Private schools innovate with richly designed curricula and other tools to bring out the best in students, both in and out of the classroom
by Theodora Malison

Compared to just 10 or 15 years ago, the high school experience has been turned on its ear. Anyone 30 years of age or older would find it difficult to imagine the highly competitive and increasingly diverse world in which today’s high school students must live and work—in terms of the pressures to succeed, as well as in the educational tools designed to help students do just that.

Imagine: No. 2 pencils and mimeographed paper giving way to paperless assignments using Google Docs and iPads; dusty chalkboards and lectures plucked directly from the textbook yielding to interactive digital whiteboards and Apple TVs. It’s a completely different ballgame outside the classroom, too.

Truly, in the Greater Philadelphia Area, private high schools have revolutionized all aspects of the educational experience.

Pennsylvania’s private schools boast some of the most rigorous, integrative curricula—Advanced Placement, world languages, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math), etc.—designed to prepare students for their next step of college and well beyond. In order to achieve this student preparedness, however, school administrators have adopted flexible scheduling that includes independent work time and class times similar to what students will experience in college.

At Villa Maria Academy High School in Malvern, seniors—and, in some cases, ambitious juniors—undertake a Senior Capstone Project, which takes place over the course of a year. Each project requires a great deal of independent work, with regular assessments, according to Mary Kay Napoli, Villa’s director of admissions.

“Our seniors complete a Capstone project, which is a year-long project in which they select a universal question and spend a year working with a mentor—the large majority of whom are alumni,” she says. “They spend time researching, and also spend some time off site interning or shadowing with people in their select field. Towards the end of their project, they begin to write and publish books.”

Villa students also adhere to “block scheduling,” which runs on an “AB” schedule that allows students extended classroom time and class diversity. Napoli suggests this form of scheduling enables students to get a taste of college scheduling, not having the same classes every day.

“The extended classroom time we believe allows for much more collaboration and the possibility to take more electives geared towards something the student wants to pursue,” she says. “They’re able to figure out what they might want a career in because of this.”

At St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, a prestigious all-boys high school in Philadelphia, students benefit from a comprehensive yet “doable” curriculum infused with a spiritual richness that informs every aspect of the student experience.

“We prepare students for the next stage of life and want them to be leaders in their communication,” says Bill Avington, the school’s director of communications. “We’re known to be among one of the most rigorous academic curriculums around, and our students come back to us later and report that we prepared them for the classroom work they received in college. Of course, we don’t want them to be at a level where they’re not enjoying school, but we do want them to be academically challenged.”

St. Joe’s Prep students receive what Avington refers to as a “classical education” that incorporates the Jesuit Ignatian philosophy of “go forth and set the world on fire.” A nurturing faculty assists in the development and growth of each individual student at his own pace—both academically and spiritually.

“We teach our students the necessary tools for the ‘next step,’ such as annotating, outlining, how to prepare and write a business paper,” he says. “One of the things we strive for as a Jesuit institution is the magis, [a Latin term] which translates to ‘more.’ We speak in a religious context of everything a student does is done in for the greater glory of God. We want our boys to become the best versions of themselves they can truly be.”


It’s not uncommon to find throughout each school an abundance of state-of-the-art technology to further student learning. Take St. Joe’s Prep, which, as of two years ago, transitioned entirely to a Google platform. Each student receives a Chromebook—a laptop fully equipped with vital Google-based tools such as Google Docs, with Wi-Fi access—to enhance a seamless student-to-teacher interaction and collaboration. 

“The world is designed as a Google world,” Avington notes. “Our students are always on the cutting edge, and this is just one way. It’s an opportunity for us to learn what they’re using and use it in the classroom. It allows every student to be on the same playing field, and every teacher to be on the same page.”

As a result, he adds, some students foster an interest in computer science. In turn, St. Joe’s Prep provides these students with an opportunity to work at the help desk, through which they learn to service and repair Chromebooks.

“Our students set up a Chromebook help initiative, which has been able to teach a group of students interested in working in computer science,” he says. “The whole process and use of this product has given our students real-world experience. It’s been very good for all of us.”

