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Access Matters

Robin Oliff
Why do we believe Steward is the best small school in Richmond? Every answer to this question always comes back to our people.
It’s our faculty—they embrace learning and are deeply committed to their relationships with students and their families. It’s our leadership team—they are focused on inclusivity and providing opportunities for all students to try things they might never have dreamed of before Steward.

Why do we believe Steward is the best small school in Richmond? Every answer to this question always comes back to our people. It’s our faculty—they embrace learning and are deeply committed to their relationships with students and their families. It’s our leadership team—they are focused on inclusivity and providing opportunities for all students to try things they might never have dreamed of before Steward. And, it’s our students and families—individual talents in academics, arts, and athletics combine to make one community that’s rich in diversity and strong in educational opportunity. We inspire and learn from one another.

At Steward, we have very intentionally created the community that we feel best serves students; we feel this is true not just for the students here now, but also for those who came before and those still to come. While being at an independent school is certainly a privilege, we also feel that in an ideal world, all qualified students who want to should be able to attend Steward. If you agree with this notion, the next question to ask ourselves is, “How can we bring this opportunity to more deserving students?”

The philosophy among independent schools, supported by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), is that every family bears the primary responsibility for financing a student’s education costs. At the same time, the NAIS also prioritizes access, with the goal that every student might have access to an independent school education regardless of ability to bear the full financial responsibility. For this reason, need-based financial aid programs or Variable Tuition programs like Stewards are standard practice at schools whose budgets (including endowment earnings, donations, and operating budget) allow for them.

In this way, independent primary and secondary schools function similarly to colleges and universities. However, while colleges and universities routinely offer merit-based grants, that hasn’t always been true for independent schools.

That’s beginning to change. NAIS data shows that approximately 35 percent of its member schools are now offering merit-based grants, although just a few are in the Richmond area. Over the last year, The Steward School has become a local leader in this regard. We have implemented the Debbie Robson Merit Scholarship, which provides four years of full tuition to up to two Upper School students. And, this fall, we were excited to announce a generous donation that provided funds for additional merit grants in the Upper School.

The decision to add merit grants was made with careful consideration. Like any other major decision, the first thing the board and administrators considered was how merit-based grants might fit into Steward’s mission. We knew that we were fortunate to already have a generous Variable Tuition program in place, and that no action should be taken to compromise that. But additional thought needed to be given to merit-based assistance. What role does it play in our commitment to a diversity of talents, abilities, and cultures among our student body, which enables a rich and well-rounded educational experience?

At Steward, we believe that each child is an individual and should be treated as such, and that this is a greater guiding principle than any linear scale. As we prepare our students for college and for life, one of our core values is to foster personal accomplishment through effort. This is a community that celebrates the achievements of every student and recognizes that those achievements, though unique to each person, better the community as a whole as well.

So, when we think about merit, we think about the whole child. Merit grants aren’t based solely upon test scores, though academics are considered. Nor are they just awarded based upon extracurricular achievement as measured by participation in clubs, the arts and athletic teams. Instead, we are most focused on students’ character. What passions have they pursued? How have they made a difference in their world? Have they shown leadership and kindness among their peers, families and teachers? These are the traits that we look for in personal essays, recommendation letters, student interviews, and applications.

By encouraging and developing these characteristics in our student body, we further our commitment to inspiring new ways of thinking and innovation in the way we approach issues, the ways we value each other, and the ways that we relate. We are fortunate at Steward to have an inclusive community that celebrates individual achievements while recognizing the greater potential of the whole community together. We are also fortunate that we are able to support that educational philosophy with a robust program of both Variable Tuition and merit-based grants, which enables greater access to Steward for students who demonstrate remarkable character.
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