Linking Virtues and Academics at Willow

by | September 18, 2019

This article appears in the New Jersey Family Big Book Of Education 2019.

Some schools focus on test scores. Some tout extracurricular activities. The Willow School nurtures “the joy of learning.”

“Willow is unique in nurturing the joys of childhood, even in our middle school,” says Head of School Francisco Ayala. “Though our students graduate as poised public speakers with strong critical thinking skills, an excellent academic foundation and strong executive functioning skills, they still love to play and have a true love of learning.”

THE JOY AND WONDER OF LEARNING

The Willow School opened in 2000 and now has more than 100 students in preschool through Grade 8. Students hail from Somerset, Hunterdon, Morris and Essex counties. Willow’s integrated, hands-on curriculum is designed for the way children learn best. The 34-acre campus provides a healthy learning environment, including three LEED-certified buildings and plenty of space to learn and play outdoors.

The philosophy of founders Pearl Johnson and Mark Biedron was to build a school that “combined academic excellence with the joy and wonder of learning; a school that was rooted in a strong virtues program, grounded in the Aristotelian cardinal virtues,” Ayala says.

It’s a place where students learn to develop ethical relationships and apply systems thinking to complex issues. It’s a school where students learn at their own pace, with hands-on lessons tailored to their individual learning styles. And it’s an environment where students bring their own passions into “Genius Hour” projects.

The Willow School’s natural campus allows dedicated teachers to transform each lesson into a memorable experience, taking students outside to learn first-hand from and in nature. “Willow is a close-knit community where everyone feels deeply connected to one another and to the school,” says Ayala.

STUDENTS AS THEIR BEST SELVES

Ask Ayala about recent Willow graduates and the list will highlight the academic diversity one might expect from a school well-versed in the virtues of Aristotle. A 2010 alumna majored in sociology and minored in French at Barnard College and is now making her way to Harvard Business School. A 2012 graduate is studying engineering at Northeastern University. A 2014 graduate joined a high school ethics team that went on to win the National Ethics Bowl.

“I’m most proud of our school’s ability to challenge students through a rigorous curriculum while still fostering a love for learning,” say Ayala. “Willow’s able to use collaboration, rather than competition, to help students develop into their best selves.”

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