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New Head of Hewitt's Lower School Sings Praises of Single-Sex Education

By Amy Zimmer | September 10, 2012 7:44am

UPPER EAST SIDE — Frank Patti may be the product of a Boston public school education, but his experience as an educator is in New York City's elite private schools.

A former second and fourth grade teacher at the all-boys Collegiate and then the elementary division head of the co-ed Mandell School — both on the Upper West Side — Patti has moved across town this year to a new role as the head of lower school at Hewitt.

The independent school for girls from kindergarten through 12th grade — which has a yearly tuition of $39,400 — has been around for more than 90 years. The elegant townhouse at 3 East 76th St. housing the 182 girls in the lower school’s grades K through 3, has rooms dotted with grand fireplaces and huge wood-paneled windows.

Patti is looking forward to finding a balance between the Hewitt School’s history and “focusing on innovation and the 21st century classroom and making sure that we’re giving the girls everything they deserve,” he said.

Patti, who will receive his master’s in education leadership from the Bank Street College of Education later this year, plans to focus on an integrated curriculum — where topics are carried across different subjects — and on hands-on learning.

“His strong dedication to diversity and integrated curriculum will clearly benefit our community as we work together to complete and implement our strategic plan,” Hewitt’s Head of School Joan Lonergan said.

DNAinfo.com New York talked to Patti about his vision for the lower school.

Q: How did you become an educator?

FP: I started working as a teaching assistant in public schools when I was at Ithaca College in upstate New York. I fell in love with that town and became involved in schools and after-school programs and camps. I stayed in Ithaca a few years after I graduated and worked in a kindergarten classroom and a day camp. This was on the heels of studying psychology and educational psychology and gender studies, which at the time I thought were two very different things. Years later, I realized those two things would merge for me.

Q: How so?

FP: I started working at Collegiate, an all-boys school, and immediately fell in love with single-sex education. The fact that the leaders at the school know boys so well, I was immediately drawn into the world of single-sex education.

Q. What about single-sex education was interesting?

FP: I think it’s the ability of the teachers to really be able to differentiate and focus and zoom in on boys or girls and to really consider learning styles and what’s best for children as learners. Collegiate did such a great job at looking at how boys learn, that after years of being there, I thought, ‘This is it, I was born to teach boys.’

When I ended up at the Mandell School, which is co-ed, after two days, it dawned on me it wasn’t an all-boys education I was in love with, it’s just the single-sex education world. I saw there was another world of girls in the classroom and how they learn and operate.

Q. What are some differences between the way boys and girls learn?

A. Teachers of boys need to understand they learn through doing. It’s OK for boys to move around and that actually boys are in their resting state when they’re actually doing something. I had boys in my classroom at Collegiate who could be rolling around on the carpet. But a good teacher knows they could be completely tuned in. there are many boys who really thrive in that environment.

For girls, they need an environment that allows for us to empower them to use their voices and make their voices stronger. That’s what I started to realize when I was at Mandell and I was watching boys and girls interact. So, after working at Mandell for two years, I thought it was a great next step for me to move on to all-girls as a next phase.

Girls need to move around in the classroom, too. Girls love to build with blocks. Girls love to construct things. We need to make sure we offer that to our girls, as well. Experiential learning is really a part of our strategic plan, so they’re learning through doing as well as listening.

Q. Can you tell me about your own school experiences? Do you have teachers that impacted your life?

FP: I had a teacher who, I think it was eighth grade, exposed us to integration in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It was a humanities class that really mixed nicely history and English. That experience sort of formed who I am as an educator. We’re really pushing to integrate the curriculum at Hewitt across all subject areas.

Q. Can you give me some examples of what Hewitt’s integrated curriculum will look like?

FP: An integrated curriculum is important for kids because it connects the dots for them. So instead of a child exploring a topic in one classroom and walking out and doing something completely different, good planning and good professional development for teachers allows us to connect everything for them. It makes it meaningful for them. It helps them to understand what we’re studying in the context of the real world. Frida Kahlo doesn’t end in art class. We talk about her in social studies, in writing, in geography. We do extra work as teachers to connect the dots.

It’s like when you’re riding the subway and you see another train across the platform you want to connect with and it pulls away. You think, ‘Just one more second and we could have made that connection and it would have been dynamite.’ I think it’s the same thing with teachers. If you don’t stop and take the time to make that connection for the kids, they miss out.

Q: What else will you be focusing on?

FP: Using New York City as a resource. We live in the most amazing city in the world and so many educators, I think, overlook that. We owe it to the girls to get them out of this neighborhood, to show them this amazing city and get it into the curriculum. So for example, in second grade when the girls study New York City, we’re making a push right now to not just talk about Harlem but to actually go there and walk the stage of the Apollo and see some of these places that they’ve talked about in class.

Q. What are some of the big challenges you face in your new job?

FP: When you’re steering a community in a certain direction, it’s challenging to stay true to who you are as an established school while incorporating these new teaching methods. I’m excited about that, too, because I know it’s possible. I know that Hewitt is a school that is deep-rooted in tradition and there’s a soul to it. So I’m excited to hold onto that with the leadership team here and with the faculty, but also layer on best practices in education and layer on top of that new experiences and new ways of thinking of curriculum. It’s a nice balance of who are we as a school and where can we head.