For over a century, New York City–based Professional Children’s School (PCS) has ensured that young students pursuing goals in entertainment and competitive athletics receive a rigorous education that’s flexible enough to accommodate their passions — even if those pursuits require complicated schedules that don’t always mesh with the conventions of a traditional school schedule.
We recently spoke with Dr. James Dawson, Head of School, about what technology has meant for distance learning at the school, why resilience is such an important skill and how PCS embraces a flexible approach to help students be more successful in and outside of the classroom.
Professional Children’s School recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. How would you describe the school’s foundational philosophy?
What’s fundamentally essential is that we don’t ask students to give up their passion so as to adhere to a traditional school schedule. At the same time, we have a rigorous academic program, so there is a trade-off. We make it very clear that we’ll be flexible, but you’re going have to work.
In the early part of the 20th century, it was considered socially unacceptable to have a child involved in the theater. Many schools wouldn’t take children who were actors, so those who were in the theater sometimes didn’t go to school at all. The two people who started this school in 1914, Jane Harris Hall and Jean Greer Robinson, felt that there had to be some kind of vehicle that could allow kids to be in the theater and have an education that worked hand-in-hand with their complicated schedules.
PCS provided distance learning long before online education became popular. Do you consider the school to be a pioneer in that space?
When I first arrived at PCS 22 years ago, we were so ahead of the curve on this. Students could have their work sent to them and they could return it to us directly; they could have proctors give them a test somewhere else in the world. In that sense, we were a trendsetter because as each development came along, we jumped on it right away, just because it had utility to us. As time has gone on, more and more schools are using distance learning or at least exploring its advantages.
For example, I’m the President of the Board of Trustees for the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), and there’s a consortium for distance learning where we help find solutions for schools that want to adopt distance learning but don’t have all the necessary resources. There might be a small school that wants their kids to take AP Biology, for example, but they just don’t have the means to offer it, so they don’t include it in their course roster — but they could if schools worked together through distance learning.
Tell us about your teachers and students. What are some characteristics you need to succeed at PCS?
What is unique about PCS is that it requires really flexible teachers who are comfortable with instruction happening outside the normal schedule. Teachers need to have tenacity. And students need to be committed. Nowadays, educators have to match the right vehicles to the right student as well — some are good on Skype; some are better on Google Chat — and you need to have educators who are aware of the different technologies and understand how to best leverage them in service of student needs.
We have students this summer who are still completing schoolwork because they were busy during the year. We have some around on the weekends or at night. If you’re in China or if you’re in Auckland, New Zealand, that means you’re in a completely different time zone than your instructor, and the teachers have to work around that. I think there are schools challenged by that level of flexibility: A teacher at a more traditional institution may want distance learning to take place within the confines of their typical day. And that’s probably not possible.
What challenges do students who are working or studying in the arts face, and how do you alleviate those challenges?
Working in the arts is hard. It’s unpredictable, and it’s not often a source of great affirmation. The American perception of people who are in the arts is that they’re all movie stars, but most artists aren't famous. In reality, these people are mainly working in small shows and/or settings and many of them are auditioning all the time.
Because of this, one important aspect of working with students who are artists is helping them build resiliency. We neither second-guess, nor diminish them. Yes, we salute students when they achieve success, but we also salute them when they attempt to achieve success. We realize there are some real pressures on artists.
Adolescence is a difficult time, and we work really hard to be affirming of students’ choices. There’s never going to come a time at PCS when somebody gives a student a hard time about why they need a day off for this performance or why they’re taking two days off to prepare for that concert. That communication needs to be both ways, however. Our students need to let us know when they’re going to be busy so that we can work on their schedule and accommodate them.
Lastly, how does the culture at PCS contribute to a sense of community?
Everything that we do is to help students believe in themselves and their art form — to have faith that they can accomplish their goals. Success is a long process. We want them to know that whoever they are, whatever they bring to the table, it’s going to be embraced by this community.
Last year we had a senior who graduated as a boy, but, in fact, he began his high school experience as a girl. Like many others before him, there are tears at commencement with students speaking about what it was like to be in a place that was so affirming and that believed in each individual as a person and cared more about the content of one’s character than how he or she looked.
This school works really hard to let young artists’ colors shine in ways that make them feel good about themselves. I think we all feel strongly that producing artists for the future is an extraordinary privilege.