The moment you step on to the campus at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, you know, for sure, you’re not at Wildwood. This storied prep school, one of the oldest in America, sits on a stately 232-year old campus – an eclectic collection of 127 imposingly historic and impressively modern buildings, spread across 620 acres. Oil portraits of founders, trustees, and famous alumni hang in hallways. The school looks like a small college; over 1,000 high school students attend Exeter, 850 as boarders.
At the invitation Dan Morrissey, a Phillips Exeter admissions officer (and former Dean of Students), I had the opportunity to visit the Exeter campus last month. What I found was that the very obvious differences between our schools are surprisingly insignificant, actually, compared to the values and approach Wildwood and Exeter share. Yes, Exeter exudes establishment East Coast tradition, while Wildwood epitomizes West Coast progressive education. But what we offer our students is not so very different.
Dan and I met through our schools’ common commitment to advisory. He recently published his own handbook for advisors, Teaching Clarity, Purpose and Motivation: A Secondary School Adviser’s Handbook, and when researching other titles on Advisory programs he came upon Wildwood’s own, The Advisory Toolkit— now an industry standard for schools seeking to start or strengthen their advisory programs. As so much of my work as Wildwood’s Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning revolves around advisory, we had a natural connection. Since then Dan and I have collaborated on a number of projects, from webinars to workshop proposals, keeping in touch via Skype and Twitter.
When I told Dan that I was planning a trip to New England to visit a handful of public and private schools, he insisted that I come up to Exeter for a visit.
We spent part of an afternoon visiting classes and one similarity I noticed resonated deeply: Both schools honor a commitment to helping students to use their minds well in daily ways. In each room I saw about 16 students, along with their teacher, seated around giant wooden tables. Discussion is at the heart of deep learning at Exeter, which follows an eponymous instructional method called Harkness teaching, after an Exeter benefactor, Edward Harkness. My mind immediately jumped to Wildwood’s upper school, where students seated with their teachers engage in deep Socratic Seminars and “fishbowl” conversations—the intention, to deepen each member’s understanding not only of subject matter, but of each other as well. Teaching and learning at both Wildwood and Phillips Exeter emphasizes understanding the meaning behind the material—an essential for tomorrow’s thought leaders in a complex and changing world.
Just like at Wildwood, advisors at Phillips Exeter play central roles in attending to each student’s academic progress and social-emotional well-being. Advisors meet with their small group of advisees throughout the course of each week, assisting their charges with making adjustments to the demands of high school work and boarding school life. Just like their Wildwood counterparts, advisors at Phillips Exeter get to know each advisee well, help students cultivate their strengths, and maintain strong communication with each student’s parent or parents. At Phillips Exeter, Dan is the advisory expert, the one that his colleagues look to for guidance and support.
Of course, there are differences. The school’s nearly $1 billion endowment makes Phillips Exeter Academy resource rich in ways that most schools can only aspire to. The endowment enriches learning. But it’s the kind of teaching and learning that happens at Exeter that matters most. That’s what’s critical for students, and it’s the unyielding attention to each student’s academic progress and social-emotional well-being that links venerable Exeter with avant garde Wildwood in meaningful ways.
~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning