Extended Insights
Extended Insights

Feb 28, 2011, 12:30

Sarah Wagner, MEd
Academic Director
Shortridge Academy
Milton, NH

February 2, 2011

This is part of a series of conversations with key Shortridge Academy leadership team members by Alumni Parent, Frank Anthony

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Director of Academics, Sarah Wagner, BA, M.Ed, who has been teaching at Shortridge since 2002, and was appointed Academic Director in 2007. She was recently recognized for her role in helping Shortridge Academy gain the accreditation of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Shortridge Academy stands alone among its peer schools in this prestigious achievement.

Frank: What brought you to Shortridge Academy?

Sarah: I grew up in a family of educators in Cambridge, MA. My father has long focused on education reform and you might say that a commitment progressive education is in my blood. After graduating from Brown University, I started working in environmental education. This was an ideal platform for introducing the concepts of experiential education to engage reluctant learners who were falling through the cracks in traditional classrooms. In 2002, I met Adam Rainer and learned about what he was hoping to create at Shortridge Academy. I immediately knew that I wanted to be part of this community that is so intentional about finding success by growing trusting relationships and connections with students while so many other schools of our type remain stuck in a cycle of struggling to manage behavior.

Frank: How has the curriculum evolved over the years?

Sarah: We have certainly added greater depth and more challenging course offerings to what was already a solid college preparatory curriculum, but the more important changes have focused on introducing innovative ways to engage our students in more relevant learning strategies. We have a great track record of providing individual attention and creating trusting relationships with students, and we wanted to act on research that re-affirmed the need to connect them to the actual curriculum to show them that they can indeed be both capable and successful. For example, we find that our students learn best how to gain the mastery of studying history in history class, rather than in a separate class about how to develop better study skills without the practical link to the actual material.

We have a similar approach to one of the latest themes in education theory - experiential education. While we continue to offer field trips and outings, we find much greater success embedding experiential components into our core curriculum. Since so many of our students are hands on learners, this really connects them to the concepts we are teaching. On a given day, we have controlled explosions in Chemistry, mock UN trials in History, zany game shows conducted in Spanish, and continuing work on a Field Guide to our property in Environmental Science. Our faculty is constantly finding new ways to generate excitement in the learning process, creating a dynamic curriculum that is experiential, meaningful, and relevant.

Frank: How do you find and develop faculty?

Sarah: The recruiting part is pretty easy, with the University of NH and the wealth of higher education institutions in Boston nearby. Great teachers tend to find us based on our proximity to the NH seacoast, the White Mountains, and the college town environment that UNH creates in nearby Durham, NH. They are attracted to Shortridge Academy due to our unique Positive Youth Development approach along with the freedom and autonomy to be creative and innovative in the classroom. When observing faculty in the classroom, I look for a healthy balance of structure and creative engagement. I look for connection with every student, and a pattern of student involvement where they feel safe and comfortable debating and learning with one another. We are constantly evaluating and providing feedback through a robust teacher mentor program where peer teachers provide confidential feedback outside of official performance reviews. We also devote specific time as a faculty to collaborate on the curriculum and to share strategies for reaching and engaging individual students.

Frank: How do you incorporate new students with rolling admissions and different ages and stages of development?

Sarah: We initially design an individual schedule based on the transcript from their last school, allowing for partial credits since many of our students left at some point during the school year. With our small class sizes and quarter long academic units, it doesn't take long for them to get into the swing, especially with the help of older students who often serve as peer tutors. Our faculty is particularly effective at meeting each student where he is and individualizing a support plan that will engage him in his own learning process. Beyond an initial review, we are constantly tracking progress, since our students often display much greater potential as they regain their self-confidence and curiosity.

Frank: How does the academic program relate to the therapeutic program?

Sarah: We integrate each student's academic goals into his Positive Development Plan (PDP), since an emotional foundation has to be established before they can regain confidence and optimism about the future. The academic advisor and the counselor team up to build on the important work that Wilderness Therapists do in the weeks before our students arrive at Shortridge. After we understand each student's learning style and the reasons why they struggled to fit in at previous schools, we can build the trust and connections that are essential to making real progress. Over the years, we have found a strong correlation between faster student engagement and consistent parent involvement in this process.

Frank: What about outcomes? What do you see 5 years after graduation?

Sarah: This is another area where academics tie in to the broader positive development work. Our graduates have a strong sense of self, and they use the skills they learned at Shortridge to find the help and the resources they need to succeed. They do well at college both socially and academically; we often hear that they tire of adolescent behavior, as they are more thoughtful and ready to get serious about their lives than are many of their peers. After college, they tend to find opportunities with meaning, and to contribute to something that stirs their passion.

Frank: At the end of the day, that's really what we all want for our children. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for your inspired leadership at Shortridge Academy.

Shortridge Academy is a year round, college preparatory, therapeutic boarding school for young men and women ages 14-17 years old at enrollment, grades 9-12. Shortridge Academy is one of only a few therapeutic boarding schools in the Northeast accredited by the rigorous New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the only school of its kind that explicitly utilizes the evidenced-based Positive Youth Development (PYD) curriculum to guide the individualized therapeutic programming for students. Since 2002, Shortridge Academy has been helping students and families who are struggling with academic performance, loss of interest in activities and increased conflict in family or peer relationships.

For more information call 877-903-8968 or visit

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