World Wise
A newly opened Global Learning Center embodies Wilmington Friends School’s commitment to helping students collaborate, create and thrive in a diverse, increasingly complex world
by Bill Donahue

In the summer of 2014, Wilmington Friends School broke ground on a grand renovation project to re-imagine its sprawling campus on the edge of the city of Wilmington, Del. The goal of this renovation: to develop a technology-rich learning environment that fosters creativity and collaboration as a way to help students learn how to thrive in a world that, in many ways, does not yet exist.

Given the school’s Quaker DNA, such large-scale renovations were practically a requirement, according to Ken Aldridge, who became Wilmington Friends’ head of school in July.

“We have a mission-based obligation to always work to do better—to reflect and to test ideas and practices against experiences and changes in the world,” says Aldridge, who worked as assistant head for academics and International Baccalaureate coordinator prior to taking his current position. “Quakers call it ‘continuing revelation.’ In short, our sure philosophical foundation requires us to innovate, recognizing that the only true innovation is continuing innovation.”

When the renovations were complete and the Global Learning Center opened its doors in September, it marked one of the most significant advancements of the school’s 286-year history. Designed to be a peaceful and open space, filled with natural light, the Global Learning Center is a fitting vessel for advancing the school’s commitment to global education and its progressive integration of technology in support of a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum. Combined with a renovated library, now known as the Library/Learning Commons, the Global Learning Center provides ample room to grow, as well as the flexibility to prepare middle and upper school students for college life and beyond.

“I give our Board of Trustees tremendous credit,” Aldridge says. “It was clear that we needed a classroom addition, but they didn’t stop there. They approved a plan to transform our middle and upper school campus with facilities that are innovative and inspirational, in support of both our program and our mission.”

The Global Learning Center is a place of collaboration and congregation, both formally and informally. The new classrooms feature flexible furniture that makes it easy for students to work together. Creativity and innovation abound in the Design Lab, with whiteboards covered in diagrams, busy hands utilizing tools at work tables, and adept students teaching their peers (and sometimes teachers) how to master a 3-D printer. The adjacent Library/Learning Commons houses comfortable chairs and quiet study carrels, as well as a room devoted to online learning classes through the Malone School Online Network, where students can take higher-level classes such as advanced abstract math, bioethics and Arabic.

Simply put, the Global Learning Center provides a state-of-the-art incubator wherein students can gain confidence in their abilities and competence in 21st century skills. The spacious new resource also enables the school to accommodate a curriculum that has evolved to emphasize not only design and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) but also world languages and cultural understanding.

“The Global Learning Center, at its basis, is simply a new space, but what it permits is a different kind of exploration of ideas, cultures and concepts,” adds Jonathan Huxtable, head of middle school. “We routinely hear our students are well prepared for college, not only in terms of academic rigor but also in terms of their ability to explore and think. Students from other schools who are heading off to higher education typically don’t get these kinds of experiences till they get to higher education.  

“The Global Learning Center is global in not just an international sense, but it’s also global in terms of the broadness of the things students are learning—engineering, the humanities, the arts,” he continues. “It’s a window or throughway for information that extends far beyond the walls of the school that will enable students to think more broadly and connect more broadly.”

Even the thoughtfully and ethically designed space—it is net-zero, adding nothing to the school’s carbon footprint, and blessed with natural light sources and geothermal heating and cooling, for example—acts as a valuable teaching tool, according to Aldridge.

“The design of the building, the landscaping around it, and the renovations that it made possible in our main building all encourage collaboration and a sense of Friends as a learning community,” he says. “Our renovations reinforce the global thinking we seek to teach, the idea of interconnectedness among subjects and ideas, people and places, with the skills to access, evaluate and analyze information.”

For prekindergarteners through students in grade 12, values such as global consciousness, diversity and interconnectedness are pervasive at Wilmington Friends. Signature international programs include International Baccalaureate and School Year Abroad. Also, students can choose from three modern languages, with Spanish language study beginning as early as pre-kindergarten. More broadly and fundamentally, students learn to engage in complex issues intellectually and in action, both in and outside of the classroom. The Global Learning Center will further enable this capacity, according to Rebecca Zug, head of upper school.

“We want the Global Learning Center to be a place where it will be rare to hear English spoken,” she says. “The spaces and technology invite new levels of connectedness and innovation. It is exciting to see, just in the first few weeks, how the students gravitate to these parts of the school. Even before the new spaces were completed our classes engaged with students beyond our walls, and I expect this to only increase with the user-friendly capacities of the Library/Learning Commons and Global Learning Center.

“I love the energy and productive hum in these new spaces,” she continues. “Our teachers and students are creating new exciting learning—together.”

Although the Global Learning Center will be used solely by middle and upper school students, the lower school is not immune to the “continuing revelation.” One example is the Global Read Aloud, whereby lower school classrooms will read the same book as schools in countries across the globe. Utilizing Skype, students will have the experience of listening to a teacher from another country read the book, often in a different language, and then find common ground.  

In addition, the lower school’s early-years program has benefited from significant renovations to support the school’s devotion to the Reggio Emilia Approach, a post-World War II educational philosophy developed in the northern Italian city for which the approach is named. The philosophy is rooted in respect, responsibility and community through exploration and discovery as part of a largely self-guided curriculum in preschool and primary education. Over the summer, the school remodeled spaces to provide a more natural learning environment, with light-colored flooring and natural materials for use in collaborative projects, according to Annette Hearing, head of lower school.

“This is a special place,” she says. “There’s a real joy in this building and a sense of excitement about learning. Our students have a feeling of competence and confidence in themselves as learners. We want them to be enthusiastic and engaged, and we want them to see themselves as part of a larger world community. Our goal is to create a sense of connection to the whole world, and we want them to want to make the world a better place.”

Recent Wilmington Friends alumni Mara Freilich and Myles McDevitt “let their lives speak” by giving back to their communities through service, leadership and innovation. Freilich (Class of 2011) recently graduated from Brown University and won a Fulbright scholarship to study environmental science in China, while McDevitt (Class of 2014), currently a Connecticut College sophomore, has spent parts of the last three summers in the Dominican Republic, where he worked with The Dream Project to help children learn how to read.

The Quaker values underpinning Wilmington Friends’ teaching philosophy have remained firmly in place throughout the school’s 268-year history. As evidenced by the Global Learning Center, however, the methods by which the school transmits those values to students will continue to evolve.

“It’s educational nirvana here in that we’re always looking to see how we can do things better,” says Huxtable. “That’s a testament to the faculty and the folks who guide this institution. There is always the desire to understand how we can further develop our craft, how we can improve our capabilities, and how we can build a stronger community. We’re always working toward that goal in the quest to achieve excellence in education. As soon as we say, ‘We’ve got it,’ it’s time to worry.”

Wilmington Friends School
101 School Road
Wilmington, DE 19801

Photograph by Jody Robinson