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Nowell Hesse at the Senior Lunch 2020

The K-12 Continuum: The Parent Association's deep dive into the High School Curriculum

Sara Perry
PA Board Secretary Sara Perry sits down with Head of High School Nowell Hesse to discuss Ensworth's strategic approach to learning across the Red Gables and Frist campuses.

It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Nowell Hesse about Ensworth’s approach to curriculum and strategic alignment across the Red Gables and Frist campuses. Hesse joined Ensworth as Head of High School in 2019 and previously was the Head of Upper School at the Isidore Newman School, a pre-K through twelfth-grade independent school in New Orleans. What is immediately clear is how passionate Hesse is about education and helping each student discover their unique interests, capabilities, and strengths while also preparing them with key skills for a lifetime of learning.

According to Hesse, Ensworth’s program is designed to foster a gradual mastery of a set of core skills, coupled with broad content knowledge in the major disciplines and mastery in individual areas of interest. Years spent in the lower school grades are designed to create foundational skills and knowledge, which then are built upon in middle school and honed in high school.

At the high school level, the Harkness method is a pedagogy utilized to instill the core skills. The Harkness method fosters a community of learners who value the richness of human interaction, believing it to be at the heart of learning. The Harkness table forms an integral part of the identity of the high school, reflecting our school motto, In Search of Truth, which advocates active rather than passive learning. 

Chris Thompson teaching science

The large oval table is an excellent medium for this search. It physically unites the class, bringing teachers and students together to facilitate face-to-face interaction. It reinforces the importance of listening and speaking with respect. It also demands of its students both preparation for class as well as sustained engagement during class. 

The coursework in 9th and 10th grades focuses on completing the proficiency and exposure requirements for graduation for all students; these include the six major disciplines of English, History, Language, Arts, Math, and Science, as well as a fitness requirement to promote physical well being. In 11th and 12th grades, there is significantly more choice in coursework, providing students the opportunity to design a course of study that is both balanced and tailored to their individual interests and abilities. In fact, according to Hesse, "There are as many ways to fulfill the coursework requirements as there are students in any given graduating class.”

Our students have plenty of guidance through the course selection process and are assigned academic advisors/college counselors in the 9th grade that partner with them for the following four years. These counselors develop a deep understanding of each student as an individual and are able to help them to determine a multi-year plan for their time in high school, allowing for adjustments as new areas of focus or capabilities are discovered. 

typical student schedule

For parents of lower school students, the Frist Campus can seem far off both in terms of time and distance; however, even beyond the curriculum and academics, Ensworth strives for strategic alignment across its two campuses. The school is focused on continuing to grow the collaboration and conversations between the department heads and teachers on both campuses about how to effectively integrate and reinforce the learning experiences across the grades, best preparing our Red Gables students for success at the High School. 

Hesse emphasized that learning happens both in and outside of the classroom; therefore, the school seeks to create alignment across the arts, athletics, and the school community to create a familiar connection for students as they graduate from Red Gables to Frist Campus. For example, the recently adopted Middle/High School Athletic Philosophy ensures that High School and Middle School counterparts are intentionally coordinating to create a fulsome sixth through twelfth-grade athletic program that feels connected and consistent for our students. In addition, there are countless opportunities for our younger students to visit or utilize the Frist campus for athletic events, theater performances, dance recitals, extracurricular activities as well as the beloved Super Saturday in the spring. 

The administration puts an incredible amount of time and focus into creating a learning environment that fosters excellence and emphasizes knowing each student, including understanding how our experience of distance learning impacts them and how best to stay the course, even in unprecedented circumstances, to impart core skills and knowledge. 

To learn even more firsthand about how the High School approaches curriculum, we would encourage you to join Nowell Hesse’s presentation about the high school to 4th-6th grade parents that will be held in January - more details on this to follow in the coming months.
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