Waynflete School educates students to be engaged citizens of the world.
Waynflete School occupies six acres in one of the most beautiful and architecturally significant neighborhoods in Portland. The brick buildings that make up much of the campus were once stately private homes, just like their neighbors along Spring and Danforth streets in the city’s historic West End. Waynflete looks the picture of a New England independent school; what is not as obvious is that it is also one of the most progressive schools in New England, and has been since its early days.
Founded in 1897 by Agnes Lowell and Caroline Crisfield, who came to Maine from a prominent Philadelphia school for girls, Waynflete offered rigorous academics as well as education in the arts. By the early 1900s, the school had adopted the progressive educational philosophy of John Dewey, who advocated hands-on learning and believed that teachers should have a love of working with children, as well as a commitment to interactive education. Today, 560 Pre-K to grade-12 students learn in an environment much like Dewey espoused, where teachers are addressed by their first names as a way of building mutual respect, trust, and connection. “This is my fifth school, and I’ve never been in a place where teachers take such an active interest in kids,” says head of school Geoff Wagg. “Every private school says this, but it’s on a different level here. It’s been part of the culture since Waynflete’s founding.”
I’m meeting with Wagg in his office in Thomas House, once part of a sprawling estate that Lowell and Crisfield purchased in 1912. Wagg came to Waynflete in 2013, just as plans were ramping up for a lower school building now under construction. His first day on the job, he attended a meeting with Scott Simons Architects—who also designed Waynflete’s new arts center—two trustees, and eight teachers. “From the ground up, the building was designed by teachers to meet the needs of students and the programs we offer,” Wagg says.
Waynflete’s lower school differs from traditional elementary schools in that children are grouped in vertical classrooms. Three- and four-year-olds are together, as are kindergarteners and first-graders, second- and third-graders, and fourth- and fifth-graders. “It actually works better for kids developmentally,” he says, to have a mix of ages in each class. Each grouping has a four-person teaching team, and the new building was designed so they all could collaborate. “It’s probably the most professional growth-producing classroom environment I’ve ever seen,” Wagg continues. “Because in most schools you go off into your classroom and you don’t see your colleagues during the day. But here, collaboration is part of the design.”
Renderings of the new lower school building show that it will be light-filled and open, with a stunning library, a teaching kitchen, amphitheater, and an expansive art studio. “We have an imagination space that is meant for kids to be able to tinker and build things,” says Wagg. “And the connection between the indoors and outdoors is something we’ve been very thoughtful about—kids get two recesses a day here.” The first-floor façade will be red brick, to match the older buildings on campus, and the rooflines mimic traditional open gables, while variously sized windows add a modern, whimsical note. The Portland-based firm Wright-Ryan is doing the construction on the environmentally efficient building, which will be finished in time for the beginning of the 2018 school year.
Waynflete’s upper school has the largest number of students—285. The lower school has 150, and the middle school, which goes from sixth through eighth grade, has 125. Middle school students follow a classic liberal arts approach, says Wagg, with a strong emphasis on writing. “You talk to any Waynflete graduate, and the thing that they will tell you is that they learned to write here,” he says. The sixth-grade curriculum focuses on the ancient world, so all sixth graders study Latin. Beginning in seventh grade, students can choose Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, or stay with Latin; the world language requirement continues through their senior year. “Part of my goal is to make sure that our graduates could be dropped from a helicopter anywhere in the world, and would be able to thrive wherever they are,” says Wagg.
Educating kids to be global citizens is part of Waynflete’s mission, and I ask Wagg about the challenges of that effort in today’s world. “Before the recent election, and before some of the stuff that has bubbled up since, we were convinced that one of the foundational skills that people need to have is the ability to converse across difference,” he says. “And we really thought about: ‘What does that mean?’” Several years ago, Waynflete and the global organization Seeds of Peace launched the New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS), an annual gathering of high school students to explore identity issues, including racial differences, sexual identity, and mental health. The initiative has helped kids learn how to talk about difficult topics, Wagg says. At one NEYIS session last year, two Waynflete high school students interviewed the Portland police chief. “Here are two kids asking him really hard questions about policing and police brutality, and he was right with them, in front of 250 high- school students,” he says. “The way they respectfully asked tough questions came out of the work that we’re doing.”
