by Paula M. Riley

When Priscilla Sands, president of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, describes the new school year she repeatedly uses the word “joy”.

“We are creating school on the foundation of joy in learning, joy in being together and joy in our history – all to create a joyful experience for our children,” she said.

Testing their engineering skills, robotics team members Jeffrey Ng, Laurenson Ward, and Melanie Rankin work on the school's award-winning robot. The school's innovative curricula incorporates two new departments—Engineering and Robotics and New Media—and is just one of the many highlights at SCH Academy.

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy is the result of combining Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy. Though the two private academies had shared consolidated elements of their organizations in the past few years, this new school year marks the first as SCH Academy.

As one school, SCH Academy is the consolidation of all administrative offices and academic departments and includes five divisions – two lower schools, two middle schools and one upper school – and now refers to the school’s 62-acre campuses as the Willow Grove (formerly CHA) and Cherokee (formerly Springside) campuses.

This school year, the lower schools and middle schools will remain single-sex, and the upper school will follow its coordinate program (partial co-educational program in 9th & 10th grade and fully co-educational in 11th & 12th). Next year marks the first year of SCH Academy opening its doors to a fully co-educational high school. There are no plans for either the lower or middle schools to go co-ed.

Karen Tracy, director of communications and marketing, described the blending of the schools.

“This is so epic – we have examined every aspect of school life and looking at it through a new lens,” she said. “We have been purposeful, intentional and thoughtful in all we’ve done.”

From the outside, it may seem as if the new school began as a blank canvas where everything is starting anew, but Sands is quick to emphasize that SCH Academy is the result of “taking and leveraging the best of what we do.”

During the past year, academic departments were combined, and faculty members were challenged to introduce new and exciting approaches and to transform the curriculum to project-based, passion-based learning.

“This is a place that is completely open to the power of “possibility,” Sands added. “We encourage creativity and innovation and invite everyone to think boldly, take intellectual risks and collaborate in new and exciting ways.”

This summer faculty members participated in the “Sandbox Series,” professional development classes for faculty. Over 100 faculty members participated, investing 1000+ hours in various workshops, digital playgrounds, roundtable discussions and peer coaching sessions. Ten faculty members participated in Stanford School’s Design School Boot Camp and two attended the Nueva Design Institute at the Nueva School in California

Student focus groups and informal lunch meetings provide students with an opportunity to share their thoughts on developing the new school student life.

“The kids are hugely invested in creating the school,” Sands said. “We have empowered them to make a lot of decisions.”

The students have engaged in conversations on dress code, discipline, leadership and roles (Will there be a female head of student body and a male head of student body or just one?). They have been asked questions, such as “What are the tenets of an ethical and compassionate community – how do you create this?”

Sands described this year as the most exciting beginning she has ever experienced.

“We have the best faculty meetings ever,” she said. “When Frank Steel and I addressed the full faculty on Wednesday, we felt the energy in the room.”

Frank Steel, former headmaster at CHA, is the head of school at SCH, running day-to-day operations atthe school.

The transition to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy has not been joyous for everyone. When news first broke of a potential blending of the schools, many alumni were very apprehensive of a merger and what it would mean to the rich traditions that defined their student experience. Rumors were flying, and alumni, as well as existing parents, were getting nervous.

CHA alumni wondered what would become of the Blue Devil and those five blue stripes that have such significance, and Springside alumnae worried that girls would not be given a strong voice and might be lost in the shuffle of a co-ed school.

“Yes, it was hard on some alums,” Sands said, “but not all.”

Sands said many of the alumni considered the combining of schools to be a very good idea. She said she knows this because she has meet with hundreds of alumni, as well as parents and students, during the last 12 months. Over intimate chicken curry dinners at her home and individual and group meetings, she answered many questions but mostly she tried to listen.

“There were so many rumors, we had so many questions,” said Wendy Concannon, Springside ’82, parent of Springside alum and parent of two boys at SCH Academy.

As her questions were answered and she got over the initial shock, Concannon saw the many benefits.

“To me, they have taken something really great and made it even better,” she added.

Mark Greenberg, CHA ’92, had a similar experience. He is the parent of a son and daughter. When Greenberg first learned of the schools merging, he was apprehensive.

“Yes I was opposed to this initially, and I although I am still unclear on all that will come of this change, I do accept it and look confidently towards the future,” he said. “I trust that the very capable leaders who have invested extensive time and effort are doing what is in the best interest of the school.”

He equates the change to when Epsicopal Academy created an entirely new campus and facilities when the school moved to Malvern.

“It seems as though SCH Academy has the opportunity to do the same for their academic programs and offer new and progressive methods of learning,” he said.

Concannon reminds her fellow alumni and parents that for nearly five decades the schools have shared a coordinate program and in the past few years have begun to combine security, maintenance, admissions and other administrative departments.

Today, the focus of SCH is looking toward its future as it becomes a much larger school (1130 students). The board of trustees has authorized Wallace Roberts and Todd architects to provide master planning services. The firm will review existing conditions of both campuses and address the long-term needs of the institution as one school. It will meet with various stakeholders – administrators, alumni, parents and neighbors – and will submit formal recommendations to the board.

The master plan is another thrilling element of this process, and Sands remains excited about what it will deliver. She is confident that as parents, alumni and community members learn more about the programs, new media, faculty and resources at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, they, too, will share her joy.

To those who are concerned about the change, she reminded them of the history of the two institutions.

“The wave of the future is partnerships,” she said “We are just expanding on something that has been part of the school for the last 40 years.”