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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A report card on this year's three strategic portraits

As in schools across the nation, May at Durham Academy is chock full of final exams, culminating performances and closing ceremonies. In the same spirit, I’d like to share year-end updates on the three most significant schoolwide projects that DA tackled this year.

In a September blog post, I previewed each of these initiatives: 

  • A portrait of our future campuses
  • A portrait of our community
  • A portrait of the DA Graduate

In the summer edition of the Durham Academy magazine, we’ll share more detailed updates about each of these projects. Here and now: a brief overview of the ways we’ve pursued three key goals of our Strategic Plan and clarified our vision of DA in 2020 and beyond.

Portrait of our Campuses

In February I emailed the community about our ambitious plans to renovate, expand and innovate in academic spaces on the Middle and Upper School campuses.  

Thanks to hard work from Business Manager Jerry Benson, our partners at Cannon Architects, our contractor CT Wilson and dozens of collaborators in and outside the school, we are on schedule to begin work June 12 on a new Upper School STEM and Humanities Center. The summer magazine will contain a time line, architectural details and images of what’s to come. For now, it’s important to know that this new facility will:

  • provide state-of-the art learning environments for science, math, engineering, computer science, English and history
  • increase our flexible & collaborative learning space (quiet study rooms, group/project spaces & faculty offices)
  • expand makerspace facilities for robotics, engineering, Science Olympiad and project work in all disciplines
  • improve accessibility, security, safety and energy efficiency
  • allow strategic enrollment growth while protecting class & advisory sizes
  • retain the beloved open-air feel of our campus (adding an outdoor makerspace, two small greenhouse spaces, several classroom patios and an enlarged quad lawn)

Throughout the spring, we have also worked with Cannon Architects to create a construction Master Plan for our Academy Road campus. Input from Middle School students and faculty as well as Pre, Lower and Middle School parents has helped us clarify what we love about the campus and articulate what we’ll need for the next chapter of DA’s future. That Master Plan will be completed this summer, shared widely in the fall and then guide a series of Middle School construction projects that (we hope) will begin in 2019.

Portrait of our Community

Our Strategic Plan compels us to consider diversity as more than just numbers — to understand and improve the daily lived experience of every single DA community member. To that end, we partnered this year with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) to conduct an Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM)

This process (a series of ten “discovery committee” focus groups and a confidential online questionnaire completed by more than 1,400 community members) yielded the most detailed student census in our history and the most comprehensive and detailed feedback on how students, parents, alumni, faculty/staff, administrators and trustees experience the school with regard to diversity, inclusion and equity.

Similarly useful were the AIM benchmarks – allowing us to compare our results to those of 60+ independent schools across the country who have completed the AIM process.

In the coming months, we’ll share details, statistics and patterns in the narrative comments. For now, a few high-level findings – patterns that proved robust across several constituencies:

Healthy scores (areas in which DA responses were more positive than the national benchmarks)

  • School leaders treat all staff with respect.
  • Students respect others who perform at a high academic level.
  • School leaders are friendly and approachable.
  • The school takes action to create a diverse enrollment.
  • Adults who work at this school are responsive to the needs of others in the community.
  • The school takes action to create a diverse faculty and staff.
  • Diversity in the faculty, administration and student body is important to excellence in the education provided in this school.

High Priority Concerns (patterns where DA responses were less positive than the national benchmarks)

  • Our board of trustees should more accurately reflect the diversity of the student body.
  • DA should do more to work effectively with topics relating to socioeconomic difference.
  • A comparatively large number of stakeholders perceive that the school allows a few vocal parents to change school policy.
  • DA should work more effectively with the individual differences of its stakeholders based on disability.

As revealed by the narrative comments, a significant minority of respondents feel that DA should do more to encourage diversity of thought among students and faculty. By ensuring a variety of viewpoints in assemblies, curricular materials and classroom conversations, we can make our learning environment safer and more affirming for every single child and family. Just as importantly, we can better train our students for the kinds of robust conversation, argument, and critical thinking they’ll need beyond DA.

