From the Director: Let’s Agree

by Vince Durnan, director
Here’s another from the “did you know” file. Each summer I put together a letter of agreement with our Board of Trustees, rooted in the basic reporting relationship from my role to theirs. We’ve followed this pattern for many years as a way of setting and confirming priorities, especially as we’ve depended less and less on a rigid strategic plan. The result has been to emphasize the potential of the moment at hand, setting reasonable and high expectations. The ritual has proven enormously helpful to me, and typically I carry a copy of that letter as a reminder of its promises.

Not surprisingly, what gets on the short list of featured tasks tends to get done. Each letter, in hindsight, offers a nice snapshot of that time for USN, whether it was born in the throes of the Great Recession, or in advance of our Centennial celebration, or in the immediate aftermath of the 100th as we identified the next big steps for the school.

This time around there’s no specific urgency generated by external events. Yes, we have a reaccreditation visit in April, but we’ll be more than ready. Instead, it feels like there are some big conversations that have been ripening for a while that can bear fruit this year. As you’ll see, we’ll be engaging topics of broader and more long-term relevance, conversations we had to earn our way into bringing forward. And included in those discussions is an effort to imagine USN by the numbers (admissions, budget, and philanthropic) even a half-decade from now.

There’s nothing secret about this process. To the contrary, I’d love it if you’d look over this letter, cosigned by my partner in this work, our ridiculously bright and uncommonly humble Board President Brett Sweet. You might be interested to know that all of the fourteen USN Admin Team members (the folks who formally report to me) do a similar kind of letter with me—again, so we take nothing for granted.

And since I’m still typing away, it might be worth you thinking about your metaphorical letter of agreement with USN. Maybe about what you want to highlight, whether something mundane like morning arrival time or keeping up with events here, or more substantial like volunteer roles or philanthropy—and what we at school might do to help turn those aspirations into accomplishments. Hoping that doesn’t sound too corny or pedantic. Just saying that this ritual works for me.

With that, and with gratitude for you finding your way to this paragraph even as Fall Break beckons, here’s the text of the letter this time around.
USN Board Members and School Community:

Letter of Agreement

Educational change comes slowly, and reform ideas in our field often appear to run in recurrent cycles. The result of these tendencies is cynicism about whatever the next big idea seems to be and a willingness to wait out the next wave of trumpeted innovations—assuming that we’ll end up back with what’s familiar and time-tested. USN has changed incrementally, humbly, and gradually over the decades, respectful of the hard work that created today’s opportunities, reluctant to presume our importance. The result of this approach is that we’re in a position of historic strength, but we’re also facing many of the same fundamental challenges that confront leading independent schools nationally. This could, and should, be the year that we step forward to tackle some of those vexing questions.

We’ve made good headway with faculty compensation, but it has largely been funded by faster-than-inflation-paced tuition increases, thereby limiting financial accessibility for many families. We’ve consistently demonstrated academic excellence, as measured by national testing data, but we hear increased worries about their validity from higher education, from students and from teachers. We’re deeply committed to educating the whole child, but our daily schedules are so packed that they can crowd out a more holistic approach, set against a backdrop of greater general anxiety about contemporary childhood.

To assert that we have in hand or could readily create solutions to this broad and interconnected problem set would be hubris, but to sit back and wait for others to do that work would be a missed strategic opportunity. So this year the best course will be to identify those ideas of great potential and relatively small early implementation scale, while continuing to do well that which we have done all along. Claiming and reclaiming a role for ourselves as educational leaders, finding the right next projects, whether for curriculum or campus space or a school’s place in the community, would be the very best unifying theme as we work through the self-study that leads to our reaccreditation team’s visit next April.

Last year provided time to prepare for this work. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a time of necessary groundwork for conversations we can share in the months ahead. My efforts as Director should now focus on the following promises:
  • Help in every phase of our School Renewal work for the SAIS- AdvancED reaccreditation process, using the report as a chance to focus our planning energy;
  • Once more commit to visit USN classes at least three times weekly, once per Division, building on some modest recent progress in that area;
  • Support our Division Heads in identifying and structuring conversations about the next few promising ideas in LS, MS, and HS, leading to prototype programs in each to be tested during the 2018/2019 school year;
  • Support our Department Chairs in projects to make the best use of exams as a tool for learning, to identify the best possible school day schedule, and to connect our efforts in a developmentally sound K-12 sequence;
  • Push for progress on the next practical and philosophical connections between USN and Vanderbilt, highlighting the potential for mutual benefit;
  • With significant help from Admin Team colleagues, and knowing the imperfect nature of our capacity to predict, nonetheless produce the beginnings of five-year forecasts on the connection between budget expectations, enrollment projections, and philanthropic prospects as a means to imagine our future as a school;
It’s a great risk in schools to count on some kind of quantum shift—it simply hasn’t happened for decades. At the same time, assuming that what we do now will remain both possible and optimum carries a different kind of risk. The narrow path between seeing the status quo as permanent and assuming that major upheaval must be imminent is the chance to pilot compelling ideas alongside the current familiar model. If USN can develop and nurture that kind of culture as a school community, we’ll remain focused, nimble and simultaneously true to our founding ideals.

And finally, having now lived through eighteen runs of first days to commencement here, it does seem that the timing is optimum to leverage some of that continuity in the name of well-considered change. If not now, when? If not us, who? The best expression of gratitude we could offer to our predecessors is an earnest effort to see today’s circumstances as a chance to do something of broad, historic significance—with the resources that those who came before us toiled so relentlessly to secure. There may never have been a time here of greater potential or of more complex challenges. Feeling very lucky to be in the company of such good people.
In common purpose,

Vincent W. Durnan, Jr.           Brett C. Sweet
Director                                 President, Board of Trustee

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