Who is Really No. 1?

The high-stakes world of college admissions is fueled in part by published rankings, which often give a far-from-accurate picture of the schools they claim to describe. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before these “best of” lists infiltrated the independent school world as well.

In my 30 years as a school educator and leader, this is the first time I’ve seen misleading “lists” enter the independent school space. We have been able to avoid it up until now because of good work by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and locally by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), as well as school leaders nationwide, who show time and again that there is nothing to be gained for a school by entering the list race.

There is no one factor that will make a student successful. Anyone who has worked in independent schools knows it is rather about fit. That’s why independent schools spend so much time getting to know each child through the admission and application process. Just imagine if schools relied on Lists of the Top Kids in the same way the market is pushing Lists of the Top Schools. It’s an absurd thought. No credible school would abandon the careful work teachers and administrators do to select a group of students for whom their school is the very best fit.

Why, as a parent, rely on an arbitrary ranking based on scant information, instead of a careful consideration for the partnership and “match” that is so crucial to the success of a child in a school? In other words, should you send a child to a school because of its ranking, even if it goes against all your instincts as a parent or recommendations from the counselors in your current school?

It is a good thing that according to the SSATB, the leading independent school admission board, the most reliable source of information families use to select a school is still “word of mouth.” What better way to learn about a school than to hear from families with children already there (or recently graduated), to get the vital information you need to make this most important choice.

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Dubai: Change is Slight But Significant

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Burg Kalhifa, with its stunning light shows in the evening, give the city a surreal and futurist aspect.

With the snow this weekend, I thought back nostalgically to the recent winter break that my family and I spent in Dubai. Days in the 80s and nights in the 60s were a welcome break from the Connecticut winters and from “deep and dark December.” This was my second visit to Dubai, and while there were many changes, nothing had really changed.

Fast, expensive cars, conspicuous consumerism, coupled with people from around the world, all bringing energy, a global perspective, and a wonderful parade of nations and nationalities.

Innovative architecture, man-made islands, the Burg Kalhifa, with its stunning light shows in the evening, give the city a surreal and futurist aspect while “imported laborers” from other countries are the inhuman side, the soft underbelly of the economy.

But perhaps common sense is finally coming through.

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Celebrating Our Differences

Over the past several months, school and college campuses across America have seen increased examples of language that is offensive, and often racially, sexually, or ethnically discriminatory.  There is no place for that at GFA, and I want to emphasize our dedication to rejecting discrimination and the marginalization of certain groups. At GFA we cherish the strength and diversity of our community, and I want to take the opportunity to reaffirm our core values in the light of recent events.

At our Convocation in September, I talked about what it means to be members of a community, especially a school like GFA whose motto is Each for All, where we actively look after each other.  I also talked about our school-wide focus on inclusion, meaning that every individual in our community is viewed as equal. We value all GFA students, appreciate differences, and encourage our students to celebrate one another.

Post-election emotions on both sides have run high. As a community of learners at GFA, we foster critical thinking as well as empathy; we support intellectual integrity and courage, and we encourage respectful disagreement and debate. But that debate cannot come at the expense of other values: fostering empathy, valuing difference, and building an inclusive community. GFA is a safe place for all, where discrimination in any shape is antithetical to our core values and will not be tolerated.

It takes time and thoughtfulness to build inclusivity. It happens at the Harkness Table and during talks from the stage or in the Forum. It happens on the playing fields and when standing by lockers in between classes. It happens in the cafeteria and it also happens at home when discussing the events of the day.

I call on all of us to be thoughtful about inclusivity. It doesn’t mean we all agree, but we do show respect. GFA’s core values of Passion, Integrity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Excellence have never been more important.

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How Do We Do It?

It’s November, and across the nation independent schools are deep into the “admission season, ” with admission professionals and faculty explaining the value added of an independent school education.

If I could put the GFA experience into a sentence, I would say: We offer a high caliber education through a multi-layered, fully rounded experience that is student-centered but also carefully guided by caring adults.

But, more importantly, how do we do it?

The culture at a school like GFA encourages academic ambition and high standards. It celebrates how “cool” it is to be smart. Being actively engaged is almost non-negotiable, and students find it the norm to be excited about collaborating in the classroom, pursuing their passions through independent studies or even taking advantage of specialized semesters across the United States and abroad.

