The Head's Vantage
Welcome to The Head's Vantage - a blog examining important educational topics by Andrew Webster, Head of School.
In my last post, I introduced our new Strategic Plan and indicated I would write about different aspects of the plan over the coming weeks. I will begin with the mission statement. The crux of the statement remains the same as it has been for over a decade, with one additional highlight.
About this time in 2006 at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, we committed ourselves to a mission that centered on the phrase “lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection.” With a student body that emanates from roots spread worldwide, we set a high priority on global engagement, looking to explore and understand cultures, examine thorny international issues, and build a sense of stewardship toward the world.
Much of the learning related to this theme continues to take place in classrooms, but we have developed many ways to get beyond our walls and even our borders to provide valuable face-to-face learning. We currently have a group of over 20 students and several teacher/chaperones in El Paso for a border immersion program. Our students will see first-hand conditions and processes that are often misportrayed in a range of media, and they will interact with people who have been working for years on immigration issues in a variety of ways. In March, we will send another group to China, more specifically to Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. In Chengdu, students will stay with Chinese families and visit our sister school, the Shishi High School, originally built in 143-141 BC, during the Han dynasty.
Those trips will bring stories for another day. In the last two years, through the efforts of our Director of the Global Scholars Program, we have developed two successful local programs that build empathy and understanding locally. We have a large number of Upper School students who tutor refugee children in those families’ homes through our partnership with Interfaith RISE. Another group provides afterschool activities and tutoring in two Plainfield elementary schools and STEM enrichment activities in a third Plainfield school. The looks in the eyes of the kids our students serve tells you everything you need to know about the value of the programs.
For our students, the sense of purpose that is built in these experiences is of equal value, and I could not be prouder of our students’ efforts. Recently, two of our students found an opportunity to go well beyond the ordinary tasks of tutoring as the father of the family they were serving lost his job and was at risk of losing their housing. Through one of their parents, they were able to find him a job that met his needs and avoided this potential crisis. Not everyone gets to play the hero while still in high school, and these two have not sought acclaim but they’ve done something special. They’ve earned the right to wear the cape, as have their peers in the programs in many other ways.
In a few speeches to students over the last few years, I have quoted Arthur Ashe as advising us to “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That’s a pretty good mission statement for our service learning programs, which are one vital expression of our school mission.
The one area of change to highlight in our mission statement is the inclusion of the notion of “rigorous inquiry.” Academic excellence is at the core of who we are, but as a phrase it is too broad to capture our distinctive approach. In past generations, the notion of rigor always referred to acquiring more answers and at a faster pace. In this century, we have shifted that notion to the idea of learning to ask series of probing questions, not merely acquiring answers. We want students to learn how knowledge is constructed and to acquire skills that can be applied across multiple disciplines. There are areas of academic content that our students still must learn, but committing them to memory is not the end, but rather a precursor to higher level exploration of ideas. Our graduates need to move forward with a strong basis of knowledge but also with the confidence and mental discipline to ask questions that lead to further knowledge, and then to further questions. In that way, they will generate new knowledge for themselves and for the world.
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
In Fall 2018, our Board of Trustees approved a new strategic plan. The plan includes a new vision statement, a mission statement with one small but significant addition, an unchanged statement of core values, and a series of strategic goal statements. As a whole, the document is intended to specify our school's distinctive character and identity and to guide the school's evolution over the next three years and often beyond.
Over the last five strategic plans, we have made one change to the core values and now one to the mission. Of course, a school that lives its mission will not make frequent changes to these elements. The strategic goals will change some over time as parts of them are achieved or perhaps recede in importance and are supplanted by new goals. Each strategic goal area has several shorter term priorities associated with it, but these are more susceptible to change and thus are not shared in this document.
In creating the strategic plan, we solicited and incorporated feedback from parents, faculty and staff, alumni/ae, and Trustees. Over the next several weeks I will write in more detail about the plan, and it will become less abstract. If you have questions or comments as we delve further into it, you can share those with me.
Head of School
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
As we near the winter solstice, and the days grow shorter and darker, we seek the light. Religious and cultural traditions honor the light and speak of it returning to the world and spreading among us, and we look to the future with hope. When we gather clothing for those in need, we do so with hope that it will ease their winter burdens. When we send Christmas letters to young immigrants detained in the Tornillo detention center, it is with hope that the care evinced in the cards will bring hope to those who receive the cards. When we serve local elementary school students with tutoring and after school activities, it is with hope that they will be encouraged to see that they are valued and can set ambitious goals for themselves. When we work with refugee families, it is with hope that they will be strengthened by the sense that someone walks with them on their path toward new community.
