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Q: When children leave LWS, how well do they make the transition from a school with fewer than 100 children to a high school that may have over 1000 students?
Helen: We received a striking testimonial that speaks to this. A graduate who’s now in high school sent us an unsolicited email. He expressed how astonished he was by his new friends’ lack of awareness of their impact on other people. He said, “They banter back and forth. I can tell when somebody’s feelings are getting hurt, but when I bring it up to them, they haven’t even noticed.”
He said, “This is something you taught me.” “You” meaning the culture of LWS, because we are seamlessly committed to nurturing our students’ ability to understand the other people’s realities.
Another former student told us about freshman orientation at a prestigious private high school where she enrolled. The teachers spent a great deal of time and energy reassuring the freshmen that they didn’t have to be afraid of them. She said she was sitting there thinking, “Why would any student be afraid of a teacher?” Because we nurture a culture of respect and affection for one another – we have a very healthy environment.
Gary: It’s a question we’re asked regularly: How prepared are our graduates for the transition to high school?
Our graduates have been accepted and have excelled at the most rigorous high schools in the Bay Area, including Harker, Menlo, St. Francis, Bellarmine, and Woodside Priory. We have a wall of testimonial letters from our graduates. When they return for a visit, we always ask them, “How are you doing? Did we prepare you well? Were you ready for high school?” And they invariably do wonderfully well.
A boy who graduated last year was accepted at Woodside Priory, based almost entirely on his application interview.
The interviewer was deeply impressed by how this boy was able to hold himself well and talk to an adult in an intelligent, mature, yet natural way. We attribute it to his training in theater – that he could make such a favorable impression that he was accepted.
We have dozens of similar stories about our graduates. We’ve also compiled statistics on our graduates’ high-school grade point averages that spell out how well they do. They’re in honor programs, they take AP courses, and they graduate from college. A graduate of LWS is majoring in physics at UC Berkeley, and another is working on a double major in art and political science at Berkeley.
We have a recent graduate who’s at Stanford, where he’s thriving academically and playing baseball. When he was accepted at Stanford, this boy made a point of calling to thank us for preparing him so well. LWS had such a deep impact on this boy that he called to thank Helen for preparing him. Our graduates often come back and rave about Helen’s preparation in language arts and thank her for teaching them to write well.
One of our recent graduates is exceptional, although he isn’t completely outside the norm for our school. He was the first student in the history of Woodside Priory to be allowed to take calculus as a freshman, because he had already finished Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and Trigonometry at Living Wisdom. The teacher immediately recognized that he needed to take advanced calculus class as a freshman. By February he had finished the year’s curriculum, and the school is wrestling with what they can do for him.
Another LWS graduate is at Gunn High in Palo Alto, where he’s in the most advanced math course they offer to freshmen, Algebra 2/Trigonometry. He was allowed to take the class based on his SAT scores and his entrance exam score.
Aside from academics, I believe our school prepares the children in other important ways, through our field-trip experiences, our theater program, and the school culture of kindness. We work constantly with the students’ energy, and they learn to exercise their will and to persevere in overcoming obstacles. We hold them accountable in many ways, so that when they get to high school, they’re ready to work hard, meet others, and find their place.
Some students struggle in the beginning here, because it takes them a while to integrate what we’re teaching. But when they get to high school, they do superbly – 4.0’s at charter schools, for example. With some students, it isn’t immediately obvious that they are talented. They may not be spectacularly gifted students, but they do stellar things when they graduate. Our students’ successes are real – they aren’t make-believe.
Helen: We understand the need for testing, but we’ve chosen to face it differently. We equip our children with a different model for learning, where it’s not cramming to get a high grade or test score, but understanding something new and exciting and interesting on a deep level, and doing one’s best. We’ve found that our approach works in the “real world” of academic results as well, because the best way to prepare for testing is to achieve a high level of competence in the subject, and have genuine personal enthusiasm for it.
This touches on the culture that pervades our school. Our children transition from taking spelling, math, and reading tests in the early grades, to taking national tests in middle school. In math, for example, our middle schoolers participate in the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) and the Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools. In Language Arts, they take the WordMasters Challenge.
So while we may talk about the proof being in the pudding, and how well the children do once they leave us, it’s important to know that they do very well, in measurable ways, while they’re here. For such a small school, it’s remarkable how many kids, every year, are operating in the 96th, 97th, 98th, and 99th percentile on the national tests.
The WordMasters Challenge requires children to solve verbal analogies. It’s extremely helpful when they leave LWS, because similar analogies crop up in entrance exams for private high schools and on the SATs. The test items are amazingly sophisticated – they would stump many adults. We teach the children strategies for solving the analogies, which involve not only understanding vocabulary, but roots, usage, and context.
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