Strategic Engagement

Building relationships in and out of the city makes Watkinson a stronger school.

While the Strategic Plan has five broad goal areas, they cross and overlap. For instance, Goal Area Three (School as Community, Community as School) and Goal Area Five (A Story That Becomes a Model) intersect in an initiative headed by Watkinson’s Director of Communications, Jenni French. “Strategic engagement is really where community and storytelling twist together,” she says. “I naturally grew into that role the minute I started taking Watkinson’s story out and trying to draw the community in, which is what those two goal areas are all about. Jokingly, I refer to myself as Julie from the Love Boat; I’m just sort of matchmaking and connecting the city to the school, the school to the city in some really strategic ways. I have lots of partners in this work; I’m by no means doing it alone — admissions and development staff, some faculty, board members, and even the head of school are big-time collaborators in this work — but much of it funnels through my office. I am a collector or documenter of all of this work to make sure that the important connections are getting made as we’re making friends and building relationships all over the city.” Strategic engagement with the city takes many forms. French describes a recent invitation to a breakfast on campus, where community experts came to hear about the redesign of the senior year and the opportunity to become a mentor:

Making connections with Hartford artists, activists, thought leaders, authors, and academics, French says, helps create possibilities that may incubate for months or even years. She mentions Upward Hartford — a coworking space in the iconic Stilts Building — as such an example. Three years ago, after a few Watkinson faculty recommended Upward Hartford to French’s notice, she paid a visit and introduced herself to the general manager. “It’s a gorgeous space,” says French. “an accelerator and community hub. If you want to unlock thinking, you go to that kind of space.”

The general manager, in turn, accepted French’s invitation to come to campus for Watkinson’s “Future is Female” student-led panel. “She was totally impressed with our kids,” French says, “no surprise,” and the two of them agreed to keep in touch. So last fall, when teacher Jen O’Brien needed a site in Hartford for the ninth grade retreat, Upward Hartford came naturally to French’s mind. No sooner said than done. The space turned out to be the perfect home base for the ninth graders’ 48-hour retreat, French says, allowing “all kinds of access” to the city and its resources. 

El Mercado

Connections multiply and deepen

The connections continue to develop. Fast-forward to the senior project breakfast French talks about in the video above. “There was a woman here, at that breakfast, from Upward Hartford — not the general manager I met, but a marketing manager. She had heard about Watkinson and about the senior project through that general manager, though, and she was here to find out more. This is a young, dynamic woman, and she was totally fired up about this project. Remember: We hadn’t asked her to come; we hadn’t ever even met each other! It grew organically out of that authentic relationship-building that started with Upward Hartford three years ago. Those are the kinds of connections we’re beginning to really enjoy.”

“How can we be a resource to you?” they’re asking us.

Many other Hartford organizations have started to take notice of Watkinson, from the Hartford Metro Alliance to MakerSpace CT, which French recently toured with Middle School Head Diane Weinholtz and Upper School Head Ryan Reese. “It’s a brand new space, literally just huge — it takes up two floors of the old G Fox building. They’re on the cusp of opening, and we’re one of the first schools they’re talking to. ‘How can we be a resource to you?’ they’re asking us.”

Heading off campus has taken a shift in her mindset, French says. “People have no idea how hard it is to leave campus,” she says. “We’re always thinking, ‘I know we’re going to miss something amazing!’ So it’s been a culture change, focusing our attention outward as well, and stepping out during the day to visit sites or meet people. But it pays so many dividends. The Hartford community is so rich in interesting, talented, committed people, working hard to create and a better city and a better world.”

Always harvesting, always sowing

Two and a half years into the implementation of the strategic plan, French is beginning to see the larger pattern of investment and reward. “You know how I know it’s working?” French says. “Here’s one of my favorite stories. When Watkinson first joined the Metro Hartford Alliance, four years ago, I would talk to the people I was meeting about the fact that we were just about to adopt a strategic plan, and how excited we were to dig in. Six months later, I was sharing more details, talking more specifically about the work we’d begun doing. Nobody knew me; nobody knew Watkinson School; these were just get-to-know-you conversations. But then, six months after that, I would meet people and they would say, ‘Oh, you’re that little school that’s got a strategic plan!’ The word was out. It literally was my own story coming back to me. And I thought, Okay, we’re making some headway here.”

The best part about it, French says, is that she wasn’t doing anything false or exaggerated or even “marketing-y.” I wasn’t trying to ‘sell’ Watkinson,” she says. “I was just consistently going out, and showing up, and telling the story of this mighty little school.”

I don’t know exactly what good will come of it. But I know that good will come of it.

French credits the Board of Trustees for their deep support of this initiative. “The Board has really taken seriously this idea that, if you are an influencer in Greater Hartford, whether or not you have kids and whether or not they’re school-aged, you should know about Hartford’s oldest independent school. You should know about this 140-year-old institution that’s been doing great things. And so the Board is reaching out as well, and making connections that are going to make a difference — even if we’re not sure how yet. For instance, Jan Klein, who is on the Advancement Committee of the Board, an alumni parent, and brilliant at this kind of connecting, brought State Representative Ritter to campus. He did a tour, he met with Teri Schrader, he got a look around at all the exciting things going on. I don’t know exactly what good is going to come of it. But I know that good will come of it.”

“It’s year three of the Strategic Plan,” French continues. “We’re still planting seeds. But we’re also beginning to reap the harvest of the seeds we planted three years ago. It’s here. It’s happening. And it’s some of the most exciting work we’ve ever done.”

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