How are Utah schools faring in the constantly changing world of modern education? This new world includes school violence, more pupils than most other states (we still have the largest households in the country), multicultural classrooms and very little money.

Jim Brewer looks young, but has worked in schools all over the country. “I’ve worked in rural and urban schools in five different states,” he says. “I was looking for the best experience for me and for my kids.”

He believes he found that at The McGillis School, a brick building that could be the setting for any ’50s film about a classic American elementary school. Our Miss Brooks would be right at home in the book-lined room where we’re talking. But according to Brewer, McGillis is built on a very different foundation from the basic 3Rs curriculum of that too-idealized time.

“A school is a culture,” he says. “We start with values and base our curriculum on building good human beings.” McGillis is non-profit, funded by that anxiety-inducing word “development” as well as tuition. But, Brewer says, “The big question is, what is our why? How are we intending to shape the school according to our mission? Our board has a visionary position as well as fiduciary responsibility.” 

Unlike public schools, he says, McGillis doesn’t have much of a problem with teacher attrition; he attributes that to the teacher-pupil ratio of around 9 to 1. A class of 20–24 students has two teachers. Those are pretty luxurious numbers for someone who loves to teach and McGillis tries to allow its teachers to flourish.

“We know every kid,” says Brewer, “and we have an inclusion and diversity committee.”

Although the student population is primarily white upper middle-class, Brewer says “Diversity makes any organization stronger—22 to 25 percent of our students are students of color, 14 percent are Jewish (McGillis was founded as a Jewish school and still gathers for Shabbat on Fridays). Students come from all over the valley and 25 percent receive some kind of assistance.

“Society’s ills exist everywhere,” says Brewer, although it’s hard to believe in this sun-filled room with windows looking out on leafy trees. McGillis has a full time school psychologist to deal with student problems. McGillis’ philosophy allows experiments, like integrated studies, where English, science and history are taught together. Children have regularly scheduled hikes and  outdoor education programs. “We want to be a light,” says Brewer. “Let us be a way to show how it can work.”