Light is a powerful metaphor, but there are different kinds of light in the world. Some light blinds the eyes, while other light illuminates the spirit. As you gather with friends and family in the darkness of December, may you find the light that leavens your soul.
In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.
That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.
That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.
When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.
These poetic words of blessing are taken from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us. I wish you all a peaceful winter break and look forward to welcoming you back to school in the new year.
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
I wish you all a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving. For me, this holiday is the simplest one, and the one most steeped in memory. It is born of a harvest holiday tradition and woven into our national traditions as a foundational story, but most of us no longer live in fear of weather cycles that may determine our food supply for the winter and the thanks we give are not for divine providence that has allowed a bountiful harvest. We gather in nuclear and extended families, often with friends, to express thanks for the presence of one another and the simple joy of sharing a special meal. We give thanks for good fortune that has come our way in many ways large and small. We remember previous Thanksgiving gatherings and perhaps long for the presence of people who can no longer join us.
As Head of School, one of the main privileges of my position is the ability over time to witness and participate in moments of triumph and joy experienced by our students. I have seen seniors share important aspects of their lives in senior speeches, often to standing ovations; athletes achieving hard-fought victories or accomplishments; cast and crew and musicians delivering stellar performances after many weeks of rehearsal; artists hanging their work in our display cases; students giving of themselves through tutoring children in Plainfield public schools or refugee homes, or serving at the food bank and other venues; students in all divisions presenting Capstone projects or science research projects, or stories and poems they have written; seniors receiving college acceptance letters; students giving time and support to their classmates in so many ways; and alumni returning to renew connections.
No community that gathers hundreds of people together on daily basis will be without conflict, disappointment, and complaint. However, it is truly a privilege to work in an environment that produces such genuine human warmth and affection on regular basis. At a time when conflict and hostility toward others has become too prominent, that privilege seems even greater.
In a poem by Mary Oliver, the Buddha’s last instruction was to “make of yourself a light.” I am thankful to work in a community that would choose to pursue such a goal together, and I hope your lives are filled to the brim with meaningful reasons for gratitude.
Head of School
In late August of each year, we hold a New Faculty Orientation Day. Those teachers may have been hired months previously. They have had some interaction with new colleagues and spent time planning their curriculum and teaching for the opening segment of the school year. They are typically energetic and eager to begin, but also curious and maybe even nervous about what they will find in their new school.
We started the day with introductions, so they would get to know each other and a number of key people they will need to interact with. Quickly, though, I changed gears and asked them to spend three minutes considering and answering the following question. I wanted first-blush responses, without the opportunity to polish their answers or tailor them to some surmised expectation. The question was, “If I were to ask your students late in your first year what they value most about your teaching, what answer would most satisfy you?” I told them they were free to write in complete sentences or in fragments, and I share them with you now in unvarnished form:
•Foster an environment of curiosity and wonder.
•He takes my ideas seriously and always pushes me to a better version of what I first think.
•Patience. Understanding. Expects the best even when it’s hard. Push through the hard stuff.
•Always willing to help. Kindness. Loves my laugh.
•That I have empowered them to be life-long learners. I want them to say that I have inspired them to be in AWE by teaching them to pay attention, and be intentional about their life
•Positive attitude that gave/put me in a more positive/optimistic mindset.
•Easy-going, made it comfortable to take on new challenges.
•She made me love reading. She made me care about the questions instead of the right answers. She helped me find my voice.
•Compassion. Attention to details – changes, small adjustments and events matter. Personal impact on overall performance. Recognize each student may follow their own trajectory, that they were pushed when they needed it, and dealt a gentler hand when that was called for.
What do you note about this list? I am struck by what did not make this list. There is virtually no mention of curriculum. The focus is on what kind of person do they wish to help their students become and about the kinds of learning environments the teachers wish to create to support that growth. There is a sense of the teacher as ally and motivator, not as assessor or gatekeeper. There is nothing about grades or standardized test scores. There is a sense that qualities that cannot be counted may count the most.
