Assistant Head of School for Academic Programs
Academic excellence is at the heart of the SPA experience. In all three divisions, students are challenged by what we believe is the best academic curriculum in Minnesota. They are supported by the individual attention that is made possible by master teachers—80% of SPA faculty hold a graduate degree beyond the baccalaureate—and the lowest average class size of comparable independent schools in the state. SPA's student-teacher ratio is 7:1. Kindergarten classrooms have an average of under 10 students per teacher; beyond the Kindergarten year, Lower School homerooms average 13-15 students per teacher. Middle School classes average 15 students and Upper School classes average 14 students.
- English/Language Arts
- History/Social Studies
- World Language
- Computer Science and Engineering
- Fine Arts
- Physical Education and Wellness
In the Lower School, the language arts curriculum develops children’s skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The curriculum is designed to meet the needs of every student at their level; it is flexible and appropriately challenging as teachers work with students on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary acquisition, self-expression through writing and oral presentations, appreciation of a variety of literary genres, and the mechanics of spelling and grammar. Students form a love of reading and demonstrate strength in comprehension and critical thinking skills. Small groups allow teachers to provide individualized guidance as students build fluency in their reading and writing; teachers adjust differentiated student groupings throughout the year. Throughout the Lower School, the language arts are often integrated with other academic content areas such as social studies, where students incorporate research, literary analysis, the give-and-take of discussion, and creative and expository writing. When students leave the Lower School, they are curious and engaged readers, confident writers, and have the oral and written communication skills they will need in Middle School and beyond.
In the Middle School, English features a workshop model in which students become independent, passionate, habitual, skilled, and critical readers and writers. Reading choice, depth, comprehension, and engagement are valued every step of the way. The workshop model allows students focused, regular class time to build their writing and analytical skills while working collaboratively through peer-review, one-on-one teacher conferences, whole-group mini lessons, and frequent discussions of shared mentor texts. Grammar instruction is both geared to the whole class and individualized. The Middle School’s English curriculum guides students to create high expectations for themselves as they set their own goals and are nudged toward authentic independence, curiosity, and awareness as readers, writers, and citizens.
In the Upper School, English students actively engage with literary works, explore both content and form, and acquire sophisticated skills in analysis, writing, and public speaking. In Journeys in Literature (Grade 9) and American Literature (Grade 10), students build strong critical reading, expository and creative writing, and assertive yet generous discussion skills. English electives in Grades 11 and 12 are semester-long courses focusing on the analysis of literature. Students apply critical lenses, develop literary awareness and appreciation, and demonstrate sophisticated expression of ideas in writing and in discussion. Reading lists feature classical and contemporary titles. Electives include Speculative Fiction, Poetry: Connection and Community, Classics in Society, Literature of the Asian Diaspora, Literature of Migration, and Gender in Literature. Robust, award-winning programs in debate, journalism, and theater encourage students to deepen skills in performance and print. All Grade 11 and 12 English electives may be used in preparation for the English Composition AP exam. See all the English course descriptions.
Lower School social studies units deepen literacy, develop research and writing skills, and often integrate science, music, art and technology skills and concepts. Units foster skills in critical thinking, gathering and organizing information, analyzing cause and effect, and expository reading. Students are introduced to geography, basic economic principles, civics and government, history, and cultural studies. Kindergarten students explore community citizenship and the history, geography, environment, and stories of native peoples of the world, and the concept of needs versus wants. Units in Grades 1 and 2 rotate between a year on how individuals interact with communities and a year on the city of St. Paul. In Grades 3 and 4 students complete interdisciplinary research projects and then showcase their presentation skills as well as their understanding of topics such as U.S. geography, economics, immigration, and “The World 1000 Years Ago.” Grade 5 students explore the cultures of Native American nations before contact with Europeans; colonial and revolutionary America; and the U.S. Constitution and basic structure of the U.S. government. Students take on more independent work through a range of simulations, projects, research, and presentations.
The Middle School social studies program encourages appreciation of people from different periods and cultures while developing analytical research, critical reading, discussion, and writing skills. In Grade 6, students study contemporary and historical Minnesota from its earliest inhabitants to its most recent immigrants. In Grade 7, students explore sustainability and civic engagement, including a comprehensive, interdisciplinary unit on water issues. In Grade 8, students explore 20th-century U.S. history and contemporary political and social issues. Students are taught to formulate and articulate their own interpretations of the material. They learn to work independently through major research projects in each grade and present their research to teachers, peers, and the community—another step in acquiring the public- speaking and communication skills that will serve them as they advance to the Upper School.
