CHESHIRE — Local residents can attest to the fact that the town is changing rapidly, with the planned construction of new homes and buildings seemingly announced monthly.
Yet one constant since the town's early days has been Cheshire Academy. The private preparatory school near the town center has been carrying out its educational mission since 1794, when George Washington was serving as President of the United States. Although still committed to a values-driven, high-quality education, the school is also adjusting to contemporary conditions while making sure students are ready to meet the challenges of a world where change is also happening at a fast pace.
Cheshire Academy offers a traditional liberal arts curriculum composed of arts, language, math, science, English, history and social science, but as a new school year begins, Head of School Julie Anderson says one of the most important skills her 360 students will learn during their time there is how to distinguish “authentic sources” from other kinds of data.
“We want students to be able to look at information and use critical reasoning skills to determine which sources are worthy and which are reliable — whether that’s social media, print, or something different. We want them also to ask, ‘What can I do with it?’” said Anderson.
Artificial intelligence, with its potential to plagiarize, short-cut or create confusion, has become a much-discussed topic in education, Anderson said. Although educators must be on guard about its potential impacts, she wants “to teach students how they can use the tool for good. Instead of fighting against it, we want to be teaching them how they could use the benefits of AI.”
That emphasis on morality and character development is a key part of a person's education, Anderson insists, and another hallmark of the Academy’s mission.
“Our job is to help kids define what’s really important to them, but how to be inquisitive and curious about others,” Anderson stated, pointing to what she calls the school’s “core values” such as “collaboration and engagement.”
“Civility, respect, taking an interest in others, and helping to develop students who can thrive as global citizens,” Anderson listed as other key features of the Academy’s philosophy of education. “In a world where there is often a lack of civility, we're trying to help kids understand different backgrounds and beliefs. It’s a big world and we want kids to be ready for it.”
That global focus has long been one of the Academy’s focuses. The school is welcoming students from 31 different countries at the moment, per Anderson. Students also often go on to work in businesses that have a global presence.
The Academy is also one of the few Connecticut schools to participate in the International Baccalaureate program.
Thinking globally has also led to a renewed focus on being an “anti-racist” institution, something Anderson takes pride in highlighting.
“Every student has the ability to achieve what they want without their identity holding them back,” explained Anderson. It’s a student-first principle that also applies to creating diversity of other kinds, she adds.
Tuition for a seven-day boarding student is just under $60,000, according to the school’s website, while tuition for day students is about $30,000. Financial aid is available.
Last year, the Academy had a “tuition reset” intended to make the school more affordable for students from all kinds of income backgrounds, something she suggests has contributed to a more healthy, representative student body. That extends to all kinds of backgrounds too, as Anderson added, “you don’t have to have a traditional family to have success in school.”
The resulting student body, in Anderson’s telling, tends to be relatively free of the cliques that can form at other schools.
“Everyone has a place they belong,” said Anderson, citing the wide spread participation in school plays, athletics, and other activities as proof that “students aren’t in a mold or a track academically or socially, and we encourage students to try many different things. Nobody’s anonymous here.”
Some modernizing of school facilities is part of the plan as well. Last spring, solar panels were added to buildings including the Gideon Welles Dining Commons, Woodbury Hall, and the John J. White ’38 Science & Technology Center, signalling the school’s commitment to sustainable practices. The school is also currently seeking approval from Town of Cheshire authorities to build a new athletic facility on campus, providing a new ADA-accessible space for year-round fitness and recreation and other kinds of community-building opportunities. These are initiatives made largely possible through the generosity of alumni donors.
Anderson mentioned other ways in which alumni create connections, from networking events to writing letters of recommendation to colleges and employers, to offering grads internship opportunities.
“It’s really powerful when people connect in that way,” Anderson notes. “We’ll often hear from alumni who say ‘coming to Cheshire changed my life and I want to give back.’”