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A Conversation with Stephen Spahn, Chancellor of Dwight School
By Dr. Pola Rosen And Lucas Mautner


Stephen Spahn, Chancellor of Dwight School
Stephen Spahn, Chancellor of Dwight School

Education Update sat down with Chancellor Stephen Spahn to discuss the outstanding work he has accomplished in his record-breaking 50 years of service as Chancellor of Dwight School. Spahn talks about the forthcoming Dwight School Dubai campus, the history of Dwight, and the benefits of an International Baccalaureate diploma.

EducationUpdate (EU): How did you decide to choose Dubai as a center for your outreach?

Stephen Spahn (SS): We were approached by the government of Dubai that felt there was a real need for American International Baccalaureate (IB) schools. Dubai is the economic hub of the Middle East and a place where many different nationalities convene. We felt that Dwight was best equipped to offer a world-class, American, International Baccalaureate education and are excited to expand our network of Dwight Schools, all dedicated to educating the next generation of global leaders. The school in Dubai will open in September 2018.

EU: You are celebrating 50 years in education. Are you talking about Dwight itself when you say 50 years?

SS: I’ve been at Dwight for 50 years. I’m the longest-serving head of an independent school in the U.S., but Dwight has been in existence since 1872.

EU: Who founded the school?

SS: The school was founded by Julius Sachs in 1872. His brother, Samuel, co-founded Goldman Sachs; and another brother, Bernard, was instrumental in discovering Tay Sachs disease.

Timothy Dwight V, after whom the school is named, was President of Yale University in the late 1800s. He was instrumental in changing the school from its focus on Greek and Latin to math and science.

EU: What are some of the global challenges you face?

SS: Probably the biggest global challenge that we face and that we’re trying to prepare our students for is the creation of new jobs. The reality is that many of our graduates are going to have to create their own jobs. To help ready them, we have developed something called Spark Tank, which is our incubator for student ideas beginning as young as kindergarten. Spark Tank is designed to nurture innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills, and to help students bring their own ideas and inventions to the marketplace. Students are developing a wide range of things, from new products to nonprofits aimed at helping people overcome physical challenges or to help make the world a better place.

Our mission is to nurture the unique talents and passions, or sparks of genius, in all our students both inside and outside the classroom. Spark Tank is a program in which students can pursue their own passions and learn about the product or business development process from the germ of an idea to acceleration, and from prototyping to market launch. Our students present their ideas to a committee of talented parents who provide feedback, advice, mentorships, and help them to reach different levels of accomplishment within the incubator. We think that Spark Tank is a very exciting and unique aspect of our school; and with support from The Dwight Foundation, students can receive funding to help bring their novel ideas and innovations to fruition.

EU: How long has Spark Tank been around?

SS: This is now our second year. We had a very successful launch and the program has since expanded in both size and the number of students participating. We also have a leadership program, which we’ve added to the Middle School curriculum, so that students can learn the process of starting and running a business.
EU: What age students are involved in Spark Tank?

SS: It starts in kindergarten. So far, the youngest Spark Tank presenters have been eight years old. The oldest, of course, would be a senior.

EU: Is Spark Tank also going to be in Dubai?

SS: Yes, absolutely.

EU: What are some of the differences between the students in Dubai and Manhattan?

SS: This is a difficult question to answer only because we haven’t yet opened the school in Dubai. But I can say that we will be creating a new Center of Excellence for Arabic Language, Culture, and the Arts that will be on our school property. All the schools in Dubai are required to teach Arabic, and they’re facing an issue where it hasn’t been taught very well. So this center is going to be a model for international understanding and cooperation when it comes to Arabic studies.

EU: Do you think it’s important for American students to learn Arabic as well?

SS: The answer is a resounding yes. Learning different languages is a norm at all Dwight Schools around the world, whether it is Arabic or any other language. Language is also a very important part of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. We teach three core languages, Mandarin, French, and Spanish; and we teach 14 languages in total. By learning a language, students have a means of better understanding a culture, so it’s something that we definitely support. If you can speak the language, you’re better able to have a meaningful discussion cross-culturally. It’s absolutely critical to have that.

EU: And what languages are taught in New York?

SS: The core languages, as mentioned, are Mandarin, French, and Spanish. We also offer a range of languages, including Japanese, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, German, Russian, and Latin. The list goes on and on.

EU: Which language would you say is most popular in New York?

SS: Right now, it would be a tie among Spanish, Mandarin, and French.

EU: Were there any unique challenges or issues or experiences operating in Dubai that you didn’t encounter in the States?

