Important Discussion of Tradition vs Change Engaged at Durham Academy

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Important Discussion of Tradition vs Change Engaged at Durham Academy

When I planned this journey I envisioned visiting schools with a range of attitudes and ideas about educational innovation.  Not all schools believe that change is needed in order to enhance their value proposition, at least in the short term.  That is not bad; markets, demographics, and local attitudes regarding both public and private education are very different, and good schools will respond to local conditions, not follow a national herd. For this school, innovation is happening within that perspective, and the lessons are just as important as from schools that are changing more rapidly.

Durham Academy is a preK-12 school with 1,160 students, drawing from Durham and Chapel Hill.  The local public schools are generally considered weak, and there are few competitors in the college prep private market.  DA has a great track record of placing their graduates in four-year colleges through a fairly traditional curriculum, and therefore there is (healthy) tension between maintaining that traditional structure and shifting to what we (wrongly) refer to as 21C-focus.

Upper School head Lee Hark says that change “has to have someone willing to stay focused on it.  Good will always be good, but without some measure of continuous change, others will catch up. Therefore, when people here come up with good ideas, my response is to figure out how to do it.” One great example of how to do it was just outside of Lee’s office window: the recently renovated Campus Center that is a real view into how schools and students will use space in the future.  It is a marvelous blend of dedicated and flex space that looks like a university commons.  It houses:

  • Library
  • Student store
  • Student commons space
  • Computer/study area
  • Staff offices
  • Faculty workroom
  • Recycling bins
  • Video wall of school and national news
  • Outdoor patio seating
  • Group study rooms

The Center provides a natural mixing space for students, teachers, and staff, and brings teachers together more than they had previously, as the campus has a number of separated class/subject buildings.

We visited the Lower School library space where the librarian explained that they are also viewing time more flexibly.  The Lower School got rid of dedicated library time in the schedule, and now the library is open to students any time; teachers send students or groups to the library as needed and the librarians are viewed as team teachers who combine library skills with classroom course work.  This open access has increased use of the library, increased circulation, and freed up time in the daily schedule.

The Middle School finds time in their schedule for a community reflection meeting every Friday, which is built around an annual learning theme.  This year the faculty are taking turns telling personal stories about meaningful things that happened to them when they were middle school age.  Students meet with their advisors every day in the morning, and advisory groups eat lunch in the advisor’s classrooms.  The daily schedule has dedicated tutorial time when students can rotate around to any teacher they feel the need to see, which DA thinks reduces the stigma and nerves around seeking or needing extra help.

I was fortunate to meet with a group of faculty leaders for feedback on how ideas grow and are implemented at DA.  They amplified the sense that faculty value their autonomy while engaging in an ongoing discussion about the balance between tradition and change. “Good ideas percolate up from the faculty, but any change has to be supported by the administration with both vision and resources.” They feel that the digital world is fundamentally different but that teaching in that world does not come naturally to many teachers, particularly older faculty who are not digital natives.  Julie Williams, a Middle School teacher: “Students are the catalysts for this change.  They are impatient; they increasingly want their own voices to influence learning.  It is easy to say ‘they are all ADHD or naturally disruptive’.  But this is an earnest plea on their part for their desire to get at information and experience.  I ask myself how I can get out of the way and become a better captain of this ship, give them a more important voice. How do you keep students motivated if curiosity does not occur at school? If I as a teacher do not present that environment, why should a student be here?”

The school is full.  Admissions demand is strong.  Test scores are high. College admissions results are admirable and the parents are happy.  Some faculty see that external change demands a response from the school; others do not. Sometimes the innovation discussion is easier when the need is less ambiguous, and at DA the need to change is appropriately ambiguous.  Innovation is not about pursuing good ideas; it is about pursuing ideas that bring increased value to the organization. We should not forget the side of the innovation equation represented by a great school like Durham Academy.

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