Every year, Canterbury School turns out graduates headed to elite universities all over the country. The school’s alumni may have amassed an impressive list of accomplishments throughout their lives, but the real story of what makes Canterbury special cannot be found in lists and statistics. The experience itself, which for many begins as early as pre-kindergarten, cultivates a natural curiosity in its students that stays with them for the rest of their lives.
“You may be able to get a similar curricular experience elsewhere, but Canterbury students have a curiosity, a zeal for continuing their education that is pretty infectious,” says Canterbury middle school teacher and high school athletics coach Rob Westfall. “They become lifetime learners and change agents.”
Westfall knows this firsthand; he is a Canterbury graduate himself. After completing law school, the former practicing attorney found himself drawn to be part of the school that kindled his own passion for learning. He now tries to do the same for his students – not through readings, lectures and tests, but through interactive experiences.
“It’s about providing a space for students to create their own structures, and then to learn to ask questions,” says Westfall. “In my own career, I’ve learned the most when I’ve been asking the questions, not just answering those from someone else.”
As a teacher of Civil War history, Westfall decided to turn the Battle of Antietam over to his students, letting them research and deliver the content themselves. With only a few guidelines, the students had the freedom to get creative with the assignment. The end result was a large-scale battle reenactment with Nerf guns in the school auditorium. It’s a lesson Westfall’s students won’t soon forget.
“If you’re interested in really teaching kids, this is the perfect environment,” says professional artist and teacher Vicki Junk-Wright. “We attract passionate teachers.”
One thing that gives Canterbury the ability to focus on different learning mechanisms is that its private, independent status allows it to remain true to its mission: to maximize the potential of young people by providing a challenging, enriching and supportive learning environment. Rather than being bound to state requirements, the school has the freedom to create and grow its own curriculum. That means, says Director of Institutional Advancement Jessica Morales, “we really think of what we can do to transform a student and then we have the freedom to do that.”
This perspective starts in early childhood and continues through high school.
“We are truly one school, age 2 to grade 12,” says Assistant Head of School and High School Director Ben Ottenweller. “It's more than simply a set of buildings on a shared campus. Our one school model can be seen in our carefully articulated curriculum and in our deeply rooted traditions.”
The school’s creativity and rigor have allowed Canterbury to be named a Malone School – the only one in Indiana. This designation allows students to access a network of rigorous online courses beyond what may typically be offered in high school. As part of this prestigious designation, Canterbury was also awarded a $2 million endowment to fund educational opportunities for deserving students.
“Being a Malone School puts us on a national and global scale,” says Ottenweller.
Still, Canterbury remains intentionally small; total enrollment for each grade level runs between forty and seventy students. The school’s size allows faculty and staff to build long-term relationships with students that leave everyone more engaged.
“We are built on relationships,” says Ottenweller. “Every student is known at Canterbury. That lets us take what we know and personalize an experience for them.”
2019 graduate Grace Bechdol, who is preparing to attend New York University in Abu Dhabi this fall, agrees. “The smaller class size at Canterbury was an integral part of my experience,” she says. “I felt like I had the chance to get to know all of my classmates and teachers on a personal level and we all helped each other find our way through school.”
To ensure every student has the opportunity to develop multiple levels of relationships, Canterbury has made its arts and athletics programs all-inclusive; everyone is able to participate, regardless of ability or experience. Students enjoy a low-risk environment to explore areas where they may otherwise feel intimidated to join. In many cases, it also gives older and younger students opportunities to interact, as upper-level students often volunteer to help with activities like sports camps.
Ultimately, the camaraderie fostered at Canterbury School contributes heavily to its academic success. It allows students to feel like part of a family, where they enjoy a tremendous level of personal support and individual freedom. Students at all levels are encouraged to ask questions, speak in front of others and take responsibility for what they learn. According to Junk-Wright, it’s a culture rather than a curriculum, and it starts with the smallest children.
“One of our biggest skills is that we get kids ready to be in front of people,” says Junk-Wright. “As early as age two, we make them walk across a stage – just walk. As they get older, they feel more comfortable being in front of people, and by the time they leave us, they’ve been on stage in so many ways that it just comes naturally.”
The Canterbury experience is rigorous and deeply personal, and its value extends far beyond the classroom. As Bechdol explains, “Because Canterbury encourages students to pursue many areas of school and extracurricular life, a lot of students have incredibly heavy loads. While sometimes that can be overwhelming, it teaches all of us about balance, time management and personal responsibility and it prepares us for the difficulties of collegiate and professional life.”
All those qualities move Canterbury School toward fulfilling its mission of helping young people maximize their potential. When students leave, they’re not only ready for college, they’re prepared to become better global citizens.
“These kids have a lot of work to do and it’s challenging,” says Morales, “But still, we offer it in a way that fosters independence and self-sufficiency. Ultimately, our students leave here ready for anything.”
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