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How Educating the Whole Child Can Lead to Lasting Results in (and Out of) the Classroom

Courtesy of Solebury School

Classes at Solebury School in New Hope — an hour’s drive away from Philly — begin at 8:30 a.m. most days, and at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesdays. But that wasn’t always the case. Like many schools, this boarding and day school started classes earlier. That’s until it began to notice mounting research surrounding the positive effects of a later class start time on students’ grades and overall morale. Not one to be passive, the school decided it couldn’t ignore this data any longer, and made a change. 

At independent schools like Solebury, administrators are free to develop their own policies around the type of institution they want to be. This freedom has led to the advancement of progressive ideas in its educational approach. Solebury considers itself a part of the progressive education movement, constantly evaluating what is and isn’t working and making adjustments accordingly. 

“The progressive mindset has been at the heart of what Solebury is about since its founding,” says Scott Eckstein, the school’s director of enrollment management and financial aid. “With the start times example, [since the change], our grades are up and our kids have more ability to be engaged.”

Eckstein says that these results are indicative of what the school stands for — designing a 360-degree model for the way it educates its students and setting them up for success in and out of the classroom. 

Implementing a Holistic Approach 

Founded in 1925 as a progressive schooling alternative, Solebury School sits on an 140-acre campus with a stream running through campus and trails to explore. Catering to students grades 9-12, it offers options for boarding in dorms full-time or sticking to traditional school day hours. Because of its proximity to city centers, students have the luxury of living on a self-contained campus with the option of going home for the weekend if they choose. 

The school prides itself on listening to students’ needs and ensuring that while they’re living on their own, they feel a sense of community on campus. Solebury students are encouraged to explore artistic expression — creativity is ingrained in the school’s curriculum as it works to create a three-dimensional learning environment. That curriculum is also defined by individualized learning, where a student might accelerate in a specific subject compared to another.

Courtesy of Solebury School

One way this takes shape is in the specialization of class offerings. Solebury keeps its class sizes small to help facilitate independent thought and foster relationships with faculty. For example, a student interested in meteorology or astronomy can take a class in that specific discipline and learn from an instructor who not only shares that interest, but can help them nurture it.

“We’re small enough within the classroom to where we can tailor things to individual kids,” Eckstein says. “We teach kids how to understand the various pursuits that we all have in life, the different things that can occupy our time, and the way to juggle those in a way that helps us be fulfilled.”

Designing a Progressive Education 

Solebury School puts more on students’ plates as they advance grades —  juniors and seniors are mostly the ones taking honors and AP Classes. Students are also given the opportunity to explore their interests through electives and even graduate with a concentration in one area to put on their college resume. 

“When our kids apply to college, they actually know what they’re interested in and the way that intersects with their talent,” Eckstein says. “It allows them to apply to college as a confident and interesting applicant and to be successful.”

Solebury works to enroll students it feels would best benefit from its teaching methods. That means recruiting students who are ready to dive into their education head-first as well as those who might be seeking a different approach to assist with areas where they’re struggling. 

At a school with small class sizes, Eckstein says, students want to get to know everyone quickly because they spend so much time together. This bleeds into the classroom, where familiarity can cultivate engaging discussions and an exploration of each students’ interests. 

Courtesy of Solebury School

“The kids who do best here want to enjoy a real connection with faculty and other students around them,” Eckstein says. “And the kids who maximize their time are the ones who see that relationship with faculty as important — the more connection they have, the greater their experience is going to be.” 

Solebury School Is Growing

What’s encouraging for the school: its approach is working. It enrolled a record number of students for the third year in a row this fall, and has plans for overall growth and raising the amount of students who board. It continues to run endowment and scholarship programs to assist with tuition, and has observed tangible growth and higher engagement from its students compared to their prior schooling experiences.

“We want our students to develop the capacity to be an empathetic person who understands the benefits of diversity and celebrates not just the things that make us different as people but that connect us,” Eckstein says. “If our students look back at their time here and feel like they learned a lot, grew a lot, had an impact on the school and its people, and were happy doing it, that’s a success story.”