Welcome to the Headmaster's Blog where you'll find updates, thoughts, and events regarding Saint David's School, the education of boys, and other items of interest. This is by no means meant to be a complete account of all that happens at Saint David's. Please refer to the school's website for more complete details -- it's more a Headmaster's musings.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Opening Letter to the School Community

From 400 feet above sea level, floating on a gentle breeze at sunrise, Saint David’s administrators experienced the world from a completely new perspective this summer. Accompanied by a little nervousness, a mild dose of trepidation, and surrounded by the moist, chilly, pre-dawn air of a late summer’s day, each prepared a 90,000 cubic foot hot air balloon for flight. It wasn’t easy, but sometimes to really see something, to fully recognize and appreciate the world about us, we have to change our “usual” perspective. This year, our school and each of our sons will also take a “flight” of sorts. For our sons, it will be a flight on which they learn to see more and differently; for our school it will be a very special, anniversary flight.


In opening the doors of Saint David’s School this year, we will do so in celebration of her 60th year. This important milestone will be recognized with customary fanfare and ritual, not least of which will be the 60th Anniversary Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola on February 11; more importantly, we will use this time as a unique opportunity to reflect upon what truly makes our school special. It is often too easy, as life presses forward, to lose focus, rest on our laurels, taking for granted one’s purpose and reason for being. Anniversaries provide us the opportunity, the obligation really, to reflect thoughtfully upon our purpose, to remind ourselves what we are about, and expand the vision to the community and the world.

The collective wisdom of our founders established Saint David’s in 1951 with a single class of 4 boys and 1 teacher. Today, those 4 are now 400 and the 1 teacher, 128; the single townhouse purchased from R. Fulton Cutting is now all three of the Delano and Aldrich designed homes, the adjacent 1893 Graham House, and the multi-level Athletic Facility on 94th Street. Throughout the past 60 years one constant has remained our keystone: the school’s mission. Rooted in the original intent of the founders—the classical tradition of balance, rigorous academic pursuit, critical analysis of ideas and issues, deliberate moral introspection, the religious traditions of the Roman Catholic faith, the sense of true community, the aesthetic and athletic, the sole focus on elementary education, and the commitment to educating boys who aspire to be good men—the mission has been the school’s guide and the source of her incredible growth and strength.


Each year we have culled a mantra from this mission, a theme to help us more deeply understand our larger purpose. In light of the anniversary year, our chosen theme, “the aesthetic,” is a fitting one. Defined at its simplest, the aesthetic is that ability to recognize and appreciate beauty in all its manifestations. Each of us can easily become caught up in the immediacy of what each work day or school day demands, and in so doing, often miss the beauty of the larger, more important context, as well as the beauty that often lies in the most simple line, gesture or detail. “Beauty,” Dante once said, “awakens the soul to act.” To see it though we often have to change our vantage point.

At the heart of what it means to be educated lies an ability to be able to change perspective. It requires an openness of mind, a cognitive flexibility, a stomach for risk, and a passion for deeper knowledge and greater understanding. To the ancient Greeks this search for beauty was life’s quest and to find it they believed that you also had to learn to see the “unbeauty.” The aesthetic is as much about the “ugly” as it is the beautiful. To fully recognize and appreciate beauty, one has to know its opposite. If truth and beauty lie in justice, then our boys need to know injustice to fully appreciate “the aesthetic.” If it lies in freedom, then they need to know slavery and servitude, and if it lies in mutual respect for all, then they must come to recognize the less than enlightened forms of human nature—bigotry, indifference.

Without the ability to steer, administrators were at the complete mercy of their environment during their balloon flight this summer. Relying on the knowledge and experience of their pilot, they had to establish trust, learn new skills, overcome anxiety, and accept the challenges set before them. To do so and be successful, they had to change their perspective completely and become aware of their new, larger surroundings—the shifting patterns of the wind, the moisture content of the air, the topography of the ground. These new, larger surroundings were always there, but had gone largely unnoticed. With a little guidance and a change in perspective, a whole new world opened up. Circumstances somewhat compelled them to sit back, relax and enjoy the beauty of the journey, since their ability to control was limited.

Aided by keen observation and knowledge of atmospheric conditions, the balloon pilots were able to navigate the stratified air currents of the early dawn hours. Similarly, our boys will have their own challenges this year, and they too will have to come to rely on the knowledge and experience of their teachers, establish trust, learn new skills, and function effectively as a team. They will also have to learn to change their perspective, widen their field of vision, and focus on the beauty around them.

This summer, on a visit to Davidson College, North Carolina, I learned about synthetic biology, just one emerging field that has the potential to radically change the “world as we know it.” Novel problem solving, interdisciplinary collaboration, and non-linear thinking are the skills in demand in this emerging field of science; and I sense it’s not just here. These are the new skills in demand across a wide spectrum of human endeavors. As we continue our Curriculum Initiative, Saint David’s is itself modeling these very skills.

In their work this year, the faculty will continue to address the how questions: How do we know the boys are understanding what we are teaching? How do we know our teaching is effective? Begun last year, this fifth phase (6th year) of the Initiative will extend deeper into the curriculum and build upon the work done last year with Professor Mary McFarland of Harvard University’s Project Zero educational research group in redesigning some 17 units of study. We will use the new framework to redesign twice this number of units again this year.

The earlier introduction of foreign language to the lower grades, after its successful pilot last year, will expand further this school year. Building on the program in Kindergarten and Omega, Spanish will move into the Pre-Kindergarten and the first grade, solidifying it across all the earliest grades. In addition to the 17 new units1, math and science will continue to receive special attention this year. In our continuing efforts to fully develop a virtual dimension to the school, all homework and assignments will be accessible on-line and the website will be further expanded to better facilitate communication across all constituent groups within our community.

This summer, building on faculty required readings from previous summers, Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, Hallowell’s The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, and Perkins’ Smart Schools, to name a few of the more recent, faculty were asked to view and critique a February 2010 talk by Ken Robinson2 on his notion regarding the need for an education revolution. The piece provoked healthy professional discourse over the summer that will continue throughout the year. Critically refining our curriculum to meet changing needs remains an exciting challenge.

The Faculty Initiative continues to enjoy great success in attracting and retaining exceptional people. Saint David’s remains highly competitive in the marketplace and our new, comprehensive Supervision and Evaluation program will enter its third full year of implementation. Modifications continue to be made. This year will see the school focus more on the mentorship of teachers new to the school and on refining the program for our senior masters. Fourteen teachers will work through their Milestone performance evaluations this year and an additional ten will prepare for next year.

Also, during the summer months, in addition to regular ongoing maintenance and improvements to the facility, several major projects were successfully completed, namely the addition of an instructional space, the renovation of an art room, a pottery studio and office space for the athletic coaching faculty. Furthermore, new office space was provided for the math and science departments.

Captured by the stratified winds found only at dawn and dusk, the balloons flown by the administrators this summer, slowly, gently lifted, then floated across the farmlands of central Jersey. Guided by experienced professionals, theirs was an exciting journey of perspective-changing discovery. This is my hope for our sons; we don’t know for certain what the future holds, but the light of our mission, like that of a lighthouse guiding its seafarers safely on their journey, or our balloon pilots guiding our administrators on their flight, will continue to show the way. And if the last 60 years are any indication, our path though challenging at times, in the end, will be one of joy and illumination. So let’s join together and enjoy the “flight!” I remain,

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

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