As the school year begins in the most extraordinary circumstances possible, Headmaster Dr Karolina Watras discusses the vision of Poland’s most prestigious school, Akademeia High School.
WI: How has the pandemic affected schooling and what solutions have you enacted as a result?
KW: The pandemic has affected all schools worldwide and has caused unprecedented disruption to all educational systems. At Akademeia High School, we had closely observed the developments in the rise of Coronavirus cases and had prepared to move online ahead of the school closures in Poland. Moreover, we had imposed quarantine on all students returning from their winter holidays in Italy so we already had had the experience of hybrid teaching, with some of our students participating in their lessons online already in February. As a result, we were able to move our full teaching timetable to online lessons overnight.
Our strategy has been to keep the school running as close to normal as possible. Our teachers adapted quickly and found new creative ways of engaging the students in this new virtual environment. There was a lot of collaboration and exchanges of ideas in our online Teachers’ Room, with our faculty sharing best online teaching practices and ways of keeping online lessons fun while continuing to cover all the curricula. We also endeavoured to nurture and develop our school community through online assemblies, mentoring hours and a number of new initiatives: from an online poetry club, through baking and cooking classes, yoga sessions and sport lessons and challenges.
Looking back, I think it was preserving the sense of community despite not being physically in the school that kept everyone motivated. Of course, there were plenty of challenges. The strain of extensive screen time as well as the uncertainty that we’ve been all experiencing as a society were and still are undeniable. Our Wellbeing Team have been of invaluable help in this respect, supporting students through individual consultations and all-school initiatives, with extensive guidance on how to best cope with the situation to our pupils, parents and teachers. All in all, it was a team effort and at the end, it brought our school community closer together.
The school follows a British curriculum – can you explain why and how this differs from the Polish education and IB and why you believe this is better for your pupils?
A Levels allow for a more tailored academic programme, best suited to the interests and strengths of an individual student. There are no compulsory subjects. Pupils have a free choice of what they want to learn and the direction they wish to follow as they prepare for their undergraduate studies.
A Level subjects must be well chosen, and students need to be prepared for them in order to maximise their learning possibilities. Our two-year programme of iGCSE and Akademeia Assessed Courses prepares students to discover the best pathway for their A Level studies.
Furthermore, because students do fewer (3-4) subjects, they have time to pursue their interests outside of the classroom through extra readings, additional courses and excursions. Our art students, for instance, regularly meet with leading practitioners and curators, while science students frequently visit laboratories at some of the most prestigious institutions and companies.
In terms of content, A Levels allow students to explore their subjects in much more depth, focusing on the skills that are crucial for their specific areas of study. From mathematics through humanities and social sciences, great emphasis is placed on developing analytical and critical thinking skills.
A Levels are, therefore, the best preparation for university and professional life. Our students develop great autonomy and creativity in the way they approach their studies and the world around them, and these are the qualities that are most sought after in today’s society.
Who are your pupils and what does the school prepare them for – specifically, to which universities are they gaining entrance?
Our school is academically selective and thus attracts ambitious and talented young people. Our pupils come from socially and culturally diverse backgrounds. 20% of our students are scholars from abroad and outside of Warsaw. Most recently, we saw an increase in applications from Central and Eastern Europe. Our students also come from different educational systems, many of them joining in Year 12 due to the possibilities that A Levels open for the last two years of high school.
From an academic perspective, our school does not specialise in a particular set of subjects. Our results are equally strong across all departments. Many of our students pursue mathematics and natural sciences, through the robust iGCSE and A Level curricula, and cocurricular programmes (Coding, Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Medicine).
Equally, we have a vibrant artistic community, with pupils pursuing A Levels in Music, Art and Design, Photography and Drama. We foster interdisciplinary collaborations between different departments in the way that our curricula are structured and through interdepartmental projects run by teachers and students.
