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Thinking Outside the Box, With the Funds to Back it Up
Story by Victoria Muradi, Director of Strategic Initiatives, and Kristen Klein, Assistant Head of School

All around us, the world seems to be making changes to the way it looks, lives, works and relates to one another. I read somewhere that one in five Americans have reevaluated their lives post-COVID. Some of us have a habit that we adopted or left behind. Others may be contending with the “quarantine 15” or a COVID beard. And for others of us, the pandemic brought on larger existential changes. Companies and entire industries are reevaluating. Is going back to “normal” necessarily good?

Durham Academy is no exception. While DA is proud of the adaptive innovation developed over the last three years, one of our goals is to become an even more nimble institution. In fact, our large size and relative success have sometimes kept us from trying new things.

For example, we’ve long believed that our Upper School schedule was dizzyingly confusing for students. The schedule did not allow for enough depth in each class nor enough brain breaks. In March 2020, online school provided the testing grounds for different ways of breaking up our time. Hybrid learning during the 2020–2021 academic year also nudged us toward more agility. We began asking: How might we shape our day around both student needs and our shared values? So, this year’s Upper School schedule includes longer class periods, a healthier homework load, ample gathering time and less emphasis on midyear and final exams.

Buoyed by some of those recent successes, the Strategic Vision Goal 3 working team of faculty and staff members — which seeks to help DA adopt a more agile mindset, allowing the school to innovate more boldly — embarked on a year-long quest this fall. What would it look like to have innovation become a pervasive part of our school culture?

We began with selecting some of the most pioneering adults in our community. Rather than putting hopes in the next big thing or exciting technology, we asked them what it would take for a shift in mindset. Team members had many conversations about their own experiences as early adopters at DA. We learned that what motivated innovation was our students, from whom they generally received positive feedback. However, they often faced obstacles from adults. Parents and fellow teachers were sometimes wary of innovators straying from tradition or consistency. We were surprised to hear would-be innovators say that they often perceived they needed “permission” from peers and administrators, even though many of the changes they were implementing were mission-aligned and best practice for their students. Our team identified a tension between the innovation that we say is important and the institutional structures that can limit it. So, the team quickly began developing the framework for further seeding innovation throughout the school.

On April 1, Durham Academy launched the Innovation Journey Fund. As the Administrative Team budgeted for the 2022–2023 academic year, each department/division set aside funds so that faculty and staff could chase DA’s four strategic priorities: prepare our students for life, meet the needs of all learners, adopt an agile mindset so we can innovate more boldly, and broaden and deepen our work with diversity, equity and engagement.

We surveyed and had conversations with the National Association of Independent Schools and schools across the country that had similar innovation grant programs. We gathered valuable lessons from institutions like Georgetown Day School, Head Royce School, The Galloway School and St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School. DA’s Administrative Team and Innovation Think Tank (the rebranded Goal 3 working group) collaborated to design a website and application that both met logistical needs and encouraged a culture of constant innovation. A short video was also created by the Innovation Think Tank.

Throughout April, the Innovation Think Tank held Lunch and Learn sessions on each campus to incubate ideas. The Innovation Journey Fund has created exciting energy on campus. Colleagues can be seen huddled around the tables in the Upper School quad, working in classroom pods, or connecting across divisions through Microsoft Teams to talk through their ideas — both nascent and fully baked.

Our first application deadline was May 1. Despite a worry that we might start with only a few intrepid innovators, we received 26 separate submissions that reflect many promising proposals. Faculty and staff on the Strategic Vision working teams are proposing ideas based on the empathy work and the extensive student feedback gathered this fall and winter. They are joined by faculty and staff in every division of the school.

Our grant application review team, comprising Innovation Think Tank and Administrative Team members, has reviewed about half of those 26 proposals and awarded the first group of Innovation Journey Grants. We will review the remaining proposals and award additional grants in the weeks ahead. This exercise in iterating and learning has been a valuable one for our faculty and staff. What better way to model for our students than trying, learning, failing and repeating? After all, success is a process.

First-round Grants Awarded Include but are Not Limited to:

Strategic Sustainability

Led by our sustainability coordinator, Durham Academy will engage two sustainability consultants, one focused on education for sustainability and the other focused on the environmental impact of operational decisions, in order to both develop ongoing sustainability education efforts and operational benchmarks and goals to mitigate adverse environmental impact. After the first year, DA will have concrete goals and action steps. Divisional sustainability coordinators will lead efforts within each division. This journey will have students at the center and prepare them for leadership. Through it, DA will join the educational institutions at the forefront of sustainability, educating all and demonstrating solutions in our curriculum, culture, operations and infrastructure.

Lexend Font for DA Devices

This proposal was evaluated as part of the Innovation Journey Fund process, but did not require a monetary commitment. Durham Academy has installed a variable font developed by an educational therapist working with Google that makes words more readable, based on who is reading them. The font is designed to improve reading proficiency and improves comfort, accuracy and fluency for neurodiverse students who have reading disorders. Lexend is currently available through Google Docs, but it is not easily accessible and is dependent on the internet browser. The Lexend font is now available as an option on all DA iPads and laptops.

Upper School Mathematical Modeling Program

By the 2023–2024 academic year, DA hopes to offer a fall-semester honors-level math modeling course that is open to any student who has successfully completed Honors Precalculus. In the course, students will practice using an iterative problem-solving process; explore mathematical and statistical ideas and techniques that are useful for modeling; and develop skills with advanced technology, such as MATLAB, for quantitative analysis. As part of the experience, students will organize into small teams to compete in the High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling (HiMCM) in early November and the Math Modeling Challenge (M3 Challenge) in late February.

Triangle Community Connection

As DA looks to realize our Strategic Vision, especially preparing our students for life beyond DA and college, we look for ways to help students apply what they’re learning inside the classroom and engage with the broader community. The Triangle Community Connector will be pivotal to helping Upper School students connect with DA parents, DA alumni and other community partners. These connections will result in the critical “hands-on” opportunities that will ensure they gain professional experience AND engage with the broader Triangle community all at the same time. The goal will be to provide students with professional work experiences and internships that bridge course work and potential career options.

Student-Led Book Clubs

After completing different book clubs in their fourth-grade curriculum, one fourth-grade class will lead book clubs for each second-grade class during the month of April 2023. This work will be an extension of the fourth-grade curriculum by giving fourth-graders the opportunity to apply what they have learned throughout the fourth-grade reading curriculum. This project is directly aligned to the book club unit in the second-grade curriculum that is taught in April.

Immersive Language Learning

Fifth- and sixth-grade students will use the power of virtual reality and augmented reality to learn languages. With Occulus Quest and apps like ImmerseMe and Mondly, students will be able to visit another country and interact with native speakers in a 360-degree virtual environment.

Watch a video about the Innovation Journey Fund