Program

Charge

The Program Committee was asked to explore ways to improve academic, extra-curricular, and sports offerings, including a consideration of distance learning opportunities, and also the ways prospective students and their families, and colleges, perceive Commonwealth’s programs.

The Committee’s discussions and deliberations were informed by surveys and interviews with faculty and students, a review of course offerings at other schools, and observations of online classes with other faculty.

Findings

Although Commonwealth’s teachers enjoy considerable autonomy in designing courses, they nonetheless need to consult with departmental colleagues to ensure that expectations of the skills and material students gain each year are consistent and realistic, to preserve consistency in evaluation among the various courses, and to share and discuss best teaching practices. Departments need to spend more time together.

The Committee found that the school’s descriptions of its courses in the school brochure were accurate but they did not convey the excitement or rigor of our academic program, particularly to applicants and their families.

Seniors with strong interests in the humanities are often left having to cobble together a set of courses with many half-credit electives. Directing their energy in so many directions may make them look less “serious” to colleges than a senior transcript with more full-credit courses.

Several factors led the committee to believe that the current disadvantages of distance learning outweigh the potential advantages. The first was the confirmation from the Stanford Online High School that Stanford would not credit Malone Online offerings as college classes; in other words, the courses would not provide the sort of external validation for which we had hoped. Second, when observing three classes in three fields (History, English, and Calculus) the Committee found the teaching and the online experience uninspiring. In addition, several felt that such courses would undermine the unique benefits of the Commonwealth experience—teachers and students who know each other and each other’s capabilities well.

The Program Committee also considered, in conjunction with the Technology Committee, the advisability of adoption of tablet computers and digital texts. (See Section IV, Facilities.)

Commonwealth has traditionally not ranked or given awards to its own students, and the Committee did not see any compelling reason to change this. It is clear, however, that students who have, for example, been semifinalists in the Intel Science Search or who have had history papers published in the Concord Review have seen benefits in the college application process. The right outside awards and recognition make our students more appealing to colleges and they make us more appealing to prospective families. The school should do more to encourage and support pursuit of such recognition.

The Committee also felt that the mission of the athletic program might more clearly emphasize health and fitness, and that such an emphasis could be explicitly linked to lessons about health, nutrition, and wellness in other areas of school life. They felt that a greater emphasis on wellness in all areas of school life would not only be good for the students, but also contribute positively to the school’s academic mission.

With regard to other extracurricular activities and projects, the Committee heard that many students feel they don’t have enough time to pursue their interests and often don’t have enough information at hand to discover the many choices available. A student who arrives at Commonwealth with a well-developed passion outside of the classroom or who has an advisor who pushes her to explore such an interest or who has parents who help to guide and develop interests finds rich opportunities and means by which to pursue them; a less well-guided student may miss out on fully developing his interests. The uneven guidance and activities can leave some feeling adrift and can leave clubs without the kind of support needed for effective, worthwhile involvement.

The success of the exceptions to this pattern, including Community Service (which enjoys the imprimatur afforded by being required) and such perennial activities as Model U.N. and Diversity, signal the value of greater adult guidance and coordination. Greater, more consistent support would also facilitate more effective advocacy in the college process as college counselors and letter-writers would, from the start, have a fuller, clearer sense of seniors’ arc of activities outside the classroom.

Recommendations

Academic Program

  • There should be regular departmental discussion of curricular and pedagogical issues. To this end, departments should meet on a regular basis. Meetings could consider department-specific issues, such as diversifying texts in English but continuing the same methods; revisiting the sequence of science classes; ensuring consistency in grading and evaluation; exploring ways to retain girls in upper-level math classes; exploring ways to support weaker students in history, including clarifying sequence of skills; and looking for ways to include more public speaking in all courses.
  • Departments should review published course descriptions to ensure that they reflect the depth, breadth, and challenge of the Commonwealth curriculum. We suggest that at an early department meeting each group take up revision of external course descriptions to match our competitor schools’ ability to showcase the cohesion of their programs.
  • The faculty as a whole should consider offering seniors an opportunity to do a capstone project that would allow them to work intensively on a topic of their choice in any of the departments, and should consider offering more full-credit electives—especially in the humanities and interdisciplinary subjects.
    • We recommend that the faculty explore ways to corroborate the level of our program, and especially to distinguish our students. The Head of School and Director of College Counseling should work to develop relationships at colleges where we feel our students’ accomplishments and the rigor of our program are not fully recognized. The school should systematically help students find opportunities that would help them distinguish themselves.
    • We recommend that Commonwealth not pursue distance-learning opportunities at this point, but that we continue to follow the Malone Online Consortium and revisit the question of joining when we have confidence in the quality of the offerings and experience of the program.
    • The school should pay continuing attention to the emerging online course offerings by universities and whether or how they might be used to fill gaps in the Commonwealth curriculum for individual students.
    • The faculty should continue to pursue the use of classroom technology that is appropriate to Commonwealth’s culture and mission, and an administrative role of Director of Academic Technology should be created to promote the exploration of different technologies, to do research into the pedagogical impact of these technologies, and to work with interested teachers to implement these in their classroom.

Non-Academic Program

  • Increase support for the “whole student” by:
    • o Revising the mission statement to make it explicit that the school’s philosophy supports students’ bodies as well as minds—and, in fact, espouses a mind-body approach to student wellness;
    • o Revising the role of Athletic Director and/or Health and Wellness Director to support expansion of the sport mission;
    • o Developing athletic options and programs to support this mission, coordinating emphases in athletics with those of the Health and Community course and Food Services, and perhaps developing a new “whole person” course with a holistic approach (e.g., a combination of yoga, meditation, and nutrition);
    • o Increasing psychological support provided for students and access to psychological expertise for teachers/advisors;
    • o Exploring ways to modify the daily schedule to allow students time to seriously pursue non-academic interests.
  • Create position of Director of Student Activities (part-time) to increase emphasis on and support for extracurricular activities with an eye to developing the whole student. This director should head up a team made up of community service, projects, and summer coordinators. The Committee recommends that the Director work primarily with sophomores and their advisors to help them develop and pursue their interests, but should also be available to all students. This person would be responsible for creating and maintaining a database for available non-academic resources, including a history of previous student activity. This person should also work to identify opportunities for recognition or validation of students’ success in extracurricular activities.

Next Steps

Departments

The Director of Studies and Headmaster have agreed to give over one faculty meeting every 4-6 weeks to departmental meetings, and, in conjunction with departments, they will develop a list of topics for consideration, including the development of the capstone option for seniors.

Course Descriptions

This effort is completed.

Distance Learning

Monitor progress and quality of Malone Online Consortium, and consider joining it in the future. Carefully study and evaluate other ways to incorporate online learning and technology into Commonwealth’s program

New and Expanded Positions

Efforts are underway to implement the following for FY15 and 16: the Director of Student Activities position; the expansion of the Director of Athletics position; and the creation of a part-time Academic Technology role. The Headmaster, in consultation with the Director of Studies, Director of Faculty Support, and Director of Student Life, is creating these positions by restructuring existing jobs so that the changes can take place within the framework of the current budget and without additional cost to the school.