Enhancing What We Do

"Teach them what they need for life." 

This was the direction St Julie Billiart, foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, gave to the Sisters teaching school. While it's a simple declaration, discerning what the children under our care today will need in the balance of this century, which is their lifetime horizon, is a more complex endeavor. With change accelerating, the school has reflected on what we need to teach which will accrue advantages for our graduates. 

The COVID-19 health crisis, while certainly unwelcome, serves as a reminder of the thinking and leadership skills our graduates will need to employ during their lifetime and underscores for the school the sense of urgency we need to have in defining teaching standards and writing lessons that will prepare our students to meet such unexpected challenges. 

The basics, like those outlined in the mission statement – grace, wisdom, rigorous academics, spiritual formation, social skills, physical development and an appreciation of the arts – are timeless and universal. We must continue to graduate leaders of character who are strong thinkers and communicators.

However, in brainstorming what the future might hold for our graduates, we concluded that they will be better served if we improve their learning opportunities in three areas to enhance their odds of success as a leader of character in the 21st century.

Leadership: Look no further than the partisan turmoil in government and turnover in business CEOs for evidence of the need for better leadership Beyond teaching the qualities of a good leader, we want to put skills in our students' toolboxes which will help them in college and life: conflict resolution skills, principles of negotiation, systems thinking, principle-based decision­-making, emphathetic listening, collaboration competency and so on. We want to put more ethical dilemmas in front of the students and provide thinking routines to help them address the challenging situations they will face as adults. The health crisis has offered many examples of difficult ethical choices leaders have had to make. 

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: We have introduced 20 standards into the curriculum in the areas of identity, diversity, justice and action. While we already teach many lessons in these areas, an analysis of what we're currently doing versus what we think we should be doing revealed opportunities for additional lessons to provide students a thorough understanding of these principles. We want them to have the cultural competence to know how to work effectively with people from different backgrounds. When they graduate, we want them to believe that the best decisions are made when a variety of voices are heard. We want them to look out for the interests of the vulnerable and ensure justice prevails in whatever organization they are leading The health crisis has highlighted for our students the inequitable access to healthcare of the poor and the vulnerable. 

Creative Problem-Solving: Regardless of the areas of work our students pursue, those professions will be looking for people who can find better solutions. Doing so requires following successful processes for problem­-solving with a focus on creativity To enhance the education of our students in this area, we need to cement certain mindsets and have them practice certain skills. In the mindset area, we want our students to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, always persevere despite obstacles (failure usually isn't a disaster, it's an opportunity to learn) and know that taking a break from busyness to reflect leads to success. In the skills area, we want to teach techniques in multiple idea-creation, encourage making connections, instruct them to use a deliberate design process and give them practice calculating risk - when is taking a risk warranted and when is it not. We believe creativity can be taught, and we intend to demand originality and inventiveness from every child through coursework across the disciplines. The closure of the campus to students in March certainly demanded originality and inventiveness of our teachers as they learned to teach in a new way.

The Schiff Family Science Research Institute, a program we started six years ago, is a great example. It provides students with 
real-world, hands-on, in-depth experience developing these mindsets and practicing these skills. We're working on starting another Center of Excellence, the Homan Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which will accomplish the same objectives through projects with start-ups and small businesses. We are talking with college professors and other secondary schools who have developed curricular elements of entrepreneurship which might be useful to us. We are grateful to the Schiff and Homan families for appreciating the value these programs bring to our students and endowing them accordingly.

We have a sense of urgency to make these enhancements happen as soon as possible. We believe the future success of our graduates depends on it. We've engaged the Center for Creative Leadership out of North Carolina to help us train the organization to deliver these benefits to our students. The professional development of the faculty and staff is focused in this direction. Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Dr. Kirstin McEachern is leading this work. I encourage you to read her article on page 22 of the spring 2020 Summit Magazine for further details of our plans. 

If we do this job well, others will regard our graduates as polished and highly-skilled leaders. We're aiming high to deliver on our promise to parents: to transform their children into leaders of character who go out into the world as the changemakers and peacemakers Christ calls all of us to be. That's The Summit Way  

Rich Wilson 
Head of School 

Reprinted from the spring 2020 Summit Magazine.