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Q&A with Thaden School's Dr. Clayton Marsh

August 11, 2016
New independent school will open in Northwest Arkansas in 2017

It’s official. A new independent school – known as Thaden School – will be opening its doors to families across Northwest Arkansas in the fall of 2017. We caught up with Dr. Clayton Marsh, founding head of school, to get more insight into the planning process and what the community can expect.

Karen: It has been several months since you started your role as head of Thaden School. Take us behind the scenes and describe what you’ve been working on.

Clayton: The first step was to develop the mission statement that expresses the aspirations of this school and will guide our work every step of the way:

Our mission is to provide a balanced and challenging education that ignites in our students a passion for discovery and learning; prepares them to succeed in college; and inspires them to lead lives of integrity, purpose and responsible global citizenship.

Then I focused on learning as much as possible about the rich history and character of Northwest Arkansas, while visiting schools and educators in other parts of the country that had relevant insights and expertise to share. We have also assembled an outstanding board of directors, selected a remarkable site and picked a name with history and meaning. But, above all else, I’ve invested time in building a team of colleagues who have the talent, expertise and creativity that we will need to fulfill our ambitious mission.

Thaden School was named in honor of Bentonville aviator Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden. Photo: Louise McPhetridge Thaden Collection, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Karen: The independent school concept is fairly new to Bentonville – and this region. What are the distinctive features of an independent school that set it apart from other types of schools?

Clayton: The key difference is that an independent school, as a private, non-profit entity, sets its own mission and is governed by its own board of directors. This independence allows us to tailor our curriculum and teaching methods in ways that will most effectively advance our mission. We don’t, for example, have to prepare our students for externally mandated assessments and standardized tests that may not be aligned with our goals and standards. This freedom is especially powerful in recruiting innovative teachers who are attracted to the opportunity to design their lessons and teach to the strengths and needs of their students. And as an independent school, we will use our admissions process to advance our mission by bringing together students who reflect the diversity of the entire region and who will be especially eager to jump into the life of the school, inside and outside of the classroom.

Karen: The Walton Family Foundation recently conducted a quality of life survey and found that there is strong support in Northwest Arkansas for the creation of more independent schools. What is it that you believe Thaden will add to the area, and why is that important?

Clayton: Thaden represents yet another great choice in a region that clearly values education. And we’re eager to collaborate with other schools so that the educational ecosystem of Northwest Arkansas becomes even stronger and more innovative. My early conversations with other educators have been very promising in that regard.

Karen: You’ve said Thaden will ensure at least 25% of the student body has an opportunity to attend via financial assistance. Can you walk me through that philosophy?

Clayton: Our mission is to provide an education that is challenging and balanced. The diversity of our students and faculty is essential in this regard. Thaden will be a place at the center of the United States where many different perspectives can meet and inform one another. For this reason, a strong financial assistance program is a critical engine not only for extending the reach of a Thaden education, but also for improving its quality, value and relevance as we prepare students for a complex and rapidly changing world.

Dr. Clayton Marsh, founding head of school, Thaden School

Karen: As a whole, how will the admissions process work? If I’m an interested parent or student, what do I need to know and do?

Clayton: We’re still busy developing our admissions process, but we anticipate being able to announce those details later this fall. In the months ahead, we’ll be conducting informational sessions for interested parents and students to learn more. Until then, details are available at our website: thadenschool.org.

Karen: So much of the day-to-day contact with and influence on students is with the teachers. Tell me about the faculty you're recruiting. How many teachers are you recruiting and what specifically are you looking for?

Clayton: Teachers are the lifeblood of a great school. My highest priority last year was to find colleagues who could help me recruit and build an exceptional faculty. José Leonor and Lisa Herschbach, the directors of our middle and upper school divisions, respectively, will be superb in this respect. They are teachers at heart and have the academic chops and experience that we need to attract innovative and inspiring teachers from all parts of the country, including here in our home region. We’ll be out on the recruiting trail, beginning this fall, with the goal of hiring a dozen or so of the best teachers to get us started.

Karen: It was recently announced that the school will open with grades 7 and 9 in 2017. How many students do you envision in each class, and how will additional grades be phased in over time?

Clayton: Small classes averaging 15 students will be a defining feature of a Thaden education from day one. In our first year, we will have just two grades (a seventh and a ninth grade) that are not likely to exceed 60 students each. For us, because growing thoughtfully and gradually will be essential, this will not be a pop-up school that appears out of nowhere overnight. Great care will be taken to protect the quality, every step of the way.

Karen: In the past, you’ve talked about Thaden being a private school with a public spirit? Can you elaborate on that?

Clayton: It has been my hope, from the beginning, that this independent school will feel open and connected to Northwest Arkansas. That sense of openness and connection can be achieved in many ways – through a strong financial assistance program that makes the education accessible, through a campus design that weaves the school into the fabric of its surrounding neighborhood, through courses that carry students out into the life of the community to examine real issues and through events and programs that welcome this community into the life of the school. And the conditions for creating such a school could not be better than they are right here in Northwest Arkansas. That is why we are so happy to be part of this remarkable community.

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