As a parent, I find these goals to be inspirational and I value having my children learn in classroom environments that make these goals manifest. Visitors to the school often comment on how comfortable students are in our school, and I believe that has much to do with the broad, higher-level aspirations of their teachers. Curriculum and skills matter and mastering them is important. Teachers who approach their job with the goals shared above help our students do so in a supportive environment in which most students will thrive and develop a true confidence in themselves.
Scenes around campus from the last few days…
In late September, our girls’ varsity soccer team outlasted a tough Bishop Ahr squad for a 1-0 win. Because of injuries and illness, we were down to only 11 players for much of the second half. We were exhausted and on the ropes, but dug in and refused to allow scoring chances.
Likewise, a couple of days later, the boys’ varsity team faced a Middlesex squad that had beaten them earlier in the season 5-2. We held the lead for much of the game, but when we gave up the tying score, we could have crumbled, especially as a few good chances we generated came to nought. We took the game into overtime, which consists of two 10-minute periods. Suffering from dead legs, we battled on and managed to pressure their goal toward the end. With three seconds remaining, we scored and celebrated with jubilation.
Our seniors give their senior speeches to the Upper School students and faculty throughout the fall. Many of these speeches touch on difficult moments of pain and growth, sometimes relating to the loss of a parent or loved one, or moments where they had to make difficult choices and accept unknown outcomes.
These experiences, and countless less dramatic ones, help students develop resilience, one of many character skills we take pride in building at W+H.
At Wardlaw+Hartridge, we have always taken pride in the breadth and depth of our mission. Not surprisingly, the mission encompasses the development of strong academic and intellectual skills. Of equal importance, however, are a range of skills that are not purely academic but that relate primarily to character. These are not just “feel-good” skills, though that alone would make them worthwhile, but are skills in demand by employers.
Like many other independent schools, we have emphasized character alongside academic strength and have offered this emphasis as one of several fundamental reasons why families should enroll their children here. So how do we know how well we deliver on this promise?
Three years ago, we became members of an organization that had developed the Mission Skills Assessment. This assessment was created to help schools measure their effectiveness in teaching character, referred to by this organization as “mission skills.” With this information, we could then examine our programs for ways to enhance these skills and could develop a common language to define and emphasize their importance. The Mission Skills Assessment measures Creativity, Curiosity, Ethics, Resilience, Teamwork, and Time Management among Middle School age children, though it is now planning to expand to include Upper School age students.
Unlike the ERB tests, the MSA does not generate individual score results, but rather focuses on grade-level reports aimed at patterns within a large group. We can track the grade groups over time, and can also break them down into subgroups. Information we gain then shapes areas of emphasis within our advising system and sometimes in the design of assignments in our courses.
We have only participated in the MSA for three years, but are among the national leaders in the areas of creativity and curiosity. In other areas we fall into the average band, albeit average among a pool that includes the best independent schools in the nation. Time management and resilience are areas where we see a need for further focus. In the three years we have participated, the nationwide score for life satisfaction as reported by the students on the MSA has declined, whereas our score has risen steadily and exceeds the national average.
The point, however, is not to rank ourselves, but to understand our strengths and weaknesses in character skills and examine how we can support character growth much as we do with academic growth. If you have questions regarding the MSA, Dr. Crafton is our doyenne of mission skills, and she would be happy to discuss the ways we use it.
Andrew Webster, Head of School, delivered a welcome and closing remarks at the 136th Convocation Ceremony in Laidlaw Gym on September 6, 2018:
Greetings, and welcome back to school. Or welcome to your first day at W+H! With many of you, I have shared numerous convocations; this is my 14thhere. It’s always the same, in that it is always the beginning of something, hopefully something great. It’s always sweltering, but it always feels important to gather all three divisions together even if there’s some discomfort. And it is always different. You are older, changed in some way, and there are students and faculty no longer here, and others here anew. So it is always different and always the same.
In my work here over many years, I have learned so much, and mostly I have learned how much more I have to learn. And how wonderful it is to start again to tackle the challenge of learning more. And then to be astounded anew by something I have never known before and can barely understand.
I know it can be hard to go back to school, to adjust again to the framework of a school schedule, and to take on assigned work and get it done, again and again, for months at a time. But in so doing, you come to understand your world better, and often the assignments contain facts or ideas of interest. They prompt you to build your mind, which can then go in directions you choose. Through the year, I know I will see you take joy in learning and accept the hard work that is sometimes required to master challenging material.
