Key School review by Middlebury College student. The Key School's academic program is very demanding. It is without a doubt one of the most rigorous high schools in Maryland. Perhaps what sets Key apart from the others at a comparable level of academic rigor is that its scholarly atmosphere is very informal. There are no uniforms, no GPAs, no academic awards or recognition, and no student competition. Students work hard and strive for success, but there is little comparison of grades or SAT scores among students. Its focus on humanities, and specifically, reading and writing, is a centerpiece of its program, though math and science instruction are also well above average. (That is to say, we have just as many aspiring engineers, scientists, and doctors graduate as we do aspiring politicians, authors, and artists.) The quality and quantity of work expected at my small liberal arts college is equivalent to the quality and quantity of work expected in my junior and senior years at Key. Many students at Middlebury are not nearly as well as prepared as I was for the rigors of college-level analysis (orally and written), and also, of time management. My 9th and 10th grade years, and really, my Lower and Middle School years also, were finely orchestrated precursors, cultivators of traits that students need for success in the Upper School, college, and beyond. Whether in honest, detailed feedback in written assignments, projects, and presentations or in one-on-one meetings during lunch, teachers cared to evaluate me honestly and hone in on my weaknesses. There was this mutual understanding that strengthening my weaker areas in my academic profile would pay off in the long term. Needless to say, I have felt well primed for college-level critical thinking, synthesis, and analysis, whether it was on projects, discussions, and writing. They have also served as a safety net and strong foundation on which I have drawn in interviews, internships, and jobs. In the Upper School, creativity is paramount. Approaching an essay question or in-class discussion with a standard response is not enough. Teachers, especially in the Upper School humanities department, expect out-of-box thinking and original thought. That said, it is not necessary to reach tidy, clear-cut conclusions in discussions of Kant, Kundera, or Watchmen, for instance. These subjects and their writings as an example are still debated everywhere. During Upper School, having been forced to grapple with the nuances of complex philosophical, moral, or societal issues, ultimately, I was shown that there aren’t answers to a lot of the questions we posed. Key stresses that asking the questions means and matters just as much as knowing the answers. The intellectual discourse is just as important stating information – or memorizing facts. Most classes emphasize writing and project-based learning for this reason. Textbook learning and lecture is rare—actually, science and math classes are the only classes with real textbooks and some teaching elements with lecture. In humanities courses, the learning experience is governed by seminar-style discussions, in the way of Oxford or Williams. “Course packets” are distributed to all students, in which there are primary source documents: the Declaration of Independence, Letter from Birmingham Jail, The Federalist Papers, old diary entries and letters, etc. (The primary source documents, and their contents, depend on the course: in 9th grade, the required humanities course is “Ancient Civilizations,” so among the literature required is Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Antigone, and The Republic. 10th grade is “European Civilizations” so we read, to name a few, Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman, The Treaty of Paris, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. 11th Grade is “American Civilizations,” some of the readings include Jerry Rubin’s A Yippie Manifesto, The U.S. Constitution, and Letter from Birmingham Jail. All homework, discussions, essay writing, and ultimately learning is centered on these documents. High-efficiency but also high-level, critical reading skills are nurtured and enhanced until mastered. The teaching environment is never foreboding—always pleasant. Teachers are very, very passionate about whatever they are teaching, as with most schools of Key’s caliber. Yet Key’s teachers, many of whom are veterans and love the school, care deeply about their students—they are not teaching to a test (Key does not offer AP courses; students, instead, elect to take AP examinations in the spring, only if they desire). They are also available to work with any of their students one-on-one, during lunch periods, mutual free periods, etc. They won’t look down on you for needing extra help. They will look favorably upon your daring to step up and ask for it—and only good comes from it. Also, if you want extra credit, extra work, or more information about a topic covered briefly in class that you want more information on, one-on-one meetings with teachers are likewise always encouraged. Class size is very small, never more than 20. The average class size I had was probably somewhere between 10-14. My average workload was about 4-8 hours of work per week for humanities courses, and another 2-4 hours of work per week for my math and science courses. (These figures, of course, depend on the electives for which you have registered, your time management, and your study habits.)
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I was always very proud to say I went to Key. And I don’t think it was the education, perhaps something I could have found elsewhere, that made this so. It was the quality of life. Key taught me so much—maybe because it was the only school I ever attended until college, but also, maybe because of the strength of its curriculum, the kindness and diligence of its faculty and staff, the audacity of its mission statement, and the beautiful campus, embedded in the pleasant, quiet streets of Hillsmere Shores. During my years there, the Key campus was by and large liberal but never closed to diversities of opinion. Likewise, many of my peers were always willing to contribute to the community and to each other. Whether in town meetings, where signature issues around campus are discussed in town hall style seminars, or during field days, when all 200 students are out on the field, bonding, goofing off, and enjoying themselves, the sense of community was evident and never wavered. The school’s approach to discipline is fair. A Disciplinary Committee, the “D.C.,” is composed of students, faculty, and staff. Decisions for suspension, expulsion, and/or academic consequences are made, only after the D.C. meets with the individual(s) who have temporarily “stepped outside of Key’s community” by not behaving kindly. The process is very reasonable and unbiased. Overall, Key is an extraordinary place. Success at Key requires high levels of organization, time management, and work ethic but what comes as a result of this investment of time and energy is an enlightened mind and a caring, feeling personality. By the time senior year comes around, Key students feel ready to enter the real world, armed with confidence in their abilities as leaders, teammates, writers, readers, and scientists—they are real thinkers, poised for what’s next.
Key balances extracurricular activities, academics, and social life well. There are lots of ways for students to be involved. Beginning in Middle School, there are activities (like clubs) that meet twice a week in a wide range of different hobbies, disciplines, and interests. If you are keen on beginning a new one, there is a proposal process for submitting a new one. In Upper School, activities are taken even more seriously, meeting four times a week and representing a wider range of interests and student involvement. Activities come and go. Longevity is based on mutual interest among your peers, like any other school. It is also based on how much time students typically spend in extracurricular activities per week, with varies year to year. The average is probably about 2-6 hours, excluding sports, instrument lessons, and theatre which significantly adds to that figure. Generally speaking, the school promotes well-rounded involvement as opposed to angular, specialized involvement in activities. I was involved in the student newspaper Spark, a contributor for the literary magazine Zenith, a co-president for the Students Against Destructive Decisions organization, a tenor in the Upper School chorus, and a member of the Environmental Awareness organization. I also played recorder and danced in the Key Consort at the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival. A full list of activities, too numerous to name (and remember) is on Key’s website. Many of the activities that have been around for decades have long-standing traditions, including the chorus’ annual sendoff, rose-giving ceremony to the seniors and the singing of “Tink of Me.” Community service is central to the community. Beginning in 9th grade, class community service trips are required. Earth Days are important service days. Also, during the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons, major, campus-wide food, toy, and present drives are organized. There have also been large, lucrative fundraising events in years past for breast cancer research, for instance, with the Pink Game Basketball Tournament. Key also has a triangular partnership with a school in England, Somers Park School, and a school in Tanzania, Chumbangeni School. This transcontinental linkage has given students a means of communicating with students from diverse backgrounds and gives them a way to contribute to a beautiful process of shared learning. This summer (2013), with Key’s Outdoor Education Department, a group of students are traveling to Tanzania to visit Chumbangeni School and at long last convene face to face.