CA Curious

Game On!

August 17, 2023

Welcome, everybody, to the 2023-2024 school year.

Don’t get me wrong; I love summer. I love the change of pace in the offices at Cary Academy, and the opportunity for time to both disconnect and reflect, away from the bang-bang pace of the school year. And, while I wish my physiology let me sleep in, I do enjoy the extra cup of coffee and “slower start” to a summer day.

So, while I think summer is great—and I hope that all of you found time for rest and reflection, too—I am thrilled to start the school year and welcome to campus our 789 Chargers.

Yesterday definitely brought the energy. It was great to see so many people reconnecting, swapping stories, and welcoming our 130 new students into the fold. For the past several weeks, our employees have been working together to prepare for this year – and there is always a markedly positive uplift when we welcome the students back to campus. Practice is over. Game on!

Collectively, we are focused this year on strengthening our sense of community as part of the Charger Family. Last year, we were overjoyed to see the tremendous turnout at our joint CA/PTAA community events—parents and students alike. We felt how nice it was to be “getting back to normal” and joining face-to-face in fellowship.

At the same time, we recognize that much has changed – including “normal.” This year we will continue to re-establish what it means to “do school”—as an employee, as a parent, and as a student. During yesterday’s Upper School Convocation, I was pleased to hear these same themes echoed by this year’s student leaders – a sign, if you will, that we are all rowing in the same direction in the desire to make the charger community a source of pride and positive energy.

I look forward to seeing many of you during the first PTAA Coffee of the school year at 9am on Thursday, September 7, on the second floor of the Library (A203). At that time, I will share a bit more about what we are working on this year and how these plans fit into the larger strategic goals of the school.

In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to two important new members of the Cary Academy team – our Campus Safety Director, Cedric Herring, and Campus Safety Officer, Malika Lucas. Both joined us in the early summer and will be a visible, supportive presence during school days.

Mr. Herring was most recently a police officer at the US Department of Veterans Affairs but has had a varied and distinguished law enforcement career, including as a Sergeant in the NC State Highway Patrol, Deputy Sheriff in the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, and Cary PD Officer. Prior to his police work, Mr. Herring served as a Specialist in the US Army and did a 13-month tour of duty in Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm. An avid sports fan, particularly baseball, you can be sure to catch him on CA’s sidelines this year.

Ms. Lucas has served as a Wake County Deputy Sheriff and School Resource Officer in Wake County Public Schools. Outside of police work, Ms. Lucas has served in operational management roles that have given her the problem-solving and public-facing skills needed to be successful at Cary Academy.

Students will see both Mr. Herring and Ms. Lucas throughout the school day, interacting in the hallways and across the campus. The security office remains in the lobby of the CMS building, and our security phone numbers are unchanged (and are posted in our handbooks and on various doors around campus). In the evenings and on weekends, other members of the Cary Academy Office of Campus Safety will be on duty and available to support students, parents, and visitors. All our safety officers will be easily recognizable by their blue shirts and warm smiles.

Please join me in welcoming Mr. Herring and Ms. Lucas, and Game On for 2023-2024!

Written by Dr. Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School


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CA Curious

Building Bridges: How One Conference Creates Community at CA and Beyond

March 16, 2023

“You can make what you’re passionate about become a reality […] You can always have a role!”

These rousing words, uttered by keynote speaker Dr. Ya Liu, could not have been truer to the Building Bridges Across Communities conference story. The first of its kind in Cary Academy history, the conference brought together Asian-identifying students and faculty from across multiple Triangle schools in a day of fellowship, fun, and future-oriented enthusiasm. 

It all began one year ago after Leya Tseng Jones, Isa Oon, and I returned from the Asian Educators Alliance (AsEA)conference in California. Invigorated and inspired by the work of Asian diaspora educators from across the country, we immediately began plans to bring a similar necessary experience to our community through connections at other local schools. As Leya explained,  “Collaborating and building strong working partnerships with our counterparts at Durham Academy and Ravenscroft was so rewarding; witnessing the initiative, organization, and collaboration of our student leaders with their counterparts was truly inspiring. Each group took the lead on one component of our morning and thoughtfully managed every detail. I couldn’t be more impressed with what they accomplished together over just a few Zoom meetings of face-to-face time.” 

From the beginning, it was clear to this union, known as the Asian American Alliance, that the conference should not only be student-focused, but student-led. Three student leaders and members of the Upper School Asian American Pacific Islander Affinity Group, senior EJ Jo, junior Eric Xie, and junior Angela Zhang, each took a large role in organizing with other student leaders as well as fellow affinity group students. When asked about how close the first vision was to the final result, the answers were positive. 

“Initially, we wanted to invite a keynote and have a few sessions for discussion,” Angela said. “The result was just that; it was very similar to what we originally thought.” Eric added, “Our turnout was great, especially on such short notice, and every participant definitely seemed to want to be there and actively participated in the group activities and asked insightful questions to our keynote speaker, Dr. Liu. Looking back, there’s very little I would change, if anything at all.”

On Wednesday, March 8, Cary Academy students were joined by members of Durham Academy, Ravenscroft, St. Mary’s School, and the Montessori School of Raleigh. First on the agenda was the keynote address by Dr. Ya Liu, highlighting the connection between the personal and the political.

“I didn’t intend to be a leader,” Dr. Liu told the audience after outlining her impressive experience in community organizing. “It’s precisely because of the work I did. You may think, ‘I’m just a middle schooler, I’m just a high schooler, what can I do?’ […] A lot of these experiences will become part of who you are.” Dr. Liu went on to encourage students to seek out resources from beyond their schools and to “find the friends who will support you. Find the teachers who will support you.” 

