An independent day school serving grades K-12 | St. Paul, MN

Curriculum & Community

SPA's Upper School is an extraordinary learning and teaching community. From the first day of Grade 9, students begin to develop the habits and relationships that will carry them through high school and into the world of college and beyond. The Upper School's rigorous academic curriculum and seminar-based learning model is complemented by a network of support that includes teachers, advisors, college counselors, and resources for both academic and social/emotional well-being.

By the time they leave SPA, Upper School students are energetic and informed participants in discussions, nuanced and accountable in their analysis, and articulate in their critique and defense of ideas. They view their teachers as guides, mentors, and collaborators, and their peers as partners in creating and maintaining the warm, diverse, and thoughtful community that defines the Upper School.

Life outside the classroom is an important piece of the Upper School experience. In our extensive student life programs, students find their passions, pursue new interests, and become leaders in areas that excite and engage them.

The three most popular areas of Upper School student life are athleticstheatrical and musical ensembles, and student clubs and organizations. Nearly 90% of Upper School students are members of at least one of SPA's 90 athletic teams in 17 sports; and almost as many—more than 70%—play an instrument, sing in a choir, or participate in one of the three annual theatrical productions. As you these numbers indicate, many Upper School students are both athletes and artists. Finally, most students are members of at least one of the many Upper School student clubs and organizations such as Upper School Council, The Rubicon student newspaper, math team, book club, or Science Alliance (view full list of student clubs/organizations).

Meet the Upper School Deans

Behind the Scenes in the Upper School

In our "Behind the Scenes" video series, we asked Upper School students to make videos that show what life is really like at SPA. Swipe to the right to explore the video series.

Behind the Scenes: Upper School Seminar-Based Learning

Behind the Scenes: The Rubicon—Our Student Newspaper

Behind the Scenes: Our Favorite Places

Behind the Scenes: Upper School Debate

Upper School Curriculum and Community

Academic Program

The Upper School curriculum offers a challenging and innovative academic program that thoroughly prepares students to excel and lead at the most demanding colleges and universities. SPA has chosen not to offer the designated AP (Advanced Placement) program; rather, by design our classes go well beyond the prescribed AP curriculum in depth and complexity. When SPA students elect to take AP exams, they are very successful: two-thirds of students who take an AP exam earn a score of 4 or 5, and more than 92% earn a score of 3 or above.

Seminar-Based Learning

Seminar-based learning is at the heart of academic life in the Upper School. Humanities classes take place around large Harkness tables, where students understand that they are accountable to both teachers and peers in their preparation and participation. While Mathematics and science courses do not take place around Harkness tables, learning in these disciplines is similarly structured in their depth, complexity, and expectations for student preparation and participation.

Block Schedule

The Upper School follows a six-day block schedule in which students have four classes per day, each for 75 minutes. The school day begins in the Upper School at 8 a.m. (except for Wednesdays, when the day begins at 8:45 a.m.) and students begin the day in their advisories for a ten-minute check in before starting the first 75-minute academic block. The 45-minute "X Period" after the first block allows time for assemblies, student organizations, and club meetings, and work with teachers and peers.  Every day includes a 30-minute lunch period, preceded or followed by the third and fourth academic blocks. In addition, every day except Wednesday includes a Tutorial period between the third and fourth blocks, which serves as a time for students to do their homework or meet with teachers for extra help.

The block schedule allows for longer class periods and more time for teachers to delve deeply into complex material and topics. There is time in each class period for authentic problem-solving, collaboration, and a range of activities to engage all learners.

View a sample Upper School schedule.

Grade 9 Orientation

A full-day orientation for all Grade 9 students takes place before classes begin each fall. Grade 9 Orientation is required for all students, including those who attended SPA for Middle School, and is a chance for the grade to begin the high-school journey as a community. During Orientation, the Grade 9 Advisory Team works with the entire grade to familiarize students with the “nuts and bolts” of the Upper School. Students spend time with their advisory group during Orientation, in addition to touring the Upper School, reviewing their schedules, receiving their locker assignments, and getting to know their peers in a casual, welcoming environment.


Advisories serve as a "home base" for students and faculty in the Upper School. Each advisory group is made up of a faculty advisor and group of 10-12 students. Students meet with their advisor each morning at the start of the day for a check-in, and on Wednesdays for a longer meeting from 10-10:45 a.m.

During advisory meetings, students develop strong and supportive relationships with their peers and the advisor, who strives to know the child beyond the student. The advisory system fosters students’ social and personal growth and helps them manage the demands of a rigorous academic program. Advisors serve as coaches and mentors who support students while encouraging them to advocate for themselves and balance their various commitments; the advisor also serves as the primary liaison between student, parents, and teachers. Some elements of an advisor's role include:

  • monitoring course selections and schedule
  • serving as an advocate in school matters for students
  • encouraging students in their extracurricular and athletic commitments
  • communicating with other teachers and parents when needed
  • facilitating advisory discussions
  • serving as the first point of contact when issues arise

Extracurriculars and Student Groups

Life outside the classroom is an important piece of the Upper School experience. In our extensive student life programs, students find their passions, pursue new interests, and become leaders in areas that excite and engage them.

