15 questions to shape our school

By Vince Durnan, director

Should tuition unify all costs by division? How important is it for USN to use innovative and experimental educational initiatives? How should we use technology in education? I want to know your answers to these questions.
After all the visits and the research and the travel and the draft versions, a short, hefty survey will be sent to each and every member of the USN community. If you're willing, read this insider piece about what we're hoping to glean—then tell your USN neighbors:
 
The survey connects three elements at the heart of who we are and who we’ll be: our chosen educational model, our baseline financial model, and the difference we can make as a school. There are just a few questions under each of those three headings, and the possible answers run deep. My guess is thinking about things in advance will prove beneficial. Considering one element in isolation risks generating a mixed picture that will defy implementation. So here's how it reads, with some running commentary.
 
For starters, a few demographic questions, so we know who's responding. Pretty straightforward stuff, sure to be helpful as we sort out which ideas resonated with certain constituent groups, as we unpack the data. Each respondent can identify their affiliation (e.g. student, alumnus, faculty member, parent), then check the generation that applies (e.g. Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial), and then the frequency of their connection to USN, from daily to far less frequent.
 
Then come the educational model questions, invoking three broad considerations: our purpose, our appetite for innovations appearing nationally, and our basic appetite for technology. These prompts and the available answers summarize what we saw in the three dozen schools kind enough to host us this year. At the very core of our inquiry is an idea borrowed from Riverdale School in the Bronx, where all the talk is about individual and collective purpose. Is our success to be measured in college placement, in the degree to which we model best practice, in our research contributions to our field, or something else, or some combination thereof?
 
And should we consider other modalities for teaching and learning, whether via web-based instruction, or practical experiences, or independent study plans, or closer connections with our university neighbors’ programs? If nothing in our educational model changes, then we can expect very little else to change from our status quo as a school. Central to much of the conversation is the role of technology, so far mostly a source of increased cost for us, as a potential means to better and maybe even less expensive education. In this survey, you get to indicate a preference, if you have one, for these definitional teaching and learning questions.
 
Then come the fiscal prompts, asking whether you’d like the structure and broad nature of our tuition, which provides 91 percent of budget resources for USN, to change. Should we be more a la carte, charging line by line for only what each child chooses to do here, or should we bundle the whole experience in a single annual bill with everything included? And should we consider recentering tuition, either up or down, given where we are in 2017, higher than had been ever imagined by our predecessors but lower than that which prevails in top flight schools nationally, as educational inflation continues to outpace average family income?
 
There’s no faster-rising budget category for us than need-based financial aid, and no topic draws more fervent support from the breadth of our community—but what should be our strategy for coming decades? Raising that budget pushes tuition higher, and raising tuition creates more demonstrated financial need demand, in frustratingly circular fashion. Setting this policy is tough, tough work. We’re sprinting hard to stay in place when it comes to economic diversity at USN. So in the big picture, should our efforts start with dampening tuition increases, increasing financial aid support, limiting program and personnel growth, or something else? Clearly, we need an all of the above kind of approach, but what consideration should lead?
 
The final three questions ask about our reach and scope as a school. Applications are up of late, between 25 and 50 percent at key grade-level entry points, and it hurts to say no to great young people being here. Should we find a way to grow on our historic Edgehill campus, or elsewhere in the city, or in partnership with some other entities, or not at all? How conscious should we be of Nashville's current boomtown status in making these longer term decisions? We can, and I'd say we must, engage in a spirited consideration of these next-generation questions. USN, as it sits today, is well and truly full—there's really no more room at the inn.
 
Perhaps the most pointed question, appearing near the end of the survey, asks about the shape of our enrollment more than its size. Specifically, what is the optimum combination of Lower Schoolers, Middle Schoolers, and High Schoolers for us? Savvy families know that arriving in kindergarten is the most reliable way to guarantee a seat in fifth grade, or even ninth grade, where we increase the size of the grade level enrollment but in a limited way given the tendency of students already enrolled to stay enrolled—something known in the trade as low attrition, something we on balance really like. Is there a golden mean proportionality between Lower, Middle, and High Schools' enrollments, something that builds and sustains culture here, something that should not be altered, or could we respond to the abundant interest in USN on the part of families who would struggle to pay 13 years of tuition?
 
If you’re still reading, let me confirm the obvious. This is heavy duty stuff, as daunting as it is exciting. All the more reason to bring these questions to the whole USN community, from our youngest student to our oldest alumnus and to every family connected to the uncommon, still being written story of this school. Happily, the biggest responsibility rests with our Board, who will be reviewing the survey data over the summer and into the fall. Their work will benefit at every step by the breadth of participation from our community.
 
I’ll spend time over the summer writing up a summary of all the schools we were able to visit and the lessons therefrom—that work informs the survey but should not distract us from the resulting questions at hand. The whole educational safari offered one of my best professional adventures, and the best way to express gratitude would be to actually do something in response to all we saw and learned.
 
Three cheers to you for actually getting to the end of this piece.
 
Look for a survey link in the next two weeks,
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    • Director Vince Durnan with Board Past President David C. Kloeppel and Board Vice President Teri Doochin Kasselberg '73 during the announcement of an endowed scholarship named in his honor.

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