Country Day School of the Sacred Heart (CDSSH) in Bryn Mawr, meanwhile, has adopted the Apple platform to enhance the high school experience for its all-girls student body. Each student works from an iPad inside and outside of the classroom, and classrooms use Apple TVs to allow for organized and uninterrupted presentations. All student assignments are completed on and shared through their iPads through SophieConnect, a network specific to the Sacred Heart Network of schools. (Editor’s note: “Sophie” refers to St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who, in 1800, established the Society of the Sacred Heart.) CDSSH also boats an on-campus Mac Lab, with 25 Mac desktops for students to create projects and learn digital media software.

“When thinking about technology, it’s all about the idea that the girls can transfer their skills platform to platform,” says Eileen Wilkinson, director of studies at CDSSH. “We offer advanced digital media and digital publishing courses so our girls will get to learn and know the creative Apple side. This may be where their careers take them down the road.”

Wilkinson also cites the rewards SophieConnect has reaped in terms of being connected to other schools in the Sacred Heart Network, both nationwide and abroad. Not only has the network introduced new technology to its students, but it has also shaped the school into a global campus.

“Our students have the opportunity to do exchanges with other network schools, and this is made possible partially through SophieConnect,” Wilkinson states. “The network has been able to make a small campus seem so large. It connects our students globally and makes them aware of the world around them. We’re extremely proud of this.”

The tight-knit connectedness CDSSH possesses has translated into strong and willing leadership among the student body. Wilkinson mentions one activity in particular, “Congé,” a longstanding tradition for the members of the international Network of Sacred Heart Schools. Held once a year for faculty and students, the girls take the lead in the organization and planning of the event. 

“It’s a fun day on campus and another opportunity for our girls to take the lead,” she says. “If the girls want a DJ at the event, it’s up to them to make it happen. They take care of all contacting, event planning—everything.”

Likewise, Villa encourages its girls to take the lead—and speak their minds—through healthy debate, which is engrained in them from the very start of their educational journey. Students learn the importance of having a voice within the community, in addition to taking an active leadership role by their time of matriculation.

“The only way you can develop is through questioning and understanding,” Napoli states. “Our girls need to listen to other opinions respectfully, while being firm in their morals and principles.”

To reinforce these “morals and principles,” Villa’s Student Integrity Committee regularly runs programming to assure mutual respect among members of the student body. The school also has a formal “code of conduct” generated by students and faculty.

“One of the key points in our mission is to empower young women to have this voice and that every girl has the potential to be a leader,” Napoli adds. “They’re fully prepared by the time they reach their senior year.”

For schools such as St. Joe’s Prep, the development of leadership is considered of paramount importance. St. Joe’s Prep students are seen regularly tutoring at local schools, assisting in afterschool programs and coordinating food drives—even providing neighborhood cleaning services. One leadership activity involves the school’s theater program’s annual show for the retired priests at Saint Joseph’s University. Avington says the boys take great pride in producing and performing the show.

“For us, it’s vital to look at the whole young man and make him better in mind, body and spirit,” Avington says. “Leadership is sort of part of the culture here, meaning it just happens because of who we are and our values that families expect us to instill in their sons. We have the obligation to produce the next generation of spiritual leaders, and we do that by keeping it infused in our curriculum and extracurricular programs.”

Extracurricular Activities
Strong academics are a hallmark of a good school, but an exceptional school will also strive to develop “the whole child.” For an elite high school such as CDSSH, this translates into an abundant roster of extracurricular activities.

“CDSSH offers 10 sports, one of them being a strong and growing crew team,” Wilkinson says. “Aside from our athletic program, we host a musical every year, have the Model U.N. club, and have publications such as newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine. What is helpful is that we build club meeting time during the school day, usually around the last period of the day.”

At Villa, students have the opportunity to establish new clubs and activities if there’s a shared interest expressed by several girls. Napoli stresses the importance of inspiring girls to have an open-minded approach and explore all options, not just stick to what they know.

“We have a program set up that allows girls to try various extracurricular activities to narrow it down to the ones they like,” she says. “We want our girls to go outside the box and be open to activities all four years.”

Ultimately, these extracurricular offerings are designed to activate the imagination, broaden student interests and possibly even serve as the spark to a bright future.

“We want our students to take their passions and build upon them,” Avington says, mentioning the school’s sports teams and other programs, including a broadcasting group. “The football team every summer does a weeklong service program, which coincides with our motto of striving for the magis, and this idea of doing more.

“Our students learn that they don’t just do things for the sake of putting on a good show or winning,” he continues. “It’s because of who you are, and finding your passion and bettering the world with it.”