One of the core reasons for Renaissance School’s strict admissions limits is a foundational commitment to differentiated teaching. Each student is an individual, with unique talents, strengths, passions, learning styles, pace, challenges, areas to grow, and places to excel. Our goal is for each student to be challenged to achieve their potential, while avoiding overwhelming students in areas where they need time to build skills. Keeping our student-to-faculty ratio at around 3:1 means that each student has a schedule and course plan that is tailored to their individual needs and goals.
Differentiated teaching means working with each student in the way they learn best, while simultaneously preparing them for the realities they will need to be ready for after high school. It means allowing students to use their strengths while also helping them to improve in areas where they struggle. It means setting up classrooms that are collaborative, utilizing each person’s unique strengths. It often means finding dual enrollment opportunities for students highly gifted and ambitious in a particular domain, while working with tailored IEPs for twice exceptional students.
Differentiated teaching simply recognizes that students are, well, different. They can’t all be taught in the same one-size-fits-all way if we expect each student to be challenged to meet their unique potential. At Renaissance School, fitting the education to the student, rather than squeezing the student into a system, is fundamental to how we encourage high ability students to learn their best.
A frequent challenge that high ability students face is a course pace that does not match their natural speed in a particular subject, or overall. At Renaissance School we want all students to be challenged, especially students who may have found themselves becoming bored or disengaged with the typical subject pace.
One way in which all Renaissance School students are accelerated is in our weekly class schedule. Academic classes meet three times per week while arts classes meet twice. There is no time to waste in a Renaissance School classroom. Because of our flexible scheduling structure, students have fairly wide latitude from year to year in course load as well. While one year or semester a student may have a light load to accomodate a competitive sports schedule or injury recovery, another year they may double up on a subject. Ambitious students may carry 10 credits per year.
Many students excel in a particular subject and we support their acceleration to university level studies through dual enrollment while in high school. We have had many students complete Algebra II and PreCalculus simultaneously to move on to Calculus and Statistics at RHS and then to higher math at UVA. We have had students complete the sculpture unit in Art and go on to take master pottery classes off campus. We have had students complete Physics and Chemistry by the end of their Sophomore year and go on to take Engineering, Programming, Biochemistry, and other subjects at the college level during their Junior and Senior years. These are a few examples that illustrate a fundamental principle of our teaching philosophy: high school should not make high ability students wait to begin mastery in their fields of interest. High school is the perfect time to let students meet new challenges in their areas of passion and begin their university studies where appropriate.
Because Renaissance School is not driven by standardized testing, we have tremendous flexibility in the classroom to let students run with ideas that pique their interest. Particularly in math and science - subjects that are frequently taught to a test elsewhere - students can dig deep. Some recent examples include a student who spent two years in Physics studying string theory, including at a camp over the summer, and then designed and delivered an excellent lecture on the topic to the class, with accompanying posters for our annual Art & Science Show. In Biology, students have raised and cared for beetles, crickets, Madagascan hissing cockroaches, goldfish and a very wide variety of plants to test the benefits of different kinds of light, feed, soil, water, and other environmental factors. In PreCalculus, students designed and created an ingenious playing card game during trigonometry called Trigemon. Most impressively, our Synthetic Biology students have been published each year in BioTrek - one of only two Virginia high schools to do so - for their original genetics experiments. Students also regularly go on to take related enrichment subjects at UVA or PVCC. There are lots of ways to students really dig into a subject to get much more out of it than a score on a test!
Naturally, a course called “Portfolio Art” is designed to create just that! However, the portfolio philosophy extends beyond the studio art classes. Research on teaching gifted and talented students indicates that they are the most productive (and happiest) when working in a context that culminates in a display of their mastery of the subject, rather than just an accumulation of assignments. Naturally, this expresses itself in our play or musical, spring concerts, and other performances. However, it also manifests in our annual science poster defense that all students participate in, the lab-based rather than textbook-based nature of our science classes, and even the fall all-school presentation of individual student and faculty work done over the summer. It is central to our two-year Independent Studies program, which each year includes a presentation to the full school community. Encouraging and pushing students to achieve mastery of a subject is celebrated and rewarded by the chance for students to regularly show their community the work they have done. As they go on to college and beyond, this practice helps our graduates to take their innovative ideas out into the world to make an impact.
We like to say at Renaissance School that learning is an art - we recognize that teaching is an art, too. In a very Renaissance way, it is an art that is supported by ongoing research, and made engaging by finding the ways to tailor those best practices to our community. We are proud of faculty for the work that they do ensure that every student is challenged and engaged, and has the chance to excel to their level of ability and ambition.