At $43K Private School, Tech Opens Doors to Different World

Founded in 1920, Beaver Country Day School, which enrolls 468 students in grades 6-12, offers what is arguably the best approach for using K-12 educational technology that money can buy.

At $43K Private School, Tech Opens Doors to Different World

A Multimedia Look Inside the Beaver Country Day School

The Beaver Country Day School prizes experimentation, risk-taking, and collaboration in its students, including (from left) juniors Zach Cowen-Whitman, 17, Theo Frorer, 16, and Jake Barton, 17, shown here in the school's science wing. — Erik Jacobs for Education Week

By Benjamin Herold

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Joshua Glenn wants his two sons to leave high school ready to flourish in the high-tech world that awaits them.

That’s a big reason why he’s paying $43,360 a year for each boy to attend the prestigious Beaver Country Day School here.

“I like the fact that Beaver uses technology as a tool for research. I like the fact that they use technology as a platform for self-expression and collaborative work. It’s extraordinary how they build computer coding right into the classes,” said Mr. Glenn, a marketing consultant from nearby Boston.

“It feels like Sam and Max will be able to move seamlessly from Beaver into real life,” he said.

Founded in 1920, Beaver Country Day, which enrolls 468 students in grades 6-12, offers what is arguably the best approach for using K-12 educational technology that money can buy.

Unlike many elite private schools, Beaver hasn’t shied away from the digital revolution.

And unlike many public schools, Beaver hasn’t positioned its students as passive consumers of others’ digital content.

Instead, Beaver has invested in efforts like NuVu, a standalone “innovation school” with no classes, no homework, and no tests. Each trimester, about 20 Beaver students forego the school’s main campus in favor of a pink-walled, 4,000-square foot room in Cambridge, strategically located near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At NuVu, students take part in a rapid-fire series of two-week “studios” modeled on graduate-level architecture programs. The students’ task, for which they will receive credit back at Beaver: Conceive, design, and fabricate solutions to real-world problems.

At their disposal: a staff of architects, robotics engineers, and artists; experts from MIT, Harvard, and the business world; five 3-D printers; and a workshop outfitted with everything from a laser cutter to an industrial sewing machine.

Junior Laurel Sullivan, 17, spent this past winter creating a life-saving wearable technology.

  • Listen: Laurel Sullivan, 11th grader, Beaver Country Day School

  • Listen: Saeed Arida, Chief Excitement officer, NuVu

Lessons to Learn

So what can the country’s 98,000 or so public schools learn about educational technology from an elite private institution like Beaver Country Day?

Plenty, says Peter Hutton, Beaver’s long-time head of school.

  • Listen: Peter Hutton, Head of School, Beaver Country Day School

Now, it’s important to note that Beaver is an outlier in the independent school world, where tradition and centuries-long track records often trump innovation and experimentation. Many in the education sector, both private and public, have significant misgivings about such heavy use of technology, citing concerns about everything from screen time to student-data privacy. The school's progressive philosophy clearly isn't for everyone.

And undoubtedly, even those public-sector educators who agree with Beaver's approach would argue that Mr. Hutton’s ethos–experiment freely, iterate constantly, and embrace the learning opportunities associated with failure–would be much easier for regular schools to adopt if they, like Beaver, had the resources to cap class sizes at 14 students and the freedom to thumb their noses at standardized tests.

And then there’s the different roles that the $8 billion-per-year ed-tech industry plays in each sector.

In U.S. public schools, the market for laptops, tablets, and digital instructional materials is surging. Technology purchases have been driven largely by the widespread adoption of common-core standards, the rise of mandated online assessments, and the desire to help teachers more efficiently tailor their instruction to students in classes that can range up to 30 students or more.

Those forces are simply not at work in the country’s most prestigious independent schools.

So good luck finding a private school that can attract parents willing to pay $20,000 or more in annual tuition for an instructional model that seeks to “personalize” student learning via heavy use of adaptive software.

And even at a place like Beaver, which has embraced technology and has more resources than most public schools could ever dream of, classrooms rely almost entirely on free and open-source software and cheap programmable hardware units that can be bought for as little as $35.

As a result, Beaver educators say it’s their school’s culture, not its resources, that allow them to push the boundaries of educational technology use.

“If kids have access to a device and the Internet, none of what we’re doing at Beaver requires any cash,” said Melissa Alkire, a history teacher and technology integration specialist at the school. “This doesn’t have to be tied to an elite education.”

Problem-Solving Skills

Look, for example, at how Beaver teaches computer coding.

In public schools, efforts like’s "Hour of Code" initiative have introduced millions of students to the foundations of computer programming. A growing number of states and districts have also begun requiring or encouraging public schools to offer computer science courses.

At Beaver Country Day, though, coding is taught not as a discrete skill to be learned in isolation, but as a problem-solving tool to be applied in a wide variety of situations.

At Beaver, coding is taught in every class, including art.

