“The 2025 Challenge”: Sidwell unveils priorities to shape school’s future
Sidwell Friends School.
By David Steinbach ’12.
Last November, the Sidwell Board of Trustees took a major step toward determining the future course of the school by approving a document titled “The 2025 Challenge: Long-Range Priorities.” As the title suggests, the report examines how Sidwell will need to adapt in order to remain a competitive and exceptional independent school in the rapidly evolving twenty-first century. Over the next several decades, schools across the country will need to make important decisions in order to prepare their students – and the priorities set forth by the Board aim to address how Sidwell can best achieve that goal.
The macroeconomic, demographic, and technological changes occurring throughout society undoubtedly greatly influenced the Board’s decision to begin examining the school’s future. “It is inconceivable to us that over the next decade these forces will not require significant adaptation by schools, including Sidwell Friends,” the document reads. But according to Head of School Tom Farquhar, such societal changes were not the only motivation the school had in formulating the Long-Range Priorities. “This process has allowed us to pursue things we might not have explored in the first place,” said Farquhar.
The Board devoted nearly two full years to the endeavor. After formulating fifteen queries to guide its thinking, the Board consulted with members from every part of the Sidwell community, as well as outside experts in the field of education. After gathering an abundance of information from many different perspectives, the Board compiled its findings into its 28-page report.
Although the document identifies specific areas in which the school must improve, Farquhar emphasized that the report is “not a blueprint or a map” set in stone with specific tasks that must be accomplished at certain times. Instead, he referred to the document as a set of “compass headings,” and stressed that the school must be willing to be adaptable and flexible in its discussion and implementation of the priorities set forth.
Quakerism and service
The first major subject the plan addresses is the role of Quakerism in the school. The document identifies the new Meeting House at the center of the Wisconsin Avenue campus as an example of how Quakerism “should inform every aspect of school life.” Although he is not yet certain in what specific ways Quaker values will come to inform more aspects of the school’s day-to-day activities, Farquhar said he plans to devote “attention to the cultivation of deeper awareness of the Quaker part of the school.”
There seems to be a powerful consensus, however, that the school needs to further its commitment to the Quaker testimony of stewardship through community service. Upper School Principal Lee Palmer predicts that “the importance of service will be woven in to a greater extent to the life of the school.” The Board believes that a “rigorous service learning experience” is necessary for students to receive a true Quaker education. It envisions students performing more service in their own communities not only to help others but also to broaden their own outlooks.
Through a larger amount of community service and the increased presence of Quaker values on campus, the school’s leaders believe that students will be better equipped to take part in a “Quaker Conversation,” as the Long-Range Priorities puts it, which will enable them to learn and reflect on their own situations as well as the world around them.
A new way of educating
“Sidwell Friends has never been stronger institutionally,” the Board’s document reads. The school continues to attract talented and accomplished students from diverse backgrounds, and the quality of learning that goes on in every classroom is at a high level. “Our community is justifiably proud of the School’s academic excellence,” the priorities read. But if the world continues to change and evolve at such a fast rate, the Board believes, then the way Sidwell educates its students must change with it.
Although many of the school’s programs have changed a great deal in the last decade, one topic the school’s leaders are itching to address is the relative absence of “interdisciplinary” learning at Sidwell. “Progress has been made on all fronts except in the interdisciplinaries,” said Farquhar, who maintains that there are too many “chunks” of rigid, departmental learning in the Upper School. The Board strongly shares Farquhar’s sentiment. “We call upon the faculty to redouble its efforts to deepen our students’ intellectual experience through the creative use of interdisciplinary learning in all divisions of the School,” the document reads.
According to Farquhar, the presence of interdisciplinary courses in Sidwell’s curriculum will allow students to think more critically and broadly. And in an age where information is just a few taps away on smartphones or computers, the school’s leadership believes that analytical and “systems thinking” will become increasingly important. “Our program is so memory-intensive now, but it will probably become less so due to data always available online,” said Farquhar.
One possible consequence of the school’s desire to move away from traditional courses focused around the intake of information could be the elimination of the AP program. According to Palmer, this topic is “very high on the list of conversation.” Farquhar agreed, saying that the AP program is a “big discussion among the faculty.” He referenced his desire for students to have more experiences to expand their ways of thinking, and stated that as many as ten premiere academic institutions across the country have eliminated AP courses from their curricula.
Significant obstacles remain, however, before the school can seriously consider eliminating the AP program and offering more interdisciplinary courses. “We need to know more from colleges. We don’t want to do anything to disadvantage our students,” said Farquhar, aware of the potential consequences such an action might have in the competitive climate of college admissions. Palmer also pointed to the challenge of making space in the curriculum for more interdisciplinary courses with a limited number of teachers and classrooms available. Despite these obstacles, however, school leaders remain committed to implementing new approaches to education at Sidwell, believing that the ability to analyze and have an interpretive approach will be crucial in the age of information.
