Growing wings: Private Eagle School expanding as enrollment swells

Jeff Buchanan

Photos by Scott Girard. Eagle School director Carole Mason stands in one of the new classrooms that was built as part of the addition.

The addition to Eagle School includes a new auditorium that can hold up to 300. The school held its June graduation ceremony in the room.

The school will also feature a new parking lot outside of the auditorium.

Eagle School has expanded its schoolhouse and added students in response to steep demand.

A new wing has increased floor space by 78 percent and will permit a 31 percent rise in enrollment at the independent Fitchburg school, which serves gifted children grades kindergarten through eight.

Excess demand sparked the expansion, said Eagle director Carole Mason. In recent years, she said, the school has received two applications for every place in its kindergarten class, known as “Nest.”

Construction began in June 2013 and was completed Aug. 1, 2014. New rooms will be outfitted with furniture and electronics in time for the 2014-15 school year, which begins Aug. 27.

By the start of the 2017-18 school year Eagle expects to have 260 students, up from a pre-expansion enrollment of 197. The school also plans to add up to eight teachers and administrators to its current 37-person staff. Mason said enrollment for the upcoming school year will be between 222 and 225.

The new wing includes a science lab, a computer lab complete with a server room and a 300-seat auditorium wired with stage lights and microphones.

The school held its eighth-grade graduation at the auditorium in June.

Another new space is the “innovation lab,” a hands-on workshop that melds subjects like physics, computing and math, reflecting Eagle’s interdisciplinary approach to education. Computer teacher Jack Maloney said students will use the lab, for example, to analyze trebuchets – catapults that use counterweights to launch projectiles – they build in science class.

“We’ll make a computer model that fires a certain distance based on the weight of the shot, the length of the arm and other variables,” Maloney said. “Then we’ll test it out using various values for the variables and try to find values that launch projectiles the farthest.”

The cost of the expansion is an estimated $4.1 million. The school kicked off a capital campaign in 2012 and met its initial $500,000 goal in eight months. A second phase began last October and has netted $130,000 in new donations. The majority of gifts have come from individuals, including pledges of $100,000 and $50,000 from current and former Eagle families.

Mason said funds raised through the capital campaign provide “the seed money to build.” The school will repay the remainder of the $3.1 million bank loan it took out for the project through tuition and future donations.

Humble beginnings, steady growth

Mary Olsky and Elizabeth Conner hatched Eagle in 1982 out of a single classroom in Hoyt School, located on Madison’s near west side. The Madison Metropolitan School District had closed Hoyt, which now serves as Madison School and Community Recreation headquarters, and was renting classrooms to outside organizations.

Olsky had enrolled her son in a program for gifted students at Midvale Elementary School but was not satisfied with the quality of instruction. She met Conner at a conference for elementary school writers and they began discussing the possibility of creating their own school.

After visits to schools for precocious kids in Wisconsin and neighboring states, they opened Eagle. The inaugural class comprised 12 students, three of whom were children of the co-founders.

The school grew quickly – by the start of the second year, enrollment had nearly tripled. A second classroom was rented, then a third. It was becoming clear that Eagle would not call Hoyt home for much longer.

Olsky and Conner, aided by an Eagle parent who worked as a real estate developer, started to look for land on which to build a new facility. They settled on a lot across from Elver Park on Madison’s southwest side. The school began operating out of the sky blue two-story building in March 1986.

Three renovations over the next seven years added a gymnasium, kindergarten room and other amenities. But there remained a thirst for more: a playground, a performance stage, an airier lunchroom. In 1998, with little space left to expand, it was once again time to relocate.

The school chose to build on undeveloped land along the Capital City State Trail near South Fish Hatchery Road. It remains a remote setting, devoid of traffic, that affords outdoor learning opportunities in the spring and fall.

Students swing nets at grasshoppers during science class as part of a bug collection assignment. Art class meets outside so students can sketch the prairie that adjoins school property.

Olsky noted there are three parks – Hoyt, Elver and Gunflint Trail – near past and present locations.

“From the very beginning, we’ve always liked to be next to a park,” Olsky said.

The chosen spot assuaged fears of eventually outgrowing another building. Eagle worked with the project’s architects and contractors to design a building that could handle a future addition.

