Will There Be A New Paradigm In The College Admissions Process?

I was pleased when I came across a report from the Harvard School of Education titled “Turning the Tide.” The report puts forth the idea that the college admissions process, by changing its current standards of evaluation, can send some compelling messages to high schools and their students by a renewed championing of the central importance/impact of ethical engagement, of concern for others and of working for the common good, rather than self-promoting personal success in order to gain entrance to college.

This new “value –shift” in the college admissions process can and should lead to a cultural shift in our independent schools by reducing undue achievement pressure on students by redefining achievement for our students in more constructive ways. That is, more or excessive activity is not always better for young people. In the report, it is hoped that quality will replace quantity with regard to participation in school activities. The report advocates that students should no longer need to provide long “brag sheets” to increase their chances of admission to colleges; but rather, students would be wise to shrink their involvement to two to three extracurricular activities that are truly meaningful to them. It also recommends that college admissions officers should not penalize students for taking fewer AP classes in their schools. This will allow for a healthier intellectual development, helping our young people avoid being unduly burdened with stress in their initial forays into a love of learning and lifelong learning. By following the report’s recommendations, students will be better served by focusing on sustained achievement in a limited number of areas, so that they can prevent being overwhelmed by academic and social pressures.

The job of all stakeholders with regard to their children’s development is to encourage them to live a life of authenticity, confidence and honesty, while simultaneously helping them to find their original voice.

Finally, colleges and college counselors need to expand students’ thinking about what constitutes a good college. The report states clearly that there is a misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges that will lead to job success. In fact, the data proves that there is a broad range of great colleges, where students go on to achieve success in a full array of professions.

It was also encouraging to see that every reputable college in the country supports this report in creating a new paradigm for college admissions, which we all hope will serve as a clarion call leading to the reduction of unwarranted stress on our young scholars and will allow them to find joy and fulfillment in what should be the happiest times of their young lives.

Design Thinking @ SIA

These are exhilarating times at the Academy. Our faculty has decided to adopt Design Thinking as a model for our students to develop the 21st century skills necessary for them to engage in their local community and in the world in ways that are gratifying, stimulating and fun. With the adoption of this design model, it is our hope to encourage curiosity and innovation. The Harvard Business Review magazine describes the collective principles of Design as empathy with users, a discipline of proto-typing and a tolerance for failure [that will lead to discovery or rediscovery] through various trials and errors. It is the intention of this approach to give our students the proper tools to work in a responsive and flexible culture that will intentionally explore different perspectives so that our children will learn to think collaboratively and originally. The intent is to embrace interdisciplinary learning that will lead to problem solving, to deep research, to teamwork, to strong presentation skills and to going beyond the classroom and into our communities, knowing that it will be mental agility and versatility that will grant them a life characterized by fulfillment and happiness.

We have also decided to explore the possible construction of a 21st century classroom building that will be approximately 26,000 square feet and will be characterized by having innovation labs, writable walls and the flexible and permeable spaces to provide space for what we hope will be many dynamic and diverse interdisciplinary courses. We would like the building to be energy efficient (maybe even LEED rated). It will be an area on campus where connection, collaboration, science, technology, engineering, math, art and humanities are laterally blended so that our students are engaged in “big thinking” ideas. Our hope is to ensure for future generations that Staten Island Academy is and will be a school that values curiosity over the simple compliance of coverage of material. Our intention is that SIA will be in possession of a cutting-edge curriculum for now and in the future.

A School that feels like Home

David Brooks observes in his book The Road to Character that you develop your best character in communities “when you have deep friendships with good people, [and] you copy and then absorb some of their best traits. [You are taught character] When you love a person deeply and you want to serve them and earn their regard. [You are taught character] When you experience great art and you widen your repertoire of emotions. [You are taught character] Through [a] devotion to some cause and [thus] you elevate your desires and organize your energies.” That is what happens in communities that exhibit stellar character and a vibrant good will.  And in a nutshell it describes the warm relationships and the wonderful experiences that all of us enjoy here at the Academy. We are a school that delights in and treasures every day spent learning in this friendly and nurturing academic community.

Every member at the Academy cherishes and celebrates the privilege of being in a community that is gentle, tolerant, encouraging, and invigorating. On a daily basis, we encourage and enable everyone at Staten Island Academy to pursue a life that is defined by individualism and originality, to be shared with people who truly care about them and the local and global environment. We like to boast that one of our distinguishing features is that we are about developing hearts and minds. We do this not through counting how many hours of community service we do, which are many, but by enjoying friendships with adults and peers in equal measure, much like being a member of a family.