Languages, globalization, and technology
The world is growing more connected than ever before. The Board, believing that the ability to communicate effectively with a person who speaks another language is becoming more and more valuable, expresses in the Long-Range Priorities that “by the time they graduate, Sidwell Friends students should possess the modern language skills necessary to communicate effectively with people from another culture.”
“Students graduate without the international language proficiency they should have,” said Farquhar, who believes, along with the Board, that students should have an experience living in and communicating with residents of a different culture, and that it would be a “travesty” to even consider cutting languages at schools. He cites an international travel program at the Holton-Arms School in which more than 50% of its students participate before they graduate. Sidwell hopes soon to be able to offer such comprehensive programs in order to expose students to different ideas outside the classroom. “We are already thinking of trying to provide immersion experiences,” said Palmer. The Board even goes so far as to suggest that “Sidwell Friends should require, over time, that each and every student prior to graduation participate in an international experience.”
The Board also proposes that “students should be provided a meaningful block of time prior to their graduation from Upper School to devote their undivided attention to the study of an issue or pursuit of a project that vitally engages them.” Such an idea builds upon the document’s theme of expanding students’ ways of thinking and helping them become effective problem solvers. As Farquhar puts it, the school wants students to be “not burned out, but on fire.”
And as technology continues to expand its reach, the school’s leaders believe that an understanding of and ability to work with computers is critical. According to the document, “To remain relevant, it is vital that Sidwell Friends embrace this reality.” The school has already developed notable programs including the highly competitive robotics team, an assortment of popular computer science courses, the Lower School iPad program, and the Middle School laptop programs, but both Palmer and Farquhar believe the school should work to help more students become technologically fluent and that advances in technology could make the learning process more personal and efficient. “Technology will provide even more opportunities,” said Palmer.
The Long-Range Priorities also discusses the school’s expectations of teachers, noting that they must be “collaborative,” “open to new ideas,” and “energetic.” The document suggests a new, more thorough method of evaluating teachers and advises that the school conduct a compensation review to ensure transparency and fairness.
After reaffirming the school’s commitment to environmental sustainability and diversity, discussing the importance of hiring and training young, potential teachers, and suggesting a closer link between the academic and athletic branches of the school (including the possibility of hiring more teacher-coaches), the document concludes with a discussion of the school’s finances. In recent years, the cost of tuition has increased at a rate of 6.3 percent annually. According to the Board, “the long-term solution to the School’s financial sustainability is to increase endowment significantly,” and it goes as far as to call this priority “imperative.” Farquhar agrees: “We continue to be under-endowed,” he said.
Sidwell currently has an endowment of $44 million. The Board hopes that this number will rise to $133 million by 2021. Besides covering the school’s operating expenses, the Board hopes much of this money can be used for curriculum enhancement and for financial aid to assemble a talented and diverse student body.
Although the Long-Range Priorities certainly contains a considerable number of new ideas which administrators hope can improve the Sidwell experience, they recognize that students are already very busy juggling their academic, athletic, artistic, extracurricular, and social lives. “Time is the most constraining resource we have,” said Farquhar. The Board emphasizes that “difficult programmatic tradeoffs will be required” to effectively manage student time, including possibly an altered calendar or daily schedule.
Palmer believes such tradeoffs can be effectively decided through a thoughtful discussion process. “We need to take a close look as to what we’re doing, why, and what our goals are and if we are achieving them. Generally what we’ll see is what we want to keep,” she said. After these discussions have been held, the school will then decide how it wants to appropriate money to implement the new objectives.
Although they are not certain as to specifically how many of the ideas laid out in the Long-Range Priorities will come to fruition, school officials are confident that the implementation process will run smoothly. Asserting that there is “no set implementation strategy,” Farquhar believes that “faculty programs will evolve and align with the priorities” laid out in the document. Palmer adds that the faculty has already in fact been moving in the direction of the published priorities. “I don’t think the Board will have to get involved. There has already been a lot of developing,” she said.
There is no doubt that Sidwell Friends is currently an exceptional independent school with very strong programs. But Farquhar, Palmer, and the Board of Trustees all agree that if the school is to maintain its commitment to providing a sound education in the 21st century, it must be willing to make changes, many of which are articulated in the Long-Range Priorities. The Board calls Sidwell’s history a “restless search for educational improvement.” The school’s leaders expect to maintain this course in the coming years and hope that, according to the Board, the implementation of these priorities will “ensure that in the year 2025 and beyond, Sidwell Friends School will thrive.”
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