High School Culture
Even before formal schools existed, people argued about what makes a good education. There are many definitions and they are not, of course, all consistent; it also follows that a good education for one person might not be equally valuable to another. We do not pretend that Paideia has resolved this debate, but we do emphasize what we believe are important characteristics of education at our school. One involves challenge: the challenge of demanding academics, rich opportunities in the arts, and learning to be an engaged member of a community. Another is the development of self-knowledge, interests, identity, and perspective as well as ability to speak up. This is best done in an environment that is personal and has lots of things going on. A third characteristic of education at Paideia is that it is much more individualized than at most high schools.
The academic program of a school is a mixture of requirements, offerings, expectations, and choices. At Paideia the program can at first look imposing because there is so much to do, but all students have advisors who help them navigate and make full use of the curriculum. While there are academic requirements set by the school, as well as courses of study strongly recommended by colleges, hardly anyone proceeds through the high school the same way. Students bring to school varying backgrounds, abilities, and interests. The school does whatever possible to match those interests and abilities with the appropriate course of study. At Paideia students are greeted, treated, and taught as individuals.
Paideia prides itself on its diversity of ethnic groups, interests, and opinions. We welcome diversity, we support it, and we promote it. We live in a diverse society, multicultural and varied in opinion and lifestyle. We want a school population that reflects that larger society. Not everyone comes from the same neighborhood or cultural background, has the same ideas, or has the same goals. Paideia is a liberal environment in the classical sense that liberal means open-minded and respectful of other points of view. We believe in egalitarianism, and we work hard to practice it. The environment of the school discourages peer pressure, pecking orders, and the herd instinct.
Visitors to the school are often surprised to discover that students call their teachers by their first names. Calling a teacher “Brian” or “Linda” does not mean that he or she is a best friend or that a student has the same responsibilities or authority in the school that the teacher does. Being on a first name basis with teachers is symbolic of the school’s desire for well-developed, comfortable relationships between teachers and students. These relationships encourage learning, taking intellectual risks, and not being afraid to ask for help. Serious learning is hard work, but it need not be impersonal. Teaching and learning should be cooperative, not adversarial.
More important than how students and teachers address each other is how they treat each other. Teachers expect students to do well and try hard. We want students to become responsible for themselves, personally and educationally. There’s no better way to do that than to trust them with choices and freedom that almost all can handle if given the chance.
An example of the culture of trust is students’ choosing to leave their belongings in unlocked lockers and common spaces. Another example is that students do not need permission to eat lunch anywhere on campus. There are no hall passes to the restroom, nor systems of demerits and detention. People make mistakes, of course, but most are easily remedied in straightforward conversation.
The school does not differ from most other strong high schools in certain areas of curriculum as much as it does in how it feels to be here. The unusual degree of respect and trust is much like the trust and freedom typically enjoyed by students and faculty in colleges and universities.
Felicia Jacques remembers just when it hit her. While reading for a summer seminar, she encountered the critical study of black feminism for the first time. She recalls having a realization: “I’m black. I’m a woman. I go through these different experiences all at the same time, and this is the first time I have had the words to really express those thoughts.” Back at school in the fall, Felicia approached high school assistant principal Stacey Winston with an idea for a course to offer to her peers. Using her seminar reading lists and lecture notes Felicia created a short-term class which she taught with Stacey for two years. Now attending Agnes Scott College, Felicia is majoring in business management with a minor in Africana studies.