Upper Schoolers Immerse in Signature Special Studies Programs

Upper Schoolers Immerse in Signature Special Studies Programs

Launched in 1971, Agnes Irwin’s signature Special Studies Program (SSP) aims to enrich students’ education by offering experiential or project-based learning outside of the regular curriculum. During the recent SSPs, Upper Schoolers immersed themselves in a wide range of subjects including civil rights, sustainability, animal rights advocacy, archival research, art, constitutional law, personal empowerment, and more. 

Here is a recap of the 2022 SSPs: 


Students deepened their connection with The Agnes Irwin School by researching and writing about historical actors who walked the halls of our school for 152 years. After becoming acquainted with archives and archival work, participants examined a variety of texts and objects that offered insight into girlhood and womanhood from the final quarter of the Nineteenth century through the 1970s. 

“We worked with the students to craft a story, grounded in historical documents, that focused on a single alumna or graduating class and how they reflected or challenged the aspirations and values of their larger society,” said Gray Kidd, Ph.D., history teacher. During their research, students even found archival images of AIS students throughout history engaged in SSPs. Students crafted infographics, posters, and captions for pieces of ephemera. Senior Kimberly Tyson ’22 paid homage to The Irwinian, the precursor to The Wick, the student-run school newspaper, by mocking up an older "zine" style.

“I learned how to dig into archives to see how our school has changed over time. I did a project on the development of the Ithan Avenue building and it was very interesting to see all of the preparations, fundraising, and work that went into having this amazing building,” said Britty Page ’25. 


Seventeen students traveled to New Orleans, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta for a week over spring break to visit important historical and cultural sites tied to the Civil Rights movement, such as:

They students also met with community members at Studio Be in New Orleans, a place for community workshops and large-scale street art. The group also completed service work at Eat South, an urban farm in Montgomery, and made time for Cafe du Monde beignets, po-boys, and other tourist highlights. 


Creature Comforts aimed to educate students on the use of animals as companions, workers, therapy agents, and more. “Students learned about the process of rescuing animals from shelters, as well as the benefits and risks, trends in animal welfare, humane law enforcement, and humane education,” said Ellen Koenig, Biology and Environmental Science teacher.  The girls enjoyed visits from Sprinkles the Therapy Bunny and Rocky the Radnor Police Officer. They traveled to Main Line Animal Rescue, an organization based in Phoenixville, that advocates for the welfare and future of neglected animals, where they learned about pit bull rescue and conducted a service project.

The program looked at history, culture, and identity through the lens of several francophone resources including literary excerpts, film clips, and testimonies from recent immigrants to the United States for the purpose of seeing how one’s sense of identity can be fleeting, and yet at the same time remains a critical part of one’s character. 

The Ted Talk: How Culture Drives Behavior, by Julien S. Bourelle, gave concrete examples of how difficult it is to discern the meaning of certain cultural behaviors. Clips from the films “Bienvenue à Marly Gomont” (Zaire), “Fatima” (Algeria), “West Side Story” (Puerto Rico), along with further website research, further underscored the challenges that emigres encounter upon arrival in the United States. These resources worked well to instill a mindframe for our students in preparation for the interviews that they set up with local people in our community who have immigrated. The students interviewed people originally from Germany, Mexico, Algeria, Puerto Rico, Mumbai, Serbia, and El Salvador asking, “How did your identity evolve over time?” It was evident from the students’ presentations that the stories of the emigres impacted their perception of what immigrating to another country entails. 

During the second half of the program, students worked on basic cooking skills where they prepared francophone cuisine and also learned how to prepare a North African speciality dish called Tajine—a specialty Berber dish from Morocco and Algeria. The goal was to underscore that what we choose to eat is indeed an integral part of our identity. “The students really enjoyed the cooking aspect of the SSP, expanded their cooking skills, and were enthusiastic about trying out food that they are not used to cooking,” said celebrated French teacher Rita Davis, who has taught the language to four generations of Agnes Irwin students. 

Girls and women face a unique set of issues in the global landscape, including access to education, equal employment opportunities, reproductive rights and healthcare, and gender-based violence. Eighteen Upper Schoolers heard from various speakers and engaged in activities that highlighted real life experiences of girls around the world.

In a virtual exchange with female students from Robert College, an independent high school in Istanbul, Turkey that is the oldest continuously operating American school outside the United States, the students talked about the challenges they face as girls growing up in their respective countries, shared their hopes and goals for the future, and what they like most about being a girl. This connection was made possible because of an existing partnership between CAG and the Head of Educational Research at Robert College.

West Chester University Assistant Professor of English, Emily Aguillo-Perez, visited to discuss her work in the areas of children’s literature, girlhood studies, and children’s cultures, particularly Latinx. 

Student activist Emily Aikens, a senior at Wyoming Seminary Upper School, a boarding school in Kingston, PA, spoke about her commitment to getting menstrual products in school bathrooms through advocacy and public policy.