One of the recurring challenges of school is recreating a sense of community in a student body that is constantly changing. In June, 49 students graduated from our community, and each year some others leave the school. Now, we have 90 new students, which is about 20% of our student body, and several new teachers and staff members. I would like to ask everyone who is new to our community this year to stand for a moment, and the rest of us will welcome you with a round of applause. As always, a special welcome goes to those of you who have joined our school for the first time from distant countries thousands of miles away from us. It takes a special courage to leave behind the comforts of home, and live in a new school, language, and home. We are proud to welcome you.
Look at this gym. It is hot, dusty, and old, not a showpiece like the Berry PAC or the renovated Lower Snowdon library. But what is most important to our school is here, and that is all of you. You are vital to each other’s education. The poet Wendell Berry wrote, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” What then is your job as a friend, classmate, or teammate? It is to play that role in a way that teaches others to be better than they are. That’s an important job, and is best done by modeling your finest qualities and demonstrating how to be a good friend, a good student, and a good teammate. Those who set the best examples find that others will emulate them.
This morning, we will hear first from Mr. Rob Rizzo, the President of our Board of Trustees. Mr. Rizzo once sat in those bleachers and also starred on basketball teams on this court, and is now a very successful partner in a major accounting firm. We will also hear from a gentleman and a scholar, Stan DeLaurentiis, President of our Student Council.
Do you have a favorite animal? What is it?
How many of you have been to the Bronx Zoo? If not, I highly recommend it. You can spend a full day there and not come close to seeing all of the species they care for there.
I could tell you a long story about the history of zoos and how they have changed for the better, after a long period of being depressing places that offered little respect to the needs of the animals. But it’s too hot for a long story, even one that ends well. Zoos have often become places of learning, of research, and have become important in trying to assure the vitality of species, and they have learned to build habitats that are more respectful of the needs of the animals. As I went through my photos of my recent trip to the Bronx Zoo, I noted that they included some of the usual suspects—the gorillas, giraffes, tigers, snow leopards, bears—that attract the most attention. But they also included a golden poison dart frog half the size of my thumb, red lemurs, butterflies, tiny turtles, the world’s largest cattle, birds of many varieties, snakes, lizards and so on. All of these species contribute to making the world a special place, and the zoo represents that idea in its own microcosm.
We are not a zoo, of course, though you may find certain similarities, especially around lunchtime. We have only one species enrolled here. But within our species there are enormous differences, and our respect for the richness that these differences bring to our community distinguishes Wardlaw+Hartridge from other schools and organizations.
Your learning and growth here are of paramount importance. The setting in which that learning and growth occur is important, and they are in fact completely intertwined. Earlier I spoke of being the sort of friend, classmate and teammate that elevates others, and I want you to commit to that goal. Likewise, I want you to help us ensure that we create and uphold a community of respect for all of its members and for the school itself. If we take care of our community and learn from the best qualities of each other, as friends and students, we will truly shine.
I wish you all a wonderful year.
Below is the Charge to the Class of 2018, delivered by Andrew Webster, Head of School, at the 135thCommencement Ceremony on June 8:
Good morning, students, parents, faculty, Trustees and friends. We are honored by your presence and happy to join together to celebrate the graduation of a talented and fascinating group of seniors, the Class of 2018.
I have been giving the Charge, as this part of the program is known, for 13 years. Every year I resolve to finish it early, so I can burnish it to a fine glow, and every year I fail to do so. Every year I write until I feel my remarks are complete and say what I want them to, but I have never thought to time them. Last year, unbeknownst to me, two sophomores took it upon themselves to do so, and claim that I spoke for 16 minutes and 36 seconds. That seems entirely unlikely to me, but they swear it is so. And I cannot refute it. They expressed their assertion with such excitement that I could only conclude that they wish me to beat that record, and probably next year extend it again. Laura and Olivia, I thank you for your encouragement, and I can only say I will do my best.
Seniors, one of the traps your parents will fall into this summer is the urge to pack in every last bit of advice and direction they can muster. It is an urge that is pointless to resist. Your job is to nod, agree with a level of enthusiasm that makes them think that their words might just be sinking in (but not so enthusiastically that they know you are faking it), and forgive them for not quite having an unshakeable belief that indeed, you’ve got this. Some version of that parental urge leads me to speak too long, and so I’ll ask you to include me in that forgiveness.