SS: We haven’t begun to operate there and won’t until September 2018. As mentioned earlier, one of the opportunities we’re excited about is creating the Center of Excellence for Arabic Language, Culture, and Arts on the property. Another unique aspect of our new school in Dubai is the partnership we forged with Brighton College, the number-one co-ed school in England. Dwight School Dubai and Brighton College Dubai will be sharing a one-million square-foot “super campus.” It will be unique to have two independent schools working very closely, with one teaching an American International Baccalaureate curriculum and the other a British curriculum. We’ll be able to collaborate in so many ways, such as creating a joint orchestra, working on student productions together, etc.

EU: How did you get involved with Brighton College?

SS: Dwight was the first American independent school to establish a campus in England. In 1972, we opened what is now known as Dwight School London. So we’ve known the British landscape extremely well and knew Brighton College as the top-ranked co-ed British school in London. An education group in the Middle East helped bring us both together in Dubai.

EU: Where would you like to see the school five years from opening?

SS: I believe that Dwight School Dubai will, like all Dwight Schools, be recognized as a top school in the world. What we want in five years, in ten years, is to be recognized as igniting thousands of sparks of genius in children around the world through personalized learning, which is the hallmark of a Dwight education, and to become better known as a school whose graduates can be dropped anywhere in the world and thrive. In addition, we look forward to seeing the results of the work we’re currently doing to expand a world-class Dwight education to students anywhere in the world through Dwight Global Online School, our campus in the cloud. We’re working with the founder of Stanford Online High School to create Dwight Global. In five to ten years, I think it will be the number-one online high school in the world.

EU: Which of the Dwight schools is most popular?

SS: I would say they’re all popular among their student bodies and parent communities. They all have waiting lists. The challenge, for example, is being able to interview all the applicants. In Shanghai, for example, they can have thousands of children applying for 200 places and all are so incredibly talented academically. Our faculty spends hours every weekend interviewing hundreds of children to determine the incoming classes.

EU: Which of the schools that you run is the largest in terms of numbers?

SS: Dubai will probably be the largest in terms of facilities. Dwight in New York currently has almost 1,000 students, from preschool through grade 12. That’s way up from 50 students, which is what we had 50 years ago when I began.

EU: What will the student makeup of the Dubai school be and what will be some specific advantages that those students have?

SS: Ninety percent of the students will be international and ten percent will be local Emiratis, following the make-up of Dubai. In terms of the advantages, they will be the same as all Dwight students have in our global network. One of the unique benefits of a Dwight education is being a part of this global family in which students enjoy numerous cross-campus curricular and creative collaborations and exchanges. For example, in New York, our entire fifth grade spends ten days at Dwight School London and their entire year six comes to New York in a reciprocal home-stay program. In ninth grade, our students go to Dwight School Shanghai and theirs come here [to New York]. And each year, all of our performing artists, from all over the globe, come together in New York to perform together onstage at Carnegie Hall, which is really spectacular.

EU: What sorts of extracurricular and culturally enriching activities will be available for students in Dubai?

In terms of extracurricular activities, we will have anything you can imagine, from Spark Tank, coding, and model U.N; to the arts, including a music conservatory; and athletics. We’re going to have the best-in-class field in Dubai for soccer, track, tennis courts, and an Olympic-size swimming pool.

EU: How does an IB diploma differ from a regular school diploma?

SS: The IB diploma is the most well-respected diploma in the world. It’s accepted by colleges and universities around the world. Students who graduate with an IB diploma have the credentials as open-minded and advanced critical thinkers. IB diploma graduates have higher college acceptance rates, are known to perform better in post-secondary education than their peers, and are proficient in multiple languages. They’re internationally minded. They’re just more agile in a very competitive global marketplace.

EU: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you feel is important to note?

SS: If I were to add anything it is that the real revolution in education is the movement toward a new, student-centric world. I’ve always believed in the power of students to innovate. To turn them loose is to give them freedom, which is what we’re seeing today. I think it’s necessary for the world our graduates are entering. They have to be able to have all the skills and talents, to ask the right questions. A big question we should be asking as educators is what do we take out from a curriculum, and what do we add, so that students are able to keep up with a rapidly changing world, whether it’s coding, robotics, artificial intelligence; students have to become knowledgeable about each of these areas. To me, education itself is in the midst of a maelstrom of change, and what we have to do is give students the capacity to research and to come back with solutions to share with one another. And then, of course, this must all be done in an inspiring way. This presents a new, emerging, challenging opportunity for educators to re-think education. #



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