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A case for independence: Dr. Darren Pascavage shares his vision for a new high school

As we hit the midpoint of summer, a new independent high school is taking shape here in C-U. Academy High, the community’s first independent private high school is set to open its doors for it’s inaugural school year this August. The idea for the school began with a group of local parents looking for a different experience than what our current public and private schools had to offer. Academy High is now set to open for the 2017-2018 school year, under the charge of their new headmaster Dr. Darren Pascavage. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Pascavage, a newcomer to C-U, to discuss his background, educational philosophies, and vision for the school.

Dr. Pascavage grew up in the public school system in Philadelphia, and attend Georgia Tech to study physics. With the encouragement of a friend, he decided to try teaching after college, and ended up landing a job with an independent school in Atlanta. Over the course of the next several years, he had the opportunity to teach and eventually lead several independent and charter schools including a Jewish academy, Catholic high school, and more traditional college prep schools, and helped start a new independent school as well, while obtaining his master’s and Ph.D. Throughout these experiences, he began to see how independent schools were able to serve a niche market of students. He believes his diverse experiences appealed to the founding board of Academy High.

SP: What specifically drew you Academy High?

Dr. Pascavage: It was a combination of things, beginning with believing that the founding board had done everything the right way. They’d hired a consulting firm, and used a search firm to find a headmaster. They weren’t afraid to invest in the expertise to do things the right way. I’ve seen situations where people haven’t wanted to spend the money or work with the expertise out there to make it happen. I was impressed with the seriousness of the way they approached it. Secondly, it was this market. It’s remarkable to me that there aren’t already a number of independent college preparatory schools in this area. I don’t have an explanation for why that is. The demographics of this area would support this type of school…it’s a market that’s ripe for something new to come along. It seemed like we’d have a really good opportunity to establish ourselves without having to compete. We’d be setting the market for what an independent high school could look like.

SP: What advantages and disadvantages do you see when comparing public and private schools?

Dr. Pascavage: I think the biggest misconception of independent schools is that we are in competition with public schools. Practically and philosophically we’re really not. Public schools provide an important and vital service in the education of our citizens. Universal compulsory education on the scale that we do it in our country is unprecedented. It also means that your view is largely systemic. It’s why we have high schools with two or three thousands students. Few educators would say that’s really the ideal situation. But, if what you’re trying to do is manage a system that focused on universal education, that’s what you end up with. That requires a set of skill, talents, and priorities that look a certain way. In my teaching experience (in independent schools), what was valued was the extent to which I was able to help each of those students individually find success. That’s not to say the public education model doesn’t value individual student success, but it prioritizes it a little bit differently. Whereas independent schools are able to devote all of our resources to acheiving this very narrow outcome. Those that are interested in that for their children look at us as an option that might be right for their child. That has nothing to do with any commentary on public schools. It just means that what’s important to most parents is what setting is the most appropriate for my child. That’s a niche that independent schools can fill because there aren’t demands on us systemically. In the end it’s focus of mission and having flexibility to adjust in whatever ways make sense to serve our population.

SP: I’m going to get political for a moment. Charter schools and private schools, and questions of vouchers and federal funding for those, have those concerned about education buzzing now that Betsy DeVos is in charge of the Department of Education. What are your thoughts about using federal funding for kids to attend charter or private schools?

Dr. Pascavage: Fundamentally, I think anything that affords parents an increase in the number of options for their child, to find the best setting for their child, is something that I favor. In some instances it may be that vouchers or publicly funded options seem like they could provide that, but that’s not the only mechanism. Our board has committed to making sure an Academy High education is going to be accesible to as wide a swath of the community as possible. We’ll shortly be announcing two full tuition scholarships for four years to make sure there’s no impediment to attending Academy High for students who can’t afford it, but want to attend and it would be a good fit. As an independent school leader, I can say there’s lukewarm enthusiasm in the independent school world for any involvement in funding that threatens our independence. There’s few if any government dollars that don’t come with strings, and that’s as it should be. As a taxpayer, that’s my money and your money and we would want strings to be attached. I suspect there are some schools look favorably upon that as an option. I don’t know that Academy High would, because our objective is to remain independent by managing the business side. If we weren’t able to do that, it would affect our ability to accomplish our mission.

SP: In your mind, who is the ideal teacher for Academy High?

