Structure and Variety at St. John School on Gifft Hill

Letter to Editor:

It has been wonderful over the last few weeks to discover broad and enthusiastic support for my goal of expanding our school’s tough college prep curriculum to include electives like gardening, culinary arts and animal care — and to find also great excitement over our aim to increase after-school offerings, summer programs, student employment opportunities, weekend workshops, and community-centered activities. While we will strive foremost — always — to improve the quality and quantity of our core college preparatory offerings (more AP and Honors classes, more foreign language classes, improved SAT preparation), it is fantastic to find that we are not alone in imagining our school should absolutely reflect St. John: nor alone in recognizing that we can also in the process of doing just that — lo and behold — give it something special to say for itself amid the homogenized landscape of American high schools. A smattering of truly, truly unique college prep programs currently exists; one such special school is a working ranch in Colorado, where cattle wrangling is a compliment of Calculus and Philosophy. This program is adored by the top colleges: an intense college prep school unlike your run of the mill intense college prep school.

Our program will, likewise, develop work ethic and commitment by providing students with sophisticated, hands-on responsibility in the great outdoors — hopefully instilling in them respect for the ideas of thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who saw enlightenment in hardiness and nature (but who meanwhile read, studied and wrote passionately). A problem in American education today is the pervasive belief that serious study can just as well exclude challenging experience.

Such misconceptions aside, we want to see a gardening class up the hill from a PE class up the hill from a 3rd grade class apprenticing with juniors at our stable; we want landscaping across from dance following hands-on botany after lessons in biology; we want in our science museum, catapults and coral reef exhibits after Physics and Marine Biology lessons — and on a distant woodshop bench, under the shade of a blooming lignum vitae, a senior study hall spent reading Toni Morrison paused as an ELC class troops by on a fresh gravel path. The whole campus should be filled with the works of our students: from their sculptures and fine furniture to their culinary creations and landscape designs. That way, if a student does not fancy the wooden bench she has built, perhaps her lovely painting saves the day, or her performance in theater, or, as many will decide, her return to an ever-growing sanctuary of books and advanced study — overseen by a group of phenomenal teachers.

Students are going to love our school (very many do now!); and they’ll love it almost as much as college admissions offices do — whose staffs are far more human than their website’s priorities suggest. One way to grab attention through the mass of numbers these admissions people so regret having to live and breathe is to be unique — and we have some unique kids. This fact, though, to come most readily to light, benefits from a proper background — that is, as emerging from a program that has already captured the attention of the colleges. When colleges see a great school, a unique school, and begin to trust that place for integrity and originality (and for possessing a per-child over number-centric belief in education) they will know to trust themselves to an equally unique analysis of its students.

Ben Biddle
SJSOGH Head Administrator
2006-2007 School Year