Our Curriculum

Penguin Hall’s course of study is focused on preparing our students for the global, economic, and social challenges that we may not be able to imagine yet, by honing their skills as creative, collaborative, adaptable critical thinkers. Students go far beyond just learning content, or “the what”, to learning and applying that content in innovative ways in and beyond the classroom. Giving our faculty the freedom to develop meaningful, relevant curriculum, and our young women the opportunity to delve deeply into that coursework, is at the heart of our mission to enlighten and empower students as they prepare for college study.

What is The Academy at Penguin Hall’s Curriculum?

Our rich and rigorous curriculum gives students boundless opportunities to think critically, ask deep questions, and apply their knowledge in innovative ways. Penguin Hall’s interdisciplinary, inquiry-based curriculum emphasizes depth over breadth and allows students to be curious and engage in relevant, meaningful discussions. Critical thinking, communication and collaboration are core 21 st century skillets integrated throughout our curriulum, including science and math.

We offer over 70 courses in the integrated humanities, science, math, languages, and the arts. Examples of interdisciplinary courses, which draw on skills and content across subject areas, include Mathematics of the Ideal City, Women’s History (Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History), Intro to Engineering, and Greek & Latin Roots for the
Health Professional.

In addition to developing a deep understanding of content through engaging discussion, assess-ment, and reflection, students learn skills that are essential for success in a dynamic and fast-paced world – how to think critically, analyze and evaluate information, ask deep questions, develop a persuasive argument, and think creatively.

All classes are 75-minutes long, which allows for deeper learning and supports an interdisciplinary approach. Teachers are experts in their field and bring a deep and varied range of knowledge to our student body. For 2019-20, 85% of our faculty hold an advanced degree, 55% have earned a doctorate, and more than one-third of our faculty have taught at the college level.

How is the Curriculum developed?

Penguin Hall commits to a student-centered education that balances traditional pedagogy with self-directed, inquiry-based learning. The school employs a consistent and rigorous curriculum plan; students are required to complete 24 total academic credits to graduate, which includes core subjects, visual/performing arts, computer science, and philosophy or religion.

Teachers are given the freedom and flexibility to create their subject-area curriculum, drawing on their depth of professional knowledge and pedagogical expertise, as well as resourcing the Common Core and national subject-area standards. As many of our teachers have taught at the college level, they create courses with an eye toward college-level themes and teaching foundational skills for success in college. Teachers within a department also work together to plan for students mastering foundational subject matter and skills before taking more advanced and honors-level classes, ensuring continuity across grade levels.

Flexibility in the design of instruction and small class sizes empower teachers to better deliver a curriculum that engages a variety of learning styles. Students’ opinions and interests also matter in courses offered. Activist Art, for example was created after a student voiced interest for an interdis- ciplinary course that merged art, the humanities, and social science.

Why No AP?

Strong schools employ best practices in all facets of their programming by utilizing current research on teaching and learning in thoughtful, deliberate and mission-driven was. At its founding, The Academy at Penguin Hall made a deliberate and well-reasoned decision not to adopt the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Program. Instead, we chose to embrace a curriculum that allows for free inquiry, deep critical thinking, meaningful collaboration with peers, and creativity – twenty-first century characteristics sought after and celebrated by both highly selective colleges and employers.

While Penguin Hall does not offer AP courses, we do distinguish levels of learning by offering Honors courses in Geometry, Algebra, Calculus, Humanities, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Spanish, and Advanced Computer Coding. Honors courses are added annually to our Program of Study.
In a four-year study of 18,000 college students funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by Harvard researcher Philip Sadler and University of Virginia researcher Robert Tai, it was noted that students whose high school coursework emphasizes depth over breadth perform better in college courses. “Hurrying to the back of the textbook, so to speak, is worse than focusing in depth on the first few chapters,” Sadler said.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid, has said that “…while we value objective criteria, we apply a more expansive view of excellence. Test scores and grades offer some indication of students’ academic promise and achievement. But we also scrutinize applications for extracurricular distinction and personal qualities. Students’ intellectual imagination, strength of character, and their ability to exercise good judgment – these are critical factors in the admissions process, and they are revealed not by test scores but by students’ activities outside the classroom, the testimony of teachers and guidance counselors, and by alumni/ae and staff interview reports. With these aspects – academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities in mind, we read with care all the components of each application.

