Harkness Educator Aida Conroy ’09 Gives Thank-a-Donor Day Assembly

Alumna discusses the impact of Harkness and her experiences teaching in a Chicago public charter school. 

February 17, 2017
Aida Conroy

Aida Conroy speaks to Exonians at assembly.

For its sixth annual Thank-a-Donor Day, held on February 14, Exeter welcomed alumna and devoted Harkness educator Aida Conroy ’09 to speak at assembly. Inaugurated in 2012 as a way to educate the Academy community about the impact donors have on Exeter’s current and long-term fiscal health, Thank-a-Donor Day directly engages students in stewarding the contributions of alumni, parents and friends.

Conroy, who graduated from Columbia University in 2013 with a double major in American Studies and Sustainable Development and then served for two years as a pre-school teacher in the Teach for America program, is currently in her second year teaching global civics at The Noble Academy, one of 18 public charter schools in Chicago’s Noble Network. Founded in 2014 with only a 9th grade class, The Noble Academy, in three years, has grown to 350 students in grades 9 through 11 and plans to add grade 12 next academic year. Ninety-eight percent of Noble students are African-American or Latino, and 87 percent receive free or reduced lunches.

Conroy began her assembly address by describing her own path to Exeter from Chicago’s public school system, emphasizing that in the spring of 2005, when she received news of her acceptance to PEA, her parents’ combined income could not have covered even one year of Exeter’s tuition. She soon learned, however, that she would attend on scholarship thanks to the generosity of Carlton Smith of the Exeter Class of 1911.

Initially homesick – “I cried every night for pretty much the entire first year” – Conroy later eased into a happy routine at Exeter, one that would draw her, eventually, to various leadership roles on campus, including as Wheelwright proctor, head photo editor of The Exonian, and the president of not one, but two, Exeter Student Service Organization (ESSO) clubs. By far her most meaningful experience, however, was learning around Exeter’s Harkness tables.

“Most of my education before arriving at Exeter was very formulaic,” she told her audience; “there was not a lot of room for student curiosity, for wondering.” While Exeter’s approach at first overwhelmed her, by her lower year, Conroy recalled, she had found her authentic voice. “Harkness,” she added, “changes your perception of your own self-worth, because you realize you have things to teach others. You also begin to see others as teachers, which is a really valuable way to view human beings.”

Now, thanks to a collaborative relationship established in 2007 when PEA began recruiting Exeter Summer students from another Noble school, Pritzker College Prep, Conroy is working to immerse her Noble Academy charges in the same student-centered pedagogy – Harkness – that prompted her own educational metamorphosis. Indeed, according to Conroy, Noble is currently one of the only public schools in the nation that is actively deploying Harkness across its entire academic curriculum, and as the Harkness outreach and training coordinator for Noble, Conroy is in charge of ensuring that both her students, and fellow teachers, have the tools they need to effectively implement it.

In closing her assembly talk, which garnered a standing ovation, Conroy spoke briefly about one of her students, Jeff, who travels over an hour each morning to Noble Academy from his North Lawndale neighborhood, where the average per capita household income is $12, 548 and 19 percent of residents are unemployed. Before her visit to Exeter, she sat down with Jeff to ask him how he felt Noble’s Harkness approach had changed him. “I have learned how to think and learn,” he replied, adding that “Harkness is like a tug-of-war; we can push and pull against each other, but at the end, we drop the rope and shake hands.”