School Choice & Charters

Long-Neglected Science On Rise at Prep Schools

By David J. Hoff — November 06, 2002 8 min read
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The red brick that will cover the new science building here will blend in with the Georgian Revival architecture that dominates the heart of the verdant Phillips Academy campus.

But the lessons and experiments that will happen inside the building’s classrooms will be a symbol that this 224-year-old prep school, and others like it, are entering a new era in which science will be a higher priority in the curriculum, private school educators and observers say.

One prominent historian has called the subject “the most neglected” part of the prep school curriculum.

That situation is changing, though, as science assumes a higher profile in contemporary life, and as independent schools feel greater competition from science-oriented public schools.

“The independent schools have long had a reputation for doing a superb job in teaching kids how to read and write,” said Peter B. Tacy, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. “They believe that to continue to present themselves as superior college-preparatory programs, they need to have instruction that is as cutting-edge as possible in math and science.”

The Phillips Academy here in Andover and dozens of other independent college- preparatory schools are building or have recently built multimillion-dollar science centers, underscoring that biology, chemistry, and physics are as important as English literature, history, and languages.

Such schools’ interest in science is rising, private school officials say, because the subject is taking on an increasingly significant role in daily life and national policy. In light of that reality, they say, students and their parents are looking for schools with excellent science programs—and parents are sometimes choosing public magnet schools over expensive private schools.

Leading prep schools are responding to those developments.

For instance, the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. opened its new science center last year. The Dana Hall School, a Wellesley, Mass., school for girls in grades 6-12, opened a new science building in 1998. And private schools throughout Connecticut—including Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford and Miss Porter’s School in Farmington—have been adding new science facilities in recent years, according to Mr. Tacy, whose group represents 90 schools in that state.

And the trend isn’t limited to New England’s famous roster of private schools.

The Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona opened a new science building in 1993, the Punahou School in Honolulu completed its science facility in 1999, and just last month, the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., opened a new 62,000-square-foot math and science building.

When Andover’s Phillips Academy opens its new science center in 2004, the science department will have a state-of-the-art facility in which classrooms are divided into lecture and lab space—much like the design of college science facilities. Teachers will get the newest technologies for classroom presentations and lab experiments.

‘Most Neglected’ Subject

Experts on private education says the opening of new science facilities at places such as Phillips Academy is a remarkable trend because the subject has long been overlooked at American prep schools.

Phillips Academy—often called “Andover” to distinguish it from Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire—has been the training ground for future presidents, authors, artists, and academicians. Its graduates include current President Bush and his father, the chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, the actor Jack Lemmon, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder.

But the academy’s list of more than 100 notable 20th-century graduates on its Web site includes only a handful of scientists.

“Science has traditionally been the most neglected prep school field,” Arthur Powell writes in his 1996 book Lessons From Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition. “In contrast to foreign languages, science has not been associated with privilege. Prep school graduates have been less likely than college-bound public school students to respect it, study it in college, or make careers in it.”

At Phillips Academy, faculty members often referred to science as the “Cinderella of the academic program,” said Vincent B.J. Avery, the dean of studies at the school, located north of Boston. “They were in the rags, not the satins.”

But Mr. Avery and others say that second-class status is changing.

Gerard Piel, the founder of Scientific American magazine, said in an interview that he was required to take only one science course when he graduated from Phillips Academy in 1933. Now, students must take two years of laboratory sciences, but more than 80 percent of graduates have taken more than three years of science classes—and almost all take at least three years, according to John E. Rogers, the head of the school’s natural science division.

Mr. Rogers, a faculty member here since 1990, said that over the past decade, students have shown more interest in the subject and are aware that issues such as cloning, stem-cell research, and global warming are going to shape their adult lives.

“There used to be more of a sense that it was OK to just get through science,” Mr. Rogers said. “Now—even for kids who aren’t going to use science in their careers—it’s really important that they get a grounding in science. More and more people realize that there are advantages in having a fundamental understanding of science.”

‘An Urgent Need’

While prep school leaders recognize the importance of having a strong science program for intellectual reasons, they also know that they need such offerings for marketing purposes.

Several years ago, Blair Jenkins, the head of the Dana Hall School, overheard parents of prospective students ask if they could see the science classrooms. The tour guide said, “‘Well, you’ve already seen them,’” Ms. Jenkins said in recounting the event.

After that exchange, Ms. Jenkins said she knew that her school needed to build a new facility to replace the four crowded classrooms where the 334 high school girls learned science and conducted labs.

“The message it gave off—that we didn’t care about science education—was a very dangerous message to be giving our students,” Ms. Jenkins said. “That’s why I felt an urgent need” to build the new center.

One major reason prep schools like Dana Hall feel the need to respond is that students interested in science have higher-quality options from public magnet schools than ever before.

Over the past generation, several states and cities have opened new public schools in which teenagers can pursue their interest in science. Those schools have joined a handful of long-established public high schools specializing in science. The curriculum at schools such as the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, founded in 1938, and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., which opened in 1986, offers students a chance to take challenging subject matter and work in labs with professional scientists.

Private schools such as Phillips Academy can offer similar experiences, Mr. Rogers said, but not with the same focus that the public math and science schools do.

Like a liberal-arts college, the academy requires that students take a wide variety of classes and participate in sports. That philosophy may deter some students who would rather spend their after-school hours in a lab than playing intramural sports.

Lectures and Labs

Another reason private schools are building new science facilities is that they want to move away from lecture-based approaches to teaching.

For instance, Dana Hall’s high school students learn in science classrooms that are designed to be a hybrid between a lecture hall and a laboratory. The rooms are on the lower floor of a new building that houses the school’s library. The school raised the money for the project as part of a $20 million campaign that also paid for renovations to its middle school building.

One day last month, Linda J. McIntosh, the head of Dana Hall’s science program, opened a biology lecture with a review of how proteins function in bodies. She then described how proteins are structured.

By the end of the class period, the 13 girls in her class were building models of complex proteins and merging them into one, which the teacher was holding. With each lab group, Ms. McIntosh held the model as a girl attached a new protein to it.

Because the room is available for lectures and lab work, students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge immediately, Ms. McIntosh said.

“We’re always getting up and doing something,” said the 1967 Dana Hall graduate, who has taught at the school for 28 years. “It allows you to do more mini-labs that we can accomplish in a period or even a small part of a period.”

Phillips Academy will have similar setups in its new science building, according to Mr. Rogers, the head of Andover’s science faculty.

“We wanted to enable and encourage as many different types of interactions among students and faculty as we could imagine,” he said as he reviewed the blueprints of the building.

The teaching approach at Phillips and Dana Hall is common in the new prep school science facilities, and it’s one of the reasons schools are building new science centers, said Mr. Tacy of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools.

Schools are finding that it’s difficult to renovate their current classrooms and labs into rooms that combine those functions. Once schools add in the cost of meeting safety codes that the current buildings are exempt from, they find that it’s cost-effective to build a new science center and use the old building for a different purpose, Mr. Tacy said.

“This is the front edge of a wave that is going to be changing math and science,” he said. “The model that’s favored now is: You do a little bit of both [lectures and labs] at the same time, and you go back and forth.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Long-Neglected Science On Rise at Prep Schools

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