What Colleges Say About the AP Program:

“A lot of independent schools are moving away from the AP curriculum in order to allow faculty and students to pursue more specialized academic topics, which mirrors the type of work students would be doing in college. Independent schools should have confidence in their own judgement of curricular rigor. Furthermore, you find more colleges limiting the amount of academic credit being granted from AP exam scores.” – Santiago Ybarra, Director of Admission at Pitzer College, a private liberal arts college in Claremont, CA

“Colleges don’t always accept the [AP] courses for college credit, many students end up repeating the course in college anyway, and you can run the risk of memorizing material for a test versus delving into a subject and exploring it in an enriching way. Sometimes an honors course at a high school is actually a better option for rigorous and engaging learning.” – Denise Pope, Stanford Graduate School of Education

“When we admit a class of students to MIT, it’s as if we’re choosing a 1,100-person team to climb a very interesting, fairly rugged mountain-together. We obviously want people who have the training, stamina and passion for the climb. At the same time, we want each to add something useful or intriguing to the team, from a wonderful temperament or sense of humor to compelling personal experiences, to a wide range of individual gifts, talents, interests and achievements. We are emphatically not looking for a batch of identical perfect climbers; we are looking for a richly varied team of capable people who will support, surprise and inspire each other.” – MIT Admissions

How do we measure the rigor and effectiveness of our Curriculum?

Penguin Hall is NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) accredited, which signifies the high quality and integrity of our Program. Departments are evaluated at regular intervals to ensure that our Academic Program fulfills the Standards for Accreditation established by the Commission on Independent Schools.

Similar to the college level, all courses conclude with a student evaluation of the course. This evaluation is part self-assessment, part assessment of the course content and skills taught. Students are asked questions about whether they felt challenged by the material. They also provide input on teacher delivery and effectiveness. Teachers receive this feedback as a tool for revising and/or creating new courses for the following year.

“It was so comforting to walk into my college classes and know that I have the skills and confidence to be successful. Penguin Hall prepared me well.”

-Alum Kathryn, 18, Lafayette College “22

Penguin Hall also has in place a formal faculty evaluation system that is overseen by the Dean of Academics. In addition to informal drop-ins by the dean, teachers also participate each semester in peer-to-peer cross-departmental observations.

All teachers participate in a formal meeting with the dean and, based on drop-in and peer assessments, establish their strengths and weaknesses and schedule a formal observation with the dean, in which teachers are evaluated on the quality of their teaching, in part based on their professional goals.
Deep, ongoing, and flexible assessment and course-correction allows our teachers to keep course content and delivery relevant and resonant with students.

How do Colleges View the Penguin Hall Curriculum?

We provide the rigorous curriculum, leadership opportunities, and college counseling that students need to set themselves up for admission into any college they choose.

The school profile that Penguin Hall submits with a student’s transcript explains our curricular philosophy and provides context for how to evaluate the rigor of the student’s course of study at Penguin Hall. College admission officers who visit Penguin Hall classes note that the depth and breadth of the courses we offer to students at all grade levels in our inquiry-based curriculum prepare students well for the next leg of their academic journey.

Admissions officers look at the total program, including graduation rates and 4-year college matriculation.

Further Readings on Student-Centered Learning and Curriculum Development

Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin,G. (2019, September 24). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, PAS. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/116/39/19251

Friedlaender, D. & Cook-Harvey, C. (2014, June 17). Enriching’ student-centered practices in your school: An interactive tool for teachers and school leaders, SCOPE. Retrieved from https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/node/1215

Alsubaie, M. A. (2016). Curriculum Development: Teacher Involvement in Curriculum Development., Journal of Education and Practice, Vol. 7, No. 9 (pp.106-107). Kalamazoo, MI:
Western Michigan University. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1095725.pdf

Pazzanese, C. (2014, May 29). Beyond the Horizon: Education, Harvard Gazette, Vol. CIX. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/story/2014/05/beyond-the-horizon-2/

Further Readings on AP Program

Edwards, H. (2018. May 1). These Are the 5 Worst Problems with College Board’s AP Program, PrepScholar. Retrieved from https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-5-worst-problems-with-college-board-ap-program

Anderson, N. (2018, June 18). Several Well-Known Private Schools in the D.C. Area are Scrapping Advanced Placement Classes, The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/06/18/several-well-known-private-schools-in-the- d-c-area-are-scrapping-advanced-placement-classes/

Tierney, J. (2012, October 13). AP Classes Are a Scam, The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/ap-classes-are-a-scam/263456/

Drew, C. (2011, January 7). Rethinking Advanced Placement, New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/education/edlife/09ap-t.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh-D7189D38CCDF7C84FB58F5461D1C810E&gwt-pay&assetType-REGIWALL

Landsbert, M. & Rathi, R. (2005, May 5). Elite School Will Expel AP Classes, LA Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-may-05-me-crossroads5-story.html