Year One of the Strategic Plan was all about ideas. Year Two was a year of deep research. Now, in Year Three, theory is becoming reality.
Early in the strategic planning process, as they sifted and sorted priorities, Head of School Teri Schrader and the rest of the team came to a surprising realization. “We had ideas posted all over the walls, words that represented what people were seeing and thinking,” Schrader says. “We had literally thousands of thoughts up in the room, which we looked at and talked about for a full year, eventually consolidating those into the five major goal areas of the plan and the 25 bullet points that support those goal areas. And as we started working at these areas we realized, pretty much immediately, that we could not make progress on a single bullet point — not one — without touching either another bullet point or another goal area completely. The entire plan was interwoven.”
Upon further reflection, Schrader continues, this insight seemed obvious. The interconnections of the plan stem directly from Watkinson’s belief in what education is. “The strategic plan represents the trajectory of a school with a very clear sense of being transformative,” Schrader says. “This is our identity. And it doesn’t arise out of nothing; it comes from observation and from plenty of legacy — evidence, voices, stories — to back it up. And as we thought about these transformations that happen, as we planned how to move that transformative quality into the next space, it was clear that all these individual elements have to do with being part of a greater whole. When we consider graduation requirements, and we say something like, ‘The best learning our seniors can do is probably not the learning they’ll be doing in classes, even though the classes are excellent; seniors will probably benefit most greatly from an intellectual experience outside school’ — the minute we state that belief, we move from Goal Area One — the academic program — into Goal Area Three, which is “School as Community, Community as School.” And as soon as we do that, we realize that we also need to consider equitable relationships and how to create, in essence, a just community — which is Goal Area Two. So we came, rightfully and affirmingly, to the revelation that all of the goal areas are intertwined.”
That revelation was a crucial part of year one. Year two was about grounding those ideas in research:
Want some more background? Read Teri Schrader’s brief reflection on the research behind the type of Professional Learning Communities that ground so much work at Watkinson.
Year Three is a crucial year in a five-year plan. It marks the pivot from abstract to concrete, the place where the rubber meets the road. In the fall of 2019, two crucial new pieces of Watkinson’s intellectual program will launch. The interdisciplinary Humanities curriculum for grades 9 and 10, spearheaded by an Upper School faculty team, will move beyond simple curricular links between English and History courses to create deep structural connections at the level of course planning, faculty development, and schedule organization. For twelfth graders, a fully redesigned senior year will organize around a common seminar. First trimester will support the college application process and lay the groundwork for trimesters two and three, during which seniors will develop a capstone project and spend a month off campus, working with an external mentor.
To read more about any of these programs, follow the links in the text or in the feature boxes on this page.
“I am excited that Watkinson has the courage to step up and constantly improve and not get comfortable in what is already a very successful model,” says educational reformer and consultant Amy Alamar, author of Parenting for the Genius and The Parenting Project, who joined the Watkinson Board of Trustees in 2018. “I think the idea of cross-curricular learning, for instance, is key to a truly engaged student body and also what we face in today’s job market. We don’t know what jobs our Watkinson students will be looking to do — some of them don’t even exist yet — and we need to prepare them to be true thinkers and problem-solvers. This new approach, by design, is doing just that.”
Schrader reiterates that the redesigned intellectual program is inseparable from the other goal areas of the Strategic Plan. Building relationships around Greater Hartford creates opportunities for mentorships, class retreats, academic projects, student leadership. The moral and practical need to make this kind of education available for everyone, including Hartford’s underprivileged students, has led to initiatives in admissions and financial aid, including long-term donor partnerships. And communicating the Watkinson difference, telling the school’s story in order to inform prospective families, inspire donors, and build awareness across the region, both reflects and supports every program mentioned here.
Watkinson’s dedication to its own productive transformation, which continues to fuel the transformation of its students, is strongly rooted in the mission. “We always come back to that,” says Watkinson Board President Wendy Avery. “Watkinson gives students the power to shape their lives and the world around them. Well, the world is evolving, so we couldn’t possibly not evolve. The Strategic Plan is taking the best of what Watkinson has always been and elevating it, through research and experience and lots of smart thinking. The Board has been part of this by, initially, participating in the plan’s creation, and then by watching and supporting the work being done, and now by anticipating the implementation and honing of next year. Because we believe that this vision is the one to take Watkinson into the next phase, to best equip our students to meet the evolving world.”
Years Four and Five of the Strategic Plan will involve the fine-tuning of the new programs, honing them in classroom and community. Yet the work that has been done over the last three years — “all the learning, the conversation, the reading, the visits, the travel,” as Schrader says — ensures that these programs should not be thought of as experimental. “We’re not inventing from zero,” Schrader says. “We aren’t the first school to implement a senior capstone project. We had models to study, and colleagues to talk with and respond to. Watkinson is part of a working, rigorous educational community larger than ourselves, which means that people innovate, and they talk about how they’re innovating, and then the people go back to their own school to figure out how to personalize that for the experience they know their own students need.”
In other words, while broad and long-term research directs our overall approach, the specifics of the implementation will play out differently here than it does, or can, anywhere else. “The research and development of the past two years,” Schrader says, “enabled us to match our own ‘why’ to the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ we observed at other schools so that we could make Watkinson’s version of all these elements — a senior capstone project, an interdisciplinary curriculum, a way to communicate our story — unique. And that’s how we can be sure that what we’re doing is grounded in excellent practices and solid research and proven examples of what works best for kids. Everything we’re doing is true to Watkinson. We are unique. We’re unique, but we’re not alone.”
Read A Nation at Hope, the executive summary of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which was created “to engage and energize communities in re-envisioning learning to encompass its social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions so that all children can succeed in school, careers, and life.”