it’s doing breathing exercises; other times, it’s short discussions on topics like listening or gratitude. Coaches and athletes are incorporating mindful activities into their pregame preparations. Teachers, Satinsky says, are already starting to observe indications of reduced anxiety and the use of positive coping skills by their students.
Securing the future
Innovation efforts at the all-girls Padua Academy, which also participates in Virtual High School, include creating a pathway into cyber security, a booming career field in which “there’s a ridiculous gender disparity,” teacher Fred Stinchcombe says. Currently, there are about 100,000 job openings in the field, and that number should triple by the time this year’s Padua seniors graduate from college, he says.
The program, which consists of two classes and a club that participates in interscholastic meets, is open to sophomores through seniors who have first taken an information technology class. The advanced class focuses on “ethical hacking,” or how to crack into computer systems that have broken down.
“Within the industry,” Stinchcombe notes, “it has long been recognized that to defend your network, you first have to learn how to break into it.”
As evidence that the students have learned their lessons well, Padua has finished first in the state in the Air Force Association CyberPatriot Competition for the last five years.
Stinchcombe warns them that they have to be careful with what they learn. “If you do any of this stuff outside the classroom, you’ll get arrested,” he says.
Padua Academy has finished first in the Air force Association CyberPatriot Competition for the last five years.//photo courtesy of Padua Academy
Senior Samantha DiVirgilio plans to continue her studies in college, majoring in either computer science or cyber security. “When I get a certification, I can get a job in any business that needs protection from hackers—banks, government agencies. There are lots of good opportunities,” she says.
And there’s more to Padua’s computer education than cyber security, says senior Olivia Lundstrom, who has also taken a class in game design and will study how to create mobile apps during the spring semester.
Given the security aspects of his classes, Stinchcombe says, “I’m not going to let in any girl that I don’t trust.”
And building trust is a theme of another Padua initiative, the Character Lab program. It’s a counseling/advising program scheduled to meet about 20 times a year with a curriculum that focuses on “character strengths that everyone knows successful people should have but are not addressed in the usual curriculum”—things like ambition, authenticity, gratitude, fortitude, social intelligence, self-control and curiosity, says program coordinator Mike Sheehan, who is also Padua’s director of innovation.
On scheduled days, all students meet at the same time in groups of about 15, so virtually every staff member is involved. Sheehan creates an outline for each session, but teachers have plenty of flexibility in leading a discussion of the key points. There’s no credit offered for the classes, Sheehan says, in part “because we didn’t want to give out character report cards,” but, more importantly, “because we wanted to make it something they want to do because it’s a good thing to do.”
Senior Sarah Jane Mee agrees with that approach. “I’ve learned more about myself,” she says. “I’ve learned how to use my skills and how to help the community in a way that is special to me.”
Building better adults
At Wilmington Friends School, students start learning about character development and community service during their freshman year in Betsy Cepparulo’s peace and justice class.
Cepparulo came to Friends three years ago from a public school in Oakland, California, where the enrollment was two-thirds Hispanic and one-third African-American. She added a social justice unit to the class and built into it a one-day colloquium. For the morning, she brings in panelists from the community for an in-depth discussion on a central theme. Two years ago, it was the roots of poverty in Wilmington; last year, it was criminal justice and the root causes of crime. Then, in the afternoon, students spend a couple of hours developing their own solutions.
“We’re putting new minds to work on old problems,” she says.
BETSY CEPPARULO'S PEACE AND JUSTICE CLASS AT WILMINGTON FRIENDS SCHOOL TEACHES CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNITY SERVICE.// PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON FRIENDS SCHOOL
It’s important, Cepparulo says, for students at Friends, with its affluent, largely white demographic, to understand and appreciate societal differences. “We’re a little more than a mile from downtown Wilmington, which has a large African-American population,” she says, adding a literal/figurative analogy. “Many [city residents] feel that north Wilmington is so close that you can touch it, but you can never reach it.”
Cepparulo’s goal is to help her students develop a social conscience, and with good reason. “Delaware is a small state. It’s not a stretch to say that these students will be our next senators, our next CEOs. Some will be driving policy in the state.”
