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Character Driven
The Hun School of Princeton, now celebrating its 100-year anniversary, fosters an environment that promotes character and teaches exceptional students how to thrive in a quickly changing world

by Sharon A. Shaw

One hundred years is a long time to stay the course.

Yet this phenomenon has occurred at the Hun School of Princeton, a remarkable college-preparatory school based in Princeton, N.J. The school’s devotion to challenging students, both academically and personally, while preparing them to engage an ever-changing world, remains as firmly in place as the day Dr. John Gale Hun founded the school in 1914.

“Professor Hun prepared his students with a rigorous curriculum, getting them prepared for college. That hasn’t changed at all,” says Patricia Garrison, who was recently appointed chair of the school’s interdisciplinary studies department. “Hun still has a challenging and rigorous curriculum, and our goal is to prepare each and every student for college and life ahead.”

The world has changed significantly in the past century—even in the past decade—and the Hun School has evolved along with it. For one, the school was once an all-male, all-boarding learning environment. Girls were admitted in 1971, and the school now has boarders and day students. The curriculum, including the way teachers engage students, has evolved as well.

“We change and adapt in order to serve the needs of our kids,” says Garrison, who previously taught at the college level and in the school’s Learning Center. “To do this, we have to provide a 21st century education for them. This means that we need integrate our traditional curriculum with 21st century skills, like innovation and collaboration.”

A Broader Perspective
The Hun School places a high value on a creative yet challenging curriculum in a structured environment that fosters a sense of community and diversity, while developing students’ unique talents, interests and academic needs. Although providing ways to develop students’ innate talents is essential, the school also encourages students to widen their horizons as a way to gain a sense of excitement about learning and, above all, achieve their full potential.

Take the school’s interdisciplinary studies department, which helps students experience different areas of study—history, geography, literature, politics, etc.— blended together to provide a sense of broader perspective. No subject is isolated, with no defined borders. This unique approach enables students to think creatively and understand issues on their own terms, thereby achieving “holistic understanding,” says headmaster Jonathan Brougham.

“We are at a point where we are preserving the best of our traditions—kindness, respectfulness, one-on-one relationships between students and teachers—while adding a forward-thinking curriculum and supplementing with technology that has evolved tremendously,” says Brougham, who enjoyed 24 years of experience in independent schools, as well as a background as a practicing attorney, before coming to Hun. “One example is that kids in grades six to 10 are required to bring iPads to class.”

Although iPads and other forms of technology did not exist 100 years ago, Ken Weinstein, head of Hun’s middle school, suggests these 21st-century tools fall precisely in line with the philosophy of the institution’s founder.

“We can’t do things the way we used to 20 years ago because it’s not a good example to set for kids you want to change and grow,” says Weinstein, who came to the Hun School in 2012 with 20 years of experience as a teacher and administrator. “Brain-based research shows it is not good enough for today’s kids; technology allows us to leverage how kids learn. To be engaged today, you must be relevant. Our students must maximize their learning potential and be prepared for a world of change in order to be prepared as adults.

“We used to teach chronologically, but now you must look for themes or common-event problems in the world we can engage kids in,” he continues. “Ultimately you want your son or daughter to come out with really strong connections to a subject they can be passionate about, and this is where we excel.”

Academic excellence is celebrated and cultivated at Hun, though the school also considers other personality traits when seeking prospective students.

“I’ve worked at four very good schools, and Hun is the only one to look first at character,” Brougham says. “Character means being a good citizen, being the kind of kid we would want our own children to go to school with. We nurture and protect that student culture here.”

Character also means supporting one’s community and friends, according to Weinstein, and the school actively looks for candidates who fit this description. In addition to character-driven students, the school seeks hard workers who know how to work well individually and in teams, whether those students belong in honors programs or require additional attention and support. 

Such a forward-thinking environment helped shape the fortunes of John Marbach and David Merfield, two recent Hun graduates notable for being recipients of the Thiel Fellowship “20 under 20” program. In 2011, the two Hun alums were the youngest recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, which awards 20 young innovators $100,000 to fund a revolutionary idea in technology.

The Hun School presents students with unique opportunities to interact and learn from the world around them. Students who take a global studies course, for example, collaborate with students from around the world—Iraq, Italy, the Republic of Georgia—via Skype to solve shared problems. Also, the school has boarders from around the world, meaning day students rub shoulders with students from Bahrain, China and Venezuela, among other places.

“When I went through school, I didn’t receive an introduction to the outside world,” Brougham says. “I did not know what law was and certainly never worked in a law office, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to law school,’ but I did not find it fulfilling. At Hun, we try to introduce kids to the outside world earlier. We have them create a business, have an internship, be active—not just read the books.

“My own son is graduating this year,” he continues. “He made friends here who he never would have met otherwise. Experiences like this make our students better prepared for what the world has in store for them.”

Even after 100 years, Dr. Hun’s philosophy of supporting each student has endured. It has also inspired the school’s continued growth. In honor of its centennial, as well as its focus on global education, this summer the Hun School will begin construction on a new 30,000-square-foot dormitory and campus center known as the Global Commons. For Garrison, chair of the school’s interdisciplinary studies department, the reason for such influence is clear.

“From the moment I set foot on this campus, years ago, I knew it was a special place and I wanted my son to come here,” she says. “At the same time, Hun had an opening for a teacher, and so my son and I were extremely lucky and blessed to arrive here together.”

“I’m lucky to have two perspectives about Hun: one as a faculty member, and one as a parent,” says Garrison. “As a parent, I can tell you that my son had four of the best years of his life here at Hun, and I was so gratified for his excitement about learning, his curiosity about subjects, and his grasp of concepts.

“He made lifelong friends with both students and teachers and still considers himself part of the family,” she continues. “That is what I think Hun does best: fosters the sense of belonging, which leads to confidence, which results in lifelong, dynamic learning.”

The Hun School of Princeton
176 Edgerstoune Road
Princeton, NJ 08540
609-921-7600 | www.hunschool.org

 

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