Western Reserve Academy: Academics that let students explore their potential

Education, first and foremost, should be about the students. For too long, learning has been restricted by the final end-of-year test, the emphasis being on high scores rather than noteworthy achievement.

Western Reserve Academy (WRA) understands that maintaining such a blinkered view of learning, as many other schools do, can limit a child’s understanding of their potential and restrict their ability to explore unique passions and interests.

As an institution that has always believed in leading the charge in and innovative teaching, WRA is doing something about this with a change that will no doubt be welcomed by faculty, students and parents alike; after all, as Einstein is claimed to have said, “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In a bid to create the most rigorous curriculum that allows students to truly distinguish themselves, WRA evaluates the individual on their all-round accomplishments – incorporating their passions, ability to overcome challenge, contribution to community, determination and resolve. This involves a move away from the traditional, and still dominant, courses of Advanced Placement (AP) that continue to swamp American high school seniors.

But in a college application process that is more cut-throat than ever, the tides appear to be turning with top-flight universities – including Yale and Harvard – choosing to look beyond the cookie-cutter applications of top AP marks to the overall value and ambitions of each prospective undergraduate; and WRA strives to make sure its students stand out from the crowd.

Throughout its distinguished 200-year history, Reserve has always been a pioneer in academia. In fact, the School represents one of only four independent institutions in the US invited to gather with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in the first NAIS Innovation Summit Hack. At the Summit, WRA administrators provided thought leadership related to the school’s evolving curriculum and optimization of its Makerspace, The Center for Technology, Innovation & Creativity. But Reserve’s new curriculum was not simply innovation for innovation’s sake; WRA took its lead from its own outstanding students – recognizing their capacity for greatness and striving to provide every opportunity to ensure that they succeed.

“We have the ability and the imperative from our mission to offer a transformational educational experience that is unique,” says Head of School, Christopher D. Burner. “Excellent schools evolve, and WRA has long been an excellent school.”

Following years of research and consultation, the new curriculum has been forged to enable students to take an in-depth look at areas of interest, broadening the horizons of each individual with new and sometimes obscure topic ideas.

The curriculum takes a three-pronged approach to learning; College Level (CL) courses, a new daily schedule, and a Literacies program.

Pouncing on the newfound independence away from AP courses, the WRA faculty allowed passion and curiosity to take front seat when it came to introducing the new CL courses, of which the School now hosts a total of 23.

A previously untapped breadth of subjects came to the fore that grant students an academic choice unparalleled in other institutions.

Allowing students to explore what they love, WRA introduced new and exciting topics such as Middle East Studies, Cancer Immunology, Philosophy, and Microbiology – and these are not just limited to the CL courses, but are across the board for all to enjoy.

“We believe the new curriculum…is providing a wealth of opportunities for every member of the community to learn new things in new ways,” says Associate Head of School Kate Mueller.

“Faculty can now engage students by working toward depth of understanding, rather than focusing on covering content rooted in the idea that teachers must teach to the test.”

The new daily schedule encourages this depth of learning. With fewer but longer classes, students delve into a subject area and, rather than just study the theory, classes include experiential and work-like experiences, group projects and collaboration.

This means every student, regardless of strengths and weaknesses, will get the chance to shine and those with less traditional skills will finally get to explore them. In essence, this practical and student-centered approach to teaching encourages the strengths of the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators, trailblazers and pioneers rather than silencing them.

It also equips students with traits that many deem more important than simple academia – non-cognitive life skills. These include transferrable skills that are increasingly considered essential by employers and colleges alike – such as perseverance, resilience, empathy, tolerance and humility. These are promoted through the teaching style and support provided at WRA.

“Researchers argue that these skills, many of which were previously considered personal traits or immutable attributes, are in fact malleable and teachable,” says Board of Trustees member Robert Michael.

“These skills can be fostered, and in adolescence the evidence suggests that promoting these non-cognitive skills is best achieved by interventions that combine education with work-related experience. One does not ‘teach’ perseverance or self-esteem in a classroom. Rather these personal skills are promoted by exposure to education with work-related experience.”

Conscious of this need to prepare students for the working world after graduation, WRA introduced Digital Literacies: Learning to Code and Learning to Make in a bid to ensure all WRA students from this year onwards will be well-versed in the technology of how to code, program, design and create – an inescapable requirement in today’s ever-evolving technological world.

You won’t find this in most modern curricula, and that’s what sets WRA apart. It’s a school that’s passionate about student-centered education and strives to give young adults a safe and supportive environment to explore passions while paving a triumphant path to college and career.

“This community gave me an opportunity to do things I couldn’t do other places,” said recent graduate, Paul Schumacher. “It shaped me — took me from a nervous freshman to understanding what I want to do in life.”

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