Anthony Denzel Dixon, a Friends sophomore from Newark, notes the strong impression the colloquium made on him last year. “The most important thing I learned from the session was to not judge someone on their past,” he says, describing one panelist who had gotten involved with drugs, served a prison sentence and then turned his life around. “His story made me realize that everyone makes mistakes, but those who attempt to improve from those mistakes are the ones who make a huge impact on the world.”
A course in compassion
Just as Padua does with its character development program, Salesianum School takes a holistic approach to developing well-rounded students with collaborative skills through an introductory freshman class and a four-year sequence of community service.
The freshman innovation program, led by Aaron Bogad, head of the school’s fine arts department, focuses on developing traits like critical thinking, problem solving, working collaboratively, agility and adaptability, entrepreneurship, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. It accomplishes that goal by having students explore four key areas, each for about one academic quarter.
They’ll do drawing and sketching exercises in studio art, learn how to conduct fake fights on stage in performing arts, test entrepreneurial skills by developing a small business product and explore technology by examining how early computer systems were developed. Teachers from all departments of the school lead these freshman sections, forcing them to become innovative themselves as they step out of their comfort zones.
“We have to undermine the idea of the sage genius,” the all-knowing teacher dispensing knowledge from the front of the classroom, Bogad says. “When the kids see me struggle, it’s more impactful for their futures.”
Aaron Bogad, director of Salesianum High School’s arts and innovation program, incorporates stage fighting into his curriculum to teach agility, adaptability and working collaboratively.//photo by Carlos Alejandro
The service learning sequence gets students involved off campus in a series of increasingly challenging situations, according to Zach Ryan, director of campus ministry. Freshmen spend a week after school tutoring and assisting students at nearby Warner Elementary School, where the enrollment is predominantly minority students from low-income families. Sophomores work with physically and mentally challenged residents at the Mary Campbell Center in Brandywine Hundred.
Juniors spend time assisting senior adults at St. Patrick’ Center in Wilmington or on travel projects, like building houses in West Virginia, working in homeless shelters in Los Angeles or with the poor in Central American countries. Seniors, somewhat like Eagle Scouts, get a chance to demonstrate leadership. One group started a lacrosse club at Nativity Prep, a middle school for lower-income students, and others have worked on improving websites for senior centers and nonprofits.
“We need them to become compassionate young men,” Ryan says.
Minding their business
At Ursuline Academy, the innovation program got an early boost through a five-year grant in 2016 from Wilmington real estate developer and education entrepreneur Paul McConnell and his wife Linda. McNichol, who chairs the fine arts department and now leads its innovation and leadership program, had been taking a “Shark Tank” approach to teaching a communication arts class when McConnell got involved.
That led to a partnership with the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware, enabling juniors and seniors to earn two college credits for taking an entrepreneurship class. (Salesianum students can also take the class through a long-running exchange program for the two schools.)
Erin McNichol brings skills from both the corporate and art world to her role at Ursuline Academy.//photo by Carlos Alejandro
Freshmen can start learning about entrepreneurship by joining the Innovation Club, whose members participate in the Horn Program’s Diamond Challenge competition, and sophomores can enroll in a leadership class that focuses on social concerns.
McNichol is also training her faculty colleagues in out-of-the-box thinking that they can apply in their own classrooms. In one recent session she grouped teachers from different disciplines to spend an hour exploring ways to improve creations students had developed as possible Diamond Challenge entries. Faculty members tried to tweak an outdoor sculpture concept, a solar system learning aid and a device to help small children overcome balance and mobility problems.
The exercise, she says, helped faculty members “see all the things that they can help to create” and to learn that “it’s important to tolerate failures.”
When prototyping products, she adds, “it’s rare to get it right the first time.”
No matter what its context, be it in science, community service or entrepreneurship, innovation is essential to a school’s continued success.
“What we did for them yesterday may have been great,” Tower Hill’s Pisapia says, “but it may not be what they need tomorrow.”