  • Listen: Amy Winston, Art teacher, Beaver Country Day School

  • Listen: Madeline Tallarico, 8th grader, Beaver Country Day School

“We want kids to be thinking about technology as a part of their lives, and learning how it works, and thinking, ‘How could I build something like that?” said Rob MacDonald, the head of Beaver’s upper-school mathematics department.

That philosophy differs considerably from relying on technology to deliver digital content, which is often the default approach in public schools.

Mr. MacDonald explained why Beaver makes only limited use of tools such as Khan Academy, a free online math service.

“It’s fairly formulaic: Here are 200 types of problems, and here are structured methods for solving each problem,” he said. “We’re trying to get our kids way beyond that level of thinking, so they can deal creatively with real-world problems full of complications and nuances.”

It’s that mindset that has made Joshua Glenn so happy with the education his sons are receiving at Beaver.

He pointed to the experience of his younger son Max, now in 8th grade.

The slight boy, who hopes to land an internship at an aquarium this summer, spends his recess periods in a downstairs science lab, writing code that he hopes can be used to automatically monitor the water temperatures and Ph levels in Beaver’s small trout farm.

  • Listen: Max Glenn, 8th grader, Beaver Country Day School

  • Listen: Kimberly McCabe, Science teacher, Beaver Country Day School

“They’re not telling kids they have to become computer programmers or designers,” Mr. Glenn said. “They’re saying that there are things about programming and design that are really valuable, no matter what you do.”

Investing in People

Of course, teachers are the key to making such an outside-the-box approach work.

Kimberly McCabe, who runs the Trout Techs program, is in her first year teaching middle-grades science at the school.

“We want our students to take risks,” she said. “Teachers here are required to do the same thing.”

Fostering that kind of culture requires investing a lot of money–in people, not technology.

Take, for example, the experience of Ms. Winston, the art teacher.

She described how Beaver accelerated her learning curve around incorporating coding into her classroom–and broke down her own reluctance to try something so unusual: By offering professional development delivered by Google engineers.

“They assigned each of the teachers a programmer for the day to help us think about how to incorporate [coding] into our curriculum in a fairly organic way,” Ms. Winston said. “That was super-helpful.”

Also super-helpful: Staff training in “design thinking” from IDEO, an award-winning international design firm that has worked with companies from Chrysler to Qualcomm.

In addition, Beaver recently hired Zoz Brooks, an MIT-trained robotics expert and Discovery Channel television personality, to be its very own “innovator-in-residence.”

Already, Mr. Brooks has helped teachers and students with everything from developing a garden controlled by small programmable hardware units called arduinos, to creating a robot designed to rescue fallen soldiers from the battlefield.

  • Listen: Zoz Brooks, Innovator-in-Residence, Beaver Country Day School

Teaching Without the Test

Before accepting a job at Beaver, Mr. Brooks said, he needed assurances on one crucial issue: That school staff would not have to teach to Massachusetts state tests.

“It’s good to have resources,” Mr. Brooks said. “But being able to go off in a weird direction with whatever resources you have is more important.”

Almost to a person, the staff at Beaver see standardized tests as the most profound barrier to replicating their model in public schools in places like North Philadelphia, or rural Arkansas, or even the well-to-do Boston suburbs.

“We can be playful and experiment alongside our students because we’re not scared about losing our jobs, or our school losing funding,” said Ms. Alkire, the history teacher and technology integration specialist.

In practice, that means Beaver refuses even to administer Advanced Placement exams, because staff consider the associated coursework too limiting.

That’s not to say the school ignores assessment. It just treats testing as part of the learning process. Technology use follows suit.

At Beaver, then, final exams might involve a pencil-and-paper test, or completing a project, or designing an experiment, or delivering a TED Talk.

At the close of the recent winter trimester, Ms. Alkire asked her 11th grade students to prepare and conduct a one-on-one debate on topics they had been researching for months.

Students were expected to use Google Apps for Education to collaboratively construct arguments on all sides of their chosen issue. They were expected to challenge each other’s positions, but also to moderate their own discussion and collectively ensure that their chosen topic was explored in-depth.

During the debate, the students were also expected to present data, graphs, and multimedia resources using Chromecast, a streaming device that connects their laptops to the classroom projector.

  • Listen: Melissa Alkire, History teacher, Beaver Country Day School

Ms. Alkire more or less took for granted that her students would have a strong mastery of the content they had researched during class.

What she really wanted to gauge was the teens’ “mental flexibility”–how well they think on the fly, how they turn a topic around in their minds, how they draw connections between disparate pieces of information, how they make sense of often-contradictory feedback, how they work together, how they solve problems.

Ultimately, that is why a parent like Joshua Glenn won’t mind paying more than half a million dollars to see his two children graduate from Beaver Country Day School.

It’s not about the technology itself.

It’s not even about what that technology might help his sons to do.

It’s about who he wants his children to become.

“At Beaver,” Mr. Glenn said, “they give you a challenge, and they give you the resources to go do the best that you can, and then they ask you to do something better.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Credits: Reporting and Writing: Benjamin Herold | Design & Visualization: Deanna Del Ciello | Photos: Erik Jacobs for Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week