In Upper School history courses, students gain historical perspectives, develop critical thinking skills, and refine discussion strategies. All students take a two-year world history sequence in Grades 9 and 10. Topics include classical empires, world religions, the post-classical world, revolutions, industrialization, globalization through colonialism and in the post-colonial world, and a formal history research process and paper each year. In Grade 11, students complete a United States History course that includes a significant research component and work with various primary documents, scholarly secondary sources, and college level texts. Senior elective seminars focus in depth on specialized topics. Seminars include Economics, History of Law, Government and Citizenship, History of Thought, US Foreign Policy Since World War II, Global Issues, History of Refugee Communities, World Religions, Honors United States History, Gender in the Americas, History of Law, and History of Race. World history and U.S. history courses may be used in preparation for AP exams. See all the history/social science course descriptions.
In the Lower School, hands-on science, engineering, and computer science classes take place in two dedicated science classrooms and a Makerspace with two full-time science specialists. Students investigate the world around them, become observers of natural phenomena, build and create solutions to engineering challenges, and are introduced to computational thinking and computer programming. The curriculum includes interdisciplinary content from the core sciences of life science, physical science, and earth science aligned with the content and practices in the Next Generation Science Standards. There is a strong focus on creative problem-solving and the engineering design process. Over the course of their Lower School experience, students will design, carry out, and present experiments ranging from investigating the variables that affect the germination of seeds to the behavior of waves and sound; They will learn about alternative energy and then design, build, and test wind turbines. They will also study and observe earth surface processes, learn about the Mississippi River watershed, and design and build a drinking water filter. Finally, students will learn the basics of computational thinking and computer programming through block-based programs such as Kodable, Scratch, and Tickle, and program small robots including BeeBots and Dash and Dot.
Middle School science students experience an iterative trial-and-error process in their roles as developing scientists, engineers, and computer programmers. In Grade 6, students take an integrated course which ties together topics in geology, biology, and physical science. Throughout
the year, students learn laboratory skills and practice observing, recording, analyzing, and reporting data. In Science 7, the overarching theme is environmental science, with a focus on Minnesota ecology. Earth science, life science, and physical science is grounded in the environment surrounding St. Paul, with an emphasis on data analysis, modeling, application, and problem-solving. The Grade 8 science course offers an introduction to a wide range of physical science concepts. The curriculum immerses students in the skills and practices of being a scientist and engineer through daily lab work and communicating their results in writing. The first half of the course culminates in an investigative “sludge” project where students employ their lab procedures and deductive reasoning to identify a range of mystery substances. In the second half of the year, students study atomic structure, the periodic table, electricity, and electromagnetism, concluding the year with an electronics-focused engineering project.
In the Upper School, all science courses are laboratory-based. Physics 9 incorporates research-based approaches that emphasize collaboration, discussion, creativity, and problem-solving. Engineering design and design thinking projects are integrated into the curriculum. Grade 10 biology progresses from evolution to physiology through ecology, molecular biology, biotechnology, and genetics. The Grade 11 chemistry course provides a comprehensive introduction to topics in chemistry with a strong focus on collaboration, including discussions, frequent lab work, demonstrations, and group problem solving. Students can select from a broad range of second-level and interdisciplinary science electives for their junior and senior years including Environmental Science, Genetics, Space Science, Advanced Mechanics (offered with and without Calculus), Forensic Science, Honors Biology II, Honors Chemistry II, Relativity and Quantum Physics, Waves, Optics and Acoustics, Electricity and Magnetism with Calculus. There are honors level courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and electives. Juniors and seniors may also apply for the Advanced Science Research elective in which they pursue independent research in any scientific field. This capstone course builds upon current science skills, including lab technique, scientific writing, and formal presentation. Students enter their research in local and national science competitions. Honors biology and chemistry provide preparation for the AP exams in those content areas. See all the science course descriptions.
In the Lower School, The Math in Focus curriculum provides the foundation for mathematics instruction in the Lower School. Within the homeroom setting, students are placed in differentiated groupings based on ongoing assessments. In these small groups, teachers challenge and support each student according to the student’s skill level and developmental readiness. Students who master basic concepts are encouraged to accept further challenge, enrichment, and acceleration when appropriate. The Math in Focus curriculum emphasizes deep comprehension and the “why” behind quantitative concepts. An understanding of the meaning and significance of mathematical concepts is developed in addition to the fundamental applications of elementary mathematics. By the end of Grade 5, all students are well-prepared for the demands of Middle School mathematics. Students who have completed accelerated work in Grades 3-5 are placed in an appropriate Middle School course after assessment by SPA math faculty members.
Middle School mathematics courses emphasize the nature of mathematical thought as well as the development of facility with the applications of mathematics. SPA’s math program emphasizes the “why” behind the “how”—students explore, discover and make sense of concepts before applying them; they investigate the significance of concepts in addition to using them to solve problems. With three sequences of math available, students proceed at the pace and with the level of abstraction that best fits their mathematical development and understanding. When students leave the Middle School they typically have completed a rigorous first algebra course, which is the essential foundation of the Upper School mathematics program. Please see the Upper School mathematics sequence chart, at right, for detailed information about the Upper School mathematics program. View the Middle School mathematics sequence chart.