Following the speaker, all participants were separated into randomized groups to experience a spectrum activity in which members were asked to discuss the intersections of their identity and what effects this had on their relationship with themselves and others. Students then attended one of several student-only workshops while adults exchanged encouragement and visions for the future in a different affinity group. 

“In both discussion sessions, I heard from many students about their experiences with their ethnicity and race,” Angela recalled of the student portion. “Even though I had never met these students before, it seemed that we had experienced the variation of a common struggle: our adolescent urge to be ‘white.’ So it surprised me how isolated everyone felt compared to how everyone was going through the same thing. Therefore, my biggest takeaway is that we were and are never alone.”

On the adult side, Leya observed that “There are so few Asian-identifying faculty/staff in our schools. We – the adults – need to find time to gather, even if virtually, to connect and support each other. Our brief time together was affirming and empowering.” 

When I looked around the Discovery Studio at the fellowship lunch, it was clear that every person present felt fulfilled and connected. In a world where being Asian American can often lead to so much stress and pressure from many sources, the beauty of Asian diasporic joy becomes not only a delight but a necessity. Looking forward, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we all intend to keep building this reality we’re so passionate about.

Written by Lauren Bullock, Language Arts and World Cultures Teacher


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CA Curious

Beyond the numbers

February 9, 2023

CA’s website proudly proclaims that we “cultivate bold lifelong learners and world changers.” It is a bold statement, for sure, and one that we aim to deliver through our innovative and relentless commitment to the pursuit of discovery, innovation, excellence, and collaboration.  

But what does that look like in practice?  

Perhaps one of the most impactful venues where students are empowered to pursue their interests—often to impressive, change-making results—is our student-led clubs program. A protected part of the Upper and Middle School weekly schedules, clubs are an essential aspect of the student experience, offering a chance to try new things, take risks, pursue passions, share experiences, try on leadership roles, and even create positive change in our local community.  

Don’t take it from me, though.  

I’m going to turn it over to junior Tanya Sachdev, founder of the Students Together Assisting Refugees (STAR) club, to share her club’s origins, goals, and the ways in which our community can come together to support local refugees in our community (spoiler alert: STAR has an informative, engaging and awareness-generating event ahead). 

From Tanya Sachdev, ’24: 

Numbers. We hear them every time we turn on the news. They define our perception of the word “Refugee”: 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, 28 million total refugees in our world (UNHCR). To some, these may just be statistics, but for others, these numbers are their world. The Global Refugee Crisis has become a humanitarian crisis impacting millions of people in our world. Through war, persecution, and natural disasters, the crisis continually expands. 

I learned about the importance of these numbers when I was driving to school in August of 2021. NPR was turned on in the background, sharing about the Afghan Refugee Crisis. As I listened, I was shocked about how little I knew about the word “refugee”. Through researching the Afghan Refugee Crisis, I was perturbed by headlines stating the extent of this crisis. Stories of young children scaling the Hindu Kush mountains or braving the Aegean Sea to escape into freedom headlined my screen. While I was purchasing a new backpack for the school year, thousands of Afghans were packing their backpacks with their most valued possessions for a long journey to find safety; their worlds were changing forever.  

To learn more, I began volunteering at local organizations such as Refugee Hope Partners and CWS Durham. Through tutoring students like “Malia”, a Syrian refugee, or “KK”, a refugee from Botswana, I began to learn their stories and identity beyond the label of “refugee”. I wanted to be able to use my opportunity to give back to the refugee community. As a result, STAR (Students Together Assisting Refugees) Club began in December of 2021. Through Cary Academy’s emphasis on student-led clubs, I was able to create STAR during the middle of the year. With Cary Academy’s support, STAR was able to raise donations, money, and most importantly, awareness. 

After all, STAR began with a sole goal: awareness. Labels such as IDPs, asylum-seekers, and refugees continually pervade news stations with audiences confounded by the differences between the terms. Numbers appear in the form of statistics such as 50% of world refugees are children or nearly 100 million displaced people (UNHCR). The refugee crisis, however, is more than a crisis of numbers and labels. It is a crisis of human suffering. Refugees face unbelievable hardships on their journey to freedom. From being denied basic rights such as education or healthcare to facing violence, abuse, and exploitation, refugees withstand constant adversity. Raising awareness has become a key component to helping local and global refugee organizations.  

One month into the inception of STAR Club at Cary Academy, the Russia-Ukrainian war caused the “fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II” (UNHCR) with nearly 2.9 million refugees fleeing Ukraine. From Syria to Afghanistan to Ukraine, the Global Refugee Crisis remains continuous and unrelenting. As a society, now more than ever, awareness and action have become imperative to support refugees.  

As a result, STAR Club is hosting its first Dinner with a Documentary event on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, from 6 PM-8 PM in the Discovery Studio. The free event will begin by watching “Refugee” by Alexander J Farrell, a true story following a Syrian family separated by the borders of Europe. Their harrowing and emotional journey will be followed by a panel discussion with invited experts. Panelists include representatives from refugee organizations, law students, and even a brief virtual appearance from Congresswoman Ross. The event will be complemented by an authentic Mediterranean dinner spread, complete with desserts and drinks. Be prepared to be moved to tears, to be angry, and for your perception of refugees to be forever changed. 

Please sign up for this unique event as soon as possible- spots are limited. https://www.signupgenius.com/go/8050c4faaa823a75-star#/ 

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Gravel Road Lessons: The Serendipity of an X Day

September 29, 2022

I swear I’m not making this up. Just ask Max, or Coach Hall, or any of the students who were on the bike trip—they can corroborate the details.

