A Perspective on Legacy Building

Greeting nearly 1,000 guests at our graduation ceremony at the Meyerson Symphony Center each year is always a bit tricky.  For one, no one wants to listen to much talking  from the Head of School – they are eager to hear from our student-nominated faculty speaker and selected student messengers.  At the same time, I also feel a responsibility to ensure the singular event that is graduation is somehow fit within the broader history and mission of the school.  For a moment, at least, I believe it is important for our students, parents, faculty and staff, and board members attending the ceremony to remember our place in the broader context of the community where we work, learn, and serve.  And, with some guests visiting a Parish event for the first time, the graduation greeting affords me the opportunity to do something a bit more than thank them for coming. 


This year’s graduation open offered an interesting opportunity to speak to the influence of two important names in the history of Parish Episcopal School: renowned architect I.M. Pei and Parish’s second Head of School, Gloria Snyder, both of whom passed away during the last school year.  I hope you enjoy this message from Parish’s 2019 graduation ceremony.

Welcome to Parish Episcopal’s 13th graduation ceremony honoring the class of 2019.

This class of 107 graduates that we celebrate today is an accomplished one.  Award winning engineers; global scholars; servant leaders; accomplished performers; and decorated athletes.  As a class, they received nearly 17 million dollars in scholarship and merit-based awards; they will attend colleges and universities in 21 states and 1 foreign country.  Indeed, once handed their diplomas in 90 minutes or so, they are on the way – with our prayers, hopes, and optimism.

Students, experience tells me you are barely listening – understandable given the scope and wonder of the moment.  My responsibility and opportunity in welcoming everyone, though, is to illuminate a point or two of connection between this ceremony, the story of our school, and the life of independence that lies before you. 

You graduate today in this marvelous venue, one designed by the famed architect, I.M. Pei, who died recently.  On the website of Pei’s architectural firm, it is noted that the renowned architect envisioned in this elegant building “an inward-looking music chamber and an outward looking lobby.” Clearly, this vision was executed to perfection: Presently, students, a couple thousand eyeballs look inward toward you here on stage with perfect sight lines; later, you will take joyous photos with family and friends out in the beautiful, light-infused lobby that arcs outward toward the city.

But Pei’s “inward-looking, outward-looking” design concept for the Meyerson doubles nicely as a piece of advice to you graduates: you, too, should look inward to identify and refine your God-given gifts and look outward for people and places to whom to offer said gifts.  This, you recognize as perhaps the most essential and, I hope, enduring of the lessons you have learned at Parish.

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Of course, you and I have been immensely blessed to work and learn within another Pei-inspired building, one that has nurtured our sense of beauty and delivered regular doses of aesthetic inspiration. Our Midway campus facility, built in 1984 for use as Mobil Oil’s International Research campus and converted to Parish Episcopal School in 2002, was conceived by Pei and his partners. 

You and your fellow Parish graduates, it is safe to say, are the only people on earth who can lay claim to having been taught within and graduated from facilities inspired by I.M. Pei!

This, of course, is more trivia than anything. 

But pair Pei’s recent death with the passing earlier in your senior year of our second Head of School Gloria Snyder, whose vision propelled the Parish community into the Pei-inspired Mobil facility in the first place. What one finds in the legacies of these two visionaries in their respective fields – whose work just so happened to intersect at Parish Episcopal School on Sigma Road – is a life lesson far from trivial and most fitting for you graduates.

Pei’s ascendance as a transformational force in architecture did not begin until he was nearly 50 years old, when more impatient innovators might have felt their time for leaving a legacy had passed.  Gloria Snyder led the immensely complex expansion of Parish in her early 60s, in the shadows of nearly four decades of influence and success as an educator – when less audacious change-agents would have had eyes squarely on retirement. 

The lesson here is perhaps best captured in the words of Robert A.M. Stern, a former dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. In reflecting recently, Stern said of Mr. Pei’s legacy:

“It’s not a single building. It’s his work over a generation of time and his logical and relentless pursuit of the highest degree of excellence.”

