The Joy of Discovery
The Walden School celebrates the uniqueness of each child
by Bill Donahue


Last spring, a “somewhat shy” student created an unforgettable moment that perfectly illustrates the well-rounded independence and creativity seen in children who attend The Walden School in Media.


The student, Julia Minker, was soon graduating from this 44-year-old independent school, while her preschool teacher, Jean Page, was to retire at the end of the year. Out of respect and appreciation for her beloved teacher, Minker sought to perform her own version of the Bob Seger hit, “Turn the Page,” in front of the entire school at the annual spring concert.


When the school’s music teacher asked Minker if she wanted help performing the piece, she politely declined his offer. Her reason: She wanted to do the work herself, with the only accompaniment coming from her fellow school-age classmates.


“Six or seven girls got up around the piano and performed this song to thank their teacher, and left the stage to a standing ovation.” says Mary McKeon, head of school. “It’s this genuine confidence our kids develop in a nurturing and creative environment here at Walden. The work they were doing and gifts they were giving were theirs and theirs alone.”


It’s a touching example of the school’s heritage, but such growth is common for students at The Walden School, which offers a Montessori pre-school and kindergarten as well as an elementary and middle school that blends “Montessori and 21st Century.” The school’s engaging model is perfectly suited for diverse learning styles because the instruction is individualized and each student is inspired to reach his or her personal best.


“I would describe it as a place that offers academic excellence in an organized, respectful and loving environment,” says Douglas P. Scott, the school’s current board president, whose two children attend Walden. “You feel it as soon as you walk through the door. We have a very involved parent population that really cares about and focuses on excellent education. Like every other parent here, I take a lot of pride in the school.”


Dr. Patricia Scott, who is a Wharton professor, chose Walden for her daughter, Emily, after researching many strong options.


“When we thought about Emily’s future, we were concerned with finding a school that could help her succeed, not just as a student but as a person during these critical childhood years,” says Dr. Scott. “Walden has fostered all aspects of her development: academics, friendship, responsibility, leadership and integrity, as well as helping her reach the 99th percentile on Terra Nova standardized testing without pressure or emphasis on test prep.


“An exceptional student-to-teacher ratio—12:1—has helped her thrive, and the teachers are incredible; they challenge Emily in areas where she’s excelling and quickly identify those places in which she can continue to grow. I don’t think she would get that in a classroom of 25.”


Real Work, Real Results

The Montessori educational model, as developed by Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori, emphasizes personal discovery, the freedom to choose one’s activities, and respect for a child’s natural psychological development, rather than the exclusive use of direct instruction. It’s this model that inspired Mary LeFever, a former public school teacher who fell in love with Dr. Montessori’s approach to how children learn, to found the school in 1967.


“She thought of every child as gifted, because each child had a different gift,” says LeFever, who still volunteers and reads with the children at the school weekly. “She came up with these wonderful sensorial materials to help children learn, and she created an environment to permit children the freedom to go around and explore. There’s real joy [for a child] in having the opportunity to pick and choose how he or she learns.”


At The Walden School, which got its name from the tranquil pond of Henry David Thoreau fame, each classroom has two teachers, or co-teachers. Audrey Morrison, chair of the pre-school department, suggests the model is designed to help children “know who you are and how you work,” which spurs confidence and, in turn, enables academic growth.


“A teacher’s role is not to instruct in the traditional way,” she says. “We are trained to be observers of children and provide an environment where materials are available for the next thing they’re ready to learn. The class belongs to the children, and our role [as co-teachers] is to move through the room while children are working and assist them when they need it.


“We don’t point out their mistakes,” she continues. “If a 3-year-old is doing a task incorrectly, they’re going to repeat the task until they see the error and make the correction on their own, and when they do that they take it in more deeply. … They’re like little entrepreneurs, constructing themselves and building themselves into unique people.”


True to its Montessori base, Walden has a pre-school and kindergarten with students from ages 3 to 6 in the same room. As a result of authentic peer role models, a child will enter as the youngest in the class and emerge as a leader. The curriculum also emphasizes teaching children the art of positive communication and conflict resolution, which are two essential components of a child’s developing emotional intelligence.  


McKeon says, “Montessori is about being a well-rounded person, it’s about nurturing the whole child and the spirit of the child. Our students continue to build on this foundation throughout their elementary and middle school years with a Lifeskills character education program that integrates traits such as initiative, perseverance, problem solving and integrity.”


The Walden School has undergone something of a rebirth in recent years with a highly successful literacy program, a renewed emphasis on arts programming and a heightened sense of community. Though many other schools are cutting back on arts, technology and foreign language, Walden views these as essential components in celebrating the uniqueness of each child. In fact, Walden’s most recent endeavor is the creation of a community garden that serves as an outdoor classroom, where students and teachers can experience the farm-to-table connection as an integrated part of their “Fit Nut” lunch curriculum and after-school “Kids Kitchen” program.


As for Julia Minker, now a freshman at The Agnes Irwin School, her appreciation for Walden hasn’t dissipated even though she officially graduated last year. In fact, on the first day off from her new school, she and other alumni, including Shipley freshman Katie McCauley, returned to their alma mater to spend time with their former classmates and teachers.


“They were all here at 8 a.m. and spent the day here because this is where they wanted to be,” says McKeon. “I’ve been here for 25 years, and I don’t think there has ever been a day when I haven’t left in awe of something I’ve seen here at Walden.”


The Walden School

901 N. Providence Road, Media


Admissions Open Houses are held every Wednesday morning, 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Photography by Bridgett Scott