PDS-U Penn Fellows Partnership Elevates Teaching Excellence for All

In 2016, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education invited Princeton Day School to become one of the first among a select consortium of the nation’s leading independent day and boarding schools to partner on a groundbreaking teaching residency program. The Day School Teaching Residency Program (DSTR) enables carefully chosen, aspiring educators to receive a master’s degree in education from Penn while completing an intensive, two-year teaching fellowship on independent school campuses.

Not surprisingly, Princeton Day School immediately embraced the partnership. In PDS's case, the School established mentors for each Penn Fellow and a Co-Director framework to support and leverage the partnership framework and resources. For both the Fellows and PDS, the program focuses on best practice across three distinct strands: Teaching and Learning, Social Context and Reflective Practice.

PDS has a rich history of being at the forefront of teaching and learning, stemming from the late 19th century when May Margaret Fine started Miss Fine’s School, a predecessor to today’s Princeton Day School. The core mission of Miss Fine’s School was to provide a classical and comprehensive education to young women through high school, at a time when this was not at all common. Miss Fine’s 1965 merger with Princeton Country Day, a comprehensive and academically rigorous program for young men through eighth grade, created a strong foundation of teaching excellence for the PreK-12 Princeton Day School of today. Over the past 55 years, the School has earned a well-deserved reputation for premier programming and student-centered learning, with legions of graduates whose collective leadership, talent and impact continues to grow across the country and the globe.

"PDS today continues to fully realize our founders’ inclusive vision for students and faculty to learn deeply and contribute meaningfully to the world,” explained Head of School Paul Stellato. “Each of us are called upon to achieve our highest character when we become part of that stream of exceptionally skilled and engaged PDS community members. It is a chief characteristic of our faculty that they embrace every opportunity to have an outsized influence on the quality of our culture and our students.”  The DSTR partnership with Penn is yet another building block that strengthens the longstanding culture of teaching excellence for which PDS is known.

“For me, our partnership with Penn epitomizes PDS’s ongoing commitment to outstanding teaching and learning,” said Dr. Charles Alt, PDS Biology teacher who, along with US English teacher Caroline Lee co-coordinates the Day School Teaching Residency Program. “We were honored to be among the first schools selected by the University of Pennsylvania to participate in the program,” Alt continued. “This includes our association with an amazing cohort of elite day and boarding schools including Trinity, Roxbury Latin, Riverdale, Greenwich Academy, Lawrenceville School, Milton Academy and The Hotchkiss School.

Head of Middle School and Assistant Head of School for Academic Life Renée Price, who has also helped oversee the Penn Fellows program at PDS, has a professional and personal connection with Penn GSE. “I was lucky enough to go straight from UVA undergrad to the Penn Graduate School of Education as my path to becoming a teacher. Penn is renowned for leading the way in evidence-based teaching and learning, and my graduate experience there formed a strong foundation for my education career,” Price shared.

Both Alt and Price were eager to participate in the partnership not only to bring talented new teachers to the School, but because it creates a self-perpetuating mechanism for career PDS faculty to re-engage with their own teaching and reflective practice through participation in the program. As part of the Penn Fellow partnership, PDS faculty and leadership serve in key program oversight and mentoring roles while also participating in person or virtually in cohort sessions and University of Pennsylvania events. These experiences bring conversations about best practice back home to PDS and are resulting in broader conversations and initiatives among faculty teams across the School.

The first Penn Fellow at PDS, Tom Pettengill, received his graduate degree in teaching from U Penn in 2019 after teaching in the Upper School Science Department for two years. Pettengill, adored by his students, promoted a culture of inclusion in the classroom and a commitment to using both scientific and self-reflection skills to help better the world around them, an intentional part of the curriculum he termed “scientific citizenship”. According to Pettengill, “scientific citizenship is the embodiment of what a productive, thoughtful and empathetic citizen looks like, with an emphasis on using scientific thought and skills to enhance capabilities… aware of problems that face our society and the science behind them, as well as the ways that different people experience those problems.” 

As an educator, Mr. Pettengill achieved demonstrable success in fostering these characteristics and behaviors among his students at Princeton Day. One of his students reflected, “Mr. Pettengill  encouraged me to believe that I was a scientist in his classroom. He provided me with the framework to think like a scientist, and the support required to be courageous and fearless in my own thinking and learning.” 

Tom Pettengill teaching students in 2018-2019

Partnership and Its Impact Have Grown At PDS

Tom’s successes at PDS propelled the program into its second iteration, and have facilitated deeper connections between the DSTR program and best practices in independent school education. Last year, the program welcomed two new in-residence Penn Fellows, currently completing their two-year master’s degree at Penn. Toni Dunlap and Grace Ederer have been teaching Middle School Computer Science and Middle School Spanish, respectively, both last year and this year. Both have also expanded their teaching responsibilities to teach some Upper School courses as well.

Ederer and Dunlap are wholly committed to becoming the best teachers they can be. Their classroom experience at PDS is the cornerstone of their practice, which is enriched through meetings with dedicated PDS faculty mentors, the support of their faculty teams, and their participation in their graduate coursework and an online consortium of Penn.  