Here’s a bit of the backstory. Several weeks ago, Max had asked me if I was willing to help with an X Day centered around biking—specifically, gravel biking through Umstead State Park. I cheerfully agreed for two reasons, even before he really finished asking the question: first, I knew that Max would put together a great experience for his peers and the adults who happened to tag along, as he has led previous X Day and Flex Day activities. And second, I love to bike.

True to expectations, Max crafted a lovely day. We gathered in front of the CMS on Wednesday morning, helmeted and biked and watered. Max reminded us of some necessary details. We discussed the route. Maps were shown, tire pressures double checked, roll taken.

At 9:20, nine of us—two adults, seven Upper School students–pedaled past the Upper School, the Admin Building, the Middle School, and then out to Research Drive. A quick jaunt across North Harrison, a zip through the neighborhoods, and we found ourselves on the greenway, which led us to the Old Reedy Creek Road parking area by Lake Crabtree.

Max stopped us again, making sure we were all good before starting up the gravel road. We gulped some water and chatted a moment about the downhill through the neighborhood (which meant a crazy climb through the neighborhood when we returned), and then we pedaled up Old Reedy Creek Road. Over the course of the next twelve miles or so, we huffed and puffed up hills, roared down downhills (all while staying true to our comfort zones), and watched out for each other. Naturally, we stopped periodically to catch our breath and keep the group together.

At one of those moments, late in the ride, we were paused on the edge of the gravel road when a white-haired gentleman came over the hill, striding toward us. He stopped when he saw us on our bikes.

“Hello,” he said, looking at the students. “Is this a class?”

We explained that we were a school group, that on this day we were taking the learning outside the school walls.

“Oh,” he said. “Tell me what you are learning!”

Max explained not only the activities that we were doing, but also a number of the associated skills.

The gentleman smiled. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “And it’s so important to keep learning! I’m 85 years old, and I’m still learning and still moving! That’s why I hike these trails every day. If you limit yourself to the rocking chair, you won’t get up again!”

He told us about working hard, starting in his late teens, and finding success in his roles. He talked about retiring once in his fifties, getting bored and starting his own business and retiring in his 70s, and then volunteering—now well into his 80s. “I probably volunteer about 50 hours per week,” he confided. “And that’s what’s really important,” he added. “Helping others—that’s when you are really successful, when you can add to your community.”

We thanked him, wished him well, and then started our way back to campus. At one of our final stops, Adi said, “So what did you think of what the gentleman said?” A number of us marveled at his age—he may have been 85, but he looked much younger. Several of us reflected on his message: we are truly successful when we help others. Those thoughts stayed with us as we cycled back to school, retracing our earlier path.

That afternoon, under Max’s guidance, we shifted to other aspects of the day: how to plan bike routes, how to develop one’s biking skills. But most of us reflected, individually or in small groups, on the chance encounter, on yet another lesson outside the classroom, one that none of us were expecting.

By its very nature, we can’t plan for serendipity. But we can make sure that the conditions are ripe (yay X Days!), that we welcome learning and lessons and joy not only inside the classroom walls, but outside as well—even if it’s on the dusty gravel road in the middle of a state park where we hear a gentle reminder about what’s really important in our world.

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School


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Middle School lunch 2021

CA Curious

Let talk lunch….

September 30, 2021

Take 943 hungry students and employees with taste buds that range from plain pasta with butter to sushi.  Add a twist by giving a wide variety of food allergies to 15% of those hungry diners.  Design a menu such that total costs (labor, food, operating costs) do not exceed total fee revenue.  Then, with a team of just 6 people and 5 hours on the clock, prepare a meal that everyone loves.  Sound like a new Food Network competition show?  Nope-it’s just a regular pre-pandemic lunch day at Cary Academy.

Now add in having to prepare, individually package and stage 1545 main entrees, 325 sandwiches, 130 fresh salads, 250 yogurts, 225 cups of prepared salads, 100 pounds of fruit, and 1600 desserts by 11:30 a.m. each day.  Then serve 400-500 people at a time in two 15-minute serving windows in a way that allows the food to be safely and cleanly transported to a variety of locations across campus since eating in the dining hall right now isn’t an option.  Do all of this while wearing masks and other COVID-safe equipment and uniforms.  We’ve now gone from a culinary competition to a Marvel Universe superhero episode. 

This is what a day in the life of our dining team looks like right now.  While many things have started to transition back to what we used to consider normal, this has not yet happened with lunch.

Serving lunch has truly been one of our greatest challenges as we have transitioned everyone back to on-campus learning.  We started figuring it out last year as we returned to campus in cohorts.  Even so, this year has been like going from having one to two children.  We know it hasn’t been smooth going.  Everyone is missing how “easy” lunch used to be.  But that said, we are determined to make it work.   

Seven weeks in, we are still learning as we go and here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  1. If you package it, they will eat it.  With all of our food being individually packaged and with a “no food limits” policy in place, we’ve gone from serving 900+ meals pre-COVID to a current 1500+ meals a day.  Right now, we’re going through as much sandwich ingredients in one day as we used to go through in a whole week.
  2. If you engage in a battle between a French Fry and Styrofoam, Styrofoam always wins.  Maintaining food quality is a challenge when everything needs to be packaged ahead of time to go.
  3. Even if you’re a not-for-profit, you’re not sheltered from the current economic market forces at play.  On a daily basis, we are having to work around supplier shortages for both food and supplies, including the disposable serving ware we are needing to use right now.  Food costs have gone up dramatically and paper-based/eco-friendly serving products have become virtually impossible to obtain.  Maintaining a full Dining Services team is a challenge, even with employee benefits and higher pay rates in place.

