Putting the ‘Happy’ in ‘Moral, Happy & Productive’

Story by Melody Guyton Butts, Assistant Director of Communications

Durham Academy strives to be a school that lives and breathes its mission statement — to prepare students to live moral, happy, productive lives — every day. But as work began on DA’s new Strategic Vision last fall, faculty and staff pondered: Is the school doing everything it can to promote happiness within the student body? And how does one measure happiness, anyway?

“One of the things that we realized was that there was no intentionality behind happiness,” explained Director of Strategic Initiatives Victoria Muradi. “… Do we have programming and opportunities to really support kids’ happiness? We know how to measure productivity, but do we actually know when we're delivering happiness?”

So a subset of the Strategic Vision working teams set about answering those questions. Led by Muradi, who is guiding the Strategic Vision work, they started by asking faculty and staff in each school division.

“And what was interesting is that nobody really had a measure of it at all,” Muradi said. “And although it’s part of the social-emotional learning program, we have a lot more resources dedicated where happiness is not happening, so we were looking at it from a scarcity model.”

There were abundant resources in place to help students who demonstrated a “deficit of happiness,” she explained — say, if mental health or family concerns made it clear that a student could benefit from counseling services. 

“But we were not being as proactive as we could be in terms of adding or creating more opportunities to grow happiness,” she continued. “We realized that we were spending a lot of resources on the opposite, but not really on one of the pivotal three points of our mission statement.”

The big-picture thinking about happiness was partly inspired by DA being chosen to participate in a “Design for Community Problem Solving” workshop for school-based teams from all around the world. The professional development workshop is offered through the Stanford University Hasso Plattner School of Design’s (d.school’s) K12 Lab with support from the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

As part of the d.school workshop, each school’s participants work to identify “an intractable problem” facing their institution, collect and examine data, and find “bright spots in their school — homegrown solutions — that they can amplify and scale.”

As DA’s d.school participants (listed below) began this work in September, they “kind of organically landed” on measuring and growing happiness, recalled group member Meghan Fulton, who serves as an assistant director of athletics, head athletic trainer and an Upper School advisor.

“I think why it was particularly important to me is because my main role at the school exists in the social-emotional piece in the athletic department and then also as an advisor,” she explained. “So I see the kids when they're not in their academics and they are working through a lot of those social-emotional things. There is so much learning that is done in those environments. … And there can also be a lot of thriving there.”

The Stanford d.school cohort of which DA is a part consists of about 30 schools all over the U.S. and in Brazil, India, Iran, Japan and Mexico — necessitating participants to log on at all hours of the day and night to engage in discussions. The work began in September with a plan to conclude in December, but since most of the participating schools hadn’t finished their projects by that point, the d.school offered to continue hosting regular office hours with Stanford professors.

Next up for DA’s team was conducting focus groups with Lower School, Middle School and Upper School students, in which students indicated that they wanted more real-world experiences, choice and voice in the curriculum, wellness, and play or downtime — which aligned perfectly with areas of improvement in Goal 1 of the Strategic Vision.

After investigating options for measuring students’ happiness, DA’s d.school participants and members of the school’s Wellness Committee landed on a survey tool that they plan to roll out in the spring. 

“There was a feeling that we especially wanted to do this now because this is our third school year with the pandemic, and we've heard so much about how the pandemic has affected the mental health of kids,” Muradi said. “We really wanted a sense of where our students are.”

A parent of Preschool and Lower School students, Fulton has witnessed the toll of the pandemic on students of all ages. 

“Over the past year and a half with my kids being in [in-person] school, they're doing well. … I just think that is such a testament to what we’re able to do here each day,” she said. “And so being able to investigate that a little bit more and then set up programming for the future as my kids continue to get older at Durham Academy is something that is exciting to me, too.”

Stanford D.School Participants

  • Chrissie Bushey — Middle School Counselor and Lower School parent
  • Meghan Fulton — assistant director of athletics, head athletic trainer, Upper School advisor and Preschool/Lower School parent
  • Marichal Gentry — Enrollment Management outreach coordinator and Diversity, Equity & Engagement project manager
  • Ashley Hinton — second grade teacher
  • Victoria Muradi — director of strategic initiatives and Lower School parent
  • Elizabeth Parry ’13 — kindergarten teacher and DA alumna
  • Verle Regnerus — assistant Upper School director, Upper School math teacher and parent of alumni

Read More About DA's Strategic Vision