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Fox Chapel Country Day School strives to go above, beyond

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Jan Pakler | for The Herald
Sharon Smith, head of the Fox Chapel Country Day School, spends time in the third grade art class with students.

Students and staff at the Fox Chapel Country Day School staff are accustomed to learning outdoors, and the school's new leader said she plans to keep that focus while enhancing the program.

The school's setting, surrounded by trees on 17 acres, makes stepping outside for lessons easy.

“For a child to have the freedom and opportunity to explore nature, it gives them a chance to integrate nature into every part of their world,” Head of School Sharon Smith said.

The school enrolls about 100 children ages 3 through fifth grade.

Smith said increased enrollment in recent years probably is due to smaller classes that provide more one-on-one time with students.

Class sizes are capped at 16 students — down from a previous high of 20.

Tuition ranges from $5,000 to $17,000 a year, depending on the grade level, finance Director Kathryn Stanton said.

Even math classes at Fox Chapel Country Day have a place outdoors.

“Think of the shapes, sizes and various things they can identify,” said Smith, who is starting her second year as head of the school. She's worked there for 15 years in several roles.

Other classes, such as art, are a natural fit in outdoor settings, although a good teacher is important to meld art lessons with the environment.

“They get students excited about the visual arts,” Smith said.

Colleen Vecellio is taking on that challenge, in her first year at the school.

“Nature is art,” Vecellio said. “It's beautiful.”

In coming weeks, she plans to show students the artistic side of nature.

“We'll do nature walks,” Vecellio said. “We'll talk about things that we see around us that are often overlooked, such as trees or the bark or the texture bark has or the leaves.”

Scot Stevens, president of the school's board of trustees, said the idea has potential.

“We've talked about gardens or even expanding the outside classroom into something such as a pavilion,” Stevens said.

“All of that is open for suggestion.”

Stevens, who also has a third-grader enrolled, said the outdoor component makes the school stand out. He commends Smith's efforts to expand this concept while maintaining the school's other ideals.

“It teaches them to respect nature,” Stevens said of lessons there.

“They are going to spend a good portion of their day outside, especially with science classes.”

He said it's good for students “not to feel like they're walled inside.”

Smith also wants to increase use of technology. The school recently purchased 16 iPads.

“We envision using them in many ways,” Smith said, “but only as an enhancement, not as a solo tool.”

Fox Chapel Country Day School was founded in 1948 on the premise of educating students while increasing their knowledge of the environment.

Brian Zimmerman, whose children attend first and third grades, said he appreciates the school's strong educational program and small classes.

“If they're having learning disabilities, it's caught real quick,” he said of students there.

David Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5804 or dpaulk@tribweb.com.

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