I can’t help thinking that we are favored today by the presence of Jim O’Halloran, our friend, colleague, and teacher who passed away this Spring. Four years ago, Mr. O’Halloran spoke at the commencement exercises for the Class of 2014. I thought it would be fitting to borrow a portion of his comments from that day and redirect them to our graduates this year.
Class of 2018, in O’Hal’s words: Considering all that you have accomplished here at Wardlaw-Hartridge and the impressive college paths you are about to take, I can clearly see that you are expertly managing your present and planning your future. So, I am not sure what advice I can give you. Instead, I would like to make three somewhat unconnected but, I think, important requests, which I can express with three verbs: serve, vote, and talk. Let me explain.
First, serve. Many of you have already, at your young ages, accumulated a record of service that is humbling to the rest of us. Gandhi tells us that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” You have done that. I hope that Wardlaw-Hartridge has played some part in helping you to develop this ethic of service, and I am confident that you will carry it forward when you leave us.
Second, vote. Those of you who have been my students know that this is a personal obsession for me, and as a graduation gift I would like to pass it on to you. You are either 18 now or will be in a few months, and it is time for you to assume the principal duty of a citizen in a participatory democracy. In the next 29 months you will have the power to elect your representatives to congress and the next president of the United States. But you will only have that power if you vote. In my judgment, there is no such thing as an insignificant election. The fact that there is an election, and that you have the opportunity to participate in it, is itself significant. Graduations, or more specifically, commencements, are about the future, and so are elections. I am sure you would not relinquish control over your academic future or your career future, and I urge you to treat your citizenship future in the same careful way.
Finally, talk. You are already quite good at this, and I say that as a compliment. Look at the beautiful community you have created here at Wardlaw-Hartridge. Community is one of our core values; we say in our mission statement that “our community is distinguished by an ethos of care and mutual respect…, ” and you, as a class, have learned some important lessons. A community does not create itself, and it does not sustain itself. It takes participation, commitment, and an openness to growth. Stephen Hawking, a well-regarded smart person (who coincidentally also passed away this spring), had this to say:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk, and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
Personally, I would reframe that idea to give stronger emphasis to listening. We are far better in our society at transmitting than we are at receiving, and we need to work on that especially with the advent of social media that are built to amplify voices but curtail real dialogue.
Like Mr. O’Halloran, I am a student of American history. In our great nation, we have built a national historical narrative around the power and freedom of the individual, and the merits and rights of one dominant race and religion. Over time, that vision expanded and became more inclusive, but not without hard-fought battles to control and project a different and broader narrative. Those battles continue anew. In our emphasis on the importance of the individual, we have given scant consideration to the obligation to others, to the broader society. These are uncomfortable thoughts, and some of you may think it is not appropriate to include them in a graduation speech. But it is an important and contested strain of our national narrative that you will be asked to weigh in on as you serve and vote and talk. As a school, the achievement that makes me proudest is that we have succeeded in placing a very strong emphasis on community, and an equally strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion. There are people who believe and are working hard to convince others that these ideas must be in conflict. It is not so. There are people who think they can thrive only by tearing others down. It is not so. We celebrate individual achievement without accepting that it must be at the expense of others. It is not for me to tell you what you should think about issues such as these, but it is my job to urge you to ask questions and think about your own responses.
You will have great opportunities to carve out a place for yourself in this world, to find success in a wide variety of fields. I recently heard a senior declare his desire to get rich. I understand the appeal of wealth but the goal needs to be broader. As Hamdi Ulukaya, the billionaire CEO of Chobani put it in his recent address to the MBA graduates of Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, build a world that emphasizes, Return on Kindness over Return on Investment. That advice will serve you well, regardless of your chosen field. Mr. Ulukaya has amassed great wealth, but rejecting the idea that wealth is the ultimate marker of success or that the drive for wealth should permit us to exploit others.
Many of you will acquire wealth and power. To what degree will you use that to pursue only selfish ends? Will you perceive an obligation to use a significant part of it to improve the lives of others? Is wealth and power a goal unto itself? And if you never get beyond merely accumulating more, will your existence become a hollow exercise? I hope you will carry the values we emphasize at W+H into the world and will remain true to them. You will see around you people who take the easy way out, choosing immoral or selfish actions, and are often rewarded. You may be tempted to do so yourself. Listen to your inner voice, the one that calls you to act according to principles you know to be right. Don’t let that voice be drowned out by the voices of vulgar ambition that are so prevalent in the world presented to you relentlessly through all sorts of channels.