Here’s what we haven’t changed:

  1. Health remains our top priority.  We continue to give the highest level of attention to current health protocols as well as healthy choices and allergy accommodations.
  2. We continue to remain dedicated to food quality.  SAGE and Cary Academy has not changed its standards regarding using fresh and real ingredients and avoiding processed foods.
  3. Budget is not a driving force in what we do.  We did and will continue to incur losses in the program so that we are not sacrificing quality.
  4. Food quantity for students is not limited.  Students are permitted to take as much as they would like at lunch.  Our dining services team is doing everything in their power to make sure that the last student in line has just as much selection as the first.
  5. Customer feedback is important; we want to hear from you regarding what is and is not working.

And here’s what we’re working on to get better:

  1. We’re working with the menu so we can make it as student friendly as possible while at the same time determining which menu items lend themselves best to our current take and go service style.  We’ve had some successes and at the same time, we’ve had some misses.  We’re really trying hard to make the misses go away. 
  2. We’re continuing to research and attempt to source packaging and food transport methods that will help us maintain safe food temperatures and not adversely impact food quality.  We’re concerned with the environmental impact of disposables and that remains a consideration as well in this area. 
  3. We’re tweaking individual portion size so students have the option of taking both smaller and larger quantities of food, based on their personal preferences.
  4.  We’re experimenting with how we are setting up the serving lines and stations in the Dining Hall to allow for faster service and shorter lines.
  5. We’re developing additional communications aimed at students so they are aware of their food choices, know how to best navigate lunch this year and feel empowered to provide feedback.
  6. We’re working on setting up more feedback opportunities so that we can get more input on what’s working and what’s not working.  Students and employees will be seeing a survey in the near future.  Zak Coolbaugh, our Dining Services Manager, has been out front as much as he can during lunch so he can chat with students about their dining experiences.  And finally, we’ve set up a direct way for students, parents and employees to email feedback on an ongoing basis (dining@caryacademy.org).  We’re still looking at other ways to engage; if you have any ideas, please email us.    

We want to take a moment to thank everyone for being patient as we navigate the new normal.  We do hope you make use of dining@caryacademy.org to let us know how we’re doing-the good and the not so good.  And if you have ideas to help make lunch better, we do hope you’ll share those as well!

Written by Deborah Reichel, Chief Financial Officer

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Follow the leaders: Spotlight on Youth Engagement Summit

September 1, 2021

Some might consider the task of planning and pulling off a virtual summit with more than one hundred attendees a daunting task, but once a group of CA students saw the chance to create a powerful learning experience for their peers and classmates, they couldn’t help but say “YES!”

In mid-January 2020, a group of six Upper School students attended the Youth Forum Switzerland (YFS). Hosted by the International School of Zug and Luzern, YFS was modeled after the World Economic Forum, which was occurring at the same time an hour away in Davos. YFS brought together ambitious and energized students the world over to brainstorm ways to confront the challenges facing the next generation of leaders­—moving communities to zero waste, gender inequity, digital privacy, and mental health—and build connections between contemporary experts and teenage scholars.

The CA students returned to North Carolina empowered and emboldened but also very aware of the elite nature of the experience. Rather than become de facto leaders of a series of new initiatives, they wanted to democratize the experience, expanding the opportunity to their peers and classmates.

“We were the first overseas students to attend YFS. All the things they were doing to empower youth, seeing kids our age really making a difference in their communities and around the world, was so inspiring,” beams Ryan Azrak ’21. “We wanted to bring that back to CA but also to branch out even further and transfer that sense of empowerment to students all across the United States.”

According to Entrepreneurship Director Palmer Seeley, who accompanied the students to Switzerland, a plan to democratize the YFS experience was in motion before the plane landed back in the United States.

“Our students kept talking about how they wished everyone in their ENVIRO class had heard that speaker, or that the robotics team could have attended this session, or that there was a video of a panel that they could share with their club or affinity group. It was at that point that I heard them ask, ‘Would this sort of conference be something we could do back at CA?’”

Despite the emerging disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students presented a plan for a global youth summit to be held at CA. The focus would be on connecting peers to explore some of the world’s most pressing issues, from racial justice to climate change to the pandemic. Knowing that building a global forum from scratch was quite a leap, they formulated instead a plan for a smaller-scale virtual forum. Thus, YES!—the Youth Engagement Summit—was born.

Though the pandemic forced a shift to virtual learning, the students behind YES! carried on planning their forum, working on their own time, at first, and later also during Flex Days, when the new academic schedule was adopted in the fall. Their dedication and hard work paid off. With the guidance and support of the Center for Community Engagement, YES! would take place during Discovery Term—CA’s two-week experiential education period that closes out the school year—and exclusively open to the sophomore class.

“The biggest challenge they faced was time,” says Seeley. “They found time to meet as a group every week since they got back from Switzerland—even when CA was on break and all summer—and they worked on their own, as well. For most of them, they had only been to one conference—the one they’d just returned from—and they knew putting together a four-day conference like this would take a monumental effort. It took a huge amount of trust on the part of the school’s leadership that these students could make it work.”

Challenge is another word for opportunity

In case you were wondering, the ambitious task before the YES! leaders didn’t dampen spirits. “It was a really fun process for us,” smiles Sydney Tai ’22. “We had multiple meetings where we just brainstormed ideas about dozens of topics, based off what we had learned at YFS. Then, we sent it to the sophomores for their input and feedback. Through that, we were able to expand the list tenfold then narrow it down to three plenary foci (youth mental health, racial justice, and confronting anti-Asian sentiment) and four deep-dive tracks: ethical inquiries, the future of environmentalism, gender and sexuality, and the accessibility of the American Dream.”

