.Bentley School’s Joyful Learning Culture for K-12 Students

An ambitious academic curriculum, multi-language learning and strong socio-emotional goals drive this East Bay academy

If there is one phrase that best describes students at Bentley School’s two campuses in Oakland and Lafayette, it is “joyful about learning,” according to head of school  Christie Moncharmont.

It’s true. A series of visits several years ago had students at the 12-acre upper school located east of the Oakland Hills and seven miles north of Lafayette galvanized by an upcoming trip to CERN—the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire/European Council for Nuclear Research—which is most famous for the 2012 discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle. 

The Bentley students were selected for a high school competition at CERN. In addition to learning about science, the trip included travel to Geneva, Bern, Zurich and Ferney-Voltaire to learn about the Swiss role in international human rights and humanitarian relief; Swiss and Protestant Reformations; and the lives of Albert Einstein, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Calvin.

A few months earlier, exploring the Hiller Campus in Oakland, students in grades K-8 launched themselves into theatrical performances in the Meadows Auditorium, applied engineering skills and innovative approaches in the open-air Maker Space and connected picture books or biology lessons to tangible, real-life examples in the outdoor garden. Gathered regularly in small, multi-age circles, they shared worries, expectations, triumphs, laughter and dreams.

Now in her tenth year at Bentley and second year in the leadership position, Moncharmont said she was drawn to Bentley from her prior position at Schools of the Sacred Heart San Francisco and by the co-educational program’s strength and balance.

“I met with students, and some of them told me they played soccer, but supported their friends in theater,” said Moncharmont. “Others who were involved in theater said they were devoted attendees of soccer matches. Honestly? They were just so joyful about learning.”

Make no mistake, Bentley’s curriculum and academic and social-emotional goals are ambitious, not just for students, but also require significant investment for families. Tuition fees for the 2023-24 school year are $36,720 for kindergarten through grade 5; $40,120 for grades 6 through 8; and $52,950 for grades 9 through 12. 

Transportation is provided for families K-12 at no additional cost, and the before and after-school program is provided at no additional cost for grades K-8. Additional fees related to co-curricular programs, field trips, textbooks (9-12) and supplies are approximately $1,500 for grades K-5 and $2,000 for grades 6-12.

Notably, one in four, or 25%, of all Bentley School students receive financial assistance. An “at a glance” survey of the student population shows enrollment at 650 students who arrive from 72 different zip codes. Students of color represent 55% of the student body; the average class size is 15, with an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

The key components of the lower school are structured and strengthened by the scope of the programs, according to Moncharmont. 

“We tap into the interests of each student,” said Moncharmont, “which means they’re exposed to movement and dance, gardening and three different languages: French, Mandarin and Spanish. They learn a little bit of each in K–first grade. In second grade, they choose which language they want to go into.”

With one primary classroom teacher deeply invested in the success of every student, the head of school said the sense of connection creates happiness and joy in attending school. The teaching approach for the school’s youngest learners is dynamic; the lessons are made relevant and personal. The methodology is experiential, perhaps delivered through hands-on artistic activities, field trips or during times when bringing the world into the classroom is animated and made visceral by the visit of chickens or other animals.

“We also have the PACT (Positive, Action, Character, Teams) program and have families that meet weekly and do community-level activities within the Bentley School population,” said Moncharmont. “It’s multi-grade, so there’s connection across the whole lower school division.” 

PACT further connects the student population with older students serving as mentors while developing and practicing leadership skills. “The younger students get to know them,” said Moncharmont. “They learn how to take care of each other, and there’s caring that makes the students feel a sense of comfort. It especially eases transitions for kids who come in new.”

Similar to the PACT program, an advisory division in the middle and high schools helps students navigate the academic, social and emotional changes that are a push-pull as kids seek independence but still need guidance from teachers. Students receive more choice in their elective programs, and teachers work across the board to reinforce standards and norms that constantly circle back to foundations of respect and kindness. 

“Middle schoolers are beginning to engage digitally more and more, and we talk about treating each other the same digitally as we do face-to-face,” said Moncharmont. “Their classes are increasingly challenging and rigorous, and it’s important that we have them meet with their advisor for 20 minutes in the morning. That way, they check in daily with an adult they know well and engage in discussions amid the same small group of eight to ten students to talk about social and emotional wellness. It ensures each student is seen and can be heard.”

The upper school also has advisors, with students reaping the benefit of having the same adult stay with them throughout their four years at Bentley. “They meet less often, twice a week, and the adult becomes a touchpoint,” said Moncharmont. 

“In the upper school, the curriculum is set by grade level deans who get to know every person in that grade level. Advisors make sure students have what they need when tensions arise. They shepherd the group and establish the social and emotional learning practices they’ve learned in our professional development programs. Teacher advisors keep a finger on the culture and community in each class,” she continued.

Keeping a finger on the pulse of education during and emerging from the pandemic demands exceptional dexterity. Teachers participate in summer professional development courses to stay abreast of the best and newest classroom approaches for today’s students. Expectedly, student physical health and mental wellness have become top of mind.

“Kids struggled in Covid in many ways: from stress, from challenges to focus on learning, and then, to transitioning back to in-person learning,” Moncharmont said. “As adults, we want to control what happens to our students…but we really can’t. Beyond the pandemic, there are things like climate change, AI rapidly developing and families undergoing massive change. Our students are impacted by wildfires, when we must close schools because of poor air quality levels. There’s unpredictability to all of that. It’s disruptive and beyond our control, so we work to maintain continuity of learning.”

During Covid, Bentley was able to provide a strong platform for remote learning. With AI and the surge of interest in and use of ChatGPT, educators have had to embrace it rapidly. Moncharmont poses questions for which the school is still establishing answers: “How are we going to use it to enhance learning?” she said. “How can it benefit the student experience? Teaching kids to be excellent writers is such an important part of our program. With ChatGPT, how will we make sure they still have access to becoming great writers? So that means, how do we adapt to AI, because it’s not going away.”

Among the new initiatives this academic year is a mindfulness program. The daily 10-minute practice incorporating breathing and meditation exercises has been interwoven into classrooms at every grade level on the two campuses. 

“I was immensely impressed at the first town meeting assembly we had at the upper school,” said Moncharmont. “The director had everyone doing a mindfulness exercise, and you could hear a pin drop in that room. It was an indicator for how ready our students are for this kind of activity. You know, we often think and talk about the maturity level of students. That moment was just remarkable to me because we hadn’t expected that maturity of them before. They took it seriously and didn’t need reminders to quiet down or pay attention.”

Asked what she most hopes remains true about Bentley and what she hopes will improve, Moncharmont does not doubt her response. “The joyful learning culture. We never want that to go away. In our Bentley Promise, the line we refer to most often is about the enthusiasm and fun piece of learning. That’s what’s going to make students want to learn for the rest of their lives. That’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to students,” she noted.

As is true for all schools, Bentley will continue to strive to be more inclusive and diverse. “That’s always been woven into who we are,” said Moncharmont. “We make sure we produce an environment where every student is valued. If there are ways we can strengthen that, I hope we are doing that. There’s always room to be better. With over 70 zip codes in our student population, people travel from all directions and different backgrounds, and that only contributes richness to our academic background. Our focus on community and respecting the space of each student translates to the other students and benefits all of us.”

Bentley School, bentleyschool.org; K-8 Campus, 1 Hiller Dr., Oakland, 510.843.2512; 9-12 Campus, 1000 Upper Happy Valley Rd., Lafayette, 925.283.2101.

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.

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