In your public lives, you will be among citizens who will make decisions of enormous importance related to issues such as inequality, health care, climate change, war and peace, and refugee and immigration issues that will impact the world and all of its cultures. You may be the generation whose decisions will have the greatest impact on the sustainability of the world in many ways. I urge you to pay close attention, read broadly, and accept the burden of fighting for the best decisions. If people like you look away from these issues and think only of personal advancement and comfort, or just decide you cannot be bothered, as too many in my generation have done, the world will suffer. We need a clearer and more powerful understanding of our responsibilities to others, to look not to the particular interests of a narrow tribe but to the broad interests of all of humanity.
So, serve, vote, talk, listen, be good, do good. There’s a world waiting to be built that needs your voice, that needs people brave enough to step beyond the labels and limitations of the past and develop new approaches to solve profound problems that plague the world today. When framing your goals, include not just what you want but what the world needs. Accept the challenge, even if you can only do a small part, and aim high. That, in a nutshell, is my Charge to you.
Now, that’s a broad and long-term Charge. Your immediate challenges, thankfully, are simpler than that. Do the basics well. Eat well. Take your sleep needs seriously. Stay physically active. Do your laundry. Be respectful of your roommates needs. You are headed to colleges and universities that offer an enormous range of opportunities. Take the time to sample a bit and make sure you choose some new things that you have no previous interest in. Do the research to figure out which professors are best and take their classes, even if they have nothing to do with your intended major.
In your four years, work on habits of minds and skills that are needed in the workplace. What are those skills? Google last year undertook an extensive study of what skills are prevalent on their highest performing teams. They called it Project Aristotle if you want to look it up. They found that their best teams exhibited the following qualities: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard. This isn’t to say that technical skills are meaningless, but just that they are insufficient. So seek experiences that allow you to build those skills. Study abroad, engage in service, step into the historical, literary, artistic shoes of others. Learn how poets observe and how scientists observe, and how they create knowledge. Seek exemplars in the fields you choose to pursue, and seek internships to give you direct experience. Think patiently and deeply about the place you wish to create for yourself in college and in the world.
Seniors, I speak for all of the faculty and staff of Wardlaw+Hartridge when I say that we are hopeful and excited about what the future will bring for you. We will really miss you, and I hope you will keep in touch with us and visit often.
As the calendar turns to June, we are in the midst of an array of year-ending events leading to Commencement Exercises for the seniors. If you follow our Facebook page and read other school publications, you will see where they will attend colleges and universities in the fall. People look to the lists of acceptances and matriculation as a sort of oracle, asking whether our students are “doing well” in college placement. Much can be packed into that ambiguous phrase, but the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Our goals in the college counseling process are to ensure that students apply to a range of colleges that suit them well and expand their horizons, that they acquire the self-knowledge to make that assessment, that they gain acceptances at a rate that exceeds the norm by a substantial margin, and most important of all that they choose colleges at which they will thrive. We, our parents, and our students all have high expectations, and you will see on the attached lists that we meet and exceed them. Let’s take a look at the current year, and then at a compilation of recent years.
As with any year, we have some students who pursued Early Decision (ED) applications to a single college, thus entering a contractual obligation to attend if they were admitted. Most of our students cast a wider net than that, though. This year, aside from Early Decision applications, our non-ED seniors garnered 260 acceptances, for an average of 6.2 acceptances per student. They then had choices to make, and those enrollment choices are presented in the attached matriculation list. We also present a multi-year matriculation list that is a more thorough indication of where our students tend to enroll. The full acceptance list is too unwieldy, but here is a document that shows a sample of college acceptances that includes at least one college from every senior.
We track our students’ application outcomes using the College Admissions Selector in Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, for reasons I will share below. This year, 46 seniors sought entry to four-year colleges and universities. Of them, 36 (or 78%) were admitted to at least one of the colleges in Barron’s Most Competitive and Highly Competitive groups, the top two tiers. Within that group, 25 (or 54%) were admitted to Most Competitive colleges.
