When Irénée du Pont and other family members and Delaware business leaders gathered to establish Wilmington’s Tower Hill School in 1919, they aimed to create an institution that would rival the very best schools in nearby Philadelphia and the entire east coast.
One hundred years and 6,500 graduates later, Tower Hill is firmly established as among the most prestigious independent schools in the region, if not country, churning out governors, US Senators, and CEOs along the way.
Today the school enrolls 800 students across three divisions, now inhabiting a 44-acre campus at the city’s northwest corner. As the campus has grown and changed, so too has the student body: the school awards over $3.1 million in financial assistance and 36 percent of the students are people of color.
This weekend Tower Hill celebrates its Centennial with a full slate of activities and events – including an art exhibition featuring the work of 152 graduates, which took 18 months to assemble. TSD sat down with Tower Hill head of school Bessie Speers to discuss how the school plans to build on its unique heritage – and motto of multa bene facta (many things done well) – for the future.
Town Square Delaware: What kind of programs and offerings does the school need to invest in to continue to provide a relevant, first-rate education in the 21st Century?
Tower Hill Head of School Bessie Speers: Investing in faculty must always be a priority. Teaching is such a noble profession and our teachers need to be recognized, supported, and given opportunities to continue to grow because education is always evolving. We want to ensure that Tower Hill teachers have extensive and invigorating opportunities.
This year we have added a new Computer Science Department, which will offer four courses during the 2019-2020 school year. Our strategic plan is stretching us to continually ask bold questions about teaching and learning and about what our students will need in order to be successful in a changing world.
They will surely need to be conversant in computer science and in other areas of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). Our mission is to create well-rounded individuals, yet we want to be innovative and agile in terms of what Multa Bene Facta—Many Things Done Well—means today and tomorrow.
We’re also exploring ways to increase experiential learning opportunities schoolwide. Tower Term, a week-long course at the end of the school year, offers courses such as: Beekeeping, Flying Drones, and allows Upper School students to dive deeper into a topic of interest and apply skills learned throughout the academic year.
Another area that offers experiential learning opportunities is our newly completed Lower School Outdoor Classroom where our youngest students can learn through tactile, interactive experiences.
A partnership with the University of Pennsylvania has brought a social entrepreneurship class to Tower Hill. Throughout the course, students go through the process of identifying a problem that they see around them in their own lives or the world and then try to come up with solutions and test those potential solutions in the real world. Partnerships like this fit not only within our strategic plan—teaching leadership, communication, entrepreneurial skills—but also with our philosophy of being a school of Wilmington and the world.
TSD: How does Tower Hill continue to differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive private and charter school market?
Speers: Tower Hill’s posture must continue to be both confident and humble. We are confident of our tried and true method of educating students for top colleges and universities, and we also realize that we must always be nimble, curious, and open to new ideas.
We are proud of the challenging and exhilarating education we provide students and our forte is the rapport between teachers and students, small classes, and a strong and diverse community. Academic excellence has always been the foundation of a Tower Hill education, in addition to opportunities for students to engage beyond the classroom, through athletics, arts, music and extracurricular offerings. At Tower Hill, students learn to present, speak, listen, question, and lead.
TSD: Sports continue to be a major driver for parents and students. How do you find the right balance between athletics and academics?
Speers: The benefits of sports go beyond just athletic achievement. Tower Hill believes that the physical well-being of our students is as important as their intellectual development and that many important lessons are taught through an athletic experience. Sports serve to foster health, fitness, teamwork, perseverance and leadership. All students are part of a team at Tower Hill and this is by design. Whether you are a varsity captain or playing third team, participation is key.
TSD: What are some of the more transformational changes in the school’s history?
Speers: The original building opened in 1920 and was considered very modern in design and facilities. Between the opening of school and the early 1940s, there weren’t many physical changes to the main school. By the mid-1940s, enrollment had grown and there was a need for a larger gym. Weaver Gym opened in the fall of 1949 and was, at the time, one of the largest and most modern gyms in the state.
In the late ’50s, an L-shaped wing was added to the main building, which created the courtyard area. New library and science facilities were completed in 1973, the Carpenter Field House opened in 1980 and the P.S. du Pont Theatre opened in 1996 to support the performing arts.
During the 2011-2012 school year, the groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Math and Science Center, and Tower Hill began to explore new approaches for digital technology in the classroom. The Math and Science Center opened in 2013.
This fall construction began for the Tower Hill Dining Commons, an expansion of the school’s current dining facilities into the open-air courtyard adjacent to the dining room. Enclosing this existing space with a glass atrium roof will provide additional dining space for students and faculty in each division and a beautiful gathering space for our school’s community events.
Investing in this new signature space ensures that Tower Hill continues to prioritize community as a core value and one that has been at the heart of the school’s mission for 100 years.
TSD: We understand you regularly engage with educators from around the country. What are you seeing and hearing that is of interest to you?
Speers: We recently hosted Dr. Barbara Oakley for the first-ever Tower Hill Educators Collaboratory, a professional development day of meta-learning and collaboration. Dr. Oakley, researcher of bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology, shared with us her work on the relationship between neuroscience and social behavior and discussed how understanding the brain is key to teaching and learning effectively, for both students and teachers.
Both locally and nationally, environmental stewardship is an important topic for educators and is in fact, one of our institutional goals for the 2019-2020 school year. Various environmental clubs, lessons and field trips have been part of the Tower Hill experience for decades, but a more coordinated strategy to help students see the collective impact of our energy use over their time here is something in which we would like to engage.
Today’s young people are smart and they understand that they will need to solve many of the problems. It is natural for them to consider technology and cost-benefit savings of electric cars, solar panels and hydroelectric power, and we as a school must nurture that curiosity in meaningful ways.
There are many more topics we discuss as school leaders such as student wellness, stress and anxiety levels, security, values, and leadership to name a few.
TSD: What are three things you think the community should know about Tower Hill and what the school stands for?
Speers: Tower Hill’s founders surely wanted to create a top school that could rival any boarding school nationally. However in doing so, they also were clear that they wanted Tower Hill to raise the level of educational excellence in the region. I believe our founders would be proud of Tower Hill’s engagement in innovative curricula, global initiatives, community outreach, college placement and character development.
While our admissions standards remain high and we are not the school for every student, we recognize that students learn differently. So, there is no cookie-cutter Tower Hill student. And in fact, our teachers are incredibly adept at offering personalized, innovative and flexible ways to teach and they know each of their students well.
Tower Hill’s new Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) helps students build study habits that maximize their learning. Students’ health, wellness and social-emotional growth are priorities and actually enhance academic rigor and achievement.
Tower Hill is committed to building an engaged and diverse community, embracing and celebrating all cultures and beliefs. We have a Director of Social Justice who has a team of teachers and students who galvanize our community, offering opportunities to engage in meaningful and age-appropriate conversations.
Our students don’t come to school in a vacuum; they want to express their opinions and learn from others in respectful ways. Thirty-four percent of our enrollment represents students of color. We also have international Upper School students from China, Bulgaria, and Spain. Tower Hill students travel from over 40 cities and towns in four different states.