Last weekend we had an Admissions Open House at Westminster, and I noted how often current students remarked to prospective families that the presence of a student buddy was helpful in making their own transitions into the school. Most interestingly, several students remarked how important that person had continued to be years after the adjustment process ended. These “buddies” are the students who volunteer to be a sort of first friend for students just starting at a school. They contact the new student over the summer, and they get together and meet before the school year begins.
The importance of a friendly face is vital in making a successful entry into a school that demands much in many ways. Indeed we never forget people who are kind and helpful to us when we feel vulnerable in a new place. The sense that someone else “gets” what I am going through as a new student and is focused on helping me get settled is critical. The sooner students feel comfortable in a school environment, the sooner they will be able to put their best foot forward into the curriculum and the community.
Much of what is true for the adjustment of an individual student is true for new families as well, and thus, leadership in independent schools needs ongoing reflection on how to do a better and better job of bringing not just students but families into the school. School cultures share certain traits in common, but it is a mistake to think that people will just figure the institution out through a sort of cultural osmosis. The danger is that at one of the moments when families need clarity and understanding most, schools are the most cryptic. Beyond front-loading as much key information as possible, schools should take care to make sure new families feel welcomed and that they feel comfortable asking questions. When families are new to a school, they tend, like the “new kids,” to keep their heads down and to look no further ahead than the next date on the calendar. Having a friend on the inside of the culture helps both new students and families look further ahead.