Students sense they are on a journey of intellectual awakening and discovery, guided by their teachers every step of the way. I look to GFA to be almost counter-cultural, to defy the predominant media portrait of adolescence and graduate young men and women who know how to push themselves to think deeply about the issues of our times.

GFA is small enough to allow us to explore codes of conduct, civility and honor, placing an intentional emphasis on character and accountability. Visitors to GFA always comment on our lockers without locks, and on the expectation of honesty from each member of the community.

The GFA ethos instills in students a strong academic foundation, good habits of mind and a desire for life-long learning. After many years in education, I can say that these are the values we need in place to best serve this generation of young people.

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An Inspiration at Age 6

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When leaders from around the world met this fall at the UN for a Summit on Refugees, President Obama shared a letter from 6-year-old Alex from New York. Alex wanted to invite a young Syrian boy to come live in his home and wrote to Obama to ask help in making that happen. Alex’s humanity and empathy are an inspiration. At age six, he has not learned to be judgmental, suspicious, or fearful. His instincts are pure and loving.

Alex is surely a living and powerful example of what it means to be deeply and authentically inclusive.

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The Road to Inclusivity

Inclusive. What does it mean in a school environment? First, that every individual in our community is viewed as equal. We value all students, appreciate differences, and encourage each to celebrate others. This applies when playing on a team or on the playground, performing at a coffee house, singing in a concert, or articulating an idea in the classroom.

My goal this year is for every member of the GFA community to have an authentic sense of belonging.

Over the years, I have realized that community is not necessarily a place, because the word evokes a feeling that a place alone cannot. Rather it is shared values that make a community and can spring forth as easily in a drafty building full of artist studios as on a windy, lakeside campus, or in a tightly knit neighborhood, or within a workplace or a school. In a school, this feeling of community radiates outward in space and time from students to families to graduates.

I believe a unique aspect of GFA is that our students thrive within a climate of close working relationships between teacher and student, and through the quality of these relationships develop trust and comfort with the adult world. Emerging from these shared experiences is a “sense of community” that helps define GFA and shape our lives.

The GFA experience for each student should be rich in four aspects:

Supportive — where peers and faculty build up students’ confidence and reassure them at moments when they doubt themselves.

Generative — where students are encouraged to take intellectual risks, to step outside their comfort zones by trying something new, and therefore grow in ways they were not quite sure they could.

Respectful — where who you are and where you come from are valued, and where students’ wishes and thoughts are listened to.

Safe — where students can be their full and authentic selves and be affirmed by their peers and the adults in the community.

And when these are in place, we are well along the road to inclusivity.

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A Real Conversation

The following appeared as an editorial written by Janet Hartwell that appeared in the 2016 Moffly Magazines Independent School Guide:

A great education is concerned with students’ intellectual growth, emotional development, and that old-fashioned word, character. As educators, we must help equip

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As seen in the 2016 Moffly Independent School Guide

our students to make good and ethical decisions, to know right from wrong, not just because wrong will be punished but because right is right.

From a young age, our students experience undue and often unfair cultural pressures and need the strength of character and habits of mind to withstand them. We can highlight these habits of mind, praise acts of kindness, have conversations in and out of class, and encourage students in their talks to the community to focus on being positive, empathetic, and authentic. Honesty, integrity, and the now-famous grit and resilience are all attributes we want for our students as they make their way through school, college, and beyond.

In The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, the authors caution against young people “yoking identity too closely to certain characteristics of these technologies, and thereby lacking the time, opportunity, or inclination to explore life and lives offline, which may result in an impoverished sense of self.”

We want to encourage the kind of deep connections that sustain relationships and nourish character, and for our students to inhabit a world where there is accountability for behavior, and where face-to-face conversations trump shallow, often transient online connections.

In an article in the Sunday New York Times Review, Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes: “across generations, technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.” She cites a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another.

In conversation, things go best if you pay attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

We want our students to be fueled by excitement about the great reservoir of possibilities the world holds for them, and by the indomitable nature of the human spirit, and to be inspired by their education, all supported by the foundation of a strong character.

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