The foundation you have laid at Parish, the one we recognize and celebrate today with your graduation, is just the beginning.  Like I.M Pei and Gloria Snyder – two individuals whose genius informed your educational environment and flavors your graduation experience – your legacy building will occur over a generation. Not tomorrow, or next year, or even upon your college graduation.  So be patient. And logical. And relentless in your “pursuit of the highest degree of excellence.”  We will be watching with pride and eager to lend a hand at a moment’s notice.

Godspeed as you embark upon your journey.

My How You’ve Grown

With the month of May behind us, I thought I would post messages delivered during graduation events in May – both of which revolved around my organizing theme for the year: perspective.  I have the privilege to speak to our graduating seniors each year at the senior dinner.  Like many comments delivered at commencement-related events, the message within is directed toward the graduates but has relevance to all listeners – regardless of their age or stage of life.  And so it is that you may find something to ponder in these words shared with our 107 seniors and their families on May 21, 2019…

It likely happens to you less now than it used to.  But do you remember when you were younger – 9 or 10 years old, or especially during your early teens – and a friend of your parents or some distant relative would see you for the first time in a long time?  What would they say?

“My, how you have grown!” Or some such variation of the phrase.

Of course, we know why made such an exclamation: because it was true!  According to the Center for Disease Control, between the ages of 12 and 18, females will grow an average of 4-5 inches in height and males 10-11 inches. Indeed, if we look away for too long, you young people can appear to have been physically transformed as if by magic!

Yet for your parents – and even for those of us who see you at school each day – familiarity alters perspective. Like a frog sitting in slowly boiling water, our proximity to you numbs our perception.  We can be among the last to recognize your rapidly changing physical dimensions.

Still, physical growth is measureable.  We can stand you back up against the doorframe, lay the measuring stick across the top of your head, and chart the inches you have grown since your last birthday. We can press your palm into the curing cement and calculate the growth in your hand size against the imprint you made a decade earlier. In Gordie’s case, we can measure how large his biceps have grown since his last phase of protein drinks and weightlifting.

Most other facets of a person’s growth, though, are much more challenging to see and measure – regardless of our proximity to one another. Physical growth is one thing, my friends, but personal growth is something else entirely.

Indeed, we measure the length of your arms or circumference of your waist with specificity to find the ideal fit for your new outfit.  But how do we gauge growth in your sense of identity: that is, your awareness of your gifts; your confidence to share them with the world; or your respect for self as evidenced in the choices you make?

Of course, we can graph changes in your foot size to the centimeter.  But how do we exhibit data on the growth of your spiritual self: that is, your sense of being connected to some purpose larger than yourself?

Yes, we can measure an inch of growth in your height with precision. But how do we best and most accurately track your curiosity for new ideas and respect for viewpoints different from your own?

As we gather one final time tonight as the Class of 2019 community, I do not have a scientific answer for you on how to measure personal growth. I can, though, offer a piece of advice and a complement.

My advice to you is this: the work of evaluating, measuring, and advancing your growth as a person lies with you.  I introduced this idea to you in my chapel talk last September. “See more, be more,” I challenged you and your Upper School mates that day.  To be more of what God intends for you to be in this world, I suggested, requires you to look deeply into yourself, declare an intention for self-improvement (not, mind you, a lofty  accomplishment) and then pursue it with persistence – regardless of what doubt or hardship you invariably face along the way. 

As I greet you now at the entry point to an important intersection in your life, I am curious and hopeful. Curious as to how you will navigate your course from here.  Hopeful that as you do, you will stretch – past your core friendship group, beyond the comfort of your dorm room couch and video game console; and into experiences that test the limits of your skills and thinking.

At some point, and most of you have reached it, we stop getting taller.  But the work of personal growth is never-ending.  Seeing more and being more is an every day, every week, every year task – not one reserved to a particular phase of life.

Now for my complement. As a class, I will remember you for your growth.  While it hasn’t always been pretty or linear, your group has come to represent the school in ways that have made us proud and, in the process, I think you have grown closer.

