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CA Curious

Breaking the People Pleasing Cycle

September 22, 2022

What do we do when our children don’t get what they want? When they’re little, we coach them on the value of sharing, waiting their turn, or accepting the situation. If you are a parent of siblings, you’ve probably set multiple invisible timers to negotiate toy time between equally indignant children. You’ve heard ‘it’s-my-time-with-the-Xbox!’ and ‘I WAS HERE FIRST!!!’ I remember the days when one of my children ONLY wanted to practice the piano at the exact time that their sibling was practicing. Have you ever seen piano-bench wrestling? It’s not pretty. 

But how about when they’re older? An adolescent? What happens when your child struggles with self-regulation when they don’t get chosen for a sports team, their arts major preference, or their first choice in an X-day activity? 

They might seem mad or sad—even indignant; fear of rejection can wear many masks (and some, simultaneously). And, wow, can it be tough to parent a child through that, especially when, as parents, we might struggle ourselves with FOMO (a.k.a. Fear Of Missing Out. It’s a real thing, I promise).  

Or maybe it’s not self-regulation they are struggling with, but rather: what if they’re struggling with a side effect of people-pleasing?  It might stem from a fear of disappointing YOU, their parent, if they did not get or do something that was expected of them.  How can you parent them through those choppy waters?

You can ask a parent of a first-year college student who is at their ‘second choice’ school and thriving. Or you can ask the parent of a child who was put into a random X-day activity last year and ended up loving it.  Or Jay Sagrolikar ’21 who was placed in band as his second-choice arts major in the 6th grade and ended up being one of our school’s most prolific and joyful saxophonists, completing multiple independent studies and performing as a key player in a newly formed jazz band.  His band teacher wrote

Jay, Xavier, and Marvin all stopped by at the start of this school year just to jam a little bit together and be in the band space.  Wonderful young men who have definitely found a passion in their gifts of music.  Here is a short video of what they were playing around with that morning.  Warmed my heart for sure!  

There are lessons to learn here that go well beyond placement.  Parents who have experienced such challenges and have experienced any measure of success have reported that they did a few things:

  1. They let their child feel their emotions—whatever those were.
  2. They sought their child’s permission to discuss the disappointment and their feelings about it.
  3. They discussed it without shame or judgment, approaching the issue with curiosity and empathy, including that it’s okay to have “wants”.
  4. When their children felt like a victim of ‘not being selected,’ they kept the focus on things in their child’s control, like attitude and enthusiasm.
  5. If it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it.
  6. Worth repeating: if it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it. (It’s hard, I know.)
  7. They asked their children for their suggestions on how to move forward, opening an empowering space for their kids to flex agency, figure out self-advocacy, and practice problem-solving.

In short, all found success when the parents signaled that their kids could handle their disappointment and when they stopped assigning judgment to their kids’ feelings. It’s totally normal to feel sad and disappointed and bummed—yes, it makes us parents uncomfortable, but there are no such things as ‘bad’ feelings. 

I know it can be hard to watch your child sit in discomfort, to resist the urge to swoop in and manage a situation or “fix” it on their behalf. However, I promise that there is something extremely valuable in finding safe, low-stakes ways for your children to experience disappointment and find acceptance of an outcome different than what they had planned and envisioned. In a recent podcast entitled How to Raise Untamed Kids, Dr. Becky Kennedy talks with Glennon Doyle and her pod squad (We Can Do Hard Things) about these very topics.  

Of course, I’m not talking about ‘settling’ in a marriage or a career or anything like that. Rather, having a mild-to-moderate disappointment is a chance to understand that sometimes, for reasons that may be as random as a lottery, life deals you your second choice–and that you will be just fine, perhaps even better for it. It can also present an important opportunity to practice breaking the bonds of people-pleasing, which plague so many of us adults. 

You might be saying, “But Josette, my child has had her fair share of disappointments.”  And there are undoubtedly heavy sighs when we recognize societal disappointments, like how COVID shaped the last few years of these children’s social lives.  But if we are genuinely looking to celebrate authentic success, let’s start by recognizing the value in building a worldview in which our children are sometimes the main character and, other times, a supporting crew.  After all, it is in those alternate outcomes, second choices, and “disappointments” that resilience and flexibility are forged. And these are skills you want your kids to have in spades when larger challenges and disappointments come their way. By granting a space for your children to experience and process a disappointment, you are arming them with the confidence and knowledge that, when things don’t go their way, they can handle it—that they’ve “got this.”

