A View from the Trail

New Eyes on Durham Academy

By Kristen Klein, Assistant Head of School

Since my arrival on July 2, my primary goal has been to listen and learn. Because much of my work happens with students, faculty and administrators, we are in constant communication about what I’m hearing and discovering about DA. I wanted a forum to share my observations with parents and community members as well, and Michael offered me the opportunity to share those as a guest blogger on Heads Up. My journey in education mirrors my many hiking adventures on trails from Pennsylvania to Arizona to Colorado and now to North Carolina. This post is titled A View from the Trail, because I hope to hike with you along the DA trail, to communicate updates about our academic program, to welcome you into our conversations about educational practice and to catalyze our thinking about what matters by asking questions about teaching and learning, now and into the future.

As assistant head of school, my charge includes Durham Academy’s pre-kindergarten-to-12th-grade academic program, and the best way to get to know that program is through the people who build, execute and experience it. Thus, getting to know the people of the Durham Academy community has taken center stage as I plan my daily, weekly and monthly calendar.

Along the way, community members, from parents to students to faculty to Triangle residents, have all asked me versions of the same question: what does DA look like through the eyes of a newcomer? In other words:

  • How does DA compare to peer independent schools?
  • How is our program similar to and different from that of your previous school?
  • What do you notice about the students in your ninth-grade World Literature class?
  • Are you pleased that you made the move to DA?

At a school like DA where many students, faculty and families have been community members for a long time, it can be hard to view the school with “outside eyes.” One of the gifts of being new is having those eyes, a gift that will rapidly disappear as DA becomes more and more my home. In order to capture some of the benefit of this brief moment where I can see the water I’m swimming in, I want to communicate my observations and my sense of emerging priorities. When I reflect on my first six months at DA, several themes stand out powerfully.

At Durham Academy, students can be themselves. 

At the Preschool, I recently met kindergartners who were eagles, snakes and roadrunners, festooned with feathers and rattles, acting in a play adapted from a Mexican folktale. Despite playing specific roles, each student’s personality came through loudly and clearly in their performances. Students’ unique problem-solving strategies were embraced by the new Lower School mathematics program, Bridges, which celebrates many different approaches to each mathematical problem. When students heard their peers’ solutions, they appreciated both the elegance of mathematics and the diverse community of mathematical thinkers in the room.

In the Middle School, the eighth-grade team has adopted Project Wayfinder as their advisory curriculum. Project Wayfinder aims to “equip our next generation with tools to unleash purpose in their lives and meaningfully contribute to the world they are a part of.” Through this curriculum, our eighth-graders, alongside their advisors, seek to discover the places where their authentic passions align with the needs of our world. Upper School students explore similar paths though a robust club program that enables budding entomologists to work as visual artists and varsity athletes to launch a tennis clinic for children with autism. At DA, we have actor/athletes and dancing chemists. We are a place where students can express all of their unique perspectives and personalities and find allies in their classmates.

At Durham Academy, we strive for excellence. 

Part of our current work, aligned with our strategic plan, pushes us to bring an academic program with alignment and continuity to meet this group of diverse learners. Our desire is to continue to recruit and admit students with varying identities, interests and talents, and to meet them with a coherent scope and sequence of skill-building that enables them to meet the challenges of an unscripted future. One way we are digging into this work is through a planning process called Understanding by Design (UbD). At times referred to as backward planning, UbD pushes us to clearly define our curricular and instructional objectives with the end in mind.

Similar to the value-driven work we did as a community to define good character in The DA Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life, we now work to identify our overarching, aspirational goals in each academic area. In order to create true alignment, we need to work together as one school, pulling together our four divisions for broader conversations. While I plan to share more about this specific work in future posts, my colleagues and I are grateful to have the time set aside during our professional development days and late starts in service of this goal-setting and planning for the best student experience possible.

At Durham Academy, we make data-driven decisions. 

As a school, we collect lots of data — from students, from families, from our alumni and from other schools. Students in the Middle and Upper Schools complete anonymous course evaluations. Parents provide feedback through anonymous yearly parent surveys and the twice-annual non-anonymous Parent Teacher Feedback Form. We conduct structured exit interviews with all graduating seniors. We survey our young alumni about their experiences in college. We survey new-to-DA families and any families who leave our community. Along with these surveys, we extensively use a cohort of similar schools called INDEX to benchmark our progress in many different areas, from endowment to teacher salaries to SAT scores. As Michael Ulku-Steiner wrote in a blog post last spring, “Only by testing our assumptions and gathering opinions from the widest possible range of constituents can we know what we do well, what we can improve and what new ideas we ought to consider.”

DA collects more data than many independent schools. Administrators and division directors review this data to identify concrete action steps and areas of future focus. As a new member of the DA community, this data became a window through which I framed DA, and I spent a chunk of July reading and categorizing it all.

It’s easy to see that the desire for concrete feedback about families’ experience and the intentional benchmarking against similar schools undergirds DA’s commitment to excellence. But as a DA newcomer, I wonder if our reliance on anonymous feedback and peer-school data sometimes pulls us away from direct reflection and face-to-face conversation about our practice. How might we have more of these courageous conversations where open dialogue and constructive feedback result in positive outcomes for students, parents and teachers?

All students and faculty benefit from a culture of coaching. 

One way I hope to move us forward in the realm of direct communication is by using our existing Faculty Professional Learning Program as a vehicle to increase one-on-one feedback for faculty members from peers, academic leaders, division directors and other administrators. At Winchester Thurston, my previous school, we spent two years researching how a professional learning program can spur and sustain faculty excellence. We discovered that a growth model characterized by goal setting, action research, and coaching best supports faculty development and improves student outcomes. A lynchpin in our model was robust feedback from both academic leaders and peers. At DA, our academic leaders are hungry for professional development in this area. They want additional tools to become better coaches for the teachers in their departments.

Moving toward a culture of coaching will require support from our parents as well. While we appreciate your participation in all of our data-collection instruments, we learn the most from direct, personal feedback about the experiences of your children. My role is positioned as an additional channel for feedback. Consider me your in-person Parent Teacher Feedback Form. From my vantage point, I can weave together the feedback I receive and see where it connects to the existing systems and structures of DA, allowing us to make targeted interventions to improve our students’ experiences.

I look forward to using future posts to both share my newcomer’s observations and the priorities, plans and interventions that arise from those observations. In the meantime, I am grateful to those parents who have shared their families’ experiences with me, and I hope that more community members in all areas will do the same. I look forward to those conversations and to meeting more of you in the months ahead!