All told, the AIM data and comments offer a deep well of opinions and impressions. Our administrative team will spend a portion of our summer retreat interpreting and the results and prioritizing action steps for next year and beyond. Kemi Nonez deserves thanks for piloting this process. Thanks too to the diversity committee of our Board of Trustees, the faculty diversity coordinators in each division (Elizabeth Allen, Pamela McKenney, Nataki McClain, Cindy Moore, Tyrone Gould, Kelly Teagarden and Jazmín García Smith), and our AIM Steering Committee (below): 

  • Kemi Nonez (Chair; Parent; Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs; Assistant Director of Admissions)
  • Jeff Boyd (MS Language Arts and History Teacher)
  • Jeff Burch (Third Grade Teacher)
  • Kanika Capel (Parent; Trustee; Chair of Board Diversity Committee)
  • Steve Engebretsen (Parent of Alumni; Director of Athletics)
  • Jazmin Garcia Smith (Parent; Co-Director of College Counseling)
  • Dan Gilson (Parent; Director of Extended Day and Summer Programs)
  • Ashley Hinton (Second Grade Teacher)
  • Dr. Blair LM Kelley (Parent; Professor of History at NCSU)
  • Leslie King (Parent; Director of Communications)
  • Victoria Muradi (Director of Admissions)
  • Jeff Parkin (Parent of Alumni; Middle School Counselor)
  • Jennifer Rogers (Parent; Middle and Upper School Learning Specialist)
  • Michael Ulku-Steiner (Parent; Head of School)

The DA Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life

With a mission to prepare students for moral, happy, productive lives, we have always cared about character education at DA. From fundamental habits (warm handshakes, eye contact, morning meetings, etc.) to multifaceted programming (advisory groups, community service, the Magnificent Seven, etc.), our teachers have, for 83 years, worked as purposefully on moral virtue as they have on intellectual virtue.

Never before, however, has Durham Academy articulated a schoolwide definition of good character.

What traits matter most in our community? What characteristics are most essential to live a moral, happy, productive life? Over the course of the year, faculty from all fourteen grades have labored to create an answer to these questions – a bold statement of character traits that animate our daily work and sustain a life well lived.

Led by Associate Head Lee Hark, this process included months of open-ended brainstorming; research on similar efforts in schools across the country; feedback from students, parents, alumni, and trustees; and lots of debate and haggling about individual word choices.

The result of these labors is a potent constellation of attributes – arranged around the three central goals of our mission statement: 

  • Morality (empathy, kindness, integrity, responsibility, and courage)
  • Happiness (curiosity, engagement, authenticity, balance, and joy)
  • Productivity (creativity, drive, resilience, generosity and wisdom)

In the summer magazine, Lee will share more about what these traits mean to our students, teachers, parents and alumni. In our August assemblies with students in all divisions, we will introduce the traits and explain their central importance to our work. In our September Open Houses with parents, we’ll share more about the ways these traits will provide a “north star” for our curriculum. And in the coming years (through stories and videos on our website, on posters in individual classrooms, and in programs throughout the school), we will strive to bring these words to life as we pull our students toward the virtues they describe. We’ve always done this noble work, but from now on we’ll do it with more clarity, harmony, and persistence than ever. 

In conclusion

On Friday, I’ll hand 104 diplomas to our graduating Seniors. That Commencement ceremony, with its suggestion of both an ending and a beginning, nicely reflects the three big projects we’ve undertaken this year. We hope and trust our graduates have been changed and improved by their time on our campuses, by their engagement in our community, and by the high academic and character expectations of their teachers. Just as those newly-minted DA alumni are far from finished with their lives, so will we continue to strive toward the best possible campus, community, and program for building moral, happy, productive lives.



Posted by mulkus on Monday May, 22, 2017


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