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Aida Conroy

Year of Graduation: 
Exeter graduate Aida Conroy in her classroom

"Regardless of their challenges at home or in the city, they are still willing to come in and be vulnerable, which is what Harkness asks of them."

Giving back: from student to Harkness teacher

In Aida Conroy’s bustling Chicago classroom hangs a bumper sticker that reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Given to her in the spring of her senior year at Exeter by English Instructor Christine Robinson, the expression holds a kind of double meaning for Conroy ’09, serving both as a reminder of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which she read in Robinson’s iconic Art of Protest elective, and as inspiration for the critical work she is doing as a global civics instructor at The Noble Academy, the inner-city public charter school where she teaches.

Conroy knows firsthand how education can change a life. Having attended Chicago public schools until middle school, when she transferred to one of the city’s gifted and talented centers, she met former Exeter Associate Director of Admissions Susan Herney ’69, ’74, ’83 (Hon.) at an independent secondary school fair. The two struck up a conversation, and Herney stayed in touch, eventually sending Conroy an Academy view book.

"I remember thinking, ‘This looks like paradise,’ " Conroy recalls. Exeter was the only school to which she applied.

Arriving in the fall of 2005 on a full scholarship, Conroy found the Academy to be equal parts amazing — “There was lots of cereal in the dining hall and we got to learn all day” — and overwhelming — “I was really homesick and cried almost every night for the first year.” Caring faculty in Wheelwright helped to buoy her, as did making friends with fellow preps and upperclassmen.

Getting the hang of Harkness was equally crucial: “I think the Harkness pedagogy really changes your perception of your own worth, because you realize you have things to teach others, and you begin to see others as teachers. That’s a really valuable way to view other human beings.”

From Exeter, Conroy went on to attend Columbia University, where she double-majored in American Studies and Sustainable Development. Initially interested in pursuing law, she changed tack in her senior year after enrolling in Columbia’s famed Equity in Higher Education seminar with Professors Roger Lehecka and Andrew Delbanco. The course, Conroy says, helped her realize the extent to which education in America has become “a luxury … more a privilege than a right.”

After her Columbia graduation, she signed on with Teach for America, working for two years with preschoolers. It was during this period, Conroy says, that she was invited to sit in on a Harkness-style class at Pritzker College Prep, one of 18 public charter schools in Chicago’s Noble Network.

As luck would have it, Pritzker had begun collaborating with Exeter in 2007, when the Academy first started recruiting Summer School students from among its ranks. Conroy observed a group discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. Leaving the classroom afterward, she burst into tears. “It was so wonderful to see something that I only associated with Exeter in a community like the one I grew up in,” she says. The experience solidified her plans to continue teaching, and she soon joined The Noble Academy, the newest school in the Noble Network.

Currently in its third year, Noble Academy has grown to 350 students in grades 9 through 11, with plans to add 12th grade next academic year. Situated north of Cabrini-Green and west of Old Town, the school draws students from across Chicago, many from the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. They come to Noble seeking rigor and opportunity, and, thanks to a dynamic collaboration between Exeter and Noble’s instructors, to experience Harkness learning.

“I believe we are one of the only public schools in the country that is currently deploying Harkness across all academic disciplines,” says Conroy, who has led staff training workshops at Noble on how to use Harkness in larger classrooms.

With anywhere from 26 to 33 students per classroom, compared with Exeter’s standard of 12, Conroy has had to modify Harkness to fit a larger audience. “One of the first exercises I do centers on listening,” she explains. “We start small, with groups of four students, and then gradually work our way up to groups of 12. We ‘Harkness’ — yes, Harkness is a verb at our school — between two and three times per week, and the students are now at a point where they want to engage in this way. It’s so encouraging to see them finding their own voices and supporting each other. Regardless of their challenges at home or in the city, they are still willing to come in and be vulnerable, which is what Harkness asks of them.”

Results are not only tangible in the classroom, where Conroy daily witnesses her students learning with and from each other and becoming increasingly skilled at verbalizing ideas and opinions; test scores are also validating the Noble Network’s success with Harkness. Case in point: During the 2013-14 academic year, Pritzker College Prep introduced Harkness teaching to two of its freshman classes. When, later that same year, the two groups were administered the EXPLORE exam, the American College Testing Program’s college readiness test for eighth- and ninth- graders, 13 percent of the freshman students scored a perfect 25 on the reading portion of the exam, and 30 percent scored a near-perfect 24. Three-quarters of these freshmen scored 21 or higher; a “college ready” score is 22. Conroy’s Noble Academy Harkness learners are on track to attain or surpass these results.

With an intense daily schedule — she routinely works from 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. during the week and at least 10 hours per weekend — one might think Conroy would be at risk for burning out on teaching. She is quick to disabuse the notion. “I think I have the best job in the whole world,” she says, “and Harkness is responsible for that.”

—Melanie Nelson


A movable philosophy

Besides being an ambassador for Harkness teaching in her hometown of Chicago, Conroy is also a devoted Exeter alumna who returns to campus whenever the opportunity arises. She recently returned as the featured assembly speaker for the sixth annual Thank-a-Donor Day program. Here is her standing-ovation-earning talk:

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.