With a lot of collaborative hard work, the YES! leaders built a program of more than 40 (!) individual panels, discussions, activities, and opportunities for CA sophomores to find their sparks, while engaging with more than three dozen guest speakers, including experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UNC, Wake Forest, faith leaders, and even a representative from SpaceX (just to name a few).

“I’ve really enjoyed figuring out how to get the sophomores more personally engaged in activism,” shares Allie Chandler ’22. One of the goals of the Youth Engagement Summit is to let youth find different topics that interest them. In Switzerland, we got the opportunity to explore all these different topics and then figure out what interested us and what we could take back to the community. It’s been a really transformative experience to go from being the person that was trying to learn, to trying to figure out how to help other people find something that they’re interested in.”

The YES! leaders wanted to give their peers more than just information sessions and the chance to hear from experts—they wanted their classmates to have the same transformative experience that they’d had, but without the jet lag. “The [YES! leaders] realized how powerful the experience of being in the room was, the value of their interactions with the experts at YFS, and—most importantly—how critical it was to share those experiences with other students,” says CA’s Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Danielle Johnson-Webb. “The excitement and personal investment that develops when a student is able to follow their passions and explore their interests is absolutely transformative. And not only as students—these experiences are life-changing.”

“It was truly amazing, watching the students develop important soft skills,” notes Seeley. “They figured out not only how to brainstorm topics, reach out to potential speakers, and handle the logistical challenge of taking a swarm of rough ideas and turning them into a workable conference schedule, but how to communicate honestly with each other. They knew that they all had the larger effort’s best interest at heart, intrinsically understanding the pros and cons of whether or not to establish an organizational hierarchy. They learned how to learn on the fly, adjusting based on what was and wasn’t working. More than anything, they developed the skill of confidence.”

Teaching to learn

For the YFS alumni, the process of building YES! wasn’t simply about producing material to be consumed by the sophomore class, but to elevate members of the Class of 2023, like Jacob King and Brianna Liang, to become leaders themselves.

Liang, new to CA this year, fell into the role by accident—not realizing that she was responding to a call for leaders by volunteering to provide further input when ranking her preference of topics—rose to the occasion. “I thought I was helping to inform how the workshops would be created, but I didn’t realize I would be leading a workshop on my own. And then I ended up leading two. I’ve learned so much in the process, both about my topics—gentrification and upcycling—and about how to keep people engaged.”

“I can’t sit through a boring workshop,” says King, who became fast friends with Liang over the course of the year, often helping her overcome her self-described shyness by introducing her to other CA students. “I jumped in at the last minute when I saw that other sophomores were leading workshops. By helping Brianna teach, I’m helping everyone learn—including myself. I’ve had a few leadership experiences in the past and what I always find amazing and engaging about it is the sense that, as you’re teaching something, you’re learning it even more deeply.”

“Learning to teach is as much a part of the experiential education process as taking part in a seminar or participating in a field trip,” agrees Johnson-Webb. “Not only is it a fantastic way to ensure that the students have mastery of a subject, but it also helps them build confidence in their ability to connect and communicate with each other—to bridge differences in learning styles and experiences.”

Establishing connections

A common experience that Chandler, King, Liang, and Tai all had in building different parts of YES! was the opportunity to grow their own network of connections—whether within CA, or with subject matter experts on everything from manufacturing upcycled furniture to colonizing Mars. They hope that YES! helps their fellow students similarly build their networks.

“What we really loved about YFS was that they had all of these experts that we could actually engage with personally. We could ask them questions,” shares Chandler. “And that’s why we had students interviewing some of the experts at YES. Even though it’s virtual, we built in opportunities for students to have unstructured time with the presenters.”

“Watching students connect with young presenters—including alumni like hip-hop educator Kevin “Rowdy” Rowsey ’09, mental health advocate Ceren Iz ’19, Activist Collab co-founder Meirav Soloman ’21, and space advocates Abe Weinstein ’19 and Orlin Velev ’13 of SpaceX—was truly exciting,” says Seeley.

Excitement, it seems, is contagious. A dozen rising juniors are already brainstorming the next YES! experience. Spurred by the examples set by their peers, they can’t wait to build upon what they’ve learned, passing along their lessons and impassioned opportunities to the next group of CA students.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Marti Jenkins

Faculty Reflections

Founding vision

September 1, 2021

Ask founding Head of Middle School Marti Jenkins to recount a favorite memory of her twenty-five years at Cary Academy and she’s hard pressed to answer.

“That’s too hard; there are too many!” she exclaims with a laugh, before sharing a series of quick vignettes that spring to mind: The thrill of breaking ground on campus (and the nail-biting anxiety of getting the required certificate of occupancy the day before school opened). The excitement and nerves of traveling to local events (while eight-months pregnant) with little more than a series of watercolor renderings and an impassioned mission to entice prospective parents to enroll. The overwhelming sense of community at the opening day ceremony. And, the warm connections made with early families—those that were willing to make the leap of faith and join CA based on the strength of vision alone.

Of course, there are also the countless moments—small and large, challenging and cherished—that she has shared with students over the years that are close to her heart. While impossible to choose a favorite, she admits that graduation days are highlights, as are the many notes, emails, and visits from former students that come back as adults to say thank you or share stories of their success (particularly from those that might have struggled initially in Middle School, but ultimately found their place and flourished).

In her final weeks on CA’s campus, however, it is those early days that have been top of mind as she reflects on her journey.

