Ask The Expert - Dr. John W. Griffith of Ranney School
Dr. John W. Griffith is in his third year as Head of Ranney School, an age 3 to grade 12, co-ed, independent school in Tinton Falls, NJ. He continues the school’s vision for lifelong learning and preparing students for an evolving, global world, as established by founder Russell G. Ranney in 1960.Prior to Ranney, Dr. Griffith spent 8 years as headmaster of Battle Ground Academy, an independent school in Tennessee. He holds an M.Phil and D.Phil from the University of Oxford and a master’s in educational administration and leadership from Columbia University.
Dr. Griffith began his career as a teacher of English, moving into college counseling and working as an academic dean before becoming head of an upper school division in Ohio, and then head of school. He continues to teach an upper school elective at Ranney and believes that teaching administrators benefit from being directly engaged with students and fellow faculty.
Can you briefly describe what an independent school is compared to a private school?
There are 1800 or so independent schools across the country, each with its own unique mission. They serve about one percent of the student population, from early childhood through high school ages. Unlike some other private schools, independent schools are not owned or governed by a diocese; nor are they under municipal government, as in the public sector. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) sets certain criteria for its non-profit member schools, which are held to the highest academic standards and non-discrimination policies. Independent schools are supported by tuitions and charitable giving, not by public or government funding, and are therefore financially independent. This gives us a number of freedoms.
An independent school is free to define its own mission and core values, with the flexibility to set up and adapt curriculum to meet the needs of students. We are free to be forward thinking and offer unique learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. We can regulate admissions to choose the best students, and hire the best teachers recruited from top universities. Independent schools generally adopt a mission to support core values, student/ life balance, global initiatives and citizenship while setting and maintaining high academic and leadership standards.
What types of learning experiences and curricula are typically offered at independent schools?
Independent schools will of course ensure that their students meet state and national standards in core subjects – and typically go way beyond that. A strong independent school will offer an accelerated, advanced curriculum integrating a wide variety of subjects, often with an emphasis on hands-on learning at all levels. Foreign language instruction sometimes begins in pre-k, as is the case at Ranney, much earlier than in public schools. And class sizes across all grade levels tend to be quite small, averaging 8-13 students.
One of the additional benefits of self-governance is that we don’t have to do the same amount of preparation for standardized testing, so we have more time for hands-on projects, electives and independent studies. Independent school faculty value their autonomy to shape and design curricula. Fully 80% of NAIS faculty feel they have direct impact on curriculum design as compared to 40% of public school faculty.
What can a student athlete expect from the independent school experience?
Independent schools support and promote competitive athletic programs in a wide range of traditional sports. In addition,we have the flexibility to offer sports like fencing, crew, sailing, equestrian, and others that may not be found in typical public or magnet schools. Participation rates in athletic programs are high; in fact, we hold the expectation that our students will participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. Athletic and extracurricular achievements also help our students enhance their college admission prospects.
Since they do not fall under district Boards of Education, how are independent schools held accountable?
Independent schools are governed by a Board of Trustees, typically comprised of school parents and alumni and occasionally community leaders. The trustees regularly engage in strategic planning with the Head of School and faculty members, to chart the course for improvements to the campus and to the academic life of our students. Strong independent schools are members of NAIS, and usually their state and regional associations as well. These associations are accrediting agencies that do intensive assessment and evaluation of their member schools.
Since independent schools depend on tuition and charitable giving for funding, we are answerable to the marketplace. We also have very active and engaged parent communities that ensure we are meeting the needs and educational goals of their students.