Adapt and Explore
Private schools teach students the skills needed to thrive beyond the walls of the classroom
by Bill Donahue

Private high schools in the Philadelphia suburbs have taken a leadership position with bold but largely necessary investments in progressive systems and cutting-edge technology. From so-called “BYOD” programs to digital file-sharing systems, these schools are committed to preparing students for the world that awaits them in the months and years ahead.

Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem, for example, has extended its “bring your own device” policy to include the entire campus, powered by an expansion of an on-campus wireless network and increased bandwidth. At Princeton Day School in Princeton, N.J., meanwhile, this coeducational independent school (prekindergarten through grade 12) launched a program this year to issue an iPad to each student in its middle school.

Although technology and other “value adds” are highly useful in preparing students for college and the working world, some Philadelphia-area private schools aim to offer value by teaching the critical importance of service, diversity, integrity and, perhaps most valuable of all, adaptability. By doing so these institutions are shaping today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders.

The D’Orazio sisters, Dana and Elissa, are prime examples. Both are alumnae of Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, independent Catholic school in Bryn Mawr for girls from prekindergarten through 12th grade; Dana started there in the third grade, while Elissa was “a lifer.” Both, incidentally, were the valedictorians of their respective classes—Dana in 2001, Elissa in 2005.

“When I first walked through the doors of Sacred Heart, I was as a very scared 8-year-old,” Dana recalls. “I didn’t have a good experience at a previous school; I didn’t think I was bright and I didn’t think I could write. I was the quiet mouse in the corner at first, but the teachers and the environment at Sacred Heart transformed my whole outlook. … I found my voice and sense of fearlessness there—a call to do something more and to give back.”

And give back she has, guided by the desire to explore and an inherited sense of responsibility to help others. She graduated to Villanova University, where she studied English, and then to moved onto serving the AmeriCorps, where she educated refugee children in Atlanta and filmed her first documentary about these youths. Dana then pursued her master’s in public affairs, focusing on education policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Her professional career has included work in the nonprofit and education sectors—helping to build schools and homes, for example—in Vietnam and New Zealand. Now she is the coordinator of leadership and learning at the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Network, where she focuses primarily on building strategic partnerships to shape education and workforce policy. She is also an adjunct at Drexel University and recently became an education policy fellow at the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg.

Elissa, meanwhile, completed her entire pre-college education at Sacred Heart, from kindergarten on. She then went to Georgetown University, where, like her older sister, she majored in English. Afterward she spent time working for a congressman on Capitol Hill, and has since won her “dream job” with public-relations firm Edelman in New York. Recently promoted to senior account executive, she works primarily with Fortune 500 firms in areas such as media relations and CEO positioning.

“For my senior project at Sacred Heart, we did an exercise looking into what profession and what industry we would like to be part of, and what that life would look like,” she says. “I picked PR, and I always wanted to come to New York, so in many ways everything panned out as I had hoped.

“Looking at where I am now, about to turn 25, with the exposure I’ve already gotten by interacting with CEOs of companies, I truly do think a lot of my success stems from my time not only at Georgetown but also from my years at Sacred Heart. The confidence, values and sense of empowerment they help you discover definitely helps you as you get into college and in your professional career afterward.” —Bill Donahue