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.

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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!

The ONE-der of Walker

Awestruck. Sitting in the front row of Coca-Cola Auditorium during the winter Town Hall meeting, I could not believe my ears. When Michael Arjona, Director of Studies, shared that the plethora of course offerings in our Upper School resulted in the fact that 95 Walker seniors have 95 unique schedules this year, it put a singular exclamation point on the evening. The theme for the town hall centered on how Walker works to meet each students’ individual needs, and it was abundantly clear that teachers work with students at every grade level based upon their individual strengths, challenges and academic interests. It is a fundamental strength of our school and the inspiration for the title of this blog.

The other major highlight of the evening was a segment featuring a quartet of charismatic and engaging Walker alumni. A 2008 graduate, currently in her final semester of law school, left an indelible imprint when she affirmed the benefit of her Walker education.

“I came to Walker in 9th grade and realized very quickly how far behind I was in comparison to the students who had been at Walker. That first semester, I got straight Cs. But I sought out teachers for extra help, received guidance from the principal, and worked really hard to improve. By my senior year, I was a straight A student. I owed it all to my teachers and their willingness to help me improve, as well as my mom, who stood behind me all the way.”

Wow. To hear about more about the unique journeys of Walker students from our alumni, current students, and teachers, I invite you to watch this video recap of the Town Hall.


The week following the Town Hall, Walker hosted renowned educational consultant, John Littleford, who has performed focus group assessments in over 250 schools – domestically and internationally. Nearly every fifth parent in our school database was invited to participate, and 76 Walker parents responded to the call. What did Mr. Littleford have to say at his feedback session?

“There are schools that feature a nurturing environment without academic challenge, and there are schools that provide academic rigor without a nurturing culture. It is rare to find a school that excels at both. Walker is one of those rare schools.”

Facilities can always be improved. Buildings can be built. Technology can be upgraded. With your help, we hope to make great strides in these important areas; still, the true Wonder of Walker is how well we balance an individualized, excellent academic program within an uplifting, loving environment where opportunities abound. In focus groups with Mr. Littleford, Walker students shared that they love that they can be an athlete, musician, and actor concurrently, moving back and forth with ease. At Walker, students have the support and encouragement to set the bar high and accomplish their goals in an environment where peers, teachers, and families sit on the edge of their
seats in excited anticipation, cheering them on.

Welcome to 2015!

TheMediciEffectI hope each of you enjoyed a wonderful holiday and that your new year has started well.  For me, one of the joys of any extended vacation is the opportunity to read. Last year, Bill Reddick shared what he called “the best book I have read in five years,” Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. The book shares scores of examples of how people from different disciplines, cultures and businesses are joining together to accelerate the creation of innovative ideas.  The “intersection of fields, cultures, and disciplines generates combinations of different ideas, yes; but it also generates a massive number of those combinations,” Johansson writes.   Innovators, he explains, “often have a broad learning experience, having excelled in one field and learned another. Broad education and self-education appear to be two keys” in developing innovators.

Two things excited me about this book. First, the examples of innovative ideas being created at the intersection left me awestruck.  One example details how an architect, insurance company, and real estate conglomerate were challenged to build an office building without air conditioning in Zimbabwe, where daily temperatures range from 100° in the day to 40° at night.  The architect used his understanding of natural ecosystems, best evidenced by termites in Zimbabwe whose mounds maintain an internal temperature of 87 degrees, to design the air supply system for the largest retail/commercial complex in Zimbabwe.  The complex, Eastgate, maintains a steady temperature of 73 to 77 degrees without air conditioning, using less than 10% of the energy consumed by buildings its size! JRSinPK4Second, reading this book affirms the fact that The Walker School is intentionally preparing our students for just such a collaborative, innovative and diverse world.  This is evident in many areas of our school, such as Lower School students who are celebrating “Viva Mexico” across academic disciplines and grade levels, or with eleventh graders taking what they have learned about poetry and teaching it to students in Prekindergarten. I encourage you to read the book in order to learn out about innovative ideas that are being developing at the intersection of entrepreneurial fields, diverse cultures and academic disciplines.

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Joseph Hall III

When we consider how fast the world is changing, some of us are excited, and many of us are nervous.  It is hard for me to believe, but were my father (pictured at left) still alive, he would be turning 100 this year.  Consider how much the world has changed in the past century. In 1915, the House of Representatives rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote, Babe Ruth hit his very first home run, less than ten percent of our nation’s roads were actually paved, and there were forty-eight, not fifty states in the union.  Physical change is afoot at Walker as well.  Walker’s footprint increased by more than 50%, from thirty-two to fifty acres, after the acquisition of the contiguous property at 815 Allgood Road.  With this purchase, the school will be able to address the strategic initiatives to upgrade academic, athletic and fine arts facilities.  Additionally, the school welcomed sixteen new students at the start of the second semester.  Clearly, it is an exciting time for The Walker School and it is an honor to partner with our families as we challenge our students to stretch, grow, and mature into tomorrow’s innovators!