Upper School math courses emphasize the nature of mathematical thought as well as the development of facility with the applications of mathematics; students gain a deep understanding of principles before applying them. Three course sequences offer each student the best fit in terms of pace, depth, and level of abstraction. Teachers assess progress to determine the best sequence for all students, and students may switch between sequences with departmental approval. Differential and Integral Calculus can be used as preparation for the AP Calculus AB Exam; Honors Differential and Integral Calculus can be used as preparation for the AP Calculus BC Exam; Adv. Prob/Stats can be used as preparation for the AP Statistics Exam. View the Upper School mathematics sequence chart and see all the math course descriptions.
Lower School Spanish classes emphasize creative and interactive games, songs, stories, skits, puppet shows, movements, and conversations to help students develop listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. The curriculum offers interdisciplinary integration with homeroom content area units, an understanding of Spanish-speaking cultures around the world, and multiple opportunities for exchanges with native Spanish speakers both in and beyond the classroom. Students who join SPA in Grades 3-5 with limited Spanish experience are supported in Spanish through a mini-course offered in addition to regular class times to help them build competence and confidence in the basics of Spanish language as they transition into the school community in the fall. By the end of Grade 5, students have completed the first half of a beginning high school Spanish course. This puts students on track to complete Spanish II by the end of Middle School, entering Spanish III when they move to the Upper School.
In Middle School, all students have the opportunity to start a new language of their choosing in Spanish, French, Chinese, or German. Middle School world language study emphasizes communication, culture, and personal connections to language. Lessons focus on conversation, reading and listening, and writing for presentation. Students with prior language experience, including those moving up from the Lower School’s Spanish program, may choose to continue their study of a specific language based on their skill level and placement test results. Middle School students also have the option to pursue accelerated language courses in the Upper School, when appropriate. Students typically complete Level II in their chosen language by the end of middle school, enabling them to enter Level III in the Upper School.
The Upper School offers Spanish through Level VI, and Chinese, French, and German through Level V. Students are expected to demonstrate increasing proficiency in cultural awareness, conversation, listening, reading, writing, and speaking. After completing this sequence, students may elect Advanced Language Seminars, which explore topics at an advanced level entirely in the target language in a seminar format. Throughout the world language program, students are exposed to increasingly complex themes based on national American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language standards. In upper levels, substantive units on social and political issues of contemporary societies, economic developments, and cultural histories are also studied. All Levels V and VI language course have AP themes integrated into the units and lessons, enabling students to prepare for the AP language exams. See all the world language course descriptions.
Lower School students in every grade have at least one unit each year in their science classes in which they explore computer science, robotics and/or engineering at a developmentally-appropriate level. This initiative involves three strands of skill development: computers and devices as learning tools; computer science and engineering skills; and Maker education where students utilize the Makerspace for design, construction, and special projects. Together, these three strands give students the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking that can also be applied to the academic subjects they study in their homeroom and with the specialists.
All Middle School students take a Computer Science (CS) class every year. CS 6 begins with programming in a block-based environment. Students are introduced to physical computing and explore how the concepts they learn can be applied across the Middle School curriculum. In CS 7, students apply computer science skills to program simulations related to thematic topics. Students continue to explore physical computing and create an individual project. CS 8 focuses on building an abstract understanding of computational constructs and computational thinking skills. Students who complete Computer Science 6, 7, and 8 courses in Middle School enter Grade 9 ready to explore Upper School advanced computer science electives.
Upper School Computer Science and Engineering electives allow students to engage with these disciplines in a variety of ways. Students who have completed the Middle School computer science courses enter the Upper School prepared to take any of the electives; all other students can begin by taking the introductory course, Programming and Problem Solving. Elective computer science courses include two AP-aligned courses, numerous intermediate and advanced topic courses, and robotics. Robotics students use programming skills and engineering strategies to design and fabricate robots. Students who take this course are also members of the school’s Robotics team, which competes in international robotics competitions. The Engineering curriculum begins in Grade 10, after the completion of Physics 9, with the introductory Principles of Engineering course. Advanced engineering electives focus on a single area or type of engineering such as Aerospace. Courses in computer science and engineering are enhanced through access to design lab spaces where students can prototype projects. See all the computer science/engineering course descriptions.
In the Lower School, art is a vibrant, creative, and essential part of day-to-day life. Students participate in formal art classes taught by specialist teachers twice per six-day rotation. In art classes, they explore and express themselves through many media and styles, and student artwork is prominently exhibited throughout the school. Students attend music classes twice per six-day rotation, and are taught by teachers trained in the Orff-Schulwerk approach. Instruction in singing, movement, instruments, and speech guides students through exploration, improvisation, and composition. Students performing on stage is an important part of the music experience in the Lower School.
