Small Schools, Big Lessons
Three private schools — one Christian, one Jewish, one without any religious affiliation — work to educate citizens of the world
If you ask Malia Haines-Stewart, 17, where in her small-school experience she learned to do the right thing, she’ll tell you it wasn’t anything she read in a book. “I’ve learned the most about what I value, and what my moral compass really is made up of, through teachers and experiences,” says the senior at The Grauer School. “Not textbooks, really, but through mentors and student connections.”
For 20 years, Grauer’s mission has extended beyond teaching technical skills and history lessons to include Socratic strategies of critical thinking and question-asking. Last year, Grauer instructor Lisa Ezzard began something she calls the Living Library. It is based on a concept as old as time: storytelling. Ezzard handpicks elder citizens or noteworthy speakers from the surrounding community and invites them to tell their life stories to the class. The students listen, she says, and later they write biographies of the speakers.
“Students have to listen to the guest speaker’s story.” The act of listening has an impact on a student’s ability to think, she says, an ability that is being lost in a tweeting/texting/e-mailing culture. “Kids sit next to each other and don’t talk; they text each other. Listening is not about sending two-second blips on Facebook with tiny little bits of information.”
Ezzard says the collective wisdom that passes through the doors of Grauer’s Living Library “makes students stop in their tracks and think about the meaning of what people haves pent their lives doing and becoming, and the wisdom that’s been passed down through the years.” One example: Actor Richard Dreyfuss visited the campus earlier this year to discuss his Dreyfuss Initiative, a new foundation created to engage students in responsible democracy, with members of the civics class.
Founded on the principle that less is more, the independent, Socratic-based college-prep school — which bears the name of Fulbright Fellow and founder Dr. Stuart Grauer — first opened its doors in 1991 on a 5-acre parcel in Encinitas. Enrollment is maxed at 150 students, grades six through 12, in accordance with the nation’s Small Schools Movement. The campus itself is free of vandalism and graffiti because the student body and faculty clean it each week. “It teaches you that if you dropped it,” says Grauer, “you’re the same person who’s going to pick it up.”
Limited enrollment encourages quick reaction time by the Grauer administration in the face of student conflicts, which likewise become teaching opportunities. “If kids aren’t getting along, for whatever reason,” says Grauer principal Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, “we’re able to pull them in and have conflict-resolution and problem-solving sessions on a regular basis.”
What about the danger of too much hand-holding? Could this serve to enable the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, in which students come to rely on parents or other authorities well into college and early adulthood? Abplanalp-Diggs says it’s just the opposite. “We’re teaching our kids problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they use to work through their own problems.”
ACROSS TOWN in La Jolla, students practice real-world skills in a different classroom court of appeals. Literally. Students in Richard del Rio’s advanced- placement government and politics course at The Bishop’s School play prosecutor and defender and try hypothetical cases as if in a real courtroom. And they’re good at it. The Bishop’s team took fi rst place among 11 other local schools at the Mock Trial Competition sponsored by the San Diego County Bar Association and the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Bishop’s student “attorneys” won the right to represent San Diego in the statewide competition in March.
The mock trials are only a recent component of an academic program that was designed more than a century ago to foster analytical thinking and communication skills. Established in 1909 by the Right Reverend Joseph Horsefall Johnson, it actually is the bishop’s school; Reverend Johnson served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles at the time. His mission was progressive from day one: to prepare young women for the East’s Ivy League colleges, at a time when educating women wasn’t the norm. As an historical comparison, women did not gain the right to vote in California until 1911. Ellen Browning Scripps liked what she saw and donated the land in the middle of La Jolla where the campus resides to this day.
Today, The Bishop’s School is coed, grades six through 12, with an average class size of 15 to 17. From the beginning, the curriculum has had as its true north an emphasis on Christian character, spirituality and moral values.
“As a religious studies teacher, I teach world religions to eighth graders, and I teach Christian scriptures and an elective on the philosophy of religions,” says David Moseley, chair of religious studies. “We spend a lot of time talking about the difference between good and evil, the origins of ethical beliefs, the relationship of ethics in religion, and the ethical component and requirement within different traditions.”
His students do hands-on work with different nonprofit groups, on and off campus and on global field trips that may take them as far as India or Africa. “We spend a lot of time to hopefully give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ethical commitments through practical experience and experiential learning,” Moseley says.
HOUSED ON 56 acres in Carmel Valley, the San Diego Jewish Academy is a pluralistic, full-immersion experience, kindergarten through 12th grade. Class size is held to 17 students. The stated mission is to “challenge students to achieve full academic potential and to become individuals of strong moral and ethical character while inspiring them to make Judaism a vital and relevant aspect of their lives.”
“One of the things we really focus on is respect,” says second-grade teacher Jan Landau. “We can teach skills in math, in science, in science, but life skills — respect, tolerance and understanding — are what is primary to me in this school.”
So what questions do 8-year-olds bring to the table? “Second-graders always want to know why people treat each other the way they do.”
At the academy, cultural responsibility is learned through service. There were campus food drives for hurricane victims; Landau’s second-graders made holiday cookies with a second-grade class in southeast San Diego; Jacob Katz, 17, a senior, helped build houses in New Orleans. Daniel Sharf, 12, assisted at a school-wide toy drive and says, “I felt like I was part of something that would help the world by helping kids who don’t have the things we have.”
Lisa Vadziner’s lessons on morality are constructs from the Jewish religion perspective. An example: “I did a unit on theft, and I brought in a film called Defiance. It’s about a Jewish resistance group that hid in the woods for two years during the Holocaust.” The larger question of the lesson, she says, was whether theft and murder are wrong. “I explored it in the context of what the Torah says.” The class also read the historical references in the Book of Leviticus to “see what it says about how to treat your neighbor fairly and honestly in business.”
At these local independent schools, class becomes a living laboratory where critical thinking is the rule, and ethics are not a speculative goal but a standard. And the students get it.