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After 175 years, Sewickley Academy still focused on future


Sewickley Academy officials will use the Twitter hashtag #SA175 to update followers of its milestone celebration.

Academy history

• Sewickley Academy for Boys was founded in 1838 by John Champ and William Nevin.

• For unknown reasons, the school closed in 1841.

• In the fall of 1843, the Rev. Joseph Travelli opened the second iteration of Sewickley Academy on 25 acres of land on Grove Street.

• When the dorm burned in 1851, Travelli purchased the James Gray house near the Ohio River and added two large wings, a building that eventually became the Park Place Hotel.

• When the Civil War began in 1861, enrollment suffered. The school closed in 1863.

• The third Sewickley Academy was housed in the “Old Brick Church” owned by The Sewickley Presbyterian Church and later sold to the academy for $2,500. The school became co-educational when the Edgeworth Female Seminary closed.

• A lack of support eventually caused the Academy to close its doors again in 1875.

• In 1877, John Way Jr. opened the school as “An English and Classical School for Boys and Girls” in Mozart Hall, on what is now Wolcott Park. A new brick building was built on the corner of Beaver Road and Academy Avenue, the site of the Edgeworth Club tennis courts.

•After heading off to Europe “to rest” in 1891, Way did not return and the school closed for a fourth time.

• Between the early 1890s and 1925, three main schools existed in Sewickley: Miss Jane McDonald's school for primary grades, Miss Maude Munson's School, and Miss Bertha Dickinson's School for older children. As Munson and Dickinson approached retirement, John Oliver, James Wardrop, and Alexander Tenner, among others, combined the two schools to open Sewickley Academy, again, in the fall of 1925.

• At first, the Upper School was housed in the former Dickinson Building on Broad Street and the Lower School in the former Munson Building on Thorn Street. Soon after, the generosity of the Academy's trustees, parents, and friends made it possible to acquire the Huston property on Academy Avenue, where they constructed a new modern school building with white pillars and a colonial bell tower.

Information and facts from “Sewickley Academy: The First Hundred and Fifty Years” by Ann Willets Boyd.

Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:30 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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