And that is how disappointments don’t become setbacks, but new opportunities.

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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New year, new plan

September 23, 2021

How wonderful it’s been to return to at least some sense of normalcy this school year with all students back on campus five days a week! 

While there is certainly comfort in returning to a more familiar mode of operation, this does not mean that our learning community is aiming to go back entirely to the way things were before the pandemic. On the contrary, we are starting this school year looking resolutely and optimistically to the future, with a new strategic plan that doubles down on the powerful strategic vision we first articulated in 2015: 

Cary Academy will create personalized learning opportunities that are flexible and relevant in an environment that supports student wellbeing.   

We will cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions  to the world. 

It’s been a while since we’ve spoken broadly about our 2020 strategic plan, and some of you who are newer to our community may not even be aware of its genesis.  

Every five years, the school engages in a strategic planning process that also serves as our self-study for purposes of accreditation renewal. Our 2020 strategic planning process got underway in early 2019, with a review of the progress we had made with our 2015 plan. In the course of that review, we found ourselves excited by what we had been able to achieve but also struck by what might be possible if we were to continue down the ambitious strategic path we had set for ourselves for another five years.   

What, for example, might we be able to accomplish with respect to our goals for creating institutional flexibility and cultivating authentic engagement if we were to concentrate our energy on deeply reimagining the way we use time?   

And what might we be able to achieve with respect to our goals for building strong connections and providing appropriate resources if we were to follow up on the significant improvements we were making to the physical side of our school environment with an equally substantial slate of improvements supporting the cultural side? 

With questions like these in mind, the Head of School convened a Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) with members representing the Board, faculty and staff, students, parents, and alumni.  The SPC worked with the school’s Leadership Team to develop the 2020 plan as a “second phase” to the 2015 plan, identifying a set of key strategies for each of our existing goal areas that would help us more fully realize the original strategic vision. The work of the SPC was then shared with employees for further feedback and finetuning, with the Board reviewing and approving the final plan in November 2019, ahead of an anticipated accreditation team visit in Spring 2020. 

Then came COVID.   

Suddenly, our accreditation visit was postponed from April 2020 to March 2021. This, in turn, caused the rollout and first year of implementation of our new strategic plan to be postponed to the current school year.  All the while, the global pandemic and the call to action on racial justice were giving added urgency to much of the strategic work envisioned in our plan, particularly in the areas of institutional flexibility and wellbeing. So, in something of a paradox, we significantly accelerated implementation of certain components of our strategic plan starting in Summer 2020, even as we were forced to delay the official kickoff of the 2020 plan to Fall 2021.    

The result? 

We are now in the unusual (but fortunate) position of having already made significant headway in the execution of our new strategic plan, even though we are technically just a few weeks into the formal “year one.”  Some highlights of our progress to date include: 

  • Piloting new daily schedules in Middle and Upper School featuring a later start to the school day, fewer class meetings/transitions per day, a longer Middle School lunch break, and a flexible Wednesday.  
  • Shifting to a semester system in the Upper School to reduce grade focus and anxiety through fewer reporting periods.  
  • Launching X-Day programming to support experiential learning, with an emphasis on student co-creation and student choice. 
  • Partnering with the PTAA to administer the Authentic Connections/High Achieving Schools Survey to assess the wellbeing of our student community and identify areas for improvement. 
  • Reaffirming and strengthening our commitment to equity and anti-racism as a cornerstone to wellbeing in our community. 

What’s next? 

To answer that question, I would like to invite you to take a closer look at the full 2020 Strategic Plan now posted to our website. The goals and strategies outlined in the plan will drive much of the work we undertake as a learning community over the next five years, with ample opportunities for participation and feedback along the way. By taking a deeper dive into work begun in 2015 and looking for the opportunities in our response to both the racial equity and the public health crisis, we are positioned to move our learning community forward in ways that are not only positive but truly transformative. 

I look forward to the strategic journey ahead and hope you share my excitement about the possibilities. 

Written by Martina Greene, Dean of Faculty

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CA Curious

The power of purpose

September 2, 2021

Coach Pullen is a genius.

We had been watching our 65 middle school cross country students struggle through an early-season workout. A few students dutifully completed the warm-up jog. Still, most had quickly defaulted to walking — all the while grumbling about the heat, sore ankles, and assorted other tribulations associated with physical activity. 

“OK, runners,” Coach shouted as they came in from the first loop of the field. “Those of you who are one of the top 15 to 20 runners on the team — my best runners — you can go out for another loop. The rest of you, go ahead and stop for a water break.” 

