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Traveling Lightly to the Future

The past three years have provided the ultimate strategic exercise — throwing our assumptions into the air, forcing us to answer old questions in new ways, emboldening us to jettison useless habits, and revealing our deepest values and aspirations.

We have not yet conquered COVID-19. We have, however, reclaimed the habits that matter most to us, restored the rituals that nourish our community and reinvented all kinds of programs and processes this year.

We have also valued our campus more dearly than ever. A roaring crowd in the CavDome, bursts of giggles at a Middle School dance, children singing at Grandfriends Day, waves of laughter from the audience at the winter musical — these are the sounds we’ve relished this year — among the many pleasures of belonging, among the many treasures of a place-based community that we’ll never again take for granted.

In similar ways, we’ve recognized just how much our missional roots matter. Since 1933, our school has expected extraordinary intellectual growth. Since 1970, Durham Academy’s mission statement has compelled us to prepare students to live moral, happy, productive lives. In the years before our safety, health and wellness were so broadly threatened and stressed, happiness may have seemed more like pretty ornamentation and less like a fundamental building block of student learning and human thriving. Now, we know better.

Now, we are working with unprecedented focus on understanding, tracking and nurturing happiness in our students and community. This work has been accelerated by our year-long work in the “Design for Community Problem Solving” workshop offered by the Stanford University School of Design’s K12 Lab. In and beyond this workshop, teams of DA teachers are identifying better ways to prepare students for life, to meet the needs of each individual learner, and to help every single community member feel welcomed, empowered, responsible and safe. Thanks to a series of surveys, feedback sessions and focus groups, we now have clear baselines and deep foundational data about who our students are, what drives and impedes their learning and happiness, and how they hope to learn in the future. All this has helped us move from strategic vision to strategic action this year. In this magazine, you’ll find dozens of specific examples.

As a former English teacher and unreformed etymology geek, I love that the word strategy comes from the Proto-Indo-European roots ster- (to spread) and ag- (to drive, draw out or forth, to move). Among the other etymological descendants of those roots are stretch, construction, active and agile. Each of those words are salient and timely as we stretch our students, construct new Middle and Upper School campuses, and activate our curriculum with more agile innovations.

It’s easy to forget that Durham Academy has always been an innovative school. Teaching Spanish from Preschool forward; creating a Technology, Engineering and Design Lab in the Lower School; launching a Middle School STEAM by Design course (years before most people knew what a makerspace was); sustaining the Upper School’s partnership with Special Olympics; and the iconic Senior Challenge — all these were once unproven, unconventional, disruptive innovations. Now they are part of the soil of DA.

And now we are seeding, watering and harvesting the most strategic, student-centered, mission-aligned innovations we can think of. At the same time, we are also weeding out less effective ideas, habits and lessons. While this process of creative destruction is not natural for us educators (we chose this profession to protect and preserve the lessons of the past while nurturing and supporting every single student), we are getting better at distinguishing what is core and what is extraneous. We are gaining momentum as we discern what matters most to the moral, happy, productive futures of our students.

These words from novelist Arundhati Roy offer a useful perspective on the effects and opportunities of the pandemic:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

Thank you for walking with us through this portal — going healthily back to school, staying happily rooted in our mission and moving strategically forward to the future.

Michael Ulku-Steiner
Head of School