Making the Grade: School offers extra term for expanding classroom


It took considerable creative scheduling, but by restructuring the school day and year, the upper school faculty at the Westminster Schools in Buckhead carved out enough time to create a mini-semester between the traditional fall and spring terms.

Jan Term, a three-week block that follows the end-of-year holidays, gives students the chance to work on projects, take on internships, do research, study a special topic or get involved in activities outside of the classroom. Figuring out the logistics was worth the effort, said Interim Upper School Head Jim Justice, a 20-year Westminster veteran who oversees 810 ninth through twelfth graders.

“The idea started in spring 2012 and grew out of the school’s strategic plan to think about the direction we wanted to go in the rapidly-changing city and world,” said Justice. “We knew there were things students should be able to do that will prepare them to go out into a very different world.”

Jan Term launched in 2015 with courses that connected students to more than 100 guest lecturers on campus, projects in the city and travels outside the state and the country.

“We had kids propose course titles, and the faculty spent a lot of time brainstorming, and we got it down to 42 courses,” said Justice. “This year, 2016, we had 44 that covered sports medicine, the chemistry of cooking, entrepreneurship, and the history and physics of flight where kids built remote-controlled planes.”

Justice led a session for juniors and seniors on fly fishing that incorporated the history, ecology and politics of the Chattahoochee River and ended with students standing hip-deep in a stream at Smithgall Woods State Park in Helen.

“I thought I’d have kids who had fly fished before, but the opposite was true,” said Justice. “They just wanted to do something they’d never done before. That’s what Jan Term is about: students taking risks in new ways, stretching themselves, having courses in things they may never have thought they were interested in.”

While Jan Term is mandatory, students do get to pick their top five courses and are often accepted into their first choices. Classes average about 18 students with two teachers. A key factor in making it all work, Justice said, was making it part of the school’s tuition.

“It was structured so there was access for everybody,” he said. “We made a strong commitment that there wouldn’t be an additional charge.”

Senior Kellson Tucker admits having had reservations when he first heard of Jan Term. “It sounded like a grand operation to get so many kids off campus, but I really wanted it to work. I love immersing myself in anything, and I learn best with hands-on experience, and I knew that was a key part of it.”

Last year, Tucker took a course in “Atlanta behind the scenes” that took him into the local National Public Radio station, CNN and the Fox Theatre. This year, he opted for the entrepreneurship session that included field trips to the headquarters of Chick-fil-A, an on-line lending company and a marketing agency.

“I wanted to learn what these areas might be like, and I think that’s why kids took the courses they did,” he said. “For instance, a lot of my friends did the sports medicine course because they play sports and see themselves possible becoming sports medicine practitioners. The entrepreneurship course made me realize what it takes to start a business, from manufacturing, packaging, marketing and more.”

Both Jan Term sessions have also garnered the support of parents and the Westminster community, said Justice.

“We had 90 percent of parents, students and faculty very satisfied,” he said. “That’s a level of alignment we were very excited about.”