Inspiring vision

Her eyes light up as she recalls them—pivotal moments that shaped CA’s foundations, long before the first bricks were laid. Together, they represent many intense hours spent collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder with an intrepid group of education visionaries, technologists, and operations experts that were tapped by Cary Academy Founders Jim and Ann Goodnight and John and Ginger Sall to design a ground-breaking, technology-forward, mold-busting middle school for the future.

For Jenkins, it was a time awash with the palpable promise of possibility.

“The opportunity to open a school is such a rare occurrence, such a wonderful opportunity for an educator,” enthuses Jenkins. “There was so much dreaming in that first year, so much exciting and inspiring brainstorming. We got to ask the big questions—the ones that matter. What would our mission be? What would an ideal middle school look like? How do we best serve the needs of our students?”

What emerged from those marathon planning sessions was, of course, the philosophical and physical blueprint for the Middle School we know today—one that broke significantly from the traditional junior-high model that was still prevalent at the time.

“Junior highs were generally envisioned as miniature high schools,” explains Jenkins. “Decisions—about curriculum, wellness, resources, etc.—were made with high-school students in mind and were expected to trickle down to the younger students.”

It was a model that was far less personal, far less human development-oriented and student-centered than middle school concept championed by Jenkins and embraced by CA’s founding leadership and faculty.

“We wanted something different. Instead, we started with a blank slate and the freedom and flexibility to focus specifically on the middle school-aged learner. We put them in the center and designed a program, a building, a school from there—one that would best meet their specific physical, emotional, intellectual, developmental, and social needs.”

A new blueprint

For Jenkins, that focus was personal. “I love Middle School-aged students. I love seeing them change on an hourly, daily, and annual basis. You might be talking to a student one day and that same student will be a little different the next day, just depending on the space they are in. At CA, we focused on developing a program that morphs around their needs, that meets them where they are and prepares and guides them for what comes next.

“I think from all my years here, that’s still what I am most proud of, what I find most exciting. We are true champions of the young adolescent learner,” reflects Jenkins.

Founding Middle School teacher, inaugural Service Learning Director, and CA parent, Tami Polge, remembers well the energy Jenkins brought to early planning and faculty meetings, facilitating lively discussions that would ultimately go on to shape the curriculum, culture, and lasting traditions of the Middle School. She credits Jenkins with setting a pioneering example—one that empowered faculty to dream big, lean into the CA mission, and innovate and collaborate in new and exciting ways.

“I’m grateful for Marti’s leadership­—for setting a tone for the Middle School, one that put a high priority on team building, lifelong learning, and the spirit of adventure,” recalls Polge. “When we proposed a new curriculum, or even a whole new program such as service learning, when we pitched field trip ideas or events, or when we requested resources, Marti was actively listening and receptive. For some of the more ambitious ideas, she would have a twinkle in her eye, asking how it would further our mission and what we needed to pull it off.”

And so, under Jenkins’s guidance, the hallmarks of the student-centric CA Middle School experience emerged: a robust advisory program to support physical, social, and emotional growth; an integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum that would inspire curiosity and invite discovery of connections across content areas; and arts, world language, and physical education components that were integral, not elective, to encourage experimentation, safe risk-taking, and exploration. Most crucially, it would all be delivered by a supportive, rallying community of educators working together in grade-level teams to truly know and understand each student as an individual—their needs, passions, strengths, challenges, aspirations, and concerns—to ensure everyone had the best chance to thrive.

“Marti‘s gift to CA was designing a program that always kept Middle School children’s adolescent development at the forefront of our planning,” recalls former founding Head of School Don Berger. “She developed the Middle School team concept that still exists today and orchestrated the student-centered teaching that blended beautifully emerging technology with core academic skill development. She also made sure the arts were an integral part of all students’ learning­—a major reason that CA is as renowned for its arts program as well as its technology.”

Firm foundations

It was a forward-thinking vision that was shaped, in large part, by the culmination of Jenkins’s own history and experience as an educator in both independent and public schools across the United States.

Jenkins, who was born overseas, traveled extensively as a child, courtesy of her father’s engineering career. Igniting a love of travel, the arts, and of cultural exploration, these experiences would one day translate to an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in the arts from Vanderbilt University.

The varied elementary and secondary education experiences of her youth—including both public and private institutions, American and European—also sparked an interest in education and teaching that was only furthered after opportunities to work with children both in high school and college. It was a nascent interest that would later lead to the pursuit of a Master in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of New Orleans.

In that program, she discovered her true passion. “Working on my certifications, I just fell in love with teaching, with working with kids,” recalls Jenkins.

After graduation, she spent years teaching in schools across New Orleans, both independent and public, gaining important insights into the affordances of both—into what worked programmatically and organizationally, and what didn’t—lessons that she would ultimately bring to Cary Academy. She was particularly intrigued by opportunities to combine her passions—education and the arts—in curricular innovations.

“Teaching in New Orleans was a fabulous experience, but I realized right away that I could make more of an impact, have more opportunities to make changes, if I was a school administrator,” explains Jenkins. “I had a wonderful professor at the University of New Orleans that used to say ‘don’t ask why, ask why not.’ It always stuck with me.”

Asking ‘why not’?

Wanting to have the power to push the envelope and advocate for change—to ask ‘why not’ in the transformation of classrooms—she embarked on her second master’s degree. This time, she chose a Master of Education in Education Administration from the University of Texas at Austin which focused on the principalship level.

In Texas, she had opportunities to work in close collaboration with local school boards and communities, making recommendations for programmatic improvements. It was her first taste of effecting real change on the larger education landscape, of making education responsive to community and individual learner needs.

