Inspiring All Ninth Grade Students
Terence Gilheany

From Beijing to the Bronx, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the East Bay of San Francisco, from Charlotte, North Carolina to Chennai, India—students arrive at St. Andrew’s from all over the country and the world. Some come to St. Andrew’s having sat in small classes, facing their fellow students and discussing the questions of the day, while others come to St. Andrew’s having sat in straight rows of desks, giving answers to questions posed only by the teacher. Some have learned in three languages; others are monolingual. Some describe the St. Andrew’s classroom as the logical next step in their journeys; others experience this shift as radically discontinuous.

These diverse academic experiences of our students bring a remarkable depth and richness to our classrooms. They also present a significant challenge to our faculty. We strive to enable every student, in the words of our mission statement, “to do the work of scholars, artists, and scientists and to develop those expressive and analytical skills necessary for effective communication, judicious consideration of multiple points of view, and for meaningful lives as engaged citizens.” How, then, do we best help our students, hailing from so many worlds, to reach these goals?

Several years ago the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, our accrediting body, came to us with a significant compliment and an exciting challenge. They recognized us as a leading school, and as such, gave us the opportunity to engage in an action research project as part of our reaccreditation process. For this project, called “Sustaining Excellence,” Middle States asked us to identify an area of St. Andrew’s that we as a school wished to examine closely as part of our commitment to continuous growth and improvement. Head of School Tad Roach gathered a group of faculty to reflect on the state of the School and to develop a proposal, and from these discussions with each other and with Middle States emerged an exciting area of inquiry and focus: we would seek to further enhance our ability to inspire learning, academic confidence, intellectual passion, and scholarly success in each ninth grade student. We would examine the ninth grade as the foundation for equity, engagement, and success at St. Andrew’s, and as a year when differences in prior education and background knowledge are potentially most acute.

Thus, for the past two years, teachers, academic advisors, and dorm parents of ninth grade students have been working together regularly on our “Inspiring All Ninth Grade Students” project. We follow an action research cycle guided by research consultant Dr. Hilary Mead: we identify potential challenges, gather information, interpret that evidence, propose actions, evaluate the results of those actions, propose next steps, and then return to identifying yet more potential opportunities for improvement in the new environment. We have, for example, examined grade patterns, surveyed students, and conducted interviews with both students and teachers. We evaluate what each of these data points and conversations tells us, and we then brainstorm possible actions, seek the wisdom of university professors and colleagues at other schools, and propose programmatic changes. At this point, our ninth grade project is observing these changes in action, and we are working to identify what effects, if any, these changes are having in the lives of the students.

We can follow one example through our cycle. Last year, we heard from III Formers that even more explicit support for, and modeling of, the skills and habits of being a successful student at St. Andrew’s—such as active classroom participation; intellectual stretching and risk-taking; time management and goal-setting—could be useful. So this fall, we kicked off September with two academic orientations for new students. In the first, we sought to clearly communicate our academic policies, such as pass/fail, and goals. In the second, we asked VI Form students to model high-level academic engagement, in the form of both a Harkness table discussion of a novel and a math problem-solving session. Third Form students reported that they found these sessions helpful, and we have now planned to offer a follow-up academic modeling session to inaugurate the second semester.

Whether an engaged student, a passionate teacher, or a committed member of the staff, each of us at St. Andrew’s strives to continue to grow. Our faculty challenge their students to set goals, to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and to continually work towards improvement—and seek to challenge themselves in those same ways. As a School, we are excited to help students experience their transition to our community as a time of growing confidence, inspiration, and learning.

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