An Introduction to Wheeler Upper School from Head Neeltje Henneman

January 31, 2022

Upper School Head Neeltje Henneman stands outside on the Wheeler campus. She is smiling a the camera.
Head of Upper School Neeltje Henneman

As Wheeler’s Upper School Head Neeltje Henneman explains, “there’s not one way to be successful” in the Upper School. Students are encouraged and empowered–by expert, dedicated, and supportive faculty and staff, as well as their peers–to pursue their individual passions and build their knowledge and skills within a vibrant community. Henneman shared a great deal more about the Wheeler Upper School experience in this Q&A.

Q: How do you describe Wheeler Upper School?

A: The Upper School is so many things. It’s a place of deep learning and of boundless opportunities. It’s a place where students work hard and build strong relationships with their classmates and their teachers. It’s a place where we listen to students, where we say “yes” more than “no,” where we value curiosity, investigation, and joyful learning. Our commitment to the arts is a trademark, and because we require a full year of both visual and performing arts in order to graduate, many of our students discover talents and interests that they didn’t know they had. Our steadfast commitment to Unity and Diversity is another hallmark of the Wheeler experience, and our multicultural celebrations and programs are highlights. We want our kids to try new things and to have new experiences. That might be playing a new sport, or that might mean auditioning for the school play. It’s a place where faculty members are passionate about what they teach and are committed to sharing that passion with their students. No one rests on their laurels here; it’s a place of constant growth and reinvention.

Upper School students playing jazz on the playground.
Upper School jazz musicians performing on the playground during Lower School recess.

Q: Across Wheeler, we aim to provide a personalized, rigorous, and joyful education. How is that reflected in the Upper School experience?

A: One of my favorite things about the Upper School is that there’s not one way to be successful. Individualism is reflected in lots of ways – it’s reflected in elective opportunities; it’s reflected in Aerie classes; it’s reflected in club opportunities and student leadership; it’s reflected in morning assemblies during which the math team is celebrated as joyfully as is the lacrosse team. It’s also reflected in the way we are able to meet students where they are and support a range of learners. We have a very strong academic support department which provides group and individual support to students who benefit from working with adults who have a nuanced understanding of their learning styles. We also offer classes through Aerie that are available to those who have completed our most advanced course sequence, so we have students who are immersed in learning experiences that far exceed what a “normal” high school curriculum is able to provide. The fact that we can support students with learning differences as well as students who have exceeded the curriculum means that we are known for both our academic rigor and for our expertise with learning differences. I am proud of that. I also would like to give a shout out to Wheeler Athletics and to the coaches and athletes who give so much of their time to their teams. Many of our students head out to the Farm campus after school for practice, and our teams have enjoyed a great deal of success over the years. There’s nothing like a beautiful afternoon out at Wheeler Farm when all the teams are practicing or competing. It’s magical.

In terms of what comes after Wheeler, our goal is to send students on to whatever’s next with a solid foundation of skills, with curiosity, with an openness to discovery, and with the tools they will need to investigate new areas of interests. Given the speed with which things change these days, we want our kids to leave with the ability to be nimble, to know what to do when they bump up against frustration, and to know how to ask for help when they need it. And finally, as our mission statement reflects, we want them to know their powers and be answerable for their use.

A member of the girls soccer team runs after the ball during a game.
The Girls Varsity Soccer team playing on the pitch at Wheeler Farm.

Q: As students and families consider the many opportunities available at Wheeler, as well as the challenges that can come from trying to find a good balance between doing everything they want to do, how does the Upper School incorporate social and emotional components into the educational experience?

A: As a division, we have worked hard to supplement our strong academics with robust attention to social emotional learning and overall student health and well-being. We are lucky to have a great Health Center and faculty members who fully understand the relationship between emotional health and deep learning. Last year, we rolled out a new schedule, which includes a late start (8:45am) on two days during every eight-day rotation, an enrichment block which can be used to complete homework, meet with teachers, or take advantage of Aerie opportunities, and a longer and more relaxed lunch period. It also includes some longer class periods which provide time for greater collaboration and a deeper dive into the material. Students appreciate the fact that the schedule provides a more manageable pace while still making it possible for them to indulge their interests. Over the last few years we have also worked hard to develop a four-year curriculum that highlights our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), health and wellness, and social emotional learning (SEL). The result of this work is the Whole Life Seminar. During this 75-minute seminar period (that meets once every 8-day rotation), students meet in small groups to engage in conversation and learning. While we continue to tweak the curriculum, our overall goal is to make sure students are actively engaging with these topics (DEI, SEL, and health and wellness), in an age-appropriate way throughout their time in high school.

Students wearing waders and holding nets walk through part of a river while looking down at the water.
Ninth-grade environmental science students donning waders and tromping through parts of the Moshassuck River in Pawtucket collecting data to help determine the health of the river.

Q: And now for a few questions about you: When and why did you decide to join the Wheeler community? What has the experience been like for you?

A: I came to Wheeler after having spent 21 years at an Independent day school in New York. At that school I had worn lots of hats. I’d been a lower school teacher, Head of the Middle School, Director of Admissions, and Dean of Faculty. Although I loved my old school, it was definitely time for a change, and I was so very lucky to find Wheeler. For me, the through line of my work has always been how much I love working with students and families. Wheeler was the first place at which I’ve worked exclusively with high school students and their families, and I have loved every minute of it. I really appreciate our attention to each student as an individual, which is very important to me, and the ways in which we also work to build a sense of community. Not only are the students and their families terrific, but my colleagues are extraordinary. Times have been challenging over the last couple of years as we’ve navigated the pandemic together, and throughout it all, Upper School faculty and staff have been steadfast in their commitment to providing an excellent education in a supportive and sensitive environment.

Students in 10th-grade History class build (and operate as) a large-scale sewing machine.
Students in 10th-grade History class build (and operate as) a large-scale sewing machine to help them imagine what a huge technological leap the machine represented.

Q: What is your role as Head of the Upper School?

A: Good question! Generally speaking, I oversee all elements of Upper School life. In broad strokes, that includes curriculum and instruction, student life, the budget, and hiring. Of course, I don’t do any of that alone. I have a great team. I work closely with Department Heads and the Dean of Teaching and Learning to make sure that our curriculum reflects the rigor and requirements that we think are fundamental components of a comprehensive high school program. I work with that same group to oversee faculty professional development and evaluation. The Dean of Students takes the lead on the advisory program, student activities, and our disciplinary system, and he and I consult often. I meet regularly with the college counseling team, our school counselor, the registrar, and the Director of Unity & Diversity (among others). The Upper School is a complex organization and it wouldn’t run smoothly if all parts weren’t jelling, and so I very much rely on my colleagues.

Students engage in a Model UN conference.
Wheeler Model UN hosting a conference earlier in the school year.

Q: Is there anything else about Wheeler’s Upper School that we haven’t covered but that you would like to highlight?

A: Just an observation that high school students are amazing. They are smart and funny and curious. And the high school experience is such an exciting four-year journey. It’s a real privilege to watch kids enter high school as 14-year-olds and leave us as 18-year-olds. So much happens – some of which we can anticipate and some of which is an exciting surprise. It’s fun to help them find and use their authentic voices, and saying good-bye to them on graduation day, even when we know we will see them again, is a source of real pride and emotion.

Students pose with their decorated pumpkin.
Students posing with their entry for an Upper School pumpkin decorating contest.

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