Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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Three portraits and the long view

As our most recent Strategic Plan makes plain, ours is a community that isn’t afraid to dream big, to aim high, to bite off more than can apparently be chewed by one organization at one time. I am glad and grateful — not to mention challenged and energized — that we aspire to such lasting and meaningful work.

We have now begun the second school year of our five-year plan. It would be fair to ask:

  • What have we accomplished?
  • What remains on our to-do list?
  • Where will we spend our most focused time and energy this year?

Many of the answers to the first two questions can be found in the summer issue of the Durham Academy magazine.

This issue, with its cover art by DA alumnus Alex Isley '80, was designed as something of a collectors’ edition — more than just a catalogue of news and more like a stake in the ground for some of our important long-range aspirations.

In the magazine, 

  • Victoria Muradi explains the process used by our Optimal School Size task force to decide how we will grow our enrollment and preserve the DA experience. How we hope to meet unprecedented market demand and maintain humane relationships at the core of the school. How we will continue recruiting the Triangle's best and brightest and do better at keeping families intact, honoring legacies and prioritizing diversity.
  • Jon Meredith shares the many reasons that have led us to recommit to our Academy Road Middle School campus.
  • Leslie King explains our current thinking on the facilities we will need to accommodate growth, preserve small class size, and promote innovative teaching and learning. How will we plan and fund the next decade of construction projects? What will get built first? And why?

Knowing that the magazine ably answers those questions, I will concentrate here on framing what I see as our three biggest jobs for this year. I use that word “framing” with particular purpose, for this year we will paint three important portraits: 

  • A portrait of our campuses
  • A portrait of our community
  • A portrait of a Durham Academy graduate

First, the campuses. For reasons relating to both urgency and strategy, we are in the process of designing some new facilities for our Upper School campus.

The Upper School faculty has already had a series of opportunities to meet with our partners at Cannon Architects. This month, our planning team has worked with Cannon through six iterations — placing and shaping the new buildings. Between now and January, we will have all kinds of field trips, meetings, demos and feedback sessions to hone the design of those new spaces.

If all goes well with our applications to the City of Durham (a significant “if,” given the requirements for land use, storm water management, traffic impact, and all the rest), we will break ground for a new science building on the day after our final faculty meetings in June. Two years and two phases later, we will have built or replaced the majority of classroom spaces on this campus. By that point, brainstorming and master planning for a wholly redesigned Middle School campus will be well underway. There, we will replace one building per year for six years — and leave ourselves with a campus whose design and function match the excellence of the faculty and the programming of our Middle School. 

Thrilling stuff! And a lot of hard work ahead of us.

This year’s second major project: a portrait of our community — in the form of an all-school climate survey. Our Strategic Plan compels us move to the next chapter of our work on diversity and inclusion — moving deep beyond talk about our number of families of color, our religious holiday policies or the dollars we invest in financial aid.

We are now working hard to understand fully and talk frankly about the daily lived experiences of every single child, family, colleague and visitor on our campuses. We must identify and dismantle any and all obstacles to full, authentic citizenship in this community.  

Kemi Nonez (Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs) — along with the diversity committee of the board and the diversity coordinators at each division — will announce in the coming weeks the plan for our Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM), administered by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and benchmarked against more than 60 schools from across the nation.  

We will gather both qualitative and quantitative data using interviews, focus groups and an online survey (with input from students, alumni, parents of alumni, students who departed before graduating, faculty, staff, parents and key DA partners).

The climate survey will explore all aspects of difference — including but not limited to ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, political and social belief, learning style and national origin. If this portrait is to be of any use to us, it MUST be detailed, realistic, and accessible for painting by every single citizen of our school community.

The careful painting of this portrait will not delay our work to ensure excellence with diversity and inclusion (at every moment, in and out of every classroom). We are full speed ahead on 

  • continuing to hire and support the most diverse faculty possible. 

  • continuing to hire and train for culturally competent faculty. 

  • setting inclusive classroom goals and curricula that help students to gain the knowledge and skill to have conversations about culture, diversity and becoming global citizens. 

The third portrait we will paint this year is, perhaps, the most important of the bunch. Our mission compels us to prepare young people for moral, happy, productive lives. I’ve been so pleased to see and hear those words in recent years  — moral, happy, productive — as potent touchstones in more and more venues around our campus. From the Preschool assemblies to the Lower School character words, to the Middle School honor code to the Upper School Principles of Community, we talk often and explicitly to students about the end goal of a Durham Academy education.

Still, we have never really had a conversation — across four divisions, 14 grades and a variety of academic and extracurricular departments — about what traits and habits of mind are necessary to live such a life? What experiences best lead to morality, happiness and productivity? What environment best generates such a life?

This autumn we get our opportunity — led by Lee Hark in one of his first and most important tasks as Associate Head of School. In a series of small, medium and large-group conversations, our faculty will create a “Portrait of a DA Graduate.”

We are not yet sure about the actual form of our eventual product — whether a Portrait of a Graduate, a set of core values or virtues, or a list of central qualities of a DA education — but we know the process of arriving at this statement should be fascinating, generative, surprising and fun.

So there you have them — three essential next steps as we chase the objectives of our Strategic Plan:

  • A portrait of our campuses
  • A portrait of our community
  • A portrait of a Durham Academy graduate

In this blog and elsewhere, I look forward to providing updates on these consequential projects. Thank you for your continued support. 

Posted by mulkus on Thursday September, 29, 2016 at 09:58AM


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