I watched in amazement as at least half the team looked at one another, trying to assess the situation, themselves, and their friends… and then headed back out for a second loop. This time, at a full run. 

Coach Pullen’s motivational technique got me rethinking about something I shared with Upper School students at their opening convocation this year. 

There is a growing body of research on the positive impacts of having purpose in life. As Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow recently explained on an NPR podcast: “There seems to be accumulating evidence that one of the benefits of feeling a sense of purpose is that it can help us remain even keel in moments of stress or challenge, and sometimes even uplifting experiences.”

The challenge for all of us — but especially young people — is how to “find” that purpose. 

Professor Burrow would be quick to point out that this might be the wrong way to look at it. 

Purpose, he would say, is “cultivated,” not found. This happens by creating an environment where you establish a sense of identity and self-understanding, are exposed to new things, interesting questions, and challenging ideas, and then have some self-determination in where you go in life. 

Fortunately, as I told the students in August, research shows us three potential ways to cultivate purpose. 

  1. Proactive: A gradual, sustained attempt to engage in a topic or opportunity. Think of a hobby that morphs into something more, sometimes without even realizing when the transition happened. 
  2. Reactive: Responding to something that happens in life, which can often be negative, that nonetheless gives somebody a newfound sense of purpose or direction.  
  3. Pro-Social: Cultivating a sense of purpose through interacting and learning from other people and their passions or purposes. Like a hobby, this type of purpose acquisition may grow gradually over time — but it comes from our natural desire to share experiences with others. 

We can see opportunities to cultivate purpose in all three ways here at Cary Academy, but certainly more clearly in ways 1 and 3. As we move further down the path of our strategic plan, we seek to build more opportunities to grow student interests and passions through coursework, extracurricular programs, and new experiential learning pathways embedded in X Days. 

Which brings me back to Coach Pullen and seeing first-hand the power of pro-social motivation. None of our new runners are really experienced enough to know if the sport will be for them or if it will lead to a life-long association with running or fitness. For now, though, the experience of being together and of trying on the identity of “top runner,” is a powerful motivator and a positive experience. 

That’s ultimately how the race is won—one step at a time.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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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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Welcome to our visiting accreditation team

March 18, 2021

After nearly a year on the back burner, the time has come to bring accreditation front and center once again. 

As I shared in a previous post, schools seeking re-accreditation are expected to host a visit by a team of peer educators charged with reviewing the school’s responses to a set of accreditation standards, as well as its self-study and five-year improvement plan. Cary Academy was originally slated to host a visiting team from the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) last April, but the pandemic caused that visit to be postponed, first to the fall, and then to the following spring. At long last, spring 2021 has arrived, and with that, we are all set for our visiting team to join us for a three-day visit from March 22-24.     
 
Who are our distinguished guests? 

Leading the team is Dr. Susan Banke, Executive Coach and Clinical Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Kennesaw State University. She will be joined by Ms. Alyssa Belcher, Assistant Director for College Guidance at Christ School in Asheville; Dr. Christopher Garran, Head of School at Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach; Ms. Carla Moyer, Head of Middle School at Cannon School in Concord; and Mr. David Welsher, Elementary Principal at The Epstein School in Atlanta.   

The visiting team would normally spend all three days of the visit on our campus, but because of the pandemic, this year’s visit will be conducted in a new hybrid format developed by SAIS.  Team members will visit our school in person on Monday, March 22nd, and then return home to carry out the remainder of the visit virtually on Tuesday the 23rd and Wednesday the 24th. In keeping with this new format, Monday will focus primarily on touring facilities and observing classes, while Tuesday and Wednesday will focus more on Zoom meetings with members of the Strategic Planning Committee and small groups of representatives from various constituencies (faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni). The visiting team will, of course, observe all of our established safety protocols while they are on campus, including wearing masks and maintaining social distance.  It should also be noted that while we would normally have 20+ representatives participating in each of the constituent group meetings when held in person, SAIS has asked that we limit the number participating in this year’s virtual meetings to 10-12 in order to make the Zoom sessions easier to manage. 