The two most popular areas of Upper School student life are athletics and our theatrical and musical ensembles. 88% of Upper School students are members of at least one of SPA's 90 teams in 17 sports; and more than 50% play an instrument, sing in a choir, or participate in one of the three annual theatrical productions. Many Upper School students are both athletes and artists, and most students are members of at least one of the many Upper School student clubs and organizations.

The Upper School Dean of Students oversees most aspects of the student life program, including the foundational advisory program. Some elements of student life are part of the curriculum and required for all students, such as the advisory program and Senior Speeches; others are optional and may take place off-campus, such as the Odyssey and Junior Semester Away programs.  

Assemblies and Senior Speeches

Upper School assemblies take place once or twice every week, usually on Mondays and Fridays.  Assemblies are often planned by students, and provide an opportunity for the Upper School community to come together for guest speakers, panel discussions, special events, and recognition of student accomplishments. 

Friday assemblies are almost always dedicated to Senior Speeches. As part of the requirement for graduation, every member of the senior class writes and delivers a speech to the entire Upper School community. The Senior Speech is one of the most significant and anticipated rites of passage at SPA. During the senior year, each student meets with the Senior Speech Advisor a few months before the speech date to begin planning and preparation. Students usually write at least 2-3 drafts of their speech, and practice delivering it with the Senior Speech Advisor several times before the date. Speeches are attended by all Upper School students and faculty; parents also frequently attend not just their own child's speech but those of classmates and friends as well. 


The Upper School organizes four grade-level retreats each year, offering students developmentally appropriate opportunities to reflect, engage, and rejuvenate.


The purpose of the grade 9 retreat is to allow students to get to know each other through meaningful and fun activities, most of which include high and low ropes course work at Base Camp in Fort Snelling. As a complement to this experience students also participate in an orientation to the Upper School on the day before classes begin. During orientation grade 9 students meet with their advisory group, tour the building, review their schedule, and receive their locker assignments.


SPA believes that sophomore year is an ideal time to ask students to look outside themselves and see how they can contribute to others. As such, the Sophomore Retreat provides students with a hands-on opportunity to engage in active service alongside their peers, while also spending a portion of the retreat engaging in class bonding activities and community reflection.


Our most ambitious retreat, the Junior Retreat is a three day exercise in leadership training hosted at Camp Courage in Maple Lake, Minnesota. Our program offers students a chance to look at themselves, their peers, and the adults in their lives as they prepare to enter their final year of high school.


Divided into two parts, the first day of the Senior Retreat occurs earlier in the year and offers students the nuts-and-bolts of what’s required to successfully meet the Senior Project’s graduation requirements, as well consider how to successfully navigate the end of their high school career.The final portion of the Senior Retreat focuses on the transition from SPA to college. Students are given the opportunity to look back at their time at SPA, but also look forward to college through a structured program that delivers college readiness “soft skills” and guided reflection.

Graduation requirements

English | Successful completion of four full years of English with at least one-half credit per semester: Journeys in Literature (Grade 9), American Literature (Grade 10), and four semester English courses (Grades 11–12).

Fine Arts | Three-fourths credit (typically three semesters) of fine arts completed in Grades 9–12.

History | Successful completion of World History I (Grade 9), World History II (Grade 10), and U.S. History (Grade 11); 96% take history/social studies in senior year.

World Language | Successful completion of level III of a world language or, by permission, level II of two languages. Enrollment in a language required through Grade 10; 91% take world language through Level IV, with 65% continuing through Level V or Advanced Study.

Mathematics | Successful completion of a third-level course in mathematics: Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry, Precalculus or Honors Precalculus; 98% study math through Grade 12, with 83% studying calculus or advanced math.

Science | Successful completion of three years of the following lab sciences, taken in sequence: Physics, Biology, Chemistry; 99% study science through Grade 12.

Health and Wellness | Participation in one quarter of Wellness (Grade 10). Participation in Fitness for Life class for one semester (Grade 9).

Senior Year Special Projects | Successful completion of Senior Speech and Senior Project.


Technology as a Learning Tool: By the time they reach the Upper School, students are both knowledgeable consumers and creators of technology and online content. All Upper School students use a school-issued laptop computer for their coursework. Laptops are used across the curriculum as tools for research, organization, creation, and collaboration amongst students and with their teachers. Additionally, publications labs are available for students in specific arts and publications courses. Students abide by the Upper School's Acceptable Use Policy, which provides a clear framework for the use of devices and online behavior. All courses in every discipline use technology to some degree as tools to access information and to organize and present that information in a variety of media. The Randolph Campus library serves as an information portal, providing digital access to a wide variety of online journals, databases, and discipline-specific tools for students to use in their individual research.  

Computer Science and Engineering: 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.