Go Against the Flow

One of the benefits of the summer pace at The Walker School is the opportunity to spend time planning and working ahead. This summer, I worked on titles for several blogs I plan to write this year.  This blog, written in July, speaks to the kind of culture we are working to cultivate at Walker. In light of this past weekend’s disturbing events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this message of who we are and what we believe is all the more pertinent. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.

My wife used to have a sweatshirt with an artist’s rendering of a fish going “against the flow” as other fish were swimming in the opposite direction. I often think about the image and how the symbolism represents the way I see The Walker School. In a sea often filled with enormous and overcrowded public schools or exclusive religious schools with admission policies that forbid religious diversity, The Walker School’s educational philosophy runs counter. As Cobb County’s only non-sectarian, Primary through Grade 12 independent school, Walker seeks to be a school where families of all races, religions, and backgrounds are welcomed, embraced, and treasured in an environment that is intimately scaled and where learning is the chief priority.  

Such an approach to education is admirable. President Ronald Reagan agreed when he said, “America is a melting pot, and education has been a mainspring for our democracy and freedom, a means of providing gifts of knowledge and opportunity to all citizens, no matter how humble their background, so they could climb higher, help build the American dream, and leave a better life for those who follow.” Such an approach is also challenging. In a political and social environment that is increasingly polarized, it is difficult to foster a climate where there is civil disagreement characterized by mutual respect and active listening, and where alternative perspectives are valued and thoughtfully considered. Difficult, yes; but incredibly important.

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Walker alum Josh Zuckerman (right), pictured with Princeton classmate Josh Freeman

Today’s students must be prepared to live in an increasingly diverse world, work with people from many other backgrounds and cultures, and consider other perspectives as they respectfully share their own. Perhaps at no time in our history has such an approach to education been so important. We find a perfect example of this in Walker alum, Josh Zuckerman, pictured at right, who was profiled in the New York Times for his efforts to promote respectful dialogue on the Princeton University campus. When asked for his advice to current Walker students in a recent alumni video profile, Josh urged students to listen to one another.

Ultimately, The Walker School seeks to be a place where people with different backgrounds learn from each other; where our diversity makes us stronger; where, politically speaking, liberals, moderates and conservatives thrive. Our differences and approach to diversity help us create empathetic, culturally competent students who become leaders and well-functioning members of a multi-faceted world. Three of our school’s Core Values form the foundation of this educational approach. We believe that the school:

  • plays an important role in teaching students to value themselves and others.
  • should provide the foundation and framework for giving students the skills and the flexibility that are necessary to thrive in a changing world.
  • should encourage students, faculty, and parents to develop a perspective that embraces diversity and enhances global awareness.

For too many of our nation’s students, this exposure doesn’t happen until college or after, when students have left home. Because The Walker School fosters such a positive but academically challenging learning environment for students still living at home, parents are a vital component in the education process and can give feedback on all that their children learn. It may make for interesting dinner table discussions or even disagreements; but it represents the best in the parent-school partnership as we collaborate to give our children the confidence and experience to navigate complex, difficult, or challenging waters.

This is the climate we strive to create at The Walker School.

Shadows Prove the Sunshine

Every new year brings with it renewed excitement, resolutions for change or improvement, and hope for the future.  Additionally, the transition to a new year brings reflection, as we look back on lessons learned from the previous year.  For me, recent life-lessons have been profound and impactful.  

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Joseph and Perrin Hall

On the day after Thanksgiving, our son Joseph lost his wife Perrin after a six and one half-year battle with kidney cancer. And while there are memories that will be etched in my heart and mind forever, I have been touched by three significant lessons that are certainly worth sharing.

First and foremost, I will carry four words and a picture of Perrin with me that will inspire, sustain and support me in life’s difficult moments.  For those of you who did not know Perrin, she maintained a level of joy in the face of adversity that was, and remains, inspirational.  She summed this sense of joy by saying that the “shadows prove the sunshine.”  I remember the first time I heard her say that; I stopped in my tracks.  Perrin was determined not to let the shadow of cancer control her outlook on life.  Rather, her life was lived to the fullest, with joy and in faith, in a way that allowed the light to dominate the shadows.  How often the most simple truth, one often overlooked, offers a life-changing perspective.