Ultimately, we are most proud of the fact that we can boast of being more than just a school but a close- knit family, where our children dare to take risks because they know that they will succeed here owing to the love and support that they enjoy at the Academy—just like they do at home.

Where Meaningful Lives are Forged

After reading William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep, The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, I was particularly struck by his chapter on the attitudes and training of students whose only goal in life is to attend an Ivy League school and just how different that is from the attitude of our students here at the Academy. While it is undeniable that our students aspire to attend the best universities, it isn’t the ultimate endgame for them. Perhaps it is because there is an inherent pride in individualism here – characterized by organic economic, social, ethnic, racial and religious differences – that we find ourselves surrounded by students who are independent-minded and who are comfortable with themselves and who they are becoming as young adults. All of this contributes to a constructive ethos that permeates everything we do at SIA and leads us to eschew pretension and status symbols for passion, independence, creativity and thoughtful inquiry.

While Mr. Deresiewicz laments a loss of true individuality and community in today’s education, we here at the Academy celebrate on a daily basis that which Mr. Deresiewicz desires for today’s student by promoting the values of raising children and adolescents through “the cultivation of a sense of membership in one’s community, the development for the capacity of democratic citizenship, and the pleasure and freedom of play, the part of childhood [and adolescence] where you actually get to be a child [or adolescent].”

Our SIA students distinguish themselves by finding natural pleasure in exploration and in the process of learning – not necessarily in the pursuit of perfectionism. Because of this, we have an enthusiastic group of young people who look forward to coming to school every day and who look to problem- solve creatively, find joy in all of their varied endeavors and see momentary failure as a wonderful learning opportunity. This could not happen without a nurturing faculty who believe first and foremost that a student’s health and happiness is central to their well-being and will lead them to future success in their lifetimes. It is here at the Academy that we hope to contribute to the development of the many virtues that will provide the necessary inspiration and requisite incentives for their life’s mission. While our students will and do attend the finest universities in the land, this is not the only factor that our students and faculty use to measure individual success. More important to those of us in this community is to have our students graduate from here with their authentic selves intact, without a trace of a “false-self” manufactured for the simple admittance to a college. We are about changing lives and not just getting into a good college.

Finally, while we encourage cutting edge thinking and technology, our students and faculty still adhere to traditional core values which proclaim that athletic participation helps to build character and teamwork, that the arts embody an ideal of culture and courage, that service to others is a privilege, and that leadership is not only an expectation but is also an accepted form of duty. And unlike the students in Deresiewicz’s book who do these things because they are “supposed to” in order to get into a great college, our young people embrace these principles of participation in all things because they actually believe them to be an essential part of their development as extraordinarily good human beings.

With an absence of cynicism and unhealthy competition in our community, things seem to be “just right” at the Academy.

The Affordability Dilemma

The number one conversation that I have with parents every year is the very real concern about affordability in independent schools. I came across the book Higher Education in the Digital Age, by William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. In the first chapter of this book titled: Costs and Productivity in Higher Education, he highlights some of the challenges that private and public schools face in trying to lower prices and improve productivity.

Mr. Bowen states in his book that inflation is more prevalent in the performing arts and education because “in labor intensive industries such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor. Yet markets dictate that, over time, wages for comparably qualified individuals have to increase at roughly the same rate in all industries. As a result, unit labor costs must be expected to rise faster in the performing arts and education than in the economy overall.” The inability to substitute capital for labor explains succinctly why schools like ours seem to consistently raise the cost of tuition.

In the same chapter, he quotes Robert Frank of Cornell University who states: “While productivity gains have made it possible to assemble a car with only a tiny fraction of the labor that was once required, it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No.4 in C minor, just as it did in the 19th century.” I think that this observation serves as a fine, illustrative example for Mr. Bowen’s statement on labor unit costs in education and the arts, which lead to the inexorable rise in expenses therein.

The affordability issue is compounded today when one contemplates the challenges that educational institutions face with regard to maintaining a cutting-edge curriculum and keeping up with the exponential growth of promoting critical 21st century learning skills.

Because the best schools are constantly looking to add value to their educational programs, Mr. Bowen points out that “schools are good at adding things but not good at subtractions.” He also recognizes that teachers “are collections of highly specialized talents that cannot be readily shifted from, say teaching Russian to teaching Spanish.” In short, there aren’t many movable parts or flexibility in a school budget which can contribute to the maximizing of financial gains for the institution, just as it can be done for example in corporate America.

At the Academy where our class sizes are small, we put a special emphasis on personal contact between teachers and students. Moreover, if we deem a course essential for a student’s development, even if the course is undersubscribed, we will offer it to the benefit of our students, despite perhaps incurring additional costs. In other words, our student needs, regardless of costs, always come first!

