By Marissa Maier
In 1991, Courtney Sale and Stephen J. Ross started the Ross School in East Hampton with only three students. Nearly 20 years later, the school has flourished into a co-educational program for grades K-12 and now boasts a lower school campus in Bridgehampton. The expansion of the Ross School though isn’t limited to the geographical confines of the East End. With two satellite schools in Sweden and New York City, the Ross Model is attracting worldwide attention. From governments to small charter schools, educators are intrigued by the global emphasis of the Ross curriculum.
Above: Sally Booth with the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley, and Zenobia Barlow, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy.
Recently members of the Ross Institute, a not-for-profit organization focusing on innovating education, were invited by the Bhutanese government to attend a conference titled “Educating for Gross National Happiness.” The concept of Gross National Happiness was first developed in 1972 by the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is a theory by which the health of a nation is measured by the gross national happiness, or quality of life, versus a gross domestic product. The Ross School was the only K-12 school from the United States invited to attend the conference at the capital city of Thimphu.
“The Bhutanese government was especially interested in the way the Ross curriculum values the history of traditional cultures,” explained Sally Booth, an Associate Director at the Ross Institute Academy, which provides teacher certification programs in the Ross Model. “They especially valued the integrated perspectives and the importance placed on both eastern and western wellness traditions.”
The Ross curriculum focuses on cross-cultural perspectives. Instead of cultural history being filtered through a nationalistic, or Western European lens, students are challenged to learn the histories of cultures across the globe and place themselves within this global network. Lessons are taught through a variety of mediums from artifacts to films to primary documents. And students are encouraged to learn not only in the classroom but outside of it as well with an emphasis on independent projects and community engagement. The Ross approach centers around the spiral curriculum which focuses “on periods of rapid cultural transformation throughout history,” explains the East End school’s website. This education method, however, requires teachers to work across disciplines. Teachers in every core subject form interdisciplinary teams to coordinate lesson plans and create educational continuity. Based on the theory of one of the school’s early mentors and Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, the Ross model of education aims to cultivate multiple intelligences. For example, at the East End school the eleventh grade is assigned a project on modernity. The students, however, are allowed to explore this subject in an endless number of ways. One student may choreograph a dance while another composes a selection of music to illustrate this historical period.
The global aspect of the Ross Model allows the curriculum to be easily implemented throughout the world. Seven years ago, the Swedish government was interested in finding a national education system that would allow them to engage their immigrant and refugee students. Swedish education policy makers approached Courtney Sale Ross to consider working with a high school in Stockholm, now called Ross Tensta Gymnasium.
“They thought the global perspectives of the Ross spiral curriculum would enrich the learning process for these international students, adding perspectives more relevant than the primarily Swedish point of view of the national curriculum,” explained Booth.
The Institute developed a teacher training program for the Swedish teachers, thus sowing the seeds for the Ross Institute Academy. Over the past seven years, the Swedish educators have been working towards Ross accreditation but this required an overhaul of their program from the curriculum to the wellness program. The school’s public spaces were reorganized to better display art reproductions and student artwork. A chef was hired and the school began to serve health conscious breakfasts and lunches. Offices were no longer arranged by subject, but were organized by interdisciplinary teaching teams. Teachers were encouraged to have more of a collaborative relationship with their students; and service learning and community based projects were promoted. This April, Ross Tensta Gymnasium will be assessed for the final accreditation.
“In addition to serving our population on the East End of Long Island, Mrs. Ross’ goal is to share this educational model, this global curriculum with its emphasis on wellness and innovative pedagogy, with a much larger group of students not just here but abroad as well,” remarked Booth. “She believes this type of education should be available to all students, including those students within the public school models.”
The same Ross curriculum implemented in the Swedish school was later adapted for a public New York City Charter school. Working with the city, Courtney Sale Ross launched the Ross Global Academy, a charter school on the lower east side, over four years ago. The school caters to inner city students hailing from all five boroughs in grades kindergarten through eighth.
“Because the Ross Global Academy is a public charter school, it must adhere to the NYS Standards based curriculum,” noted Booth. “Yet it is integrated within the Ross curriculum which is guided by a Cultural History base and integrates with math, science, ELA and other curriculum domains. It is a creative adaptation of the Ross curriculum in a public school setting, which is what we did in Sweden, by condensing and curtailing the material. The students still have to take all the standardized tests that any New York State public school student would have to take, but by using the Ross Curriculum, it makes teaching these standards more interesting and meaningful to the students.”
Other schools are following suit, including a charter school in South Carolina. The school hired the Institute last summer to organize two seminars to train teachers in the Ross Model and to help the school plan a K-5 curriculum. Just last week, Courtney Sale Ross visited the school to discuss the possibility of a long-term partnership as a new Ross School, noted Booth.
Over the past month, Booth has received more inquiries about the Ross Model, teacher training and curriculum from Montana, Toronto and Turkey, to name a few. The requests, she adds, continue to pour in.
Though the Ross Institute and Ross Institute Academy are in the midst of a flurry of activity, Booth adds the East End campus remains the flagship of the Ross Model.
“Ross Institute has been very active in sharing the model of innovative education both nationally and internationally. All of these impressive efforts rest squarely upon the fine work of teachers and students at the Ross School here in the East End,” remarked Booth. “The model curriculum, which has attracted so much attention due to the integrated nature of cross-disciplinary perspectives, was developed on the home campus by our mentors, teachers, and students over 17 years of inspiring collaborative work.”