Through engagement and innovation, Germantown Academy inspires students to discover their purpose and hone their passion for learning
by Theodora Malison

At Germantown Academy, the oldest continuous nonsectarian independent day school in the United States, the word engagement has taken on a bold new meaning.

Originally founded in December 1759, with the sole purpose of educating Germantown’s local children, Germantown Academy has prided itself on engaging students for more than 250 years. Even so, its interpretation of how all its constituents—students, faculty, parents, etc.—perceive this engagement has evolved considerably in the past decade. At the beginning of the school year, for example, the Fort Washington-based school expanded with the addition of a new facility, the Beard Center for Innovation, devoted to the craft of research and the paramount concept of student engagement.

“Engagement has been a theme we’ve been pursuing quite enthusiastically for three years on a micro-based level,” says Rich Schellhas, head elect at Germantown Academy. “As of recently, we’ve decided to shift this concept to a macro level now for grades Pre-K through 12, including all of the teaching and extracurricular activities.

“What I truly love is that our students are not just defined by one activity,” he continues. “They’re used to being engaged in multiple activities and many different ways, which is one of the best aspects of independent schools and GA. It’s exceptionally remarkable to see.”

Germantown Academy’s commitment to student engagement ties back to its “Strategic Vision,” which pervades all aspects of the student experience, both in and out of the classroom. The Strategic Vision concentrates primarily on connecting students to a sense of purpose and hones their passion for learning, with educational models that combine traditional practices with more contemporary ones. As a result, students are inspired through exploration, hands-on experiences and collaboration with other students, as well as with faculty, parents and alumni.

“For us, engagement doesn’t stop when classes are over,” Schellhas says. “Our commitment to having students invested in everything they do extends well beyond the classroom, to really wherever our students are active. That could be on the stage, on the field—anywhere. What’s really magnificent is you can see the passion everywhere that they are.

“The core of GA has existed for these 255 years because of the relationships between students and faculty,” he continues. “Students and faculty collaborate together around a table, where they learn with and from each other, and that will be a traditional practice that will never change, no matter how technologically advanced we become.”

Germantown Academy’s most recent technological advancement is the Beard Center for Innovation (BCI). Opened in September 2015, the BCI is a physical hub centered entirely on the ever-evolving idea of engagement.

“Dedicating a part of our building to such a significant academic journey is an important symbol of the changes happening around the rest of campus,” Schellhas notes. “Students are able to look at critical thinking and problem solving in a collaborative setting that feels much different from a regular classroom. The more fun both faculty and students have in their learning, the more successful we’re going to be as an institution and as individuals in the long run. The BCI is a nexus for all types of thinking in one location.”

Through the BCI and its diversified resources, students of all ages participate in immersive sensory classroom experiences that employ a multitude of devices to facilitate learning. These include iPads for stop-motion video, “BeeBots” for mathematical problems and coding and a student’s own hands for constructing prototypes amid other experimental projects.

“What we’ve been trying to accomplish over the past couple of years through engagement, is getting students to engage in different ways,” states Jim DiFranco, a Middle School science teacher, member of the ED21 school-wide tech committee and parent of Germantown Academy students. “In the Lower School, the kids get to engage in the ‘Tinkering Lab,’ where they’re able to see hammers, nails and get their hands dirty, so to speak. For instance, older students will do something like grow garlic, and actually use it, taste it and bring it inside to cook with. It’s a great way for them to see how ingredients are used in cooking and, more importantly, where their food comes from. Personally what I love is that the learning shows a connection of kids teaching one another and presenting their findings to the teachers.”

To DiFranco’s point, the BCI has helped sharpen the school’s focus and accelerate a shift toward project-based learning—all in a spectacularly designed, technologically advanced space designed to prepare students for the next phase of their education.

“There’s this enhanced ability to foster collaboration, and the space has really done us a great service overall,” says DiFranco. “Students can write down their ideas, work with computers, use the design space to create prototypes and, eventually, make changes to their designs if necessary.

“The students never fail to amaze me,” he continues. “I have one student who wants to mimic shark skin using a 3-D printer, in which to use that print to mold and treat it with an antimicrobial substance for a bacteria project. These are the types of things students are envisioning and developing.”

DiFranco, who witnesses the Strategic Vision taking shape on a daily basis, also notices its positive impact on his own children.

“My kids are highly engaged in the technology,” he says. “They have their own learning management system on their iPads. My son has been learning how to read and write, so when he goes home, he is still engaging by using a virtual learning environment where he uploads his work and his teacher comments on his progress through virtual interaction. There’s never a day that goes by that my kids come home and not talk about all of the exciting things they’ve been up to.”

The ability to prepare students for “whatever comes next” has long been a hallmark of Germantown Academy, as Judy Cody can attest. As the parent of two current GA students and two recent graduates, as well as chair of the school’s Strategic Vision Committee, Cody has watched multiple generations benefit from their time at the school.

“I think the theme of engagement is a fabulous summary of what it is that the school has really done for my children, by engaging them in their learning all the way up to their senior year,” Cody says. “I think my kids have received an outstanding education. They have been incredibly well prepared for both college and a life beyond college. They are inquisitive, and they know how to speak and write with confidence—lifelong skills that benefit students in college and professionally. … Engagement will help us home in on what is the best possible path for our kids.

“We’re very happy,” she continues. “I’m so excited my kids are at GA because it combines the best of 21st century capabilities, while keeping the traditional aspects of education.”

Germantown Academy
340 Morris Road
Fort Washington, PA 19034

Photograph by Allure West Studios