And know this: groups of people – teams, clubs, organizations, classes like yours – only grow as a collective relative to the willingness of their individual members to grow and evolve.  It is a credit to you as individuals that your class has progressed as it has.  You are as different now in mindset as you are in physical stature.

Class of 2019, “my, how you have grown!”

May God bless you on this journey and may you know we stand with you always. May God also bless this dinner, those who’ve prepared it, and those who will partake in it. 

Perspectives on the Year Gone By

Way back in August, in my initial blog post of the year, I presented a word: Perspective.

Inspired by the impending close of my first decade at Parish, our School’s imminent re-accreditation process, and the oft-fractured nature of our country’s discourse, this word struck a chord with me last summer as I pondered the 2018-19 school year to come. Since then, I have woven the perspective theme into much of my writing and speaking – most of it still available on my From My Angle blog and podcast if you missed it the first time.

Now, upon reflection with only a few days remaining in this school year, I see images of an incredible nine months at Parish:

A successful reaccreditation: The visiting team from the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest and the Southwest Association of Episcopal Schools spent three days on our campuses in October and left a glowing report. “In so many ways,” they wrote, “Parish represents an exemplary institution.” Summarizing their perspective on Parish, they noted that “there are those schools that talk about being on the leading edge or challenging the status quo; Parish is living out these descriptors each and every day.”

An evolving academic program: We have built a more cohesive curriculum across our three divisions. We have enhanced personalized instructional strategies. We have further explored how we structure time for teaching and learning. Indeed, we stand well-positioned to reimagine school for the modern learner – to succeed both at preparing students for the complex global society and promoting their engagement and wellness.

Limitless generosity: Our community has demonstrated remarkable solidarity and generosity. Since last August, nearly $8 million has been pledged to our Limitless campaign. Together, through this campaign, we have already provided the community a first class facility in the Gene E. Phillips Activity Center. We are now in the campaign’s final days – ever closer to offering our students another elite space in which to hone their skills as creative learners and bold leaders. Indeed, next week you will receive exciting news about our quest to build the Noble Family Performing Arts Center.

These accomplishments – like so many other achievements from this past year – resulted from assiduous planning and tireless work. But we have also reflected our best when confronted with the difficult and unexpected. Images of the unity, love, and resilience our community modeled following the losses of Gloria Snyder and Mira Foshee ’22 last winter will endure for years to come.

As the year concludes, a final important update and expression of gratitude is in order:

In April 2018, the Board of Trustees approved the formation of two task forces. Over the last twelve months, members of the Security Task Force and the Inclusive Community Task Force invested dozens of hours. They engaged with community members, researched best practices, and crafted comprehensive reports with recommendations. I would like to thank the members of each Task Force and the task force chairs, CFO Mark Kirkpatrick (Security) and board member Michael Pegues (Inclusive Community) – for their service to the community (see members below). At their April 8, 2019 workday, the Board of Trustees approved the reports and recommendations submitted by both task forces. We will invite the community to a more detailed presentation on these reports next school year. In the meantime, I will offer a brief summary of each teams findings here. 

SECURITY

The impetus for the Security Task Force were three meetings attended by over 100 parents, faculty, and staff in February 2018. 

While the Task Force concentrated their evaluation and recommendations on the Midway campus (given the Church of Transfiguration’s authority over the Hillcrest campus), School and Church leaders have cooperated in building a plan to address security needs at Hillcrest as well.

Members of the Security Task Force brought significant expertise to seven distinct work groups: Metal Health; Physical Security; Communication; Procedures, Training and Drills; Engaging Resources and Staffing; After Hours; and Cybersecurity. The Security Task Force made recommendations in their report, one of which will be acted upon immediately: the hiring of a Director of Community Safety. The recommendation to be acted upon immediately is the hiring of a Director of Community Safety

INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY

Our proactive approach to inclusion and belonging is a priority for the School and accelerated with the Board of Trustees’ 2015 approval of Parish’s new mission and diversity statements.

