Learning for Life
Local high schools not only groom students for college but also prepare them to excel once they step into the “real world”
by Jill Lupine

The march to college typically begins, in earnest, late in a high school student’s junior year. That’s not the case at Roman Catholic High School, an all-boys college-preparatory school in Philadelphia. Here, a student is expected to have begun thinking about which college or university he might like to attend even before he has started the first class of his freshman year.

“It’s critical to start early,” says Father Joseph Bongard, president and rector of Roman Catholic. “If they start thinking of having these discussions for the first time in their junior or senior year, they’re going to miss the boat. We have [students] entertain the conversation, literally, their freshman year. … College admissions are incredibly competitive, so if students don’t start early enough to meet certain requirements, the doors can be closed to them.”

Clearly, getting into the college of one’s choice has become a rigorous and complex proposition. For many, the journey can be years in the making. To Father Bongard’s point, however, many locally based high schools have risen to the task to help students reach their goals.

Likewise, at Villa Maria Academy, a private all-girls high school in Malvern, college guidance is a focus throughout all four years of a student’s education. This is evident in the fact that 100 percent of Villa Maria graduates continue their education at an institution of higher-level learning, and every graduate is eligible for a merit scholarship. Formal instruction, including the assignment of a college counselor, begins in the fall of Villa Maria students’ sophomore year, according to Mary Kay Napoli, director of admissions.

“Counselors are available to families as support and education throughout all the four years, and students have personal appointments during each school session to discuss their interests and options and to assist with course selection,” Napoli says. “Counselors, families and students together discern the best path for each young lady as she prepares for her future.”

Villa Maria also offers a variety of tools to inform and prepare families for the process of applying to colleges: information sessions for students and parents on the college selection process, financial aid, standardized testing programs and the formal application process; test preparation through ACT and SAT practice exams, as well as in-house instruction; and multiple college panels, in-house college fairs and nearly 100 scheduled college visits per year.

Fitting In
Many of the Greater Philadelphia Area’s top high schools have consistently graduated students who have gone on to the country’s most elite colleges and universities. Although this commitment to excellence is impressive in and of itself, it might not necessarily be what’s best for the student, according to Gwen Cote, head of school at St. Basil Academy, an all-girls college-preparatory school based in Jenkintown.

“Sometimes we think getting into the biggest college or the most elite college is a sign of a high school being successful in preparing their students for college,” she says. “This could not be further from the truth. For some students, ‘Ivy’ is the way to go, and for others … a two-year college is the best and correct choice. For most others it is something in between.”

Getting into the “best” college, Cote believes, first begins with determining which colleges would be the right fit based on the student’s individual preferences and goals.

“To accomplish that we need to help them to answer some primary questions,” she says. “Do you do better in a large or small environment? How far away from home are you interested in going, and do you have the skills and desire to be that far away? Is there a specific course of study and perhaps a secondary course of study you want to pursue? What are your gifts as a student and what types of learning supports do you want and need to be most successful? Answering these and similar questions can help a student to determine schools where she will be most successful.  

“The next challenge,” she continues, “is determining what would be a good school for the student where she will be happy and successful in her further education—what would be a ‘reach’ school based on her academic history, and what would be a ‘safe’ school that she exceeds the criteria for acceptance but still meets all of her ‘choice’ criteria.”

At Church Farm School, an independent, nonprofit college-preparatory boarding and day school in Exton for boys in grades eight through 12, students partner with an advisor to clarify their goals for the future. As the advisor supports and monitors progress toward matriculation goals, the school’s director of college guidance works closely with students from the junior year forward, according to Reverend Edmund K. Sherrill II, head of school.

“[Our] director of college guidance also works to identify scholarship programs and other financial support programs that might help offset a student’s tuition balance,” he says. “Importantly, colleges want students who they believe will succeed in their programs, and the director of college guidance helps introduce the students to them as we look for a good fit, as well as trying to honor a preference.”