Second, I opened a letter this past week from retired Walker teacher, Mrs. Dixie Bowden, for whom “Bowden Library” is named, who shared words of comfort for those of us enduring the shadows:

In a remote region of Tibet, the farewell that someone gives another is “May there be a road.” In that land where snow slides, rock slides, and cave-ins are abundant, in that land where roads are casually made and bridges are often hung from ropes, the wish – “May there be a road” takes on new significance.  Surely we have highways, but metaphorically, life sometimes seems like Frost’s “pathless wood.”  We move blindly at times, not knowing where to go next, but the love of God and of friends and family sustains us, shields us from the pain of mudslides and collapses, and comforts us in the loss of those we love.

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Larry Alvin

Finally, it is, as Dixie notes, the love, support and comfort of friends and family that sustains us.  Over and over during the past six years, even as recently as this week as we mourn the loss of longtime Walker employee Larry Alvin, I have seen the Walker community reach out and carry those who are hurting.  It is, certainly, one of the most endearing attributes of the people connected to this school.  Students, parents, faculty, staff, former faculty & staff, alumni, past parents, board members, everyone in this community cares about the well-being of each person. Indeed, it is through your individual acts of kindness, in a letter, card, hug, pat on the back, or with a listening ear that the axiom comes to life – the “shadows prove the sunshine.”  

Shine on, Walker.

Why Walker?

tws-fall2015-3973Okay, I admit the title is intended to be an eye catcher; but I know many Walker families are often asked why they pay tuition to send their children to an independent school in a county where public schools are considered a good option. While the question is completely reasonable, the answer is relatively straightforward –  families that choose The Walker School are looking for a remarkably different educational experience.

How is Walker remarkably different?  If you were to look at our school’s Core Values, you would find the answer articulated in the second, third and fourth core values:

  • Student learning is the chief priority of the school.
  • The school should provide a safe, supportive, and challenging environment for learning with clear goals and high expectations for student achievement.
  • The school’s curriculum should develop creative and analytical thinking.

Anecdotally, if you were to talk to a new parent, you might hear this answer:  

My wife and I examined at least nine different school options for our daughter. Walker was the one school where the light was on behind the students’ eyes; in the other schools, it was as if the students were going through the motions.”

Or, this answer from a parent of three alumni:

“Like many parents, I am amazed at the difference in my children’s interests and personalities. So I am even more amazed at the ability of the Walker teachers to instill in all three of them a love of learning which has been the foundation for their success in college and beyond. Not only do my children attribute their success to what they learned at Walker, but they cherish the relationships they built, and continue to stay in touch with friends and faculty.”

Perhaps, you believe that statistical evidence provides the answer.  These facts provide great comfort:

  • Walker offers 26 Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings and Walker students average taking between five and six AP courses during their educational career at Walker – the highest average in the county in each of the last two years (Based on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index)
  • Walker also boasts a five-year average SAT score of 1801 and an average ACT score of 27 – each the highest among both public and private schools in Cobb County.
  • Walker’s award-winning college counseling office partners with families the second a student steps foot in our Upper School, ensuring that 100% of Walker’s graduates find the four-year college or university that is his or her “best fit.”

For the overwhelming majority of Walker families, the reason is Walker’s faculty.  A Lower School parent put it in these terms when writing their son’s science teacher this month, “Thanks for the positive influence you are having on Ian’s love of learning and freedom to always wonder and ask “how/why.”  We love watching his little gears turning.” Among independent (private) schools in the metro area, Walker maintains the highest percentage of experienced teachers (more than 16 years teaching experience) and the smallest percentage of teachers with less than six years experience (based on NAIS survey data).  

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The truth is that there are many reasons a family invests in a Walker education.  In an educational culture where, all too often, the bar is lowered so that everyone can get over it, Walker clearly goes against the grain.  Here, teachers hold the bar high and work diligently with students who aspire to clear the bar and then some. As a result, Walker graduates matriculate to college with a level of self-confidence that comes from being in a unique educational environment that is both nurturing and challenging.  Walker is remarkably different.

What Would MLK Say?

