Becoming a Progress Culture: Keeping the College Process in Mind

I have written often in the last few months about the need to create a school Progress Culture. One of the issues that can paralyze discussions regarding how to move schools beyond the perceived safety of “what we have always done” and toward a progress culture, however, is the college selection process whose shadow stretches back through the academic experience of high school students and their families. The predicament is this: well-positioned schools do not want to change in any way that might negatively impact students’ applications to selective colleges, and since we are uncertain (or worse, misguided) about what colleges and universities are looking for in a successful application, we tend to shy away from taking steps that we more and more believe will provide students a better, deeper, and more engaging learning experience. In short, what we don’t know forces us to pull up short. I believe we will find that this approach will not only deny our students the best we might otherwise provide them educationally, but it will also over time lead to an unwanted result–an erosion in the quality of our college profile. Not to move assertively forward in a determined and strategic way is far riskier than believing in the false security of standing still.

The conversation we have engaged as a school community regarding the implications of a new vision statement and strategic plan that zeroes in on the skills most requisite in the lives of our students must include a component that allows us to hear directly from leaders in higher education. Otherwise we will almost certainly focus on what we think is most important to preparing our students for college admission rather than what we can know if we simply ask.

Dr. Bill Clarkson, President of The Westminster Schools, sent the following message as part of his most recent message to members of the school community:

“This New Year in particular brings a lot of new energy to Westminster. Our Strategic Plan is nearing completion and will be presented to the Board of Trustees this month for final approval. Strongly based on our Learning for Life vision, it presents major goals and a determined commitment to nurture lifelong learners who serve and lead in a changing world. It moves forward our mission to help our students master the essential 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation and service–initiatives, which have not gone unnoticed among the nation’s educational leaders.

For this very reason, we are preparing eagerly to welcome a distinguished panel to campus next week. On January 11, senior leaders of several top colleges and universities will guide a candid conversation on what distinguishes the students they select for admission and, in particular, how well Westminster’s Learning for Life vision is shaping students into candidates that great universities want to attract. Elizabeth Kiss, President of Agnes Scott College; Chuck Lovelace, the Executive Director of the University of North Carolina Morehead-Cain Scholarship Program; and Jeff Rosensweig, who directs the Global Perspectives Program at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, will be participating in this distinguished panel.”

I am excited that our school community has this opportunity to hear directly from the panel. It represents a step toward giving us the resolve that will be necessary to push this ambitious strategic plan to reach its full potential.

Bringing Students and Families into the School

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.