Happily, a successful trimester long culminating internship—as Assistant Principal in an elementary school in one of the top school districts in Texas—turned into a post-graduation invitation to take the position on a permanent basis. She was on her way.

Later, a move to Jackson, Mississippi for her husband’s career would prove serendipitous, coinciding with a career opportunity seemingly tailor made to her interests: a principalship for a new magnet public school program that combined academics and performing arts for grades four through twelve. As principal, Jenkins would transform the entire program, transitioning it from a pull-out model to an on-site program.

“It was exciting!” recalls Jenkins of her four years at the Power Academic and Performing Arts Complex. “We were partnering with the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools that was fighting flight from public schools. There were so many cool opportunities to work closely with the community, with the parents. I really valued that, just as I had in Texas.”

Jenkins, pictured here with her husband David, looks forward to more time with family.
Building together

Indeed, for Jenkins, building something more than a mere school—but a true collaborative learning community—has always been paramount. If it was the promise of a blank slate and similar start-up vibe that initially drew her to Cary Academy, in part, it has been the incredible close-knit and mission-driven Cary Academy community that has encouraged her to stay all these years.

“As a community at CA, we all live and breathe our mission. I don’t think all schools can say that. Discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence—I see our mission in action constantly. I see it in the dedication and creativity of our faculty and staff, in the forward-thinking vision of our board, in the curiosity and personal growth of our students, and in the support from our wonderful families.” She stops to smile, “Who wouldn’t want to work in such an exciting environment, with such wonderful people?”

Fostering a sense of community—a sense of belonging—amongst the Middle School student body has also been crucial for Jenkins. Having moved many times during her childhood, it is not something that she herself experienced growing up. Recognizing that void in her own past has helped her to prioritize ensuring that her program supports students in authentically connecting with one another to find their place and people.

Cultivating that community is, of course, an important part of her legacy, but Jenkins is humble. She is quick to shift focus away from herself, spotlighting instead the “incredible” group of faculty and staff that she has helped develop over the years.

“It really is about the larger learning team. I view my role as minor compared to what the folks in the classrooms are doing. I’m just supporting that role, making sure their needs and the needs and interests of our program are met,” she offers.

“I’m proud to have built a place that attracts creative, energetic, student-centered, dedicated folks that love teaching Middle School and all it entails. It takes a unique person; not all educators can do it. When you’re working with this age, if something comes up—and it will­—the content is not going to take first place; you have to be able to be flexible, to be able to set aside whatever you had planned for that day and, instead, meet them where they are. Sometimes, you have to put yourself in their shoes.”

“I think the best teachers are those that either had challenging experiences themselves as students, or had really wonderful experiences. Either way, they remember and bring the lessons learned from those experiences to the classroom in a powerful way,” she continues.

Longtime colleague and eighth-grade social studies teacher David Snively credits Jenkins with giving him the freedom and flexibility to do just that. “The guiding principle that I took from Marti was something she said to me way back in the 20th century: ‘Do what you think will be best for the students.’ That directive gave permission for all sorts of stuff, from simulations to trips,” offers Snively.

“The message provided a constant, consistent signpost pointing towards an endless number of paths to follow and explore. For me, I think that message is what makes our program so special, and I thank Marti for making it the foundation on which the Middle School is based.”

Measuring success

As any good educator, Jenkins evaluates her success and the program she helped to found and build through the lens of her students.
“Kids showing up every day, happy to be here, wanting to come back every day. Former students that come back and say ‘I just loved Middle School.’ Feedback from new parents that say ‘this is such a change for my child, they’re excited about getting up and coming to school’—these are huge for Middle School,” offers Jenkins. “I love watching as our students grow, get older, and go through the Upper School with a critical eye, one that is truly reflective of their own voice and thinking, their own perspective; that feels like success.”
A success, indeed, and one that Laneta Dorflinger, a longtime member of CA’s Board of Directors, credits to Jenkins.

“I have had the good fortune of witnessing Marti’s visionary leadership through two lenses: as a parent and as a Board member,” reflects Dorflinger. “Always pleasant, calm, and in control, Marti embodies a rare combination of experience and qualities, including an unwavering commitment to CA’s mission and students, that has always inspired a strong sense of confidence in her leadership and the Middle School she helped to create.”

“Cary Academy owes Marti a debt of gratitude,” agrees Head of School Mike Ehrhardt. “With dedication and vision, she has helped build a remarkable foundation for our Middle School—one that sets us apart and on which we can build for the next 25 years.”

The future ahead

Now, as Jenkins looks toward retirement—a decision influenced by pandemic-inspired reflection—she’s excited to spend more time with her family, with her husband and stalwart support of over forty years, David, and her two daughters, CA alums Quinn ’12 and Anna ’15, and a grandchild on the way.

After dedicating so much time and energy to CA, she’s looking forward to crossing some long-postponed items off her bucket list. Ever the lifelong learner, she’s working towards getting a master gardeners certification—“It’s all about the chemistry,” she explains—and anticipating a long-awaited return to travel, including a tour of the United States by motorcycle and the intracoastal waterways of North Carolina by boat.

The moment is admittedly bittersweet. Undoubtedly, she will miss her colleagues, in particular, her office staff and those faculty with whom she has worked side-by-side so closely all these years.

“That first year, we cut a piece out of the foundation of the Middle School building, and some of us have those bricks hanging on our walls,” Jenkins reflects. The people that have those bricks, and all the others that helped build the foundations of this program, a program that is so wonderful because of their efforts—I will miss them.”

