A Foundation that Lasts a Lifetime

By Tim Bazemore, Head of School

The Head of School shares thoughts on the principles of progressive education and how we define academic excellence at Catlin Gabel

At Catlin Gabel, academic excellence has a deep, broad, and durable meaning. Excellence here is built on a holistic approach, equipping students with the academic content and skills to help them grow toward their potential as compassionate, curious, and courageous members of society. Our four principles of progressive education are the foundation for curriculum design and learning experiences, in and out of the classroom, and lead to near-term achievement and long-term success. What does this look like in each division?

In Catlin Gabel’s Beginning and Lower School, our definition of rigor is based on a progressive approach to education, which challenges children to engage in complex thinking by listening to others, asking relevant questions, understanding how to be a member of a classroom community, and making sense of unfamiliar ideas. Beginning in preschool, students are immersed in materials and physical experiences that are new to them and require the use of tactile and visual senses. Practicing new skills, from letter formation and number operations to a new language, are part of every child’s daily experience, as is gaining confidence in their own abilities and in school routines and expectations.

Inquiry-based learning, in which a child’s innate curiosity guides them forward to the next question or insight, is carefully planned and guided by Catlin Gabel’s teachers who have specific academic and learning objectives in mind. Academic benchmarks are developed collaboratively based on both expertise and experience, as well as external sources such as Literacy Units of Study from Teachers College, Columbia; Illustrative Math objectives; and Common Core standards. The materials teachers introduce, the way the classroom is designed, the culture that is fostered, and the experiences children encounter are intentional and purposeful. Thoughtful guidance by expert teachers respects each child’s curiosity and growing social skills. Ongoing assessment toward benchmark learning objectives ensures students make progress in skills and understanding.

In the three years of Middle School, academic excellence at Catlin Gabel is defined by “doing school well,” which includes managing more complex academic tasks and questions, directing their curiosity and energy, accepting responsibility, developing a confident voice, and navigating shifting social relationships.

Students in grades 6-8 continue to refine universal skills such as writing, problem-solving, public speaking and presentations, and evidence-based reasoning, while also building foundational knowledge in subject-specific courses in preparation for advanced study in high school. Specific academic benchmarks in math, science, reading, and language, as well as age-appropriate objectives in art and music, guide teachers in planning lessons that challenge students. Those benchmarks are based on teachers’ experience and expertise, and external standards including those from Next Generation Science (NGSS), the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards, and the Association of Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). In all subjects, we want students to understand that sharing ideas and making mistakes contribute to understanding and achievement, as hard as this concept is during these self-conscious middle school years. 

In the Upper School, the focus shifts to the skills and dispositions that a student needs in all subject areas to succeed in higher education, and more important, to learn anything, anywhere, anytime. The 9th and 10th grade academic program requires students to hone their academic skills, organizational habits, participation behaviors, and teacher-relationship skills. Electives within and across academic disciplines in the 11th and 12th grades are increasingly specific in their focus and sophisticated in their demands. Students can select from more than 100 courses at Catlin Gabel, such as neurobiology, philosophy, linear algebra, portfolio art, as well as online classes offered through a global consortium of independent schools that allow students to go deep into newfound interests or potential future fields of study.

In all classes, teachers cultivate curiosity, develop transferable skills, and reinforce values of kindness, inclusion, and integrity. AP, SAT and ACT scores are above average compared to both public and other independent schools. Short-term measures of test-taking skills and discrete knowledge; however, are not our primary focus. Just like in preschool, the best indicators of academic excellence in the Upper grades are sustaining curiosity while gaining knowledge, confidence, empathy, and the ability to reason, think critically, and solve problems.

In all divisions, we measure academic excellence in traditional and innovative ways so that students can demonstrate progress and understanding by showing what they know and what they can do. At Catlin Gabel, we believe that progressive education provides students with maximum opportunity in their next educational phase and forms a disposition toward learning and understanding others, a foundation that lasts a lifetime. That is academic excellence.