‘Ready to Thrive’
At Germantown Academy, a coeducational college-preparatory school in Fort Washington, the entire curriculum, from prekindergarten through grade 12, is geared toward preparing students for college and beyond, according to Rich Schellhas, head elect and head of the upper school. Germantown Academy also works to improve a student’s likelihood of getting into the “best fit” school by employing four well-networked college counselors who provide specialized, individualized attention and advocacy.

“By challenging students academically, giving them an incredible intellectual foundation and teaching them essential life skills in a safe, collaborative environment, we ensure that they are truly ready to thrive as people and as scholars when they graduate,” Schellhas says. “We begin the college counseling process early, completely invest the students and their parents along the way, and ensure that each full-time counselor assists only 35 to 40 students per grade so that the level of guidance surpasses what any family could imagine.”

Of course, a student’s desire to attend the college of his or her choice is only one aspect of a complex equation. Students must also develop the skills needed to thrive in an institution of higher learning, not to mention have accumulated the experience, education and “intangibles” that colleges and universities seek of their incoming freshmen. To this end, many high schools are placing increasing emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics, plus the additions of art and design (STEAM)—to foster creativity, collaboration and vision. The skills they develop in these areas, as the thinking goes, should help students not only prepare for stepping into the jobs of the future but also learn how to problem solve and work well with others.

In Fort Washington, Germantown Academy’s department of innovation and special programs works in tandem with an in-house technology team to ensure that the school is not only staying abreast of technological changes and trends but also leading the pack, according to Schellhas.

“That said, GA is not a proponent of tech or innovation for their own sake; we believe strongly that new programs and resources must strategically complement the appropriately rigorous and challenging academic program in which our students are engaged,” he says. “Recent examples of program highlights include our all-school Innovation Center, Lower School Tinker Lab and Upper School ‘minimesters’ in subjects such as coding, robotics, networking, entrepreneurial studies, STEAM, marketing and personal finance.”

At Church Farm School, curricular adjustments to the changing educational landscape—“flipped” or “blended” classroom experiences, STEM education and more—are part of the school’s DNA. By working through professional associations such as the National Association of Independent Schools and the National Association of Episcopal Schools, as well as supporting a range of professional development opportunities for faculty members, Church Farm School embraces emerging trends in technology and education. With the help of a 1:1 laptop program, students and faculty collaborate to provide “powerful learning experiences both in and outside of the classroom,” says Reverend Sherrill.

“Education has changed so much, especially with the advances we’ve seen in technology,” adds Roman Catholic’s Father Bongard. “It’s easy for a school to become insulated and isolated in terms of making sure students have the right skill sets to succeed. The reality is that unless your perspective is broadened by outside assistance and a partnership between home and school, you run the risk of training [students] for yesterday’s skill sets and talents. It’s critical to get parents and the civic community involved. If they don’t have a place at the table to give us input, we’re missing a critical component.”

To this end, Roman Catholic maintains a board of advisors composed primarily of Philadelphia-area businesspeople, civic leaders and other influential individuals. These men and women offer vital feedback regarding everything from the school’s core curriculum and technology to professional attire, all of which, ultimately, could give students an edge once they enter “the real world.”

Each school has its own formula, its own methodology for setting students up to excel once they move on to the next phase of their lives. Even so, school administrators agree that among the most vital “tools” they can impart to graduating seniors is not a diploma to hang on a wall or any particular edge that can help them get into their “choice” college. Rather, it is the ability to think critically.

“If a student can think [critically], they can hone their ability to learn anything; they can be discerning,” says St. Basil Academy’s Cote. “Teaching students to unleash the power of their mind and their intellect fires their natural curiosity and learning happens naturally as driving from within rather than imposed from the outside. Critical thinkers become lifelong learners.

“If we, as an academy, prepare our students well academically, teach them to think critically, help them to be self-possessed enough to trust themselves and their voice, and help them to be discerning in their choices, they will be successful in getting into the colleges of their choice,” she continues. “More importantly, they will get into the college where their learning will continue, and they will be challenged and successful.”