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North Hills Monthly

Shady Side Academy Challenges Students to Excel Beyond Expectations

Dec 01, 2014 10:18AM ● By Vanessa Orr
There’s a lot of learning that takes place in high school, not just in academic subjects, but in life skills as well. Students discover who they are, what they like, and how to interact with the world around them. By immersing themselves in different opportunities, they are given the chance to explore future options, and in turn, choose a path that will lead them to where they want to go.

At Shady Side Academy Senior School, providing students with a balanced array of academics, arts and athletics is key to helping them become critical thinkers as well as well-rounded individuals. Students are encouraged to use all of their abilities and to push beyond their comfort zones as they explore all of the possibilities open to them.

“One of the advantages of a Shady Side Academy education is that it provides a more individualized experience for students—they take charge of what they want to do,” explained history teacher Rachel McCool. “Not only do we offer a huge variety of academic classes, but they have access to numerous sports and arts activities as well, which provides them with the opportunity to latch onto what they have a passion for, whether that’s playing tennis or performing Shakespeare.”

According to Head of Senior School Kate Vavpetic, it is not unusual to see a star athlete performing in the winter musical or a top science student playing saxophone in the jazz ensemble. “The balanced curriculum of academics, arts and athletics creates kids that think in different ways, and interact with each other and adults in different ways,” she explained. “By being able to explore their different interests, students can develop into who they really are—a mathematician, for example, might also be the captain of the football team and sing in the chorus.”

The ability to explore many different options was a key factor in Mont and Kate Pooley’s decision to enroll their three children, Kara, Annie and Mont, in Shady Side Academy. “All three of our kids are very different from each other; they are different types of students, and have different interests,” explained Mont Pooley. “But we knew that they would all thrive in an environment where the interaction between faculty, administration and students was more intimate; where they would be able to optimize each of their skill sets.”

Diversity is encouraged at Shady Side Academy, not just in individual interests, but in the sharing of ideas as well. Small, discussion-based classes encourage a wealth of different opinions, and a diverse student body—including kids from 54 different zip codes in Allegheny County, 11 other Pennsylvania counties, four states and China—ensure that many differing voices are heard. “Our ninth and tenth grade history classes offer a focus on different religions of the world, and instead of just reading about these religions, we have students who have grown up in these belief systems who can talk about their experiences,” said Vavpetic. “Kids are comfortable sharing because the class sizes are small, so they all know each other well.”

In addition to promoting bonding between students, small class sizes also encourage everyone to get involved—and to be prepared to learn. The average class size at Shady Side Academy is 13 students, and the school boasts a student-teacher ratio of 8:1. “The small class size was definitely a big adjustment coming from North Allegheny,” said Kara Pooley, a senior at Shady Side Academy. “It forces students to always do their homework because our classes are based on discussions. If one person does not do their homework, the whole class will know.

“The small class sizes also provide students with the chance to teach each other, rather than a curriculum where the teacher is the main source of information,” she added. “No one is left out because there are not many of us, which gives students confidence to participate in class because they are not overwhelmed by a large number of kids.”

“It is easier to have a discussion-based class where everyone gets to participate when you have nine or 10 students; you can’t do this with 30 students, because there are just too many voices,” added McCool. “Students also get a lot more personal attention, so you know who is engaged and who is not and who could use more help or encouragement; it promotes a lot more interaction between teachers and students.”

This connection is further strengthened through the teacher/coach/mentor model, which allows teachers and students to get to know each other outside the classroom. “Having coaches as mentors and teachers around our campus is definitely a great aspect at Shady Side,” said Kara Pooley. “Knowing coaches and teachers in different ways makes it easier to approach them with a problem. There is always someone to talk to if you need to get your mind off the rigorous curriculum, and it also gives us the chance to see each other in different elements, which helps us build deeper relationships.”

Everything at Shady Side Academy is geared toward helping students reach their full potentials, from the one-on-one interaction with teachers to the emphasis on communication skills within classes. “Writing is emphasized across the curriculum, even in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects,” said Vavpetic. “Students need to be able to articulate what they are thinking both orally and in writing, and to present their ideas to their peers. Many workplaces require collaboration and the ability to group problem-solve, which requires that students be able to write and speak well.”

By creating such well-rounded students, Shady Side Academy is preparing them for success in college and in life. The school enjoys a 100 percent college placement rate, which includes the Pooley’s oldest children—Annie, who is a junior at Hamilton College, and Mont, who graduated from Colgate University last May.

“I think that the reason that Shady Side Academy students succeed is that when they make a commitment—whether it’s in class, in sports or in group art activities—they go all in,” said Kate Pooley. “The expectation is there that students should always do their best, and the environment is there to support that. This school brought out the best in our kids.”  

423 Fox Chapel Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15238

This advertorial has been provided by Shady Side Academy.