Dr. Pascavage: I don’t know of any school that can really be successful without having teachers in place that have the ability to motivate, and inspire, and build relationships with kids. One of the first things I look for is that intangible characteristic that you can sometimes get in talking with somebody. If I were in a public setting, where the need that I had for faculty was an order of magnitude larger than Academy High, I don’t know that I could find enough of those people through any hiring process that made any sense. But we’re small enough that we ought to always be able to take time to find the right folks. Love of content is insufficient. They have to first love teaching students. Not teaching content, but teaching students. If you think back to some of the teachers you’ve had, you can probably remember a few who really fit that description. We’re trying to put together a whole faculty of those people. I want them to be comfortable with the idea of differentiated instruction, and I’m looking for an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m looking for professionals that have the credentials, but also the spark to want to be innovative.

SP: There has been mixed reaction to this school being established. I will honestly admit I’ve had some judgements of my own. We have very ethnically and socio-economically diverse public schools, and many families have moved their kids out of the Champaign and Urbana school districts to those that are less so, and this seemed like another way for families to have an out. How do you respond to that type of thinking?

Dr. Pascavage: I completely understand why that opinion would be one that is formed. I’d also say, I hope that individuals that feel that way would give Academy High a fair chance. That it’s not what’s really driving our school. It comes back to should parents have the right to decide that a particular school or environment isn’t right for their child, based on whatever criteria they want to choose. I happen to think the answer is yes. In the end if Academy High had to convince a majority of people that we had the right to exist, we’d probably be in trouble. We looking for 20 kids for next year, and 40 kids for the next year. Even when we’re fully realized at 300 students, if there are just that many families that think Academy High is worthwhile, that’s really all we need to be viable. We’re not looking to compete. You’ll never hear one negative word out of my mouth about public schools. I know you’re not going to change everybody’s mind. In the end we’ll do what we do to the best of our ability. Right now there’s no track record. But over time, I think those opinions may change a little bit.

SP: What is your curriculum is going to look like?

Dr. Pascavage: We’ll have a core of math, English, science, foreign language, and social studies, because colleges have said that’s what they are looking for. The big three in education: curriculum, instruction, and assessment, in the core areas we’re not messing with curriculum much. But we can be innovative and creative in how we teach students and assess them. The biggest thing that would distinguish our approach is project based learning, where we find ways to engage students more deeply on topics rather than focusing on breadth. When you come outside of that core, that’s where we have flexibility. We’re being mindful of what students are interested in and  what opportunities exist. Next year, students will have opportunities to take “modules” in music recording, non-western music, app development, design…those are a few examples that might not exist elsewhere. Beyond that, we’re finding space for students to engage in learning outside the physical school…online learning for example. We’re part of something called the Hybrid Learning Consortium. This is a group of college prep independent schools around the world that have gotten together to share faculty so that those we have with particular expertise can be made available to students at schools around the globe. It’s a combination of online and live synchronous interaction between faculty and students. What we’re working to do is build a level of confidence and independence with our students, where they can say I’m not afraid to learn anything and I’m not afraid to learn in lots of different ways.

SP: How do you plan to attract a diverse group of students?

Dr. Pascavage: If we sit back and wait for a diverse student body to materialize, it won’t come. We have to be intentional about making sure students and families in every existing school are aware of us and are aware of opportunities to be affordable. It has to be on us. The founding board is very supportive of this. Of the applicants we have so far, they come from five different schools. Our recruitment approach is going to include social media, where students will share with other students their experience at Academy High and reach students we might not otherwise reach.

SP: What sort of impact do you see Academy High having on our community?

Dr. Pascavage: In some ways I don’t know enough about the community to know where there’s space for an impact. But I think that any institution that endeavors in good faith to do good work and accomplish its mission always has a positive impact. It would be terrific if there would be, somewhere down the road, some impact that has all of the schools in the area benefiting from each other.  If we can in some way contribute to an broad and ongoing conversation about how education could be better for everybody, then I think we will have done some good.

SP: FInally, what’s your vision for this school five, ten years down the road?

Dr. Pascavage: I hope we’re well established in our current facility, that we put together a program that is what we aspire to be…innovative and engaging. I hope that we’ve had a demonstrated track record of success, not only for college placement but for student success in college or whatever they’ve chosen to do, and that we’ve also put in place a sustainable business model that guarantees that the school can continue to thrive. I share those outcomes with the founding board. So while we can’t ignore the demands of the moment, we can’t lose sight of those strategic goals.

Photos from the Academy High Facebook page. Interview was edited for space and clarity. 

Managing Editor

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