Though deeply committed to living fully into these guiding documents, we have demonstrated prudence. To ensure community alignment behind this important work, in a time when the country has reflected points of division on this topic, the board, school leaders and I saw it fit in April 2018 to commission the Inclusive Community Task Force (ICTF).

I was joined by board member Michael Pegues in guiding the ICTF (constituted by 20 board, faculty, staff, parent and student representatives) to recommend how the School community might best live into the charge of our board approved diversity statement.

The ICTF spent nearly a year gathering input. Members met with diversity and inclusion experts; staged focus groups with Parish community members (100 faculty, staff, and students participated in 10 focus groups held in fall); and surveyed diversity and inclusion programming in educational institutions, non-profits organizations, and corporations.

The Task Force offered recommendations categorized and prioritized as immediate, in-range (year 1), mid-range (1-3 years), and long-range (3+ years). The recommendations address areas such as program leadership; training and capacity building; the content and format of curricular and co-curricular programming; and community engagement, among others.

With a compelling rationale for an institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion programming, the Task Force notes that “if Parish graduates are truly to be impactful leaders in ‘the complex global society,’ the School must offer developmentally appropriate programming that cultivates the cultural competency of its students.”

Again, I want to commend these task force teams and our entire community on a challenging yet successful 2018-19 school year. 

College Admissions: An Area Ripe for A Healthier Perspective

As I continue my rumination on the theme of “perspective,” no educational topic is a more fitting one for scrutiny than the college admission process. My most recent episode of the From My Angle podcast offers a conversation with arguably the most knowledgeable voice on the college application process, Jeffrey Selingo.

If you have listened to my podcast series over the last two years, you have had ample opportunity to hear from some of the country’s top admission officials on how getting into college works today – and how it has changed dramatically within the last generation. In my opinion, the changes have been primarily to the detriment of the student-learning experience at schools like Parish. In fact, I would argue that college admissions has become one of – if not the primary – source of the anxiety now rampant among this generation of young people.

The best way I know to address this anxiety – and begin to deflate it – is to provide perspective in the form of education. My podcast series has been designed, in part, to help parents understand how college admissions work, to understand the breadth of schools available to students (too many of which go unrecognized by “brand name”-seeking students and parents), and to recognize how generally random the results of the admission process actually are.

Indeed, Jeff is one of the country’s pre-eminent writers and thought leaders in the area of higher education and college admissions. I can’t overstate how excited I was when Jeff responded favorably last summer to my request to record an episode of the podcast. We have been in touch throughout this school year and recorded the session in January 2019. I have read one of Jeff’s three books – There Is Life After College. I am a regular follower of his writings for The Washington Post and The Atlantic. I follow him on Twitter and I listen each week to the FutureU podcast on which Jeff, and his co-host Michael Horn, engage higher education innovators and practitioners in conversations about the industry. Needless to say, I am a Jeff Selingo groupie!

In this conversation, Jeff and I assess the state of college admissions today and the changes that have overtaken this space in the last decade and a half. Jeff talks about the concept behind his latest book project on how students and families experience the college admission process; I am excited Jeff has included Parish students and our Center for College and Life Planning team in this project.

I hope you will take the opportunity to listen to my conversation with Jeff and further develop your healthy perspective on the college admissions process.

A Perspective on School

Each February, I have the opportunity to share my thoughts on the world of education – and Parish’s place in it – with parents who are considering our school for their child.  Rather than enumerate metrics about Parish’s student achievement or drill into details on our program or curriculum, I choose to offer a “vision-level view” of forces at play in the college-preparatory education, suggest implications these forces are or may have on the student experience, and offer parents some points to consider relative to these trends that might help them in selecting the best school for their child.  In the end, I have embraced these talks more as a “public service” to a group of parents considering a  selection of schools and less a “pitch” for Parish.  The result, I hope, is a thought-provoking 50 minutes for those who attend.  You can view this year’s talk – entitled “A Perspective of Schools” – below.  Whether you are presently searching for a school for your child or are just one interested in my perspective on the educational experience children are having today, I hope you find the contents of the talk to be both informing and provocative.