All Middle School students take drama, art, and music courses, and may audition for three annual theater productions. The Grade 6 studio art course covers various media and techniques; Grade 7 studio art courses introduce two-dimensional art techniques and three-dimensional ceramics. In Grade 8, students may opt to take elective courses in two- and three-dimensional art. The required Grade 6 drama class prepares students for later electives in Grade 8, including acting, production and performance, and scriptwriting. All Grade 6 students participate in choir or beginning instrumental classes; advanced instrumentalists in Grade 6 may audition to participate in advanced band or orchestra. In Grades 7 and 8, students continue in choir or in the instrument and ensemble of their choice.
All Upper School students are required to take at least three semesters of fine arts, choosing among visual arts classes, musical ensembles, or theater courses. Ensembles include Summit Singers, Academy Chorale, Academy Symphony, Honors Sinfonia, and Upper School Jazz Band, all of which produce two performances a year. More than half of the Upper School student body performs in the fall Pops Concert, which is a highlight of the year for students, faculty, and families. The Honors Music Seminar, for students in Grades 11 and 12, focuses on music analysis, composition, music history, and theory. Visual arts courses emphasize personal expression through drawing, painting, ceramics, photography, and video arts. After introduction courses are completed, a variety of intermediate classes are available to students to reinforce and strengthen their skills in a medium of their choice. These electives culminate with the Senior Art Seminar course, the most advanced visual arts course in which students pursue independent projects and build a portfolio for college applications. Theater courses focus on acting, directing, production, and design. Theater productions include a student-directed one act play series, a fall drama, and a spring musical. See all the fine art course descriptions.
Lower School students benefit from an intentional culture and integrated curriculum promoting healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy relationships. Lessons on topics such as human anatomy, families, puberty, gender, human reproduction, friendships, stress, and consent will be presented across the curriculum, in age-appropriate ways. Students take Physical Education three times per six-day rotation. Teachers engage, instruct, and encourage each student while students build strong bodies, athletic skills and teamwork. Team sports instruction begins in Grade 3. Students may participate in interscholastic sports beginning in Grade 5.
The Middle School "Compass" courses engage students in an interdisciplinary approach to health and wellness. The Grade 6 and 7 Compass courses are team-taught by the Learning Specialist, the MS Counselor, and the Director of Intercultural Life. Students explore social skills, academic strategies, human relationships, healthy communication, identity development, and personal values. In Grade 8, Compass class explores health-related topics such as substance use and abuse, stress management, nutrition, and sexuality. Students take Physical Education two times per six-day rotation in Grades 6 and 7. The curriculum includes cooperative games, health/nutrition units, and sports. Emphasis in sports units will be placed on developing skills, form, and teamwork. In Grade 8, students take a one-trimester Fitness 8 course which helps students develop personal fitness plans through exposure to weight training and cardio classes. Students also learn about nutrition, heart rate, physical health, and injury prevention.
In the Upper School, the Grade 9 Fitness for Life course includes instruction in traditional sports, supervised training on fitness equipment, and certification in CPR. Grade 10 Wellness is a one-quarter class taught by one of the Upper School counselors which provides a supportive and reflective opportunity to explore and develop personal values, choices, and skills. See all the physical education/wellness course descriptions.
In the Lower School, the rotation allows for optimum focus on the core homeroom courses (math, language arts, and social studies) with plenty of time for the specialist courses in science, Spanish, art, music, physical education, and library time. The rotation also provides time for twice-weekly assemblies, “exploration” time in Grades K-2, the beloved “Mini” classes in Grades 3-5, as well as recess and the open playtime so important for young children. View a sample Lower School schedule or learn more about the Lower School.
The Middle School follows a six-day block schedule, which gives teachers the flexibility to incorporate both collaborative projects and individualized instruction into their courses. Because the block schedule both extends class meetings and spreads subjects out over longer periods, students have time to better absorb complex material. The 85-minute length of each allows ample opportunity for all three of the elements of deep learning: planning, exploration, and reflection. View a sample Middle School schedule or learn more about the Middle School.
The Upper School follows a six-day block schedule in which students have four classes per day, each for 75 minutes. The long blocks allow teachers to delve deeply into complex material and topics, with time in each class period for authentic problem-solving, collaboration, and a range of activities to engage all learners. The 45-minute “X Period” after the first allows time for assemblies, student organization and club meetings, and work with teachers and peers. View a sample Upper School schedule or learn more about the Upper School.
- Fine Arts
- World Language
- Health and Wellness
- Senior Year Special Projects