Lawrence Bacow , former president of MIT points out a mentality at MIT during his tenure at that institution that is also shared by us here at Staten Island Academy, which is “the mentality to do what we[ need] to do to make sure our students[ master] the material, regardless of cost…. We [look] to reduce class size, increase teacher-student contact, and do more hands on learning etc. all these drive costs up and productivity down.”

These examples are just a snapshot of the affordability predicament with which many independent schools find themselves. We want to continue to be the “engines of opportunity” providing the absolute best for our charges, despite the awareness that this educational disposition drives up costs and expenses for schools. As William J. Baumol observes in an “Overview” paper about colleges : “The anger and resentment expressed toward [school] leaders appear to be growing, despite the limited ability of those leaders to make [school] cheaper quickly without lowering quality in ways that will disappoint the same people who decry the higher prices.”

Ultimately, I think that Mr. Bowen gets to the heart of the problem of increased tuition costs and whether or not families should assume those costs when he states: “The key question, then, is whether we will choose, collectively, to invest the fruits of overall productivity gains on goods such as quality education.”

We are acutely aware of the fact that each and every family is making a supreme financial sacrifice by enrolling their children in independent schools, but we believe that the statistics bear out that this expense is the finest and surest investment that one can make for their child’s life and future. When I canvass our alumni, without fail, they say that the greatest dividends that they have received in life have come in large part due to their Staten Island Academy education. It is my sense that our current families feel the same way.

A Place To Do It All

As I was driving around our campus last Friday, I couldn’t help but notice the sun shining on the new mural on the Lower School building, the one that says “A Place To Do It All.” The brightness and bold colors of the mural jumped out at me, probably because we had such a long and dreary winter.  As I continued on the road, I began to think of other reasons why this viewing of the mural in the spring sun was so important to me in a metaphorical sense.

Every academic year, our students, faculty and parents, in essence, come together and metaphorically paint a mural collectively, which represents who we are as an institution. This year, I would argue that the central theme to this “mural” would be goodness. Goodness permeates everything we do here at the Academy.

This spring, our baseball team has demonstrated great skill, but more importantly, goodness in all of their activities.  For example, an opposing team’s coach took the time to praise the players on our team for their comportment, class and goodness.  The opposing coach said despite the fact that his team was being beaten badly by our team, our players never made them feel small or inadequate.  In fact, the coach paid us the highest compliment by saying that he hopes that one day his players will come to emulate our players in good sportsmanship.

In the school musical this year, we had a Grade 4 student who had a lead part in the play. While his performance was extraordinary (He sings like an angel!), his great joy came from the fact that all the Upper School students were so kind and good to him throughout the whole production. The starring role meant less to him than the process of making the production, which could be characterized by the generosity, goodwill and graciousness of his older peers.

When I get to visit classes, they are all filled with goodness and comfort.  I have yet to see someone make a face or snicker at any moment in class, and, believe me, there are some pretty lively discussions going on in these spaces.  I think that the secret for goodness in the classrooms is that our students don’t tolerate cliques and also allow each and every individual to be true to themselves.  In short, all of us are willing to accept others on their own terms and are enriched by their tolerance.

Finally, because our students come from homes where parents rank education and goodness as equals, and not mutually exclusive, we are all able to thrive in a non-threatening environment and pursue dreams individually and collectively.  I am most proud of the fact that our students do it all, but even more proud of the fact that goodness permeates everything they do here, without even a speck of pretension.

The magic of the Academy, in a nutshell, is that as a collective family we appreciate what a privilege it is to be a part of the goodness in this community.  It can only happen here!

The Evolving Library

1Q01058Last week, when I realized that my thirty-year-old dictionary needed to be rebound, I decided that my best bet for a solution to this problem was a visit to our school librarian.  Our extraordinary librarian then identified a bookbinder in Brooklyn, brought it to them, and in less than a week, my previously dilapidated dictionary was restored and is now in pristine condition. This is just one example of why our evolving libraries are more important than ever and serve as the hub to any intellectual enterprise in the world of academia and beyond.

A couple of years ago, I read an article inHarvard Magazine whose thesis was that despite the gains we have made in the world of technology, the library is still a central component that will help our civilization to advance, of which I took note.

