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.

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College Graduation Rates

As a father of two college students enrolled in a private, liberal arts college, I fully expect both of our children to graduate from college in four years or less. They know that any years beyond that must be self-funded. Thus, a recent Marietta Daily Journal guest editorial caught my attention.  The article highlighted a new funding philosophy for higher education in Georgia.  The policy, approved by a commission appointed by Governor Nathan Deal, will tie state money not only to the number of students enrolled, but to how many students actually graduate from each University System of Georgia school.  Currently, only 24% of entering freshman at Georgia’s public colleges and universities graduate in four years, and just 52% graduate in six years.

Most readers are, like my wife and I, investing significantly in our children’s future with tuition dollars.  These graduation statistics highlight a secondary system that, all too often, sends high school graduates to college who must first take remedial courses before enrolling in college-level classes.   While the colleges benefit financially from students remaining on campus five, six, or seven years, either parents must foot the bill or students must take on loans.  This dynamic impacts secondary school decisions as well.  Parents considering independent school options like Walker often ask themselves if they can afford private, secondary school tuition in the face of rising college costs and extremely low college graduation rates.

The answer to the tuition question is counter-intuitive.  It turns out that an investment in a Walker education will most likely reduce the costs of an undergraduate education.  Having surveyed Walker alumni in the classes of 2004, 2005, 2006, & 2007, it is clear that Walker graduates represent the top decile of college graduates.  Consider that Walker graduates from the classes of 2004 through 2007:

  • have a cumulative 3.5 GPA in college (our graduates retain the Hope Scholarship)
  • graduate with Honors at a rate of 47%
  • graduate in four years or less 81% of the time (more than three times the state average)
  • rate the degree to which Walker prepared them well for college at 3.6 on a scale of 4.0

The investment is more than worth it because Walker graduates head to college with self-confidence knowing they are well-prepared to handle the challenges of college and beyond.

One Walker alumnus responding to the survey put it this way, “Walker’s strength is that it challenges you extensively, so that college courses are not a giant leap in difficulty from the Walker experience. Walker does an exceptional job of fostering classroom discussion, debate, and presentations, which are a huge component of high-level college courses. These experiences teach verbal and written communication skills, and they prepare students well to meet the demands of college and the workplace. The relationships and interaction with teachers prepare students for working collaboratively with adults in their careers. I have spoken to multiple Walker alumni who had similar experiences.”

I am always learning.

In my office is displayed this plaque.  The words, “Ancora Imparo,” mean “I am always learning.”  The quote is attributed to one of the world’s greatest minds, Michelangelo, who is claimed to have lived these words until the end of his life.  I keep this plaque in my office because it captures the essence of education and life.  Students, teachers, parents, all of us should continually remain in “learning mode.”

At The Walker School, we believe that meaningful relationships between teachers and students will result in transformative learning.  What is transformative learning?  While it may be difficult to define, if you consider your own learning experience, it is likely that you can pinpoint moments where you were engaged in transformative learning.

In 1998, I participated in a teaching seminar at The Westtown School.  Dr. Roland Barth, Professor of Education at Harvard University, led us through an exercise that enabled me to identify the periods in my life where my learning was most transformational.  Dr. Barth gave each of us a piece of graph paper and directed us to “graph your life, from birth to present, from worst times to best times.”  It was interesting to think back over one’s childhood, high school, college days, courtship and marriage, early professional career.  Barth gave us ten minutes to complete the exercise, and when we were done, he asked the most penetrating question: “Now circle the three places where you learned the most.”  I looked at my graph and immediately knew the answer; I learned the most during those moments when I had failed, where the graph point was at the lowest.  It was a profound recognition.

Once I became acutely aware of the correlation between adversity and learning in my own life, I began to notice example of such learning in many areas.  One of the world’s greatest athletes, Michael Jordan, said “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Transformative learning happens in an environment which promotes a growth mindset, a topic that I will share more about in my next post based on outstanding research done by Dr. Carol Dweck.  Transformative learning happens in an environment which is intimately scaled, where parents and teachers collaborate to cultivate each student’s spirit of wanting to know, and where mutual trust and encouragement enable students to try, fail, try again, find success, and experience transformational learning.  It happens here at The Walker School.