The students also took a mini-field trip to Villanova University for a lecture from youth activism expert Jerusha Conner Ph.D., who highlighted the ways in which student activism has taken shape and evolved since 2015 including major issues and how students identify as activists. 

Led by Ali Monzo, Director of Programs for CAG and English Department Chair, Lydia Traill, the students used the Smithsonian Girlhood (It's complicated) exhibit as inspiration when they worked in teams to build their own ‘girlhood exhibits’ featuring artifacts that represented key learnings from the week.


Eighteen students examined the principles of zero waste, which promotes reuse, repurposing, and the conservation of resources, in the context of building a business. The zero waste initiative seeks to protect land and water and eliminate disposal into landfills. A wide variety of community leaders visited over three days to talk to students about waste reduction, including:  

Kimberley Bezak and Eleisha Eagle from Mainline SHIFT, a local organization that provides actionable steps toward reducing waste, as well as an updated calendar of local recycling events such as outdoor space clean up days, a car seat trade in, and bag recycling opportunities. 

Chester County Commissioner Marian Moskowitz, an urban developer, known for the adaptive re-use of an old, abandoned, factory located in Phoenixville into Franklin Commons, a vibrant educational and mixed-use complex.

Peggy Zwerver, owner of Earth Bread and Brew, a restaurant in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia that embraces the tenets of sustainability, composts its organics, recycles, and buys local provisions when possible.

Bradley Flamm, Director of  West Chester University’s Office of Sustainability, who works with students, faculty, staff, and community partners active in WCU’s Sustainability Council in order to promote local, regional, and global sustainability.

Chrise de Tournay Birkhahn of the Zero Waste Commission, an independent zero waste specialist, educator, advocate and current Chair of the City of Berkeley Zero Waste Commission.

Steve Beebee, owner of Community EcoStore, an all-volunteer boutique for eco-friendly lifestyles in Phoenixville. 

Tracy Viola P ’26 ’30, a passionate, environmental advocate. 

“Using lessons taught during the speaker series, students worked in pairs to develop plans to reduce AIS community waste, including on-campus composting, reduction in light use, reuse of water bottles, and changes to cafeteria packaging,” said Vanessa Pope, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Experiential Learning (CAG). 


The girls talked about what self-esteem is and how to build their own self-esteem, as well as the self-esteem of others. Activities included bracelet making, journal writing, and inspirational poster design. “When writing our quotes on posters, it made me feel inspired and I'm hoping my poster inspired others as well. This SSP taught me to be the best version of myself,” said Ryder Fleitas ’25. 

The Delaware County Office of the District Attorney visited and Detectives Steve Bannar and Tony Ruggieri led the students in a self-defense class. “In the self-defense class, we learned about situations where we would use different methods to defend ourselves,” said Nora Smartt ’25. “We learned how to escape choke holds and other attacks and we were able to practice with our friends. This was a great experience.” The girls also participated in bootcamp workout classes and PreK mentoring. 

“Local experts talked to the girls about maintaining healthy skin and nutritional habits,” said Upper School counselor Kim Polonsky. Dermatologist Stacy Turner, M.D. P’ 25, owner of Turner Dermatology, and exercise instructor from the Spring Valley YMCA, Christy Smith, presented.


On a field trip to New York City, the students in this SSP visited the Museum of Chinese in America and Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. They also visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Back on campus, the girls learned how to make traditional dumplings and practiced the art of calligraphy. “This immersive experience helped our students to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and the experience of Chinese immigrants,” said Chinese teacher Xiaomei Liu.


Students engaged in hands-on service learning in our local community that focused on food insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. On trips off campus, girls volunteered at SHARE Food Program, the largest Philadelphia-based food bank that provides food to over 500 smaller food pantries. “At SHARE, students packed over 1,000 boxes of non-perishables over two days,” said Upper School Dean of Students Sarah Leonard. 

Students also volunteered at the Upper Merion Area Community Cupboard, by preparing for the weekly distribution to local families. At the end of the SSP, students observed food deserts in Philadelphia (a term used to describe areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food) and visited Haverfarm, a farming and educational space at Haverford College, designed to integrate sustainable food and agriculture in the lives of community members.  


Students examined the ways individuals have advocated for peace globally over time, with a specific focus on the contributions of women. They considered the reasons why peace discussions served as an acceptable space for women's political activism. The girls planned activities for specific grades, divisions, and for the whole school to celebrate International Day of Peace in September, 2022. They also created  "peace tiles" in the style of the Berkeley Peace Wall

The students joined Villanova University for their Advocacy Week, hosted by their Center for Peace and Justice Education, where they had the opportunity to talk to Villanova students about the different service opportunities they take part in. One Agnes Irwin student was inspired by Villanova's Best Buddies program, which aims to promote inclusion and acceptance by facilitating friendships between students and local adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and is eager to bring it to AIS.

The group also heard from Professor Erin Mysoglan, Assistant Director, Center for Community Action & Research at Pace University, who gave an introductory lecture into Peace and Justice studies. She spoke about three types of peace—positive peace, negative peace, and personal peace.


