An Educational Odyssey

by Vince Durnan, director

This column originally appeared in 2000 Edgehill, the PDS and USN alumni magazine.
Once in a while, if stars align, one of those chances of a lifetime appears. Such has been the case with my transcontinental busman’s holiday of recent months. Imagine getting to knock on the doors of the nation’s most interesting schools, exploring the reform landscape up close—just to learn. And to help frame the right questions for us as a school community.
 
With the Centennial in the rearview mirror but the inspiration still present in abundance, our Board asked, over a year ago, what should come next. My under-construction answer was that I knew well why we do what we do at USN but I didn’t know why we don’t do what we don’t do. And Nashville, despite the frequent “it-city” references and the significant uptick in charter school startups, offers few examples outside the educational norm.
 
Then fortune smiled on us, with the availability of a reformer of national stature, Chris Barbic, founder of YES Prep in Texas, recent superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and USN dad. He agreed to co-chair an ad hoc Board committee including two students, two local Alumni Board members, and two faculty members. We’ve been meeting together since last spring, charting an inquiry that has now brought us to more than 35 campuses from coast to coast.
 
To be just a little wonky, our orientation is more Aristotelian than Platonic, which is to say that we are searching for examples of different types of school rather than trying to find a single, perfect, ideal case. In fact, there has been something to like, something to consider as relevant, some food for thought at every stop along the way.
 
We’ve seen teaching and learning that relied mostly on technology and other settings where technology is rare, classrooms with just a few students and others with more than 40 as commonplace, models with full day off-campus (sometimes paid) internships and others with no such interruption, and per pupil annual expenditures from $7,000 to $50,000—we’ve seen a whole lot. The governance systems vary every bit as much as the curricular models.
 
Broad categories for sorting our voluminous notes include publicly-funded charters, tuition-charging independent schools, university- affiliated hybrids, and very small scale entrepreneurially sponsored alt or micro schools—mostly a West Coast phenomenon at present. Under those headings fall numerous sub-headings for comparison’s sake. And to borrow from Odysseus, when it comes to making sense of what we’ve seen and heard, our “every impulse bends to what is right.” But how will we know it when we arrive?
In fact, wherever we’ve gone, the first question asked of our intrepid wanderers is why we’re doing this, or more pointedly, what’s wrong with what we have now? That offers the chance to explain our sense that we’re working to capitalize on a position of historic strength. The welcome we’ve received, from Silicon Valley to East Boston to Atlanta to Austin to Upper Manhattan and beyond, says something about University School’s potential as a leader in our profession.
 
Our opportunity is no small thing. The situational advantages of our current moment in Nashville and our history as innovators with a singular set of university neighbors combine to open so many doors. The reality of rising tuition and rising faster but still never enough financial aid budgets creates a different kind of urgency. And just as real is the pressure on admissions to respond meaningfully to demand for spaces here that we simply don’t have to offer given our full enrollment. Certainly no time for complacency.
 
But there’s a Hippocratic Oath dimension to our planning—first, we must be sure to do no harm. One way to invoke the wisdom of our constituents is to bring some core questions directly to students, parents, alumni, and faculty. Those prompts will offer ideas at the intersection of our educational model, our financial model, and the scale of our impact as a K-12 school. We’ll send surveys, hold meetings here on campus, and invite families to host living room meetings.
 
Then we’ll gather what we’ve heard, search for patterns, and report to those same constituencies, starting with our Board, on whose shoulders the big choices rightfully rest. What we ask of you, loyal reader of this magazine, is to look for the invitation to participate and to respond in turn. Imagine the good we can do. And for the record, one of the best parts of this whole adventure has been coming home to see our little island with fresh eyes.
 
Stay tuned,
 
Vince Durnan, Director
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