News

Striving Ever Higher, Farther

STORY BY MICHAEL ULKU-STEINER, HEAD OF SCHOOL // Photo by Michael Branscom

“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 

Eric Hoffer

Five years ago, a parent asked me what I saw as Durham Academy’s greatest threat.

“Complacency,” I answered.

I remember feeling grateful for a year of extraordinary records: the school’s largest-ever enrollment, our lowest student attrition, our highest number of applicants, our largest philanthropic totals and the most racially, economically and geographically diverse student body in our 80-year history.

I worried we might be tempted to rest on our laurels, to imagine that the school as it existed at that moment would serve students and families forever and always. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Luckily, ours is a school of strivers — people willing to plan and work to make tomorrow incrementally better than today. “Humble and hungry” is deep-set in the DNA of DA.

You can see that hunger in our 2015 Strategic Plan, an unapologetically ambitious commitment to answer these questions:

  • How can we best support a faculty full of life-changers?
  • How can we hone a learning experience that is continuous, collaborative and cutting-edge?
  • How can we make the core values of selflessness and service pervasive across the school?
  • How can we help every student and family feel welcome, empowered, responsible and safe?
  • How should we invest to provide future generations the opportunity to enjoy the DA experience?

This summer, we catch our breath between two of the most dynamic school years in our history. Much changed over the last year. There is more change to come — all of it borne of thoughtful planning, much of it happening simultaneously. Some examples:

  • We are extending the kindergarten day to expand the academic and social-emotional learning of our students. More time will mean more math, literacy and free play and the preservation of the enrichments (Spanish, PE, music, art, cooking, science, technology and service learning) that our Preschool families treasure.
  • All 16 Lower School classes have adopted a new math curriculum that is more rigorous, coherent and engaging than ever before. We’re seeing deeper understanding and collaborative problem-solving among our students — and the very same things from a faculty eager to push from good to great, as a unified team.
  • The Middle School is on the edge of an entirely reimagined campus. Construction began in June for our fine arts and foreign language center. In each of the following six years, we’ll add a cutting-edge facility designed specifically for early adolescents. See details and timelines at da.org/DAcampusplan.
  • Next year, Upper Schoolers will fully settle into their new STEM & Humanities Center, a beautiful outdoor commons and a varied slate of Cavalier Capstone courses featuring international travel, interdisciplinary study, community engagement and lots of student choice.
  • Amid these potentially dizzying changes, our eyes remain focused on the core of our mission: preparing students for moral, happy, productive lives. Our facilities, schedules and curricula will continue to evolve, but the beating heart of DA remains the daily experience of our students, the teachers who stretch them toward their best selves and the relationships that persist for decades.

I taught my first class at DA nearly 27 years ago. Nine months earlier, in my job interview, Assistant Head of School Jim Speir described a community full of hungry learners, ambitious families and devoted teachers. As Jim prepares to retire after 40 years of dedicated service to Durham Academy, it is sweet and fitting to reflect on how much has changed in our school, and how little has changed about our fundamental purpose and passion.

  • DA News
  • magazine Summer 2019