Activities outside of the classroom are not considered “extra” at Waynflete. In the upper school, students must participate in athletics every trimester, and their class schedules include time for cocurricular activities, most of which involve service. In one longstanding initiative, teens mentor third- to fifth-grade students at Reiche Elementary School. Senior Nick Jenkins leads two service groups: Ethical Leadership and Service, which cooks breakfast at the Preble Street shelter once a month, and RAAW, Racial Awareness at Waynflete. Friendly and engaging, Jenkins says he likes to read and write—his favorite class last year was Ethics in Literature and Film—but plans to study aviation in college. He’s wanted to be a commercial pilot since he was 12, and just got his private pilot’s license this summer, after working for four years to pay for it. “I have teachers at Waynflete who have had their licenses, and they encouraged me,” Jenkins says. “It was a big deal when I took my math teacher up this summer.”
Josh Broder, president and CEO of the Portland-based tech company Tilson attended Waynflete from kindergarten through twelfth grade. His wife, Eliza Ginn, is also an alumna, as is his brother and his wife’s brother. “Playing with the jazz combo and running with the cross-country team helped teach me that it was not all about me, but rather everyone else,” Broder says. “Waynflete was a place that supported me in the things that were different about me, and taught me to appreciate what was different in others.” The Broders’ son, Clayton, is now in kindergarten at the school, having started in the early childhood program. “Many of the same teachers that I had are now teaching Clayton,” he says. “My best friend since first grade, Matt Marston, has a son in the lower school as well. It’s wonderful to see the cycle repeating.”
The first of Waynflete trustee Vin Veroneau’s eight children entered Waynflete in sixth grade, when he and his wife, Nancy, were looking for an alternative to traditional middle schools. Six of their kids have now graduated; one is a senior and the youngest is a freshman. “The education and commitment of the faculty and the staff is what makes the place,” says Veroneau, the president and CEO of the commercial real estate developer J.B. Brown and Sons. “And the mutual respect that the students have. The students appreciate the effort and the commitment of the faculty, and for that the faculty receive the students’ best efforts.” Wagg describes a recent encounter with a group of graduates now in medical school, asking them how Waynflete’s science curriculum prepared them. “And of course the first thing they said was, ‘Carol and Wendy.’” Carol Titterton and Wendy Curtis are two upper school science teachers. “They specifically named these two teachers as the defining experience that got them to pursue medicine.” While calling teachers by their first names may seem discomfitingly casual, Wagg says that the practice helps promote relationships that benefit both teachers and students. “What provides the boundaries here is that kids don’t want to disappoint adults, which, as it turns out, is a much more powerful social contract than detentions and demerits.”
Kate Jeton’s son, Luke, graduated from Waynflete four years ago, but she remains passionate about the school, serving as president of the board of trustees. “It has this real tension between being a rigorous place academically and a comfortable place,” she says. “When Luke visited as a prospective student, every teacher whose class he went to knew his name.” Jeton and her husband live on a farm in Acton on the New Hampshire border, 50 miles from Waynflete. “It was a real commitment, particularly his first year,” she says. “I think that we were not alone in that. There were other families bringing their children from equally huge distances.” By the end of that first year, Jeton was getting calls to be involved in the parents association. “I quickly realized that there are families from all walks of life. It’s a school that is very diverse.”
Diversity is among the reasons parents like Jeton send their kids to Waynflete, which is more racially diverse than any school in the area, except for the Portland public schools, says Wagg. Waynflete also strives to be socio-economically diverse—with nearly forty percent of students receiving financial aid—and the school serves Portland’s refugee population through the Global Community Scholars program, started 20 years ago, which invites refugee children to join classes at several grade levels. Like the community service groups and the socially aware curriculum, these initiatives help anchor Waynflete firmly in the city that surrounds it. The kindergarten-first grade class spends a year discovering their urban environment, riding the Greater Portland Metro bus and learning about city services, while upper school students studying marine biology use Portland’s coastline as a primary resource. “We feel part of the fabric of the city,” says Wagg. “It’s an important part of our identity to be here.”