A Bold Leap Forward
Through building and cutting-edge thinking, Malvern Prep is redefining education
by Daniel Sean Kaye

When you think of state-of-the-art technology and 21st century thinking, you might not first consider a 171-year-old, all-boys independent Catholic school. But that would be a terrible error, because between its stunning Learning Commons and its greatly enlarged chapel, Malvern Preparatory School, founded in 1842, is about to change everything you thought you knew about the best way your son can be prepared for the world that awaits him.

An Uncommon Common
“The Learning Commons will be our 21st century library,” explains Christian Talbot, Head of School. “Like many schools, we had a wonderful library with thousands of carefully curated volumes and a quiet space for quiet work. Over the past year, however, we often discussed the need for a space that meets the needs of students and faculty in a 21st century learning environment. So rather than thousands of print volumes, we have pared our collection to the most essential, most heavily circulated print materials.” The school did this by having its teachers identify materials they felt the students needed. By removing stacks of books, the school now has 50 percent of the former library space available for collaborative work spaces, areas they feel are essential for project-based 21st century learning. The Learning Commons will include additional tables, IdeaPaint that transforms the walls into information boards, and “maker-space” creative areas that boast a top-of-the-line 3-D printer.

For Kevin Whitney, director of 21st century learning, much of his work began with the inclusion of three factors in the new Malvern Prep education plan: connection, collaboration and creation. “I knew we could reach these goals by using 21st century tools,” he says. “The difference between a 21st century classroom and a traditional one is that the traditional has a teacher—an information source—and knowledge flows down to students. But the ‘new’ classroom uses the network model; you have an online informational resource, constant collaboration, maybe a textbook, teachers, experts and students,” he says.

Whitney says that common meeting spaces enable teachers and students to learn together. “They are areas for creating and consuming. With ‘maker-spaces’ and more technology available, you’re using an active learning principle. You have materials so students can create. You have technology improvements—iPads, Chromebooks—ways for students to share,” he says. “You have televisions to connect any device and to share digital work. You have peer-to-peer training areas, maybe a Curious Bar like at an Apple store, places where students can get help. This all helps you cultivate collaboration and promote informal learning opportunities. We embrace flexibility and adaptability, such as having items on wheels so we can move them. We put ideas up and share them. It inspires.”

To support its plans, the school is taking great pains to analyze and document how all this helps. It has created an executive committee that includes Whitney, three other faculty members and a recently graduated student. “We’re looking at how best to utilize space. There are many diverse ideas, and plans to be formulated,” he says. The school also moved quickly; the project began in the fall and is already more than 80 percent done. “The whole project promotes innovation—the ways teachers teach and the ways thinkers think,” he says. “What our teachers are already doing is very effective; we’re just looking at ways to improve upon it.”

Growing the Chapel
Just as the Learning Commons represents Malvern’s commitment to 21st century learning, the school’s chapel expansion solidifies its commitment to its unchanging Augustinian identity and mission. “Over the last three decades, Malvern has doubled in size, so the chapel—which once could hold the entire school—now strains to fit just the upper school,” says Talbot. “With an expanded chapel, we can bring together the entire community—middle school and upper school, faculty and staff—to celebrate the sacraments or hold chapel services. Catholic education is predicated on the notion of a community united in faith, and I’m excited that our expanded chapel will allow us to bring everyone together in the same space to animate that shared faith,” he says.

“The chapel expansion is a hope we’ve had for decades at Malvern,” explains Father Christopher Drennen, OSA, director of Augustinian identity, and Malvern graduate class of 1973. “I know Augustinians who wrote up designs many years ago, but the finances were not there. Then, about three years ago, a family came forth with the generous offer to build the expansion. Even though they did not know about the past plans, their ideas were remarkably similar.”

The building has already begun, with the work expected to be completed by the end of fall. “It is mostly important for our sense of unity,” Drennen says. “At present, Malvern Prep cannot meet … as one group. Even the upper school alone has to have many people standing during chapel service and Mass.” After the expansion, the entire school community will be able to worship together. “We are a Catholic school and the Eucharist should be the sign of unity. By worshiping together, we can enhance an important core value—unity—in our regular school life,” he says.

“Malvern’s new mission is Malvern’s old mission: unity, truth and love,” Father Drennen continues. “What is new is the emphasis on 21st century education. I think the expanded chapel will allow us to continue to grow in our core values as well as have an appropriate space that acknowledges the growth of the school over the decades and is getting us grounded in our Augustinian Catholic tradition.”

The Glowing Result

Talbot is humbled by what he calls his colleagues’ dedication to the total formation of each student. “Our purpose  is to help these young men become the best possible versions of themselves, and in order to do that we enlist teachers, staff, coaches, moderators, trustees, alumni and friends, as well as parents and siblings. In that sense, we are a ‘family’ school, both literally and metaphorically. It’s not an exaggeration to talk about our shared vocation,” he says. “I love being a part of a pivotal moment in our students’ lives. I am convinced that middle school and high school are the most crucial formational periods for a young man. Whether I’m working with seniors in a writing seminar on their international Christian Service experiences, or talking to a middle-schooler on his photo display at the Festival of the Arts, or watching a lacrosse game, I know that I’m bearing witness to moments that will shape these boys forever.”

Father Drennen feels similarly. “I enjoy the human pastoral contact I have with students, faculty and staff. I love the people here and the sense of community among the staff and students,” he says. “Although I graduated 40 years ago, when I came back it still felt like home even though there have been many changes over the years.”

All this leads to the result Talbot and the rest of Malvern Prep is striving toward. “Our goal is to be the nation’s leading independent Catholic school,” he says.

Malvern Preparatory School
418 S. Warren Ave.
Malvern, PA 19355