With all the excitement surrounding the start of school, it is easy to forget about our country’s and world’s current struggles with so much violence and loss of life.  How does a school approach such difficult subject matters? At Walker, two of our Core Values provide the answer.  We believe that:

  • the school plays an important role in teaching students to value themselves and others; and
  • the school should provide the foundation and framework for giving students the skills and flexibility that are necessary to thrive in a changing world.
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Dr. Cindy Schafer, Walker’s Social Studies Department Chair, leading discussion in class

These core beliefs are the foundation upon which difficult conversations are based and are part of what attracts both families and teachers to join our community.  Students, parents, and teachers embrace dialogue about difficult topics, recognizing that answers are often complex.

Let me share an example from the classroom.  Over the last twenty-two years, I have taught a history elective on the American Civil Rights movement.  It is a class that deals with difficult topics on a weekly basis – slavery, lynching, segregation, civil disobedience, mob rule, injustice, racism, etc.  Often, in the midst of explosive current events, students discuss the similarities and differences between an historical civil rights event, like the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with present-day violence that has taken place in cities like Paris, Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, and too many others. As we near the anniversary of the March on Washington, I find myself reflecting on what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say about today’s events were he alive. In fact, this is an assignment I frequently give my students and have even challenged myself to complete.

While it is hard to pick just one quote from a man who was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, this is the quote I would select in completing the assignment:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

(excerpt from a 1957 sermon of Dr. King’s)

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MLK Jr. at the March on Washington

While recognizing that Dr. King would always want those guilty of brutality or harassment brought to justice, such an assignment gives us the opportunity to discuss revenge, taking the law into your own hands, and the effect each has on a society built upon the rule of law.  Certainly students would be asked how such present-day violence is different from a lynch mob that circumvented the judicial process to carry out its own judgement “at the hands of persons unknown.”  In the Lower School or Middle School classroom, the comparison might be made to the way we treat people who have wronged us  – with a word or on the playground.

Dr. King’s life’s work, striving tirelessly to make the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equally available to all citizens, helped America become more aligned with its own core values.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we can share with our students is that our country, like each of us, is a work in progress, and sometimes, discussing troubling current events in light of historical events helps us gain a more balanced perspective on our individual journey to become a better person or collective journey to create a “more perfect union.”

Thankful in the Midst of Sorrow

Like many of you, my wife, Cathy, and I were transfixed by the horrific scenes from Paris over this past weekend.  Understandably, each of us responds to such tragedy differently.  Some of us want to bury our heads, wish it away, change the channel. Others want to exact revenge on those who would take life so violently.  Most of us want to know how we can help, what we can do.  As I reflect on those whose lives were taken in Paris and in Beirut, where more than forty died on Friday as a result of two car bombings, I am drawn to a bittersweet sense of sorrow and thankfulness.

I am overcome with sorrow for those whose lives were cut short, and for those who lost a loved one. There is little that compares with the grief experienced when a life ends too soon. Twenty- seven years ago, Cathy and I buried our first son, David, who lived only nine hours.  I often find myself thinking about David and the life he did not experience; I know I will think about him the rest of my days.  Like many, I grieve both for those who have died and for those forced to say goodbye to a loved one far too soon.

And yet, on the other hand, I am compelled to be thankful in the midst of sorrow. I am thankful to be a part of the Walker community whose first core value is the “belief in the infinite worth and dignity of the individual.”  At a time like this, when children have so many questions about such tragic events, it is important for adults to remind them how important life is and how much we must treasure each individual. This is particularly important in a diverse community like that found at Walker.  Though we have different backgrounds, come from different cultures, and experience life differently, learning to appreciate our differences is a critical part of our mission.

Life is an amazing journey, filled with exuberant highs and fraught with challenging lows. While it may seem natural to want to shield those we love from that which is difficult, it is neither wise nor healthy. Child Psychologist Michael Thompson, who will speak to our community in March, reminded me this summer that “during a crisis, children want to be with those they love and trust.” Michael would encourage each of us to be present, to listen, to respond thoughtfully, and to encourage young people to reach out for support when they have questions.

Earlier today a friend shared a wonderful message from TV personality Mr. Rogers that speaks directly to us as we walk our children through frightening moments:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”- Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers makes an important point – look for the helpers when life is difficult. Please know that everyone at Walker is poised to be a helper for each and every student.

