Hardwiring for Diversity by Mary Supriya McDonald

Educating and preparing students for their next stage in life is both a long-term goal and a daily work in progress at Mount Madonna School. The Pre/K program works on practical life skills, while teaching students to socialize with their peers. Elementary school lays an academic foundation and encourages socialization, empathy and the ability to work with others towards a common goal. Middle school fosters growing independence and responsibility for learning, with practice in leadership and reflection as students transition to teenagers. High school is a time of exploring the responsibilities and freedoms of young adulthood. Students practice planning ahead and develop the discipline necessary for success in the challenges of academic rigor. High school students hone their abilities to discern, evaluate, analyze and make predictions. These developmental skills, academic, social and emotional, take time, plus trial and error to grow.

Among the many core competencies that 21st century schools are called upon to teach, one of the most essential in this global age is understanding the “other.” The value of teaching diversity is not a new concept. However, understanding the brain science behind the instinctual roadblocks to inclusion is evolving.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who spoke a few years ago at Mount Madonna School on the topic of stress, recently published an article entitled, “This is Your Brain on Nationalism.” He highlights the research showing that we are hardwired neurologically to separate people into “us” and “them.” The way to overcome this instinctual tribal group separation, according to Sapolsky, is by teaching explicitly the value of diversity in all its many forms.

At every level, Mount Madonna consciously educates students to overcome the natural fear of differences and be curious about those who are different than ourselves. Whether it is differences among peers, or completely different countries and cultures, such as India or South Africa, students are asked to question, explore and develop relationships with those outside their comfortable affinity group. Of all the lessons and life skills, respecting and appreciating diversity may be the most relevant for our graduates. By valuing diversity, including biodiversity, we gain an understanding of the “other,” expanding our perspective of life and personal understanding of ourselves.  Mount Madonna School experiences broaden and strengthen students as they become engaged citizens, making choices for themselves and others that will impact future generations.


By Mary Supriya McDonald, head of school

Supriya began teaching elementary school in 1977, and joined Mount Madonna School (MMS)  in 1987. She has worked in administration at MMS since 1998. From 2008-2015, Supriya served as a co-head of school and became the head of school in 2015. Through her leadership as head of school, she supports faculty, parents and students to work together in the ongoing learning process. She is a parent of alumni, PK ’04, and Kai Ramesh ’99.

Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.