Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Culture of Independent Schools

In how many industries could you call up a peer in another city and ask, "Would you mind if I stopped by for several hours to tour your facility and take up hours of your key employees' time while you share many of your trade secrets - all for the expressed purpose of improving our own company?"  There are probably not very many, with the notable exception of independent schools.

Each year, in the spirit of continuous improvement, we take a trip with several teachers, administrators and trustees to visit a peer school around the country.  We have been as far west as California and have visited K-12, K-6, K-8, single gender, secular and coeducational schools such as Greenwich Country Day School (CT), Shore Country Day School (MA), Randolph School (AL), Town School (NYC) and Lake Forest Country Day School (IL), to name a few.  As a school, we also tend to reciprocate regularly and have hosted schools from all over the country at different times of the year.

Recently, as a part of our technology initiative we issued a similar invitation (for ourselves) to Presbyterian Day School and St. Mary's Episcopal School, both in Memphis, and both of whom could not have been more gracious.  At PDS, a prek-6 boys school, we enjoyed watching the use of the iPads and the one-to-one laptop program in 4th through 6th grades.  At St. Mary's, a prek-12 girls school, I loved talking robotics with a science teacher and watching a 3-year-old utilize the vowel app on an iPod Touch.  The visit was both incredibly informative, but also very affirming as we shared common successes and in some cases, common frustrations.  It was very clear that a talented and dedicated faculty is the most important thing we have in common.

As we are looking forward to the building of our new middle school and fine arts center at the end of the year we have gone from the more global planning to the more subtle nuances such as lockers, floors and fixtures.  Consequently we spent a morning last week visiting another peer school locally who has just built a new high school.  We discussed benefits and disadvantages of such mundane, but crucial details as hallway width, the size of lockers, flooring options, lighting alternatives and much more.

It's important to pause and realize that as competitive as our independent schools can often be, when it comes to the best interests of our students, we seem to be able to maintain great perspective.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Well-Rounded Student

Each morning when I run morning hook-up it's always affirming to see kindergarten students run out of the car, eager to learn and explore, and to try new things.  If you stopped any one of those students or their slightly older counter parts and asked them, "are you an artist?  are you an athlete? are you a mathematician?' I would wager that the answer would be, simply, "Yes."  I think most of us would agree that lower schoolers should see themselves in this way and most of us would agree that having all of these experiences is vitally important.  At what point, then, does it seem that students tend to specialize in any one of those areas?  It used to be high school, but I would argue that more and more it's becoming middle school, and I can't help but bemoan this fact.

In far too many schools the arts and athletic offerings are being reduced or eliminated or they are becoming electives.  Giving an 11-year old the opportunity to choose between chorus and study hall may lead to his never having an experience in music.  Further, many schools force kids to choose between, let's say, theater and football.  Is there really no way that a good school can handle the logistics of a young person being able to do both?  It seems to me like ten or eleven is a little premature to chart one's course.

I think of one Harding graduate who is now a high school sophomore.  In 6th grade he had the opportunity to participate, in a small way, in the middle school musical while playing football, without having to decide on one or the other.  By 8th grade he was the lead in the spring musical while starting on the lacrosse team.  It wasn't easy, but he had the opportunity to excel and participate in both.  In high school he had one of the leads in the fall theater production before playing the ice hockey and lacrosse seasons.  Had he been forced by the school to decide between sports and theater I'm not sure he would have ever had the experience.

Recently, we received the exciting news that eight Harding students won awards in the Scholastic Art Competition.  Looking at the list, it is so affirming to note the well-roundedness of the group.  The group was evenly split among boys and girls.  Of the winners, one is an HVAC champion wrestler, one an all-GNAC conference point guard, several play soccer and lacrosse, four are also in the band, one is a significant equestrian, several have been in theater productions and one is a Vanderbilt bat boy (http://omaha.com/article/20110623/CWS/706239747).  This, in my mind, is what middle school (and high school, for that matter) should be about - the ability to try, and excel, in many different interests - art, music, athletics - without the pressure to focus on one, or choose one to the exclusion of another.