Built on a foundation of courage, foresight, and vision, it is WT’s teachers who ensure that such a legacy of leadership in education continues to be a hallmark of the WT experience. Here we share an example from each division of this passionate and imaginative approach and its impact on creating the leaders of tomorrow.

Developing a Strong Foundation in Lower School

In August, when WT’s doors swing open on its 136th academic year, three-year-olds will walk through as the first students in Junior Pre-K. Through a customized curriculum developed by a team of Lower School leaders, this program will serve as an introduction to learning and school readiness.

“Our program will provide a thematic curriculum that incorporates multiple disciplines and learning styles to provide a well-rounded learning opportunity,” states Theresa Fox, a 17-year veteran of WT’s early and elementary education program, both in the classroom and as an administrator. “Students in our Junior Pre-K program will begin to develop a strong foundation for early literacy and number sense. Through learning centers, teachers will incorporate purposeful play, the arts, movement and muscle development, and socialization.”

Pre-Kindergarten Teaching Assistant Rihanna Vignolini (R) facilitates purposeful play with rising Kindergarten student Ron Jones (L) during arrival Time.

Over the past year, Fox and Jeremy Mangan (who served as Interim Associate Director of Lower School in 2021–2022)—the administrative team steering the program’s development—have worked closely with Lead Pre-K Teacher Alaina Loman, and a host of other Lower School educators, marshaling a broad range of expertise to craft the Junior Pre-K approach.

“This working group brought different perspectives to the development of the program,” notes Fox. It is this collaborative leadership style which will lead to early success. “Jeremy and I wanted the program to have input from the teachers. The Pre-K team of Loman, Rhianna Vignolini, and Roberta Schwarzbach have expertise in developmentally appropriate practices for this demographic of learners. First Grade Teacher Elizabeth Friedman has extensive knowledge of child development and early childhood pedagogy. And, our Specials Teachers, Kate Gugliotta, Kassandra Humberson, and Rebecca Iezzi, shared input on how their art, dance, and computer science programs can be woven into the Junior Pre-K interdisciplinary approach.”

Addressing the unique needs of three-year-olds was paramount to planning the program. “We are aware that three-year-old students have a different attention span, communication skills, and social emotional development than four-year-old students,” says Loman. “For example, our Pre-K students are moving in ten-minute intervals during different learning centers throughout the day. We know that this will need to look drastically different when engaging three-year-olds.”

A typical interdisciplinary lesson might feature apples as its theme. After reading a large picture book about apples, students would select pictures relating to the book, then work with a partner to sort a group of pictures into two different categories. Students would also learn to apply various skills in different areas including art, literacy, science, and motor and movement.

“Working closely with the Pre-K team, looking at their scope and sequence of learning goals and expected competencies for four-year-olds, has helped develop the framework for teaching and learning in Junior Pre-K,” says Fox. “When the Junior Pre-K students transition to Pre-K, they will have the readiness needed to begin the work that starts in Pre-K such as phonemic awareness, early math skills, and fostering independence.”

Making Connections in Middle School

An extracurricular science program launched ten years ago in response to student interest has grown into a Middle School mainstay. Science Olympiad, a competition consisting of 23 standards-based events in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines, is fun, rewarding—”and a stellar way to explore science,” says Science Teacher and coach Tracy Valenty.

“Science Olympiad fits perfectly with the hands-on nature of our science philosophy here at WT. Team members get to choose many of the events that they work on and compete in, so they can find something they are interested in, and really learn about it in-depth at their own pace. And sometimes kids get put into events because the team needs someone, which can open up new areas of interest and avenues of learning.”

The program has flourished under Valenty’s leadership, from its original team of six students in 2012 to its current roster of 31. The team first qualified for the state tournament in 2016—igniting a streak that continues to this day—and in 2019, an Upper School team was also formed (they, too, qualified for the state tournament).

“Study events” for the competition encourage students to dig deep into subject matter and concepts, while “laboratory events” challenge students to put into practice what they’ve learned. Through it all, passion is nurtured and discovery is celebrated—and it all augments science at WT.