The following are some of the reasons why the Harvard Magazine article sustains the point of view that the future is very bright for libraries:

  1. Libraries will ride the crest of the tidal wave of information, in some cases building collections for scholars to peruse.
  2. Librarians are no longer just curators of books, maps, posters, etc., in our new digital environment; they will be specialists in organizing, accessing and preserving information in multiple media forms.
  3. The Google Book Service explodes the notion of a curated collection; therefore, the librarian, by assembling a collection of materials that is consciously created and carefully crafted, deliberately maintains a body of material that actually supports and sustains any type of meaningful inquiry.
  4. Given the gazillion facts that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, librarians are now charged with teaching our students not only how to search, but how to think critically about the information to which they may be exposed.
  5. Finally, our librarians are necessary for preserving our history and values, since we have yet to test the longevity of a lot of our digital resources.

photo 1At Staten Island Academy, our librarian works closely with each and every one of our students:

  1. She provides instruction on various literary skills—from accessing resources in a variety of formats, to evaluating the usefulness and reliability of those sources, to using information effectively and responsibly.
  2.  She maintains a collection of books, both print and electronic, that are of high literary quality as well as interest to our population.  She also works to ensure that our collection represents the diverse needs and backgrounds of our students and the larger community.
  3. She collaborates with classroom teachers to integrate a rich variety of resources into the curriculum and assists with special projects that require students to focus on the research process and building information literacy skills authentically.
  4. She partners with students and faculty, helping them to work through technology and/or information obstacles to accomplish academic goals and tasks.
  5. By supplying print and electronic resources that relate to topics of study, our librarian integrates technology into class projects and collaborates on how to use new technologies purposefully.

Finally, as Heather Dugan has written, the new librarian is no longer just a keeper of the Dewey Decimal System; she/he is a digital archivist, savvy with searches, keywords and helpful websites.  Thanks to our wonderful librarian, our students are on a path to developing the five most common skills needed for 2015 according to the Department of Information Studies at the University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland.  Because of our emphasis on doing it all here and recognizing the study by the Department of Information Studies, our students at Staten Island Academy are well on their way to developing an aptitude for customer-orientation, networking, information acquisition skills, tolerance of uncertainty and problem solving.

It can only happen here!

photo 4photo 2

There is Nothing Common about our Curriculum

The recent protests from the local community regarding the new common core curriculum for public schools prompted me to reflect on some of the differences between the common core program and our independent school program here at Staten Island Academy.

The first difference that I see is in the admissions process. The critics of the common core cite that there has been an ineffective dialogue between the families, communities and the administrations on how and what their children are going to learn. Here at the Academy, before a child enrolls, they have to go through extensive interviews at the school where we can assess each student individually in order to come up with an academic program that suits each child based on their interests, their strengths and their weaknesses.

Another difference is the core’s focus on standardized testing and facts. At an independent school like ours, we want you to think and question on your own. It is not enough to know that the American Civil War took place from 1861-1865. Our students need to know the cause of a civil war and what constitutes a civil war, be it in the Balkans, Africa or Western Europe. As advocated by the Harvard School of Education we want our students to arrive at unexpected answers, ask unfamiliar questions and seek fresh ways of thinking. We believe that in order for students to maximize the highest quality of their minds they must have the time to play with ideas.

We are also very proud of the versatility of our academic program, which is crucial for students’ success in today’s ever-changing and dynamic world. The common core program, which has been adopted in 46 states, is such a large standardization of education that, to a degree, it renders its program static. At the Academy, when we looked at the needs of each and every child in the 21st century, we were immediately and seamlessly able to incorporate programs in coding, robotics and Singapore mathematics to our curriculum.  To that end, we like to think that ours is a program that is agile, unique and uncommon.

I applaud the fact that the Common Core is trying to improve its students for better performances in colleges and universities.  While we are proud of SIA’s college matriculation list and how our students perform in colleges, at the Academy, getting into a good college is only a small part of what we are trying to accomplish with our students. We want our students to have a love of learning for a lifetime and to be the next great innovators or inventors of their century. The complexity of issues that will confront our students cannot be evaluated by simply standardized testing. Therefore, we offer a multitude of learning experiences by having our students work in collaborative learning groups, by having them enjoy experiential learning experiences in London, England and NYC as a class in Grades 9 and 10, by having them contribute to artistic endeavors where they learn the relationship between discipline and creativity, by having them engage in athletics where they learn teamwork in competition and by having service learning opportunities where they learn that it is a privilege to serve others.

Ultimately, we want our children to plumb the depths of each and every issue that they encounter with curiosity and joy.  The students who will be empowered today will be those students who are in possession of great imaginations and intellects, with an eye on innovation and entrepreneurship. Our aim is to prepare students for life so that they are able to know clearly, serve humbly and lead firmly.

