Dr. Dan Hickey, head of school.
A conversation with Dr. Dan Hickey, the head of school.
You’ve just completed your first year as new head of school at Upland after 11 years at Tower Hill School. What have you observed in your first year?
In my previous roles in admissions and as a teacher, I knew Upland Country Day School students to be confident, interesting kids who were good students. When I came here during the search process, I began to put it together that the culture here is about building character. Upland helps kids develop into people of integrity, and it starts very early here. That emphasis, plus solid academic approaches, is very cool.
Many private schools are struggling with enrollment. But Upland has seen a 10 percent increase in enrollment over the last year. What do you attribute this to?
Like many schools, Upland was hit hard in 2008. Upland also sits in the midst of a really strong public school district where people pay high property taxes and move here for the schools. In recent years, with the addition of new and innovative programs such as Harkness and The Kleberg IDEA Center, as well as the addition of some key faculty and staff members, our program has really solidified and people are taking notice.
Our current enrollment is 156 students including two who just arrived from Guatemala. We’ve had an exchange program for several decades with Finland, and our 8th and 9th graders go to Finland, Iceland and Germany. We offer busing for kids who live in seven Pennsylvania school districts and van service for students living just across the border in Delaware.
We’re institutionally strong, accessible, and provide a great product for families with young kids.
You mentioned The Harkness Method. Upland is the only local school that uses that program. Why do you feel it’s important for students to learn in this way?
The Harkness Method originated at Phillips Exeter Academy, an independent boarding school in New Hampshire, in 1930. Edward Harkness believed learning should be a democratic affair, and based his approach to teaching and learning on casual conversations and formal debates. Twelve students and one teacher sit around an oval table to actively engage in a collaborative approach to problem solving and learning.
The Harkness Method is used in grades 6 through 9 at Upland. It looks different from other learning methods because it’s student-centered and allows them to gravitate to what interests them. If what they’re learning resonates, odds are it will stick. Teachers still steer discussions, but kids come to the table with questions, and share thoughts and have discussions. Using this method doesn’t replace qualified teacher instruction, but it balances traditional teaching methods with opportunities for students to lead conversations. While they’re learning subject matter, they’re also learning how to communicate effectively. As we like to say, it gives students the opportunity to find their voices.
You’ve just launched a new three-year-old early learning center that focuses on community and outdoor learning. Tell us about the programming.
The BeeSchool Preschool is an innovative new initiative that combines a play-based philosophy for early childhood education with all the advantages of our core programming—our idyllic 23-acre woodland campus, the 4A’s curriculum (Academics, Arts, Athletics, Attitude), focus on problem solving, and emphasis on community.
Young children (ages three and up) spend time with older students, both in and out of the classroom, which exposes them to the possibilities the larger Upland community offers. The BeeSchool program includes the arts, outdoor activities, music, literacy, number foundations, socialization and self-discovery. It’s a great transition point between childcare and school, as we thoughtfully tie our mindset of experiential learning to these younger kids too.
The school is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. What does the future hold for Upland?
Upland’s 70th anniversary is a nice round number to celebrate our history, and we’re looking toward our 75th, a big milestone. We’re planning a capital campaign to upgrade our early childhood center and facilities. We also seek to grow our endowment, so that we’re able to build our experiential learning programs, professionally develop our faculty, draw more support for our operating budget, and enhance Upland’s accessibility through scholarships and tuition assistance.
One of the greatest differentiators at Upland is that all kids participate fully—in academics, sports, the arts and citizenship. How does this—and the fact that your student body is now pre-school through 9th grade—set you apart from educational experiences at other schools?
I’ve always known that 9th graders differ greatly and are developmentally in a lot of different places. Spending an extra year here, where they are placed in positions of greater responsibility as leaders, allows them to step up and do a lot, which does wonders for their confidence and self-esteem. I haven’t met many people who attended a traditional high school who say their freshman year (as a 9th grader) was awesome, but here, 9th graders are given an extra year to cook in an environment like ours. You can see how transformative it is for kids.
As far as full participation across the board in academics, sports, the arts and citizenship is concerned, this is an area that’s rich with opportunities for experiential learning. We have partnerships with Stroud Water Research Center, the Mount Cuba Center, the Kennett community garden and other places, so kids have many opportunities to do activities that are connected to what they’re learning in the classroom. Students are going on field trips almost every week as opposed to once or twice a year. A focus on their interconnectedness with the environment, for example, makes what they’re learning more memorable and builds character too.
Kids leave Upland very confident and self-assured because of the breadth of experiences they’re exposed to here. Since they are expected to participate fully in classrooms, plays, sports teams and everything else, they become used to performing in venues they might not choose if given the choice. This makes them better at communicating with each other, learning to appropriately disagree and working intentionally. Learning is not just about unconscious osmosis here; students are working to get better at something, which creates a rich character of culture and loyalty.
For more information, please contact Upland Country Day School to schedule a tour of the campus.
Upland Country Day School
420 West Street Road, Kennett Square, PA 19348
(610) 444-7744 • www.uplandcds.org