“We asked the builder to leave one end easily expandable in case we bought the neighboring lot,” said Olsky, who served as an Eagle co-director until she retired in 2008 and remains president of the school’s board.

Conner, who served as co-director until 2010, passed away in early 2013 from complications of metastatic breast cancer. The new auditorium is named in her honor.

‘Substantial workload’ aims to prepare

Academic rigor is at the heart of Eagle’s mission. Mason estimates that the average class is two years ahead of grade level.

That means in math, students enter high school having completed algebra and geometry and are on track to take Advanced Placement calculus as juniors.

“It’s a substantial workload,” said Mason. “Our academic focus prepares students for all the opportunities that lie ahead.”

Eagle’s integrated curriculum is marked by specialization – teachers generally stick to one subject – and collaborative planning. Young students learning the computer keyboard type poems they previously wrote by hand in language arts class. A study of origami construction complements a unit on Japanese culture and history.

“To help kids make sense of things, you want to find as many cross-subject connections as you can,” Mason said. “It makes the material that much more meaningful.”

Many Eagle teachers bring advanced degrees and pertinent professional experience with them into the classroom. Science teacher Maggie Van Boldrik has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Katie McEnaney, who teaches language arts, social studies and drama, has an archaeology degree from Harvard and has done fieldwork in the United States and abroad.

McEnaney’s second- and third-graders study world civilizations one continent at a time. As part of their unit on Europe, she showed photos of the dig site in Pompeii, Italy, where she and colleagues excavated an ancient city block.

“I try to bring my personal experience and travel into the classroom to help students feel a connection to different people and places,” McEnaney said.

Mason said Eagle’s learning environment is predicated on respect. Most teachers and administrators prefer to be addressed by first name, putting instructor and pupil on equal footing.

Olsky said teachers must be able to put the spotlight on students and foster lively discussions.

“We want teachers to be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage,” Olsky said.

Not for everyone

Eagle’s strict admission requirements and price tag – annual tuition is $9,600 – put it out of reach for many families. Parents must perform a minimum of nine volunteer hours per year for each child attending the school.

Racial and socioeconomic diversity are somewhat lacking. The student body is 73 percent white and most minority students are of Indian or East Asian descent.

The school grants more than $100,000 in scholarships annually but only 10 percent of students receive aid, indicating that Eagle families skew affluent. (Local tech executives Judith Faulkner of Epic and Bill Linton of Promega each have a child who graduated from the school.)

Eamon Doyle, who attended Eagle for grades 3 through 5, said the school’s homogenous makeup allowed staff to enforce rigid behavioral standards when kids were really just acting their age.

“Anything that deviated from the model of a quiet, studious, restrained child was considered problematic,” said Doyle, who graduated with honors from UW-Madison and currently works at a Seattle-based startup. “Certain types of behavior that should be thought of as normal in healthy childhood development got students punished.”

After leaving Eagle, Doyle attended Velma Hamilton Middle School. He said Eagle, with its small class sizes and tough academics, “provides something on standard offer that is hard to find at public schools.”

But, said Doyle, there’s a trade-off between those benefits and the out-of-class learning that takes place where there is more diversity and lenience toward students.

“Eagle is a monitored, sanitized environment,” said Doyle. “Kids who never resolve conflicts without authority playing a direct role won’t grow and develop independent problem-solving skills.”

Mason disagreed with Doyle’s characterization.

“Students and teachers here are uniquely engaged. It is the joy and energy that I love about Eagle. Sanitized is the last thing I think of,” she said, adding that “a student sent to the office for a discipline issue is given the responsibility to explain and help solve the problem.”

Going for Nine?

Mason said two of the school’s major priorities going forward are staying financially sound and maintaining the intimacy of a small school.

“As you get bigger you can do more things. But you have to watch that you don’t lose that family feeling,” she said.

The extra space indeed augments the school’s options, such as adding an entire new grade.

Eagle’s staff and board have explored the launch of “Ninth Grade,” an accelerated program offered as an alternative to the freshman year of high school.

Not enough families expressed interest to move forward with a pilot this coming fall but Mason is sanguine about the program’s long-term prospects.

She’s also firm in her conviction that Eagle will never become a full-fledged high school, saying it can’t compete with the extensive academic and extracurricular opportunities at existing high schools.

“The kids we work with need so many different outlets,” she said. “We can’t offer all the amazing things that Madison-area high schools can.”

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