Our students are thus able to explore a variety of potential career pathways. This is reflected in our students’ university destinations at the best universities in the world both in the UK (University of Cambridge; University of Oxford; University College London; Imperial College and London School of Economics) and in Europe or US (Esade Business School, Barcelona; University of Amsterdam; Design Academy Eindhoven; Parsons School of Design, New York).
Could you expand on your scholarship program?
Akademeia High School offers extensive scholarship programmes. We run artistic and academic scholarships for exceptional students who demonstrate an intellectual flair and a strong desire to excel artistically or academically.
Scholarship candidates go through a demanding application process that involves several stages of complex assessment, so that we can learn more about their academic skills and knowledge as well as their attitude as young people and students. On the other hand, the assessment process also gives potential scholars an opportunity to find out more about the school.
Our scholarships cover up to 100% of the school fees, boarding and subsistence. We also work with a number of Polish and international organisations to extend our outreach programmes.
How does your school support students beyond the core curricula? How can they develop their cocurricular interests?
At Akademeia, we believe in multidimensional education that goes beyond the classroom. The school offers a wide range of afternoon activities; from debating, through the school magazine and school musical to more academic clubs that prepare our students for their undergraduate studies at the top universities.
We are invested in the holistic growth of our students. Last year, we introduced the Personal Development Scheme, which has become an integral part of our school life. In the lower years, pupils participate in a number of workshops that allow them to develop soft skills and teach them how to be more cooperative and empathetic towards others.
The foundation of PDS is project-based learning and empowering our students to realise their own initiatives and ideas through entrepreneurial and charity schemes. In the final two years of the school, students prepare for their university degrees through extracurricular courses and individual projects under the supervision of a dedicated Higher Education and Career Advice Team. Moreover, we believe that emotional and psychological wellbeing is essential for academic success and more importantly, for a happy life. Our purpose is to support students through their academic journey and to help them develop strategies to overcome future challenges.
What are your school’s main principles? What is the ultimate vision?
We believe that education must be founded on dialogue and a partnership between teachers, students and parents. Dialogue underpins all of our teaching and mentoring. It is through dialogue that students can develop learner autonomy and self-awareness. These qualities are crucial in fulfilling one’s intellectual and creative potential, and we instil in our students a desire to always reach higher.
Moreover, critical thinking lies at the heart of all our curricula and equips our students to navigate through their subjects and the challenges of the contemporary information age. Academic excellence and outstanding results are certainly integral to this vision. This year 50% of our A Level results were graded A* and 85% of our entries were awarded A* or A grades. To put this into context, top universities in the world, require A*AA or A*A*A.
But the outstanding grades are just part of our students’ success. The school pursues a pre-university university model, which means that our students develop their independence and confidence on both an academic and personal level. Our students become fearless and ready to conquer whatever uncharted territories they may encounter in life.
Despite its relatively young age, the school has already earned a prestigious reputation in Poland. How has this been achieved in such a short space of time?
What our parents and students repeatedly tell us is that we are prepared to go the extra mile for each of our pupils and we care deeply for their academic and personal growth. This leads to outstanding academic results and an array of top university destinations among our graduates. Small class sizes (maximum 12) and a very high teacher to student ratio (4:1) certainly help.
However, I believe it is the unique Akademeia faculty that makes all of the above possible. Our teachers are not only experts in their fields but also real enthusiasts, able to share their passions with others. The most frequently cited feature of our school that is considered the best by our students and parents alike, are the teachers. They are crucial in creating a stimulating and nurturing environment, in which students can progress with confidence and ambition, and where they find the support when they need it.
Finally, what is your message to parents considering sending their children to the school.
Good education is the foundation for a successful and fulfilled life. Part of our mission is to make our students aware that there are different definitions of success and to provide them with the tools to define what success means to them. If you are looking for a school that provides the highest standard of teaching and will take as much care and joy in your child’s growth as you would, Akademeia High School is the right school for you.
Akademeia High School
ul. Ledóchowskiej 2, website