Walker’s Core Strengths: Meaningful Relationships

WalkerCrossCountryI have great admiration for everyone who runs cross country, no matter where they finish in a race.  It takes courage to join the team and amazing perseverance to train and compete.  So I cheer just as much for the student-athlete finishing last as I do the one finishing first.  This past weekend our middle school cross country team took that perspective much further as the final runner came out of the woods, headed for the finish line.  Without any prompting by a coach or adult, members of the Walker Middle School Cross Country team – who had already finished the race – ran into the woods so that they could run with, encourage, and support the final contestant.  It was one of the most inspirational moments I have experienced as a head of school at Walker, and a picture of meaningful relationships at its very best.

Part of the beauty of Walker is that our school size overall and small class sizes facilitate the degree to which meaningful relationships can develop.  One of the key reasons parents choose Walker for their children is that they know each child is going to be valued, challenged and inspired at an exponentially different level than other schools.  

Several weeks ago, a recent Walker graduate wrote the following as a way of saying “thank you” to her teachers:

“One of the wonderful attributes of Walker is the close relationships the teachers and students have. You inspired me, helped me, guided me, and of course, taught me. One of many things that are so special about the faculty at Walker is that you don’t feel your job ends with the last bell of the day. You seem to love truly what you do.  You have given out cell phone numbers, stayed long after school, and even held review sessions on the weekends to answer questions and insure your students’ success.  Your talents often stretch far beyond the classroom, too.  We see you racing from the all-too-famous Wednesday faculty meetings to a practice or game, and others of you are getting up early to unlock your room for a morning club meeting.  To Walker faculty, teaching isn’t just a job; it’s your life, and your dedication shows.”

Walker has an amazing, long-standing reputation for providing challenging academics, talented and dedicated faculty, meaningful relationships, boundless opportunities, peerless college preparation all within a community that is both nurturing and diverse. These core strengths represent the hallmark of a Walker education, and throughout this school year, I will be using this space to highlight each of these core strengths, starting with meaningful relationships.

The Blessings of the Wait List

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Students smile at the University of Georgia during the 2015 Sophomore Shuffle.

The college counseling program at Walker has long been regarded as one of the core strengths of our school.  Neil Clark, Dean of College Counseling, has been guiding students and their families through a comprehensive and thoughtful process, focused on the ‘best fit’, for over twenty-three years.  Each year, Neil and his team lead the “Sophomore Shuffle,” where our tenth grade class visits a major university, the University of Georgia, and a small, private liberal arts college, like Mercer or Furman University.  The purpose of the visit is to help Walker students learn the key questions to ask as they get serious about the college search process.  As I chaperoned this year’s “Sophomore Shuffle,” I stopped to think about our current seniors and where they are in the process.

The end of March and beginning of April is a stressful time for high school seniors. Waiting for college admission notifications, by the mailbox or online, yields an anxiety for student and parent alike. This is followed by either an intense exhilaration (“I got in!”) or sense of rejection (“I didn’t want to go there anyway.”) In some instances, the result is neither joy nor sadness, but limbo, brought on by being placed on the “waitlist.” I had two experiences with the wait list, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize what a blessing it was in each instance.

After completing seventh grade at my neighborhood elementary school, my parents had me apply to two private schools in the metro Atlanta area, along with a boarding school in New York. When notification day came, I was on the waitlist for both metro schools, and I ended up going to the boarding school. Though the first three months were quite an adjustment (I didn’t realize math equations could have letters, for example), attending that boarding school literally changed the trajectory of my life.  Interestingly, I would later teach at both the schools where I was initially wait-listed.

Cheering for Davidson

The second waitlist experience turned out differently. When I opened the letter from Davidson College and realized I was being waitlisted, I was quite disappointed because it was my first choice. We ended up sending a deposit to my second choice and even received a car sticker for that college. My dad told me not to affix the sticker just yet; sure enough, it wasn’t too long before I was accepted to Davidson. My experience there was outstanding, although I am quite sure I would have had a great experience at my second choice school.

In an age where instant gratification dominates much of our culture, some lessons are learned the old-fashioned way – through patience and perseverance.  None of us likes to be “denied” or “waitlisted;” but it has been my experience that a closed door often leads to other doors that are more rewarding than we expected.  While I am very proud of the Walker Class of 2015 and the impressive list of colleges to which they have been admitted, I also understand those who are experiencing the “waitlist” feeling. Finish strong and enjoy these final weeks of high school and make plans to attend another college to which you were accepted should you not be taken off the waitlist. It may just be a blessing!