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"So, What Exactly is an Independent School?"
Ben Ottenweller, Head of School
Paint Brushes in the Art Room

"So, what exactly is an independent school?" I can't tell you how often this question has come up in conversations with others. And perhaps, rightly so. Unless you are a resident of Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and other larger cities where dozens of independent schools reside, you may not understand the invaluable benefits that differentiate us from private or public schools. Even within the independent school community, there are some unique aspects about Stanley Clark that set us apart.

The Mission-Driven Difference

Independent schools are incredibly mission-driven and tailor their unique curriculum, programming, and design to their mission. How do we do that? There is certainly one easy yet not-so-interesting answer. The bottom line is independent schools are typically fully funded by tuition and fundraising. We are not supported by state or federal funds, allowing us to build curriculum, benchmarks, and instructional pedagogy independent of state standards, common core mandates, and high-stakes testing. Don't get me wrong; we are fully accredited and evaluated regularly to ensure we maintain rigorous standards. But we have the flexibility to meet each child where they are, take learning outside the four walls of the classroom, and assess children through an approach that helps us truly understand how we can ensure their success.

Disrupting Education as Catalysts for Change

In addition to our approach to educating children, independent schools are unique in how they partner with parents, impact the economic growth of cities, elevate the schools around them, and challenge education's status quo at a national and global level. I had the great fortune of meeting John Gulla when he chaired an accreditation team at my previous school. His innovative and forward-thinking immediately caught my attention. John was the Head of School at The Blake School at the time and is now the Executive Director at the EE Ford Foundation. He recently wrote an article titled, "Why do Independent Schools Exist?" in which he reminds us of the deep history that independent schools have in changing the education landscape. Starting with John Dewey's progressive education, leading to the creation of the Advanced Placement (AP) programs, and recently to the creation of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which aims to tell a more complete story of high school students as they apply for college. Independent schools disrupt education with innovative philosophies and programming and are catalysts for change, elevating educational institutions worldwide.

Aspects that Make Clark Distinctly Independent

While at an Independent School event in Chicago recently, I found myself beaming with pride describing Clark to colleagues at other independent schools in the midwest. So many aspects of Clark make us distinctly independent, drawing the envy of many of my colleagues. One topic that really caught their attention was our prioritization of athletic participation by placing practices during the school day. So many schools are seeing sports participation dwindle as the number of after-school activities seems to grow endlessly or as club sports take a more prominent place in some families' priorities. At Clark, with team sports practices built into the school day, our elite athletes can still play club sports without conflict after school and participate in Speech Team, Science Olympiad, and theatre productions. Our students experience team sports (without fear of getting cut from the team), which offers camaraderie and community that only a school team experience can provide. As part of their school day, middle school students, who are going through some of the most significant neurological and physical changes in their life, participate in physical activity that helps relieve stress, anxiety, and insecurity that often accompanies these rapid changes. What an absolute gift. 

5-6 Boys Soccer Team and Coach Practicing During the School Day

Arts at Every Age

Later at this event, I found a group of familiar colleagues based out of Columbus, Ohio, and we began talking about our arts program. They were amazed that we allowed our students not only to be in both band AND orchestra but that Lower School students also got to experience these music programs before middle school. They envied how we built speech into every 8th grader's experience and how art is not simply an elective but an experience every grade level has through 8th grade.

Building Connections with Flex Fridays

When I told them about our Friday Flex Classes in middle school, other colleagues I didn't know as well started gathering around. They eagerly listened and asked questions as I described our options for classes like Speech Team, Architectural Sketching, Music Through the Decades, Coding Games with MicroBit, Sign Language, etc. One person said, "Your teachers are ok with this?" I was proud to say, "Not only are they ok with this, they genuinely value it so they can engage with their students in an entirely different and unique way, building remarkable connections."

Prioritizing Faculty Care

I felt so proud of this community and will admit I enjoyed the attention Clark was getting. I thought I would really swing for the fences by telling them about our early Friday dismissal. "What?!!" a colleague exclaimed. Early dismissal is an administrator's dream come true. It allows for professional development, faculty meetings, teacher collaboration, and department meetings to be built into the day, helping ensure our teachers can maintain high levels of energy, preparation, and expertise for their students each week. Clark cares for its talented teachers. As the national conversation about teacher shortage and burnout continues, Clark's independence and structure have ensured smaller teacher-to-student ratios, ample supply budgets to support learning, and life balance to ensure our faculty's health and happiness are prioritized. There is a reason we only hired one new teacher last year, and that was following a retirement.

4th Grade Students with Teacher Creating Indiana Maps

But Wait … There’s More

By this point in the event, I had probably monopolized the conversation a bit in sharing about this amazing school, but I couldn't help myself! As I walked back to my hotel room, I reflected on how the intentional structure and system of independent schools make Stanley Clark genuinely remarkable. The anecdotes above are only a few of what helps our school stand out nationally. I didn't even have the chance to tell them about our highly-regarded Reggio-Emilia-inspired program in early childhood. Nor did I have the opportunity to share about Mr. King, our Director of Student Services, who is developing a well-articulated leadership curriculum and speaker series for students as young as three, all the way up to our 8th graders. I never mentioned that we are building a beautiful performing arts center to display our talented students and to bring in speakers and programming from all over the country.

Preschool Classroom with Teacher Working With Students Creating Artwork as part of our Reggio Emilia inspired  program.

So, what makes Stanley Clark independent? Everything! Everything we are able to do and offer is because we are independent. Clark was undoubtedly the envy of my colleagues that night, and I'm certainly quite smitten and proud as well. We continually strive for improvement, growth, and new knowledge, but for that one night in Chicago, it was fun to share what makes us so unique in the independent school world and beyond.

About the Author

Ben Ottenweller, Head of School

Ben Ottenweller 

Head of School

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