A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel
Tours and visits to private independent schools show how enriching an educational experience can be when government restrictions are minimal, with extreme local control and funding is optimal. It is not surprising that these are key components to deliver educational opportunities for all!
We visited the all girls’ Mary Erskine School, one of the three schools of the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools system (ESMS). It is an independent secondary school associated with the boys’ school and the primary center, the equivalent of our preK-6 program. We met with Mrs. Velma Moule, the head of the girls’ school and, as of the next school year, the head of the entire ESMS operation.
The organization of the combined schools is unusual, based upon a diamond structure. Envision the bottom point as co-ed nursery for 3- and 4-year-olds. Then you separate the boys and the girls, the horizontal points, for single sex primary and secondary school and at the top of the diamond the students come together for a coed senior year.
Many students begin in the primary class and continue throughout secondary school. The entire ESMS has almost 2,800 students with 760 in the girls’ school, 760 in the boys’ school and 1,250 in the co-ed component. This is a large institution for an independent school and is considered one of Scotland’s best.
Admission is selective and students must have a required level of proficiency on the Cognitive Abilities Test. Surprisingly, their biggest challenge is the competition for students with other independent/private schools in the Edinburgh area, but Mary Erskine holds its own, always operating at capacity. In the metropolitan area, 25 percent of students attend independent schools as compared to the Highlands, where less than 5 percent attend independent schools. Nationally, the figure is 7 percent.
The grounds and school buildings of the two campuses we visited are beautiful. The girls’ school—the focus of this blog—is exceptional with a mix of old and new facilities. Students wear a classic uniform with a red and blue tartan kilt, and a blue blazer with the school’s emblem. Most students are from means and able to afford the $13,000 annual tuition per student that supports the school, with no aid from the Scottish government.
No more than 5 percent of the students receive “bursar aide”, support for the tuition payment based on need, but they must still meet the rigid entrance requirements. The students are required to take the state regulated end-of-year standardized exams, based upon the ACCESS TO EXCELLENCE standards. The school, however, as an independent school, does not have to teach that curriculum and is free to provide more comprehensive offerings. All the teachers must be accredited by the government, with mandated professional development and continuing education.
Our young senior girl tour guides were exceptional, with a keen understanding of the “ethos” of the school, representing not only academics, but a clear understanding of citizenship, service, and a sense of values even though they are a non- secular school. We saw classrooms that were rather traditional and others more engaging and hands on—a real mix of teaching and learning. Twenty-first century skills were seen in design technology and manufacturing classes, including fashion design with top notch projects at the secondary levels.
The school has a wide range of extra-curricular activities including athletics and clubs. Some of these activities are fee-based and all staff are expected to participate in sponsoring clubs and competitions, including travel abroad. One of our tour guides was about to attend a trip to Florida and the other was going to New York City and Boston. The range of opportunities and experiences were impressive.
There were many similarities and some differences with our system. Many of our independent schools and some of our more affluent public schools have these exclusive opportunities. Unfortunately, decisions to offer such experiences often boil down to money, turning into the usual “haves versus the have nots.”
If only we could equalize the playing field so that all children could be “haves”! I am not sure if we will see that in our lifetime. However, we are obligated to continue to advocate at both the state and national levels for fair funding and limiting unfunded educational regulations from both the state and federal level.
For me, this visit continues to highlight the need for strong membership in both the state association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association. We need to continue to advocate and be the voice for America’s children.
Amy Sichel is the superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa. She also served as the 2013-14 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.