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Helping Chart the Course: Students Help Shape DA’s Strategic Vision

Story by Kathy McPherson // Illustration by Sarah Jane Tart

What would it be like if you could help determine the direction of your own education at age 4, 10, 14 or 16? Durham Academy students are getting that chance and are being given that voice.

An assembly with third-graders in late January was the culmination of three months of meetings that Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and Assistant Head of School Kristen Klein had with 1,232 students from pre-k through 12th grade to ask for their input on DA’s Strategic Vision.

From 4-year-olds in their first year at the Preschool to 18-year-olds working on college applications, Ulku-Steiner and Klein made multiple stops on a listening tour, gathering feedback about students’ experience at Durham Academy and using those thoughts to help shape DA’s future.

The third-graders listened attentively as Ulku-Steiner and Klein talked — with words geared specifically to them — about the four goals of Durham Academy’s Strategic Vision:

  • Prepare our students for life. (In third-grade language: Prepare you for life.)
  • Meet the needs of our learners. (Help you learn.)
  • Adopt a more agile mindset allowing DA to innovate more boldly. (Try new stuff.)
  • Broaden and deepen our work with diversity, equity and engagement. (Who are you? How can we all be friends?)

“Here’s the task when you go back to your classroom,” Ulku-Steiner said as the third-graders’ assembly was coming to a close. “Two questions, really: What do you think Durham Academy should start doing that would get at some of these things? What should DA stop doing or do less of that would allow us to get to these goals? We will be very eager and very curious, and of course, you get to practice your writing, your dreaming, your thinking all at once.”

The approach was more sophisticated in higher grade levels, but from Preschoolers through Upper Schoolers, Ulku-Steiner and Klein were seeking specific input from every DA student. And all their thoughts — often accompanied by drawings from younger students — were read by Ulku-Steiner, Klein and Victoria Muradi, DA’s director of strategic initiatives.

“Our strategic vision process has been a very different process than a traditional one,” Muradi said. “Rather than having the Board of Trustees, basically from the top down, say what the goals of the school should be, what we've done is an exercise involving the whole school over the past few years: faculty, staff, parents, alumni, students — all of us together.”

The series of assemblies Ulku-Steiner and Klein had with students “was our opportunity to check in with our students to see if we were on the right path,” Muradi explained. “What feedback do they have? What kind of ideas do they have that we can incorporate?”

Klein said the Strategic Vision is unique in that “it is all about the students and it is about their experience, both through DA and beyond. The idea that we would be trying to prepare them for life without getting their voices and perspectives about what that preparation should look like, where they see that working and where they see that not working, would mean that we were completely missing the boat.

“The way that we have talked to the students about it is the idea that they are working with us to co-create our school. It is as much their school as it is their teachers’ school, and they need to help us build it so that it will better prepare them for their futures. That is the reason why it was important for us to talk to every student.”

Klein explained that strategic planning is a part of school life that often happens completely apart from students. “They don’t often know about it. They’re not often familiar with the goals of the plan. We wanted them to know that this plan is about them, we want them to know about it and we want them to also hold us accountable to those goals as we move forward with this plan. It was much more about their vision than any other strategic plan traditionally would have been.”

Ulku-Steiner said previous strategic plans have “involved every part of the school: operations, buildings and grounds, or let’s hire a communications director or let’s diversify the student body, finance, the endowment. This one is all about teaching and learning. So who better than students to inform us on what makes better teaching and better learning?”

Several trends came out of the student assemblies.

“One of them was how we use time,” Muradi said. Younger students wrote that they want more time for PE and recess. A sixth-grader asked for more brain “brakes,” and an 11th-grader expressed a need for “time to get centered and organized for the day.”

Another theme was deeper and more relevant learning — including specific preparation for life skills — and more choice in courses offered, how students sit in a classroom or who they partner with on an assignment.

“Classes that you get to DO something,” a ninth-grader wrote.

“I do my best learning when we relate things to the outside world,” a 12th-grader responded. “When the things that we learn in class don’t have a visible connection to my life, it makes it harder for me to envision it and be interested in it. When I do see the connection, though, it makes it fun and engaging.”

“I absolutely love the virtual world we are doing in math where we get a job and need to balance our money,” said a sixth-grader. “It is engaging every time I go to class.”

Students also expressed their need and appreciation for what Muradi called a “climate of care,” which is ways to reduce stress and rethinking grades and homework. And they shared a desire to preserve experiences such as field trips and celebratory milestones like the junior-senior prom.

Ulku-Steiner said student feedback was shared at the February meeting of DA’s Board of Trustees and with the four teams of faculty and staff who are working on ways to implement the goals of the Strategic Vision.

“This has really been integrated immediately back into the process, and this is a process,” he said. “[The Strategic Vision] doesn't involve just one meeting where we’re putting sticky notes on a page and then coming up with a list. It’s an iterative process that will continue for years, so this will be the first of many loops and students will be in some of them.”

Talking with 1,232 students in assemblies and incorporating their responses about what the school is and is not doing well is an important piece of DA’s Strategic Vision, Ulku-Steiner said: “I think it’s easy for adults to be blind to the daily experience of our students, and this helped us fill in some of those blind spots.”