And, of course, she’s gets a little misty thinking about precious moments with students—those that are so quintessentially Middle School: the din of excited voices in the hallway, a random saxophone solo that trickles into her windows from a student waiting for pickup, and all the impactful one-on-one conversations she’s had over the years from which she has learned so much.

“There is so much wisdom in our students’ voices, so many important insights they have to share,” says Jenkins. “If we really listen to what they are saying, really give their voices the consideration and weight they deserve, we can learn and do amazing things­—not only for them, but for us as educators, and as an institution.”

Rest assured, retirement does not mean Jenkins won’t be watching eagerly to see what comes next, to see exactly what CA is learning and we will respond as a community. With unwavering faith in the mission and the school she pioneered, she smiles: “I have no doubt that it is going to be amazing.

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications


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CA Curious

Welcome to the 25th Anniversary Year at Cary Academy!

August 12, 2021

While we are still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19, our first day of school was a joyous celebration of community — something we have not felt in almost two years. 

In 25 short years, Cary Academy has established a reputation as one of the leading schools in the country. While we don’t put much stock into rankings and such (we believe each school should be measured by its mission-fit for current students), we are very proud that our alumni report a high degree of satisfaction with their time at Cary Academy — both from a career and personal perspective. 

In our most comprehensive survey of 331 alumni, 87% indicated they would recommend CA to a friend. In addition: 

  • 98% of respondents indicated that CA had a positive or strongly positive impact on the development of their critical thinking skills, and 90% said the same thing about CA instilling a passion for learning. 
  • For those who had already graduated college, 85% said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with their current profession. 
  • And finally, and I believe most importantly, 93% of all respondents said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with their quality of life. 

During this momentous year, our 25th, it is important to give thanks to the school’s founders — who set this glorious school in motion and still help guide us today. Cary Academy was established through the generous philanthropy of Dr. James H. and Ann Goodnight, and John and Ginger Sall. They envisioned a college preparatory school that would serve as an engine for student-centered, technology-rich instructional innovation embedded in a liberal arts tradition. Our school’s inspiring and inclusive culture stems from its powerful founding mission to be a diverse learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.

Cary Academy opened on August 18, 1997, with 244 students in grades 6-10. We quickly reached an equilibrium of 680-700 students that lasted for quite some time. During last year’s admissions cycle, we received applications from students attending 161 different schools around the region and country, and we enrolled students from more than 65 different schools! We opened our doors on August 11, with 785 students, 55% of whom identify as people of color and nearly 15% of whom are receiving some form of financial assistance. 

Cary Academy has grown over the last several years, in part because fewer and fewer students choose to leave the school before they graduate. Our attrition rate is one of the lowest in the country. As such, we’ve needed to expand in our Upper School to make room for a cohort of new students each year, who bring essential insights, interests, and talents to our community. 

We have much to be proud of during this anniversary year, and we stand in a position of strength to build an even stronger school moving forward. As I mentioned in my opening remarks to students at our Move Up Ceremony on the first day of school, Cary Academy is an amazing place — but each year, we must do our part to build new community and reinforce our special culture. Our school history gives us a proud heritage, but it is built up anew with each generation of families and students who pass through our doors. 

One alumni, in a recent survey, highlighted how special this is … 

The seven years at Cary Academy really defined my personality and who I am today. The biggest impact was being in a community of other students who were the right combination of intellectually curious, ambitious, and passionate. Many of these people are still close friends.”

We are grateful that you have chosen Cary Academy, and we look forward to a wonderful and unique school year. 

Written by Dr. Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School


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Spring in North Carolina can be wonderful!

April 29, 2021

In speaking with Middle School Head Marti Jenkins about this week’s Fun Fest activities – rife with bouncy castles and bingo — she said: “This is the first time in over a year that things have felt normal.”  

Indeed, the transition to Yellow Mode has brought a sense of joy, and normalcy, to the routine of school and rituals of spring. Even against the backdrop of ongoing challenges, there is a sense of hope and optimism that very much matches the season. Watching the kids run, and jump, and laugh, on the MS Field lifted my spirits in unexpected ways. It felt right to smile, and maybe for a moment, look forward to better times ahead.  

Of course, one of the reasons to be optimistic for “better times ahead” is that we do not expect to rewind and return to “normal.” While the pandemic and racial reckoning have been isolating and painful, they also have been instructive. We will honor the pain by growing from the experience(s) and doing some things differently, and better, going forward.  

Now, it might be a bit too early to outline precisely what those things are … but I feel quite confident that Cary Academy will start next school year stronger and more committed to our mission than at any time in our 25-year history.  

As a school, I am proud that we have moved our programs and strategic plan forward this year against any number of odds. We’ve put renewed emphasis on student wellness, reimagined how we structure and use time, and leaned into new ways to further experiential learning. Together, these efforts have offered new avenues for our students to exercise agency, leadership, and choice. At the same time, we’ve also reconfirmed and strengthened our commitment to being an anti-racist organization, institutionalizing important ways to genuinely listen, understand, learn from, and support one another.   

While we’ve struggled like every organization and every community this past year, we’ve also learned that we are individually and collectively resilient. Our community is comprised of deeply caring people who want the best for our own families, our school, and our world.  

And our collective patience and goodwill, while stretched at times, never snapped. I cannot overemphasize how important—and, frankly, remarkable–that has been. While there have been plenty of opportunities for Monday morning quarterbacking this pandemic, our families put their trust in CA. Fighting the virus has been hard enough; thankfully, we never started fighting each other. Given the times in which we live, this is greatly appreciated. Thank you, all!  

I’m looking forward to closing out the 2020-2021 school year in the most typical way possible, and planning ahead for a new and improved “normal” for 2021-2022. 

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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