What We’ve Accomplished So Far
STORY BY MICHAEL ULKU-STEINER, HEAD OF SCHOOL // PHOTO BY BOB KARP
The process of crafting Durham Academy’s 2015 Strategic Plan was neither tidy nor brief. After fielding input from more than 1,500 students, teachers, parents, alumni, administrators, staffers, parents of alumni and community partners, a series of detailed surveys, focus groups, visioning retreats and fruitful arguments led us — gradually, arduously — to a slate of goals that has served as a bright beacon for five years of travel together.
Today, with the clarity of 2020 hindsight, it is easier to see what we have accomplished so far.
Most conspicuous, of course, are the physical improvements to our learning environments: a new STEM & Humanities Center and the K Family Outdoor Commons for our Upper School, and the foundations of our Middle School Arts & Languages Center (the first of five phases of construction that will completely reinvent our Academy Road campus by 2025).
Even amidst this historically unprecedented storm of construction, we never forget that teachers remain the beating heart of our school and the source of past, current and future strength.
In the last five years, our faculty has been hard at work renovating curricula and constructing new programs. DA teachers have collaborated like never before to make the student experience more innovative, authentic, connected, inclusive and mission-aligned.
On the pages that follow, you’ll find hard evidence and firsthand accounts of these trajectories:
Innovation — On page 20, Jessica Crowe Whilden ’00 describes one of the effects of our expanded kindergarten school day: a social studies curriculum more relevant to students’ interests, to families’ experiences and to the development of academic skills. Of course, the FUNdamental element of DA’s Preschool will remain vibrant. Expect a community-wide picnic, a DA mini-Olympics, tastes of the world and an environmentally friendly farm-to-table event.
Authenticity — On page 32, Kelly Teagarden ’04 recounts the launch of our Cavalier Capstones, which allow students to pursue authentic passions through a range of choices. On page 24, Upper School Spanish teacher Jennifer Garci describes the unified work of her colleagues in preparing our Chinese, French and Spanish students not just to know their languages but to use them with confidence in the real world. This proficiency approach has, as she puts it, “quantifiable value and real meaning for our students, colleges, universities and future employers.”
Connectedness — Among our central strategic goals: making our curriculum more cohesive and logical over 14 grade levels. On page 26, Rob Policelli and Mike Harris describe the work of their history and social studies colleagues, including a shift “away from a culture in which individual teachers operated in largely siloed autonomy, and toward a culture where we are in constant dialogue with one another. This culture shift was reinforced by our recent physical shift into shared faculty offices and classrooms ... As new academic leaders, we were excited about working toward a North Star for history instruction.”
Inclusivity — On page 28, Director of Enrollment Management Victoria Muradi describes the “windows and mirrors” we are striving to provide our increasingly diverse student body and the “Full Cost of DA” initiative that has sought to identify and eliminate heretofore overlooked financial barriers to full participation in the DA experience.
Mission alignment — On page 36, Emily Donaldson ’20 describes her epiphany while cooking with immigrant chefs during her 2019 capstone. Her words nicely echo the sentiments of our faculty as they strive to preserve the best of our existing curricula while crafting new lessons that bring our Portrait of a DA Graduate off the static page and into our daily lives.
As you’ll see in these pages and feel on our rapidly improving campuses these days, we are not taking Durham Academy’s traditional strength for granted. The process to create our next strategic plan is underway. While the specific goals won’t be clear until May of 2020, we know already that they will be informed by the same growth mindset and collaborative spirit that have made the last five years so full of learning for all of us.