An Educational Safari Begins

by Vince Durnan, director

Today I am learning in Boston.
This morning I'm traveling on the school plane (Southwest Airlines) toward Logan Airport in Boston. With this outbound journey, a deep inquiry into educational models gets its start.
The backdrop is this: our Centennial celebration offered a perfect moment to consider the narrative strand from our founding days to our current moment. The people who created the school we now call home had a blank slate of sorts, and with each passing decade the picture has been drawn and redrawn, adjusted and refined, round by round. What resulted is a program that's most likely wildly beyond anything imaginable generations ago in scope, staffing, scale, and cost. And in so many ways it works beautifully, thanks to lots and lots of supporters.
But what are the implications for our future? If we were to build USN from scratch or from spare parts in 2016, would it look just like it has come to look? Would it work just like it has come to work? When I asked our hardworking and deep thinking Board if we could engage in that inquiry to welcome our second century, they said yes. What, we wonder, is the right combination of students and grades and teachers and square feet and tuition and philanthropy and academic work and co-curricular opportunity and citizenship and community engagement? Kind of a dream come true assignment for an education junkie, especially in an age when school reform debates are generating more heat than light.
So we formed a working group, and I get to serve as co-chairman with High School dad, education reform rainmaker, and Yes Prep founder, Chris Barbic. We're joined by pairs of students, parents, faculty, alumni, and Board members representing our many constituencies and meeting monthly since late last year. And the task we've set for ourselves is to survey the known universe in American schooling, searching for the very best not to copy necessarily but to consider as we imagine USN at its next-century best. We'll see more than two dozen schools in more than a half-dozen cities between now and January, and we'll look from column A to column Z for exemplars.
Then we'll spend the winter reaching out to share what we've learned, making every effort to collect the sentiments of the USN community in whatever form works best, measuring our priorities and our collective appetite for change to our current and rightly beloved model. Then, and only then, maybe we'll make some decisions this spring. Wouldn't it be great if we could reach more students somehow, and craft an education even more right for our times, in a way that did not price us out of range for families earnestly interested in a USN education? To even ask that question is surely bold, and to answer it affirmatively practically impossible, but how will we know without doing the legwork?
What it means for the moment is our legs will carry us first to BU Academy, a high school program entirely situated and embedded in Boston University's campus, then to Edward Brooke Charter Schools, the highest performing public schools in the highest-performing state in the nation—under the leadership of Kimberly Steadman '92, a recent Distinguished Alumna and Convocation speaker here. Then Friday, Sept. 16 we're going to Match Prep, a startup school with an entirely different staffing and program model in downtown Boston. We'll ask lots of questions, asking the Peabody graduate student who's attached to our project to document everything we hear and do. And we'll learn as we go. Then in two weeks the adventure will continue in the Washington, D.C. area.
What the destination will be for USN, we cannot say. But from the outset we understand our responsibility to an educational Hippocratic Oath: first, we must do no harm. This is no light and transient thing, imagining the next big steps for a school standing at a position of historic strength. Still, it strikes me that asking fundamental questions is the only way to do right simultaneously by the kindergartner who just arrived and by the undaunted pioneers who made the school in the first place.
More, much more, to follow.
    • The first item on Director Vince Durnan's agenda each weekday is to walk kindergarteners to class.

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