A Perspective on Success and Impact

Among the books I am presently reading is Scott Cowen’s Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education. Cowen served as Tulane University’s President from 1998-2014, a period that included the institution’s recovery from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

WinnebagosYou may be as intrigued by the title as I was.

The Winnebago phrase emerged from a circumstance Cowen experienced in his first year as President. As Cowen tells it, he offered the coach of Tulane’s undefeated football team “an offer he couldn’t refuse – and he refused.” The coach (Tommy Bowden) left for Clemson where, he noted, the program was so spectacular that the fans lined up their Winnebagos on Wednesdays in anticipation of Saturday games. For Cowen, this phase frames his perspective on the current reality for higher education leaders: they face a range of competing, complex, and in certain instances, almost comical pressures that require transformative leadership to solve.
One compelling pressure addressed by Cowen relates to how one measures an institution’s impact and consequently assesses its reputational value. Cowen recounts what many of us know: In an age of skyrocketing tuitions, limited resources, and anxious students facing greater competition for admission, our society has defaulted to an oversimplified and flawed set of ranking lists to evaluate a college or university’s quality and impact. Cowen asks:

“…how can we construct a nuanced and accurate portrait of a school’s impact? How can we get a real picture of how graduates are doing, not just economically but in their lives as a whole?”

Several universities and higher education leaders featured in Winnebagos on Wednesdays have led the charge to reclaim the narrative and paint a more holistic and precise picture of their institution’s impact. To do so, Cowen suggests it requires that we “expand our longitudinal data to take into account what happens after graduation…collect qualitative data that illuminate personal satisfaction and contribution to society…and consider the mission of an individual institution when assessing its value and impact.”

As the head of a young school whose oldest graduates (from our first class of 2007) are just turning 30 years old, I find Cowen’s questions compelling and his suggestions affirming. We believe we can measure how effectively we have met the charge articulated in our mission statement to “guide young people to become creative learners and bold leaders” who positively “impact the complex global society.” Indeed, we seek a broader perspective on what makes Parish – or any school, for that matter – a “success” beyond standardized tests scores, college placement lists, or number of national merit scholars. We have formulated a plan to engage our alumni – through focus groups; as mentors and coaches to our present students; and via programs like ParishConnect. These points of contact help us gather meaningful data points on Parish’s impact on our graduates.

A part of this plan, not surprisingly, involves me. I am increasing the amount of time I spend with our alumni – and I must say it is one of my favorite parts of the job. Listening to them proves equal parts affirming and guiding. Our graduates are thriving and Parish has prepared them well.

At the same time, they hold us accountable. Elements of our program that have shaped them – such as the powerful, personal relationships they forged with high quality faculty and staff members or our focus on character development through chapel and ParishLeads – should remain steadfast institutional commitments. As new members of “the real world,” though, they recognize the urgency for the school experience to evolve – to, among other things, incorporate more open-ended, problem-based learning; to lessen stress by heightening engagement; and to promote student agency and personalization.

Recently, I have recorded five podcast episodes with alumni. I hope over the holiday break, you will take an opportunity to get to know these young adults as they share their perspectives on success and Parish’s impact. Through my conversations with these Parish graduates, I think you will recognize what Scott Cowen and I believe: that the lives an institution’s alumni lead represent the greatest testimony to that institution’s impact.

Listen to the complete Alumni Playlist or to individual alums on From My Angle podcast.

 

Mastery Transcript w/Scott Looney

I am often asked to whom I or Parish turns when looking for inspirational innovators in the education space. As my year-long writing and speaking on the theme “perspective” continues, I am excited to offer this From My Angle podcast with fellow Head of School, Scott Looney. Scott is Head of School for Hawken School in Ohio and founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Scott would be among a handful of educators whose perspectives on teaching and learning, change management, and future trends I seek and admire. In this conversation, Scott and I explore our shared belief in a balanced and student-centered education that engages students in authentic, meaningful learning, and how that translates to the high school transcript.

LooneyPodcast

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