After 175 years, Sewickley Academy still focused on future

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:31 p.m.

When Kolia O'Connor first stepped on the Sewickley Academy campus a decade ago, he looked around and thought to himself, “This is pretty good … but it could be better.”

O'Connor said it has been that attitude — one that runs deep throughout the Edgeworth independent school's faculty and staff—that has helped shape it into what it's become today.

“We cannot become complacent,” he said. “Just because we've been successful in the past, doesn't mean we'll always be.”

Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools Executive Director Linda Phelps said she thinks Sewickley Academy has thrived for its 175 years for many of the same reasons why enrollment in other independent schools throughout the state has remained stable in recent years.

“Parents see the value in independent education,” she said. “Accredited schools provide high quality education. Children are well-prepared for colleges.”

She added that independent schools place value in the arts and athletics — both of which are robust at Sewickley Academy, O'Connor said.

“The public sector is driven by tests. We don't teach to test. We teach kids,” O'Connor said.

In the 10 years since he's been at the academy, O'Connor has witnessed many changes. One of the most significant is the shift from teaching to learning.

“Kids are much more in the driver's seat” when it comes to their education, he said.

Instead of straight lectures, teachers develop their lessons and frame their classrooms around problem solving, analysis and group work.

“Kids are increasingly at the center of their own learning,” he said.

They've also become a model school of sorts when it comes to global studies.

The academy currently offers five foreign language options—French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin—as well as a Global Studies Certificate program for senior school students. The school also offers exchanges and international trips throughout the school year.

“We've really become a global school. It has dramatically changed our school for the better,” O'Connor said.

As important as students' education, Sewickley Academy also is committed to professional development.

O'Connor said faculty members are given the opportunity to attend educational conferences like Learning & the Brain, which connects educators to neuroscientists and researchers “to explore new research on the brain and learning and its implications for education,” according to its website.

Recently, a Grants for Innovative Frameworks in Teaching, or GIFT, program was established by the Home and School Association which allows teachers to apply for funding to help support projects outside the realm of daily classroom activities.

While O'Connor said the academy's focus has always been on what goes on in the classroom rather than the classroom itself, he spoke enthusiastically about recently completed projects on campus, including a new bus turnaround and turf field, and talked about future renovations to science classrooms that are starting to show signs of age.

Still, he said they are fortunate to have been able to keep pace through the years.

“I was very privileged to inherit a beautiful school,” he said. “There's more work to be done, but it's been fun doing it.”

Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 or

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