Reflecting on the Experiences of People of Color in Independent Schools

This year will mark my eighteenth year attending the National Association of Independent School’s annual People of Color Conference (POCC). The conference is in Nashville, Tennessee, and the theme is Equitable Schools and Inclusive Communities: Harmony, Discord, and the Notes in Between. I am eager to learn, with the other 6,400 educators and students in attendance, how we can find common voices in times of discord. Joining me at the conference are Priyanthi Alahendra, Jay Franklin, Jabali Stewart, and Ray Wilson (Administrative Group); Anna Belknap and Cecily Metzger (Lower School); Michael Heald (Middle School); Maria Mathiesen, Kelsey Medrano, emily warren, and Jim Sargent (Upper School); and six Upper School students.
As I was preparing this week for the trip to POCC, I was reminded of a difficult time in my tenure at Bush. In February 2015—the winter of my first year as Head of School—an anonymous letter was sent to a Bush Trustee expressing disappointment with the Board that I was selected as the school’s ninth Head. The author felt that parents wouldn’t speak up “for fear of blowback in making it an issue of race rather than competence”, adding that the promotion of people of color in leadership positions to “make it appear progressive is working against the interests of the school”.
The letter was not only hurtful and factually inaccurate, but it sought to co-opt the school’s values by intimating that diversity and inclusion were new ideals, and not aligned with our mission. Upon sharing the letter with the Board, the Trustees unanimously denounced the sentiments expressed, and supported me and my family, thus avoiding what could have been a crisis in the middle of my first year. They understood that this voice was not representative of our community.
The letter is a powerful reminder of how people of color experience independent schools differently than their white peers. It was not the first mis-characterization, false assumption, or questioning of credentials I had experienced because of my race since beginning my career in education in 1992. It was also not my last. I recall thinking that if, as the leader of the school, I could be made to feel that I didn’t belong, I could only imagine how our students, parents/guardians, and faculty of color might feel.
We know that successful schools foster environments in which students of diverse backgrounds and talents learn from and with others who speak with different voices and have unique experiences. We can only prepare students to solve the big problems they will confront in the future if they collaborate with teachers and peers who will challenge them to think differently and act courageously. Our mission calls on us to do this work—to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.
I know that there is still critical work to do within independent schools generally, and at Bush specifically, to ensure that we become a truly inclusive community, one in which all of Bush’s students, whether white, Jewish, Latinx, gender non-conforming, Muslim, etc., can participate fully without others questioning their right to be here. Our founder believed in developing strong, educated women leaders at a time when society marginalized them and tried to silence their voices. Helen’s leadership created the opportunity for their voices to be heard. I am committed to supporting inclusivity at Bush so that we create smarter, kinder, and more thoughtful places in which every student is valued, seen, and heard. There is no place for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, or bigotry at The Bush School. We must move beyond discordant threats to unite our voices in harmony.
Sincerely,
Percy L. Abram, Ph.D.
Head of School

Independent School Education Today

It is an exciting time to be a student. As we close out the second decade of the twentieth century, schools continue to focus on developing innovative ways to keep students engaged, curious, and passionate about learning. In the summer volume of Independent School, the National Association of Independent School’s quarterly magazine, the editors take on the subject, “What Independent School Education Looks Like Today”. Throughout the issue, they feature signature programs and state-of-the-art practices from independent schools around the country that are giving students choice and voice, building partnerships with public institutions, and re-imagining how students should be thinking about their learning and the future.
As educators learn more about the science of how our children learn, they are challenging the orthodoxy of school structures, building design, and even its very purpose. Whereas educators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to prepare students for the contemporary workforce, today’s teachers understand that our role is to develop the skills and habits in learners that produce agile, creative, and critical thinkers prepared to solve the big problems they will confront, even if they haven’t yet been identified. According to a recent report, an astounding 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 — when our current First Grade students graduate from Bush, and our current Twelfth Grade students turn thirty — haven’t been invented yet (Emerging Technologies’, 2017).
This is the charge of teachers at Bush — to prepare students for a future that is unknowable yet filled with possibilities. Many of you heard this directly from our teachers at this week’s Middle School Back-to-School and Upper School Curriculum nights. They spoke clearly and persuasively about their passion for developing curricula that encourages students to ask questions and to challenge assumptions. They shared their pedagogical practices that require your children to work collaboratively — a skill that develops empathy and the ability to listen, digest, synthesize, and process data from multiple sources and perspectives. They shaped conversations around student voice, agency, and choice, which make learning not only more engaging, but relevant for them.
I was encouraged to read that some of the programs featured in the magazine are part of our curriculum and practices as well. For example, the magazine highlights Putney School’s (VT) movement to re-consider assessments and define characteristics of a Putney student (pgs. 87-91); Catlin Gabel’s (OR) place-based learning module called the PLACE program—an inspiration for Bush’s Methow Campus (pgs. 110-111); and The Willow Community School’s (CA) effort to implement the RULER program within their school community (pgs. 81-85). These examples focus on areas The Bush School has championed for years—authentic assessment and engaged learning, education outside of the classroom and in partnership with the community, and recognizing emotions as an integral part of how students learn. I appreciate that we are not only responding to these positive trends in independent school education, but finding areas to lead.
At tonight’s Lower School Curriculum night — and throughout the remainder of the year — parents will have an opportunity to hear about how science, research, play, and passion influence our teachers’ work and your children’s learning. They may not know what big problems will lie ahead for them, but Bush graduates will be prepared to solve them.
It’s a great time to be a student, and a great day to be a Blazer!
Sincerely,
Percy L. Abram, Ph.D.
Head of School

2017 Survey Results

I am writing to share information from the 2017 Parent/Guardian, Faculty and Staff, and Student surveys. I am grateful to the 750 parents, guardians, students, faculty, and staff who responded to the school surveys, sharing their thoughtful reflections and feedback on their Bush experience.

The data collected from these three surveys provides the school leadership with a unique and comprehensive view of how we are delivering on the school’s mission. The Bush School worked closely with the survey and research company YouGov to administer and analyze the surveys, ultimately sharing the results with school leadership—the Board of Trustees and Administrative Group. As a school that is continuing to improve, the surveys play an important role in informing priorities and planning for the future.

The school’s administrative leadership team has addressed some of the concerns in previous surveys by:
  • increasing personnel across the school for learning and support services—counseling and supporting students with diagnosed learning differences;
  • working with a language consultant to conduct an audit of the world languages program, and to work with faculty to create a plan for instruction, pedagogy, and student assessment;
  • sending a group of faculty, staff, students, and parents to Stanford University’s Challenge Success conference to develop strategies and systems for mitigating  student stress;
  • creating an Academic Dean position to support the continued professional growth of faculty;
  • auditing and re-organizing the Lower School and Middle School math programs;
  • dedicating resources to building a more competitive and mission-consistent athletics program;
  • augmenting programming, staffing, and hardware to support technology infrastructure and curriculum; and
  • creating a Board-level committee—Campus Master Planning—to address long-term facilities needs.
These efforts and initiatives have made Bush a better school. In this communication, I share some of the highlights and key findings from the 2017 surveys.

Lifelong Learning and Parent Education

Dear Bush Community,
“The most important factor in any school is the teacher.” —Helen Taylor Bush

One of the pleasures of working in a K-12 school is watching the growth, progress, and maturation of the children in our care; from the timid Kindergarten student exploring letters, sounds, words, and meanings, to the intrepid Twelfth Grade student solving a complex math problem and sharing her discovery with her classmates. As teachers, we relish observing students unlock the mysteries of the world around them.

Continue reading “Lifelong Learning and Parent Education”