A Community like no Other

We are off and running, and our first twenty-five days of school could not have been better. When I think of how it is that we got off to such a fine start of the year, I can think of three words: community, community and community!

Habitat for Humanity VolunteersWith athletics, the arts and academics in full swing, one needs to pause and reflect on what makes Staten Island Academy so special. Yes, we can boast of a world class education that is second to none; and, yes, our athletic teams compete for the highest awards; and, yes, our music and fine arts programs serve as a model for other schools to follow. But I believe that the magic of the Academy comes from a community that we have established here that is peerless in its gentleness and kindness. Every activity that is undertaken here is infused with benevolence!

Carter ProjectWhen you visit our campus our older students can be seen befriending younger students. Our faculty can be seen teaching, playing and enjoying time together with our students, often times outside of the classroom setting. Our parents are out and about supporting our students and faculty and re-enforcing all of our unwritten rules of goodwill and kindness.

It is always a pleasure to be able to share and be a part of this special community. For anyone who visits our school, the goodness and positive peer pressure that exists is immediately palpable and undeniable. But there is something even more striking going on at the Academy this year.

Opening Night It is that this incredibly warm, caring and benign community, which we enjoy on a daily basis here on campus, is expanding to share and help build a greater sense of community throughout the whole borough of Staten Island, through its work with the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. We firmly believe that service to others is a virtue, which exemplifies the best of any community. Whether it is working with an orphanage in the Dominican Republic or helping to re-build ten homes on Staten Island because of the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, our school family embraces the belief that service to others is one of life’s highest privileges.

Carter Work Project - Opening NightI would like to thank all of you who help to make this school such a fabulous place. I hope to see you all at the Staten Island Yankee Stadium on Friday for the closing ceremonies of the Habitat for Humanity project, where our boys’ choir,Something Musical, will be performing the “National Anthem.” President and Mrs. Carter, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks will be in attendance. What more can I say but that…it can only happen here!

The Wonderful Perks of Summer Reading

It has been a wonderful summer and while there is practically a month still remaining of summer vacation, I have been pleasantly surprised by all of the campus visits we have had from our students over the summer. I have seen our kids come in to work on personal art projects, play in spontaneous pick-up games on our fields, and swim in our outdoor pools, especially during a monstrous heat wave in July. Most heartwarming, however, is the fact that they all come in to our academic buildings looking for faculty to hang out with and chat. It is truly energizing to observe our young people and adults sincerely enthuse about seeing one another again after just a few weeks of being away from one another.

My big question to our summer visitors is, of course, about their summer reading lists. When I have asked what were their favorite reads for this summer, the unofficial winners were:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Spiderwick Chronicles for lower schoolers, City of Bones and The Hunger Games for middle schoolers, and Divergent by Veronica Roth andThe Last Song by Nicholas Sparks for our upper schoolers. After ascertaining summer favorites, I ask them what they got out of reading over the summer. The responses were invariably thoughtful and interesting. First and foremost, they all thought that the summer reading was good, necessary and edifying. One of our more ambitious students said that outside reading helps to improve vocabulary and SAT scores. Another student said it introduced her to new cultures and helped her to be transported to different places and times, even though she never left the Island this summer. One of our youngest students said that it helped to improve his imagination skills. All of these comments made me proud of our bright and insightful children.

This summer, I am reading Andrew Delbanco’s book, College, What It Was, Is and Should Be. I am taking the liberty to take one of the comments in his book on education out of context, and I have chosen to apply it to the reading process instead. In the same book Delbanco cites a quote on education from the educational psychiatrist, William Perry, which again, I take out of context in order to apply it to the benefits of reading.

The gist of the message from these two scholars could be that reading allows a student to “accommodate uncertainty, paradox and the demands of greater complexity.” Through the process of reading and reflection,  a student “begins with simplistic forms in which a person construes  his world in terms of absolute right-wrong, good-bad; it ends with those complex forms through which he undertakes to affirm his own commitments in a world of contingent knowledge and relative values.” They might also affirm that the more a person reads, she is: “More than achieving the competence to solve problems and perform complex tasks, [reading] means attaining and sustaining curiosity and humility. It means growing out of an embattled sense of self into a more generous view of life as continuous self-reflection in light of new experience, including the witnessed experience of others [through reading].”

I hope that everyone continues to have a great summer and that all of you continue to enjoy your summer reading. Besides being fun, reading will make you a smarter and better person. It will humble you because the more you read the more you realize that you haven’t read enough. It will inspire you because it will allow you to view life from multiple angles and perspectives. There are many mysteries in life; reading good books is one of the best resources in helping you to solve them. Read on!