Grace Ederer teaching MS Spanish students in 2019

“The Penn Fellows program is distinct and immensely valuable because it combines the study of teaching and learning theory at Penn with on-the-ground experience among career educators at outstanding independent schools like PDS,” said Ederer.  

“My graduate coursework is complementary to and directly impacts my teaching practice. I am so grateful to have the opportunity  to learn about and integrate new teaching methods and strategies into my own classroom. This would not be possible without such a strong partnership between Penn and PDS and the ongoing support of my faculty colleagues here at PDS. With the many challenges and nuances of engineering a remote or hybrid classroom, this school year has demonstrated just how resilient, ingenious, and compassionate we are as a faculty.” she continued.

As a fellow learner engaged in a challenging degree program, she empathizes with her students. Ederer explains, “Since the first day I‘ve emphasized to them that making mistakes is how we learn. I still make mistakes, all of you will make mistakes, and that’s how we will grow together. Moreover, teaching during a pandemic has made me realize how absolutely crucial it is to cultivate a supportive, positive relationship with each of my students.”

Ishaani Singh ’26 expressed gratitude for the freedom Ederer gave her to “make as many mistakes as possible” in class as long as she kept trying to express herself in Spanish. “Now, I speak Spanish much more confidently,” Ishaani stated.

Toni Dunlap, meanwhile, is breaking ground not only as a PDS Penn Fellow but as a Middle School faculty member dedicated to teaching computer science, a huge jumpstart for MS students to develop skills before reaching high school. “We cover fundamental concepts that are applicable to computer programming everywhere in a fun and active way, using puzzles and activities that help students problem-solve and think like a computer scientist,” Dunlap shared.

In some key ways, teaching, and learning about teaching, could not be happening at a more meaningful time, and the U Penn-PDS partnership has become even more valuable to the School as a result. “The past two years of the Penn Fellows program and teaching at PDS have involved so much more than I envisioned at the start, given the realities of the pandemic and the events that have galvanized a reckoning with systemic racism and extremism,” she reflected.

“I'm thankful for the experience I had as a high school student who attended an online school, which helped me better anticipate some of the challenges we encountered last spring as teachers in a fully remote environment. This year, we've all stretched even further teaching both on-campus and remote learners simultaneously, which is also challenging. There is a concern at all schools about inequities and differences that need to be met and how difficult it is to reach both in person and at home learners at once. The U Penn program has always focused on inequities in education, and the combination of the pandemic and current social and political issues have really opened the doors at U Penn and at PDS to talk about general educational and community inequities at a broader and deeper level,” Dunlap noted.

“Ways in which I bring this work into the classroom include being intentional about giving feedback while also putting myself in the students' shoes and prioritizing connection and not just content delivery. The better we know our students, and the more connected students feel with us and each other,  the more effectively they learn,” she added.

Dunlap also understands the importance of helping instill confidence in all of her students. “Computer science professionals have traditionally been overwhelmingly male and very few have been people of color,” Dunlap shares. “Students from all walks of life who see me, a woman of color, teaching computer science, are more easily able to visualize themselves pursuing a career in computer science.”

Now a freshman, Eric Wu ’24 reflected, “As a Middle School web design student, I was able to utilize my technology skills to create almost anything I want thanks to Ms. Dunlap.”

Partner Schools and Fellows Participate in Program Activities 

The Penn Fellows program is structured around sharing effective learning practices not only with the Fellows but with the cohort of partnering independent schools. Three full-cohort meetings per year are immersive experiences with some of the best independent school faculty and leadership in the country, where grad students and experienced educators explore innovative educational research and practice on topics ranging from effective collaboration to diversity, equity and inclusion, and best-practice assessment and feedback methods. 

Prior to the pandemic, Alt, Ederer, Dunlap and Lee (also a mentor to Ederer), attended a weekend-long Penn Fellows collaboration in January 2020 with all of the boarding and day schools who participate in the Penn Fellows program. 

For Lee, it was an exceptional opportunity to partake in the weekend because of her continual focus on improving her teaching and learning, as well as her commitment to help support, nurture and mentor younger teachers. “We are learning together and designing ways to translate current research and educational psychology into classroom practice,” Lee reflected. “It’s equally exciting to share these resources with the PDS faculty in our commitment to building a culture of teaching and learning. Our whole community – kids and adults – grows and benefits from this work.”

“As COVID-19 has impacted our community, our families and our lives, so too has it shifted our teaching practices in unexpected and innumerable ways. In many ways this has forced a re-evaluation of best practices--some of our most trusted educational tools simply were not designed to function effectively in hybrid environments with on-campus and remote learners. From collaboration to the importance of effective feedback, differentiated instruction, backwards design and the challenges inherent in online assessment, DSTR has embraced conversations about change in the classroom and has provided new tools capable of addressing this new world,” Director Alt concluded.

Princeton Day School is proud to be at the forefront of the Penn Fellows program, which embodies the faculty’s exceptional commitment to teaching and learning excellence at PDS while also fostering the next generation of leading teachers.

More News