Twenty students explored the lives of working artists in the Philadelphia area, with visits to art studios, artist-run galleries, and non-profit art institutions. They visited various “artist-run” arts organizations located in the Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia. We visited InLiquid Art, Tiger Strikes Asteroid Philadelphia, Tilt Institute for the Contemporary Image, Second State Press, and checked out the fantastic architectural progress of the new Clay Studio just before it opened to the public. They also visited bahdeebahdu, Warren Muller & RJ Thornberg’s wonderland of lighting, furniture, interiors, art & Pomeranians. Students spent two days learning how to make photo image transfers onto clay, using printed decals and xerox lithography techniques.


Led by Murray Savar, Visual and Performing Arts Chair, Sol Fernandez, Spanish teacher, and Sean McCormick, history teacher, students experienced the city of Philadelphia by foot and public transit. They visited many neighborhoods in and around Center City, explored side streets, found architectural surprises, and tasted many different cuisines. A highlight was a visit to the newly opened Museum of Illusions in the Old City neighborhood. They also enjoyed an Agnes Irwin School historical walking tour during which they visited the first locations of the school prior to its move to the suburbs in 1934. 

Many of the most important controversies of our day involve Constitutional issues and must be resolved by the United States Supreme Court. Students learned about the Constitution and the federal judicial system. Then they looked at recent cases, and ones currently before the Court, and examined the legal principles, laws, and constitutional provisions. Students examined landmark Supreme Court cases and researched and argued whether the Supreme Court should be expanded beyond nine judges. Students role played, first acting as the lawyers who argue each side of the case, and then, as the Justices who render decisions. They worked in teams on a moot court case involving issues of Constitutional law, and delivered oral arguments. They also took a field trip to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. 


Students explored a variety of topics related to social justice to help them gain an understanding of action steps they can take to make a difference in topics they are passionate about. “The topics, which were chosen based on a survey of the students’ interests, included: reproductive rights, inequities in the healthcare system, the criminal justice system, and gun control,” said Math Department Chair Elena Bertrand, who co-led the SSP.  On the final day, students explored a topic of their choosing, with many revisiting aspects of the previous four topics. Group research and discussion played an important role over the course of the SSP.


Six students with an interest in computer science learned how to hack the code of an existing video game and transform it into a design of their own. “They learned how to select and insert their own graphics, arrange graphics on the screen, and set conditions for scoring, winning, and losing,” said science teacher Steve Grabania, Ph.D. The girls also heard from Livia Seibert ’18, who spoke about her internship at Google and about starting a career as a programmer/software engineer.

“Learning to code improves a student's problem-solving skills — it forces them to break big problems or tasks down into manageable pieces. Plus, coding an application helps students understand the problems they’re solving at a level that often surpasses what they would otherwise achieve,” said Grabania. Brooke Wolitarsky ’25 added: “In this SSP, I also learned how to be responsible and stay on track when focusing on my project.” 


Students focused on learning about children's literature through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Teachers helped students write, illustrate, and take steps towards publishing books on Amazon, which a few were able to complete by the end of the SSP. Students worked in groups taking on the roles of writer and illustrator. They brought in their favorite children's books and examined its structure, both written and visual. Illustrators drew on paper and then digitally illustrated their artwork using school iPads, Adobe Photoshop, and other design tools in the Innovation Center. 


This group of students hit the kitchen at 672 Conestoga to understand how science influences the way recipes turn out. They examined a variety of techniques and aspects of cooking and put their lessons into practice as they prepared different food items to sample and share. A group of students made homemade pasta and another mac-and-cheese with homemade bechamel sauce. Sara Carmichael, Upper School science teacher, shared that the group’s favorite was liquid nitrogen ice cream with frozen raspberry topping.


Students explored the crossroads of transmedia and narrative storytelling including inclusivity, community building, and stereotype-smashing in role-playing games (RPG). They also looked at the progression of representation in transmedia narratives. Over the three days, students had multiple opportunities to dive into a character to experience a perspective different from their own. Kaitlyn Graupner ’25 shared, “This SSP put me into different situations where I had to act and see through a different person’s eyes. This skill can help me when working on a school project with others."


Students looked at two concepts from the study of aesthetics, beauty and sublimity, and explored art and the feelings it conjures up. They talked about the implications of these feelings, why they might matter to us in our individual lives and in our communities. A range of artistic works were considered, including paintings by Caravaggio and Thomas Eakins and music by Beethoven and Mozart. Students were then encouraged to find the beautiful and the sublime in works of art that interested them on a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These explorations culminated in the students’ own artmaking — projects ranged from watercolor, to face painting, to a sculpture rendered by a 3-D printer.

“We learned about art and the feelings and stories that can be told from a simple piece,” shared Laura Kelly ’25. “I learned how artists purposefully add shading or highlights to change the mood of their artwork and how adding a simple detail in the background could completely change the story of your work. I now know the talent, effort, and hidden meanings in things I see every day.”

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