From “aha!” moments when students realize how to apply their learning, to developing tenacity to push through tough problems, the impact of participation is almost impossible to measure. Students increase their interest, knowledge, and skills in science and engineering—and that’s just the beginning.

“Students develop confidence,” observes Valenty. “These exams and tasks are hard. When kids meet with success, it feels great and they believe they can do hard things. They expand social connections—even across grade levels—often forged during memorable circumstances,” adds Valenty. Another byproduct is learning responsibility: “They have to be prepared for events with everything they need; if not, they have to figure out what they need and how to get it.” Such positive experiences flow from the environment Valenty has purposefully created during a decade of coaching.

“The number one thing I try to do is establish a welcoming environment for kids who like and want to do science. This is a place where kids can ‘find their people’ and make connections. To make that happen, we developed a Rights and Responsibilities document to establish team norms. Students on the team helped me draft it, and all team members sign it so everyone has the same expectations. As a team, we work hard to provide an environment where everyone is supported, treated fairly, and encouraged to work together.”

That, she believes, helps fulfill her goal for the program: “I want to focus on teamwork, integrity in our work, good sportsmanship, and having fun, as well as learning and doing the science and engineering.”

Rising eighth grade students Maya Finke and Marcus Ost work to refine the construction of their trebuchet in the event Storm the Castle. In this event, students design, construct, and calibrate a trebuchet to launch a projectile to hit a target.

Abundant Possibilities in Upper School

When Nicole Nesbitt greets students this school year, she begins her seventh year as a WT Upper School Biology Teacher—and her first as Science Department Chair, taking the reins at the same time as the school moves away from the limitations of the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum. It is a pivotal moment, and Nesbitt couldn’t be more energized to help shape the abundant possibilities ahead for teachers and learners alike.

“One of the most rewarding things about teaching at WT is working with faculty throughout the school,” she enthuses. “WT provides us with a lot of freedom in terms of what and how we teach. This leaves room for teachers to be innovative and responsive to students’ needs, and allows us to provide unique experiences for our students to help them better understand the content.”

Nesbitt celebrates the opportunities unfolding now that AP constraints—such as what content must be taught, and the pace at which it must be covered—have been removed. “Now teachers can design classes more closely aligned with student interest and allow classes to delve deeper into content, rather than covering a lot of material at surface level.”

“It requires a lot of time and effort to design a whole new class, and it takes a year or two to tweak and refine,” she says. “But those are challenges that teachers enjoy. The science department is extremely excited to move away from AP curricula, and I am eager to support the other science teachers in developing their classes.”

Nesbitt is also firmly committed to improving her own practice. Last July, she attended the University of Columbia’s Klingenstein Summer Institute (KSI), a two-week intensive program for early career teachers focusing on DEI, cognitive science, and the teaching practices of each participant’s given field—an experience she describes as “transformational.”

“Among the most powerful lessons I took away from the program was the importance of intent and reflection. KSI helps me to remember to always return to those two things. It also transformed my practice in more tangible ways, especially around assessment. Now, when I design my assessments, I do so with a goal to deepen student learning.”

Nesbitt’s leadership has been formed, and forged, by her experiences. No stranger to facing challenges and breaking boundaries, she embraces her new role, fully intending to share what she has learned with everyone she can.

Rising eighth grader Indie Pascal collects data on the rate of heating of water for the event Solar Power. This was a trial event at the state tournament in which Indie and her partner, rising eighth grade student Lucy Bair, earned first place.

“Being a woman in STEM is always a challenge, no matter where you work, and it has influenced me as a teacher overall,” she reflects. “It has forced me to build up my confidence, and given me the strength to speak my mind more forcefully regardless of who is in the room.

That translates to the classroom. I try to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, that no one is interrupted, and that everyone has an opportunity to participate.”

Science Department Chair Nicole Nesbitt
(L – R) Rising seniors Katharine Burns and Alexis Alarcon observe how bacteria evolve in a lab-based activity with City as Our Campus partner EvolvingSTEM.