By Michael Ulku-Steiner
Head of School
The last time Durham Academy dreamed this big was more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, we were responding to high demand that was causing admissions constraints: the school was at capacity, we weren’t able to serve as many deserving families as we wanted to, we were starting to lose the ability to keep families together, and we were being forced to balance those priorities with a long-standing commitment to increasing diversity.
DA’s then-Headmaster Don North identified enrollment management as the school’s No. 1 challenge. After grappling with the issue for a year and a half, Don and our Board of Trustees decided DA would grow rather than turn away qualified, deserving students, siblings, alumni children or students who enriched our community. The growth would not happen all at once, but with a plan that allowed DA to preserve the heart of its student experience — small class sizes, teachers who know their students and families and faculty who know each other.
In 1997 the board resolved to move the Preschool and Lower School from Academy Road, renovate what is now the Middle School campus and build the current Preschool/Lower School, adding a section at each grade level while reducing class size. Don North had the foresight to caution, “Flexibility should prevail not only in the construction of facilities but in the attitude about enrollment growth. A dynamic strategic planning process should include the possibility of a larger school in the future.”
And here we are in 2017, in remarkably similar circumstances. Demand for the DA experience is at an all-time high; we are at capacity on all three campuses; admissions committees are being forced to make painful decisions and scores of students we’d love to enroll remain on our waitlists. After patient and diligent work of Admissions Director Victoria Muradi and the Optimal School Size Task Force, we now know we will grow — once again in incremental, purposeful ways.
Strategic growth in the coming decade will allow DA to do the following:
- continue to be a regional leader in education
- recruit, retain and nourish the most innovative and creative teachers
- create new cutting-edge programs for students to thrive
- increase diversity in all its forms (new students, new teachers, new offerings)
- expand our capacity to admit siblings and children of alumni
- increase the school’s reputational value
Our 2015 Strategic Plan focuses not just on preserving but rather improving the student experience through a diverse and inclusive school community, outstanding teachers, an integrated curriculum and connections to the wider world. To support those goals, we are addressing the most immediate need first — two rapidly aging, outdated Upper School buildings — which impede growth in the division demonstrating the most immediate capacity for growth.
Plans are under way for a new Upper School science and humanities center that will relieve instructional space limitations. After extensive input from Upper School faculty, staff, parents and students, we plan to replace the physics and Glaxo Science buildings with a two-story, 46,000-square-foot innovative space that will do the following:
- provide state-of-the-art learning environments for our students
- increase the amount of flexible learning space and collaboration between teachers, students and disciplines
- unite our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, and pull our English, history, language, science and math classes into closer daily contact
- better prepare our students for 21st century careers
Our rebuilt Upper School campus will improve accessibility, security, safety and energy efficiency. It will allow strategic enrollment growth in the Upper School while protecting student/teacher ratios and advisory sizes. We will retain the beloved open-air feel of our covered sidewalks and outdoor patios while increasing the green space in the center of campus. Our new science and humanities center will look and act more like our Learning Commons (a hive of interaction and activity).
This blueprint for the future isn’t limited to the Upper School campus. In February we will begin master planning for a comprehensive renovation of the Middle School. After considering several ways of uniting all our divisions on Ridge Road, our trustees, administrators and faculty decided that our mission could best be served by reinvesting in the first home DA ever constructed. We will protect what we love most about the Academy Road campus — its sprawling size, its beautiful outdoor learning environment, its ability to insulate tweens and teens at a key stage of their social, developmental and academic lives — creating a state-of-the-art Middle School campus, by design and not by default.
The Middle School’s multi-year, long-range plan will take shape with input from faculty, staff, students and parents. Those valuable opinions will help us prioritize each year-long construction segment by urgency, complexity and cost. We hope to complete the Middle School master plan by July and begin the first phase of the comprehensive renovation by summer 2019 (to dovetail with the completion of the Upper School science and humanities center). Soon, we’ll share more about how to keep up with the progress of the Upper School construction project and how you can get involved in the Middle School planning.