What’s Your Story?

There are two stories that I love to share about The Walker School that I believe capture much of who we are and what we believe.  The first is about the boundless opportunities that exist for students at Walker. It goes like this:

We have purposely maintained an intimately scaled environment at Walker, because it gives a clear alternative for families who want their children to be known, involved, and inspired.  It is not unusual, for example, for students involved in theater, band or orchestra to also be involved on an athletic team.  There have been many band concerts in which student- athletes arrive straight from a game dressed in a baseball uniform.  

9B0121FE-F189-4F35-A9E9-9A47FECF190AMy favorite example of this was when McClain McKinney (pictured), was playing football at the same time he was starring in the fall musical, Little Women.  The football coach and theater director both worked out a mutually beneficial schedule for McClain. On the Friday night that the play was in production and the football team was also playing, the play was moved from an 8pm to 6:30pm start.  DCDB8CB1-C3DD-4DD2-9B3E-60341262B46AMcClain arrived at the football game versus archrival Mt. Paran at halftime and played the entire second half, helping Walker secure a key win during a region championship season.  After the game, I remember walking up to McClain on the field to congratulate him and realizing, when he took his helmet off, that he still had his stage makeup on – only at Walker!

Don’t take my word for it; watch the video below to listen to McClain discuss his diverse Walker experience in his own words:

 

The second story speaks to the reason why faculty are drawn to teach at Walker, a school where teachers are revered and can teach in an environment where learning is the chief priority of the school.  I often share this story with families who are weighing their public or private school options:

Several years ago, I was interviewing a prospective faculty member who taught history at a local public school.  When I asked her to describe her teaching load, she said she had six classes with 35 students in each class – a total teaching load of 215 students.  I was flabbergasted! When I asked her what type of assessments she gave her students, she acknowledged that she could only give multiple choice assessments that could be graded through a machine via Scantron.  As a history teacher, she said one of the main reasons she wanted to teach in a smaller environment like Walker was that she wanted get to know her students better and to teach critical thinking and writing skills to prepare them for life beyond high school.  This teacher is beginning her fourth year at Walker, where she has five classes with an average class size of 15 students, and is now also a proud Walker parent!

Perhaps you have a favorite story you would like to share about your experience at The Walker School.  I encourage you to put it down in writing and share it with me!   I would love to read it and share with prospective families.  

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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.”

Oh, The Places They’ll Go!

She looked perplexed.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I am so sad that Bob Murphy and Kitty Drew are retiring; that Ira Dawson is leaving to be the principal of Atlanta Youth Academy; and when I look at Brad Brown, I start crying,” she shared.

“I know just how you feel.  I am going to miss them terribly,” I replied.

As I reflected on this brief conversation with a Walker faculty member, it was retiring Upper School Principal Bob Murphy, appropriately, who provided the most poignant observation:

“Walker excels at preparing people for the next level, the next opportunity.  That is, in fact, what we do best.  We prepare our students to flourish when they leave us; interestingly, we do that with adults as well.”

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The Class of 2015

As the Class of 2016 prepares to graduate this week, there is no more public example of Bob’s comment.  Our Promise Statement captures this major transition so well:

At the culmination of this carefully guided, increasingly independent journey, Walker graduates have evolved from curious young learners into critically thinking, individually expressive, confidently collaborative, and admirably honest young adults thoroughly prepared for the intellectual and relational challenges of college and life.

The fact that we excel at preparing young people for the next step is one of the two main reasons why families invest in a Walker education. The other is the quality of our faculty and staff. Walker has always been a place characterized by incredibly talented faculty and staff. I often comment that the most important responsibility I have as Head of School is to hire great people and let them soar as professionals.  Ironically, that speaks to the heart of why I find myself sad at this time of every year. When we hire great people like Sherry Walker-Taylor, Sue Rittenberg or Susie Schlich, they may end up staying at Walker until they retire; but in other cases, talented professionals will have opportunities to go on to great things somewhere else…just like our graduates. Regardless, it is hard to let go.

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Sherry Walker-Taylor, Sue Rittenberg, Bob Murphy, Kitty Drew, and Susie Schlich

As we celebrate both the Class of 2016 and departing faculty and staff for their amazing contributions to our school community, we do so with a mixture of joy and sadness. Be encouraged by yet another insightful word of wisdom from Bob Murphy: “If I have to leave somewhere, this is a fabulous place from which to be leaving.”

The Lower School Unveils Honor Code

How do elementary aged student understand the concept of honor?  This intangible word may be difficult even for adults to comprehend and practice on a daily basis, so how do we walk alongside our students and children, teaching and guiding them to lead a life of honor?

unnamedOn Friday, April 29th, during the assembly, the Lower School Student Council delivered an announcement to the student body regarding the new Lower School Honor Code. The honor statements were developed by a teacher-led committee in hopes to align with the Middle/Upper School honor expectations, and to also give our younger students guide of how to make personal decisions of honor. The Lower School Honor Code presents these four important statements:

  1. Honesty: I will tell the truth (even when it is hard).
  2. Respect: I will respect myself, others, and all things around me.
  3. My ideas, words, and work will be my own.
  4. I will encourage others to be honest, respectful, and to do their own work.

Before the honor code was unveiled in the assembly, the Lower School students and faculty heard from two amazing students: Ally Carey, a seventh grader, and Barrett Kulik, a senior who is currently serving as student body president, offered their thoughts about what honor means to them. These presentations were powerful, bringing faculty to tears and engaging the student body in such a way that one could hear a pin drop in the often noisy Gatti Hall.

20160429_081511Barrett spoke about how our actions deliver the message of honor to others – classmates, teachers, parents, our community. When Barrett’s father asks him to mow the grass, he does so out of honor. When he completes an assignment for his teachers, he does so out of honor. Barrett reminded our students/teachers about how our behavior and our words are the truest representations of honor.

Ally spoke about honor, saying to our student/faculty body:

“What is honor?  To me, honor is many things.  It is an abstract word, associated with truth, integrity, morals, self-esteem, and living a life that values right from wrong….

20160429_081305Don’t let the temptation of winning a game, being more popular or getting a 100% on a test get in the way of your honor.  While it is OK to win the game, be popular, or get a 100% on the test, it should not compromise your honorability.  When someone falls, give them a hand.  When someone feels less than popular, give them your friendship.  When someone is struggling, give them your efforts. Although it may be hard at times, do what’s right, do the best you can, and mold yourself into the kind of person you want to be.”

Wow.

As Lower School Counselor, it is MY honor to be surrounded by students with such integrity, kindness, leadership, and truth. As we unveiled these guidelines for our student body, I continued to be amazed by the level of honor that our students already embody, and the actions of honor that are already displayed inside our school walls on a daily basis. Thank you, parents, for sharing your amazing children with Walker, as we are privileged each day to teach and guide these growing people to be honorable adults.