Why do we use the Barron’s approach? US News and Forbes rankings may be more popular, but they include several irrelevant criteria and they purport to be able to rank precisely even when comparing widely divergent universities and colleges. Barron’s criteria are not perfect either, but they do focus on academic qualities of the admitted students and group colleges in tiers rather than trying to make precise ranking distinctions. Moreover, there is academic research that indicates that attending a college that is included in the top two tiers according to Barron’s makes a real difference in long-term economic success. You might think that colleges in the top 10 of US News or Forbes would produce outcomes stronger than those that rank between 40 and 50, but that is not the case. Focusing on just a handful of top colleges does not align with our goals of finding the best fit and it elevates qualities that often have no bearing on the best interests of the students.
What does the Matriculation List 2014-18 reveal? To begin with, it shows that our students attend all eight of the Ivy League universities and similarly selective colleges and universities such as Amherst, Barnard, Colby, Duke, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, and Swarthmore. They also attend several of the best large state universities, such as UVA, Michigan, several of the University of California campuses, and, much closer to home, Rutgers. Some enroll in 7 or 8-year medical programs. Many choose top colleges that focus on STEM disciplines, such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, RPI, or the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Others choose highly selective Honors programs within larger universities, such as Schreyer Honors College at Penn State or the Honors Program at Saint Joseph’s University. There is no single path to success and happiness, and regardless of what college a student chooses, the most important factor is how that student engages with their new college and pursues the range of opportunities it provides within the curriculum and beyond.
So how do we know that our seniors make great choices for themselves? Because nearly all of our young alumni complete their Bachelor’s degrees in four years, which is a lot less common than one might assume, and very few decide to transfer. They come back and visit often, and report that they feel well placed and well prepared, both in person and in alumni surveys. The future we are preparing them for, obviously, extends far beyond the season of acceptance letters, and the success they find in their colleges vastly outweighs the importance of the name of the college.
We try hard here to cut through the noise of the college admission process and focus on what is truly important. Like all of our parents, we want our students to achieve the best outcomes in the process. We want them to open doors to great opportunities, to choose colleges where they will find a true home that makes them feel comfortable in their environment and leads them to stretch their horizons, to find new subjects and passions to explore, and to carve out a path to success and happiness in their career and in their lives. Years ago, I received a letter from the widower of a Hartridge alumna who wrote to share seven decades after her graduation how her Hartridge education had served as the foundation for all she accomplished in her life. To me, that is the return that makes the investment worthwhile.
There are a number of reasons that families choose to educate their children at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School. Every family we have surveyed has multiple reasons, but the one that is universal is the notion of academic excellence. This should surprise nobody.
Contained in the notion of academic excellence, alongside such notions of breadth of program, skill and dedication of teachers, qualities of the student body and so on, is the idea of academic rigor. The definition of academic rigor, seemingly frozen in amber for generations, has traditionally been about more and faster. Cover more facts, move faster through a curriculum, and you have achieved rigor. When the fundamental unit of knowledge was how much one could cram into one’s brain, with backup provided by encyclopedias and almanacs, this made some sense. With the world now blanketed by the internet, this no longer makes much sense.
Content mastery still matters. If you know nothing that relates to an idea or fact you encounter, you will have no context for it, will have no way of determining what kinds of questions you can use to explore that fact or idea, or how you may apply that knowledge. The idea of academic excellence we pursue, however, goes well beyond content mastery; it is about rigorous inquiry and creative problem solving.
Last November, our partners at the Stone House Group, a company that has consulted with us for many years on energy purchasing and use, helped science teachers Andrea Barnett and Noreen Jafri present a week-long workshop for Middle Schoolers on solar energy. They used our campus as a lab, learning about solar power generation through study of the solar array that sits on our rooftop, which produces about 25% of the school’s energy use.
Our students quickly learned how much power the array produced. They then analyzed optimal tilt angles and went up on our roof to measure tilt angles. They considered whether such angles are a constant or whether they vary by location and season. They examined whether our panels were functioning optimally, and why or why not. The students were then challenged to apply these ideas to the construction of solar ovens and cars, and also to examine other factors in the functioning of those devices.
The What questions about solar energy are a necessary precondition for the workshop to succeed. The Why and How questions, though, are where the fascination lives. We strive to develop as a habit of mind in our students the desire to probe ideas with questions, to look at them from multiple angles, and to experiment with ways they might relate to real-world problems. In other words, to apply rigorous inquiry and creative problem solving. We build these habits across all of our divisions and subject areas, and we believe they will be vital to our students in the pursuits of careers in the future.
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