The visiting team typically explores school operations within five major areas of effective school practice:  mission, governance and leadership, teaching and learning, stakeholder communications and relationships, and resources and support systems. In another change related to the pandemic, however, this year’s team will also be looking into our implementation of virtual learning as an additional category of effective practice.  How did we plan and prepare for the shift to remote learning in Spring 2020 and hybrid learning during the current school year?  How are we ensuring that our virtual learning components are designed and delivered in ways that support student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions? How do we provide for safety and wellbeing specific to the virtual learning environment? How will we use our experiences with virtual learning to inform our practice moving forward? These are all new questions that we can expect to address during the team visit. We will also be discussing our strategic plan with the visiting team, as well as sharing how our commitment to and prioritization of anti-racism and equity work aligns with the wellbeing dimension of our strategic vision and supports the pursuit of our strategic goals.   

Accreditation is designed to be a growth opportunity for schools anchored in reflective inquiry and meaningful feedback, and we greatly appreciate the willingness of our visiting team members to take time away from their own schools and families to be part of our accreditation process. Ultimately, visiting team members will use what they learn during their visit to develop a series of commendations and recommendations for our school, which they will capture in a written team report. The report will also include the visiting team’s recommendation to SAIS regarding our continued accreditation for the next five years. 

Please join me in welcoming the team to campus on March 22nd for what is sure to be a thought-provoking and rewarding accreditation visit! 

Written by Martina Greene, Dean of Faculty

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Healthy Data

February 11, 2021

I don’t remember the exact details now, since it’s been a year and a half, but I do remember embracing the serendipitous moment: the PTAA Health and Wellness Committee was wondering about how we could continue to work on student wellness, and I was thinking about what I had learned in the previous few years about gathering data on that topic.  Specifically, in 2018 I had heard Dr. Suniya Luthar speak about the tool she had developed to help high-achieving schools identify the stressors in students’ lives, and then plan for how to address some of those areas of concern. 

Because it’s always better to have options, the PTAA committee leaders offered to research different tools we could use.  One of the leaders quickly narrowed the options down to the High Achieving School Survey (HASS) and the Making Caring Common survey out of Harvard—both tools came highly recommended, both provided good data. 

“Which one should we use?” I asked the parent leader after she had researched the surveys, spoken to the developers, and parsed the information. 

“Well,” she paused.  “Both.”   

She explained that while each was a powerful tool that could help us gather data about student wellbeing, each focused on something slightly different. Making Caring Common delves into creating positive connections among students. The HAS survey aggregates data about the stressors in student lives, both inside and outside the school, and then points us toward the most important actions to take. 

“Sounds like an excellent plan,” I said.   

So, we organized and talked and worked with the respective companies, laying the foundation for students to take the MCC survey in the spring of 2020 and the HASS survey in the fall of 2020.   

Life chortled at our plans and suggested otherwise. 

Red and tangerine modes do not lend themselves well to surveys about school climate and student well-being, since the data would naturally be skewed by the lack of face-to-face interactions.  But both tools can be used in this orange-mode world.  So, only about a year behind schedule, we are planning to have the students complete the HAS survey during advisory in the last week of February (we will have kids complete the MCC survey next school year). 

In their materials, the developers of the HAS survey offer this information: 

“The survey questions cover areas such as personal values, empathy and kindness, depression and anxiety, substance use, and relationships with family and friends. The goal of the study is to better understand the preoccupations and concerns of children growing up in our community and, accordingly, to learn how best to continue promoting positive development among our students. 

The survey is an extension of Dr. Suniya Luthar’s efforts to study and promote positive youth development. Dr. Luthar is currently the Executive Director of Authentic Connections and a professor at Arizona State University and has previously been a senior professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and also a research scientist at Yale University. Please find more about her research publications, honors and awards at SuniyaLuthar.org.” 

Because the survey asks about challenging issues, parents have an option to opt out; for more information, look for my email to all parents on February 15th. Still, we hope all our students will participate.  The 100% anonymized data will provide us crucial insights that will directly shape how we ensure student wellness specific to Cary Academy.     

Ultimately, that data will provide us a map of how we can continue to work toward our strategic goal of student wellness.  An important part of our strategic plan prior to March 2020—the need for balance and support in our students’ lives—has only become more important over the past year as we have witnessed the added stress of corona-induced isolation. We have proactively tackled (and are tackling) some of the anticipated issues involving student wellness. The number of class periods per day, the start time for school, the amount of homework—all have been adjusted with an eye toward providing more balance to our students’ lives. 

The survey data will allow us to look forward, to identify specific student body needs, to respond with the relevant, flexible approach that threads through all our endeavors at CA. We want our students to succeed holistically, inside and outside the classroom, embracing their wellness as a necessary part of their success.   

Here’s to a healthier year for all of us—one rich in good data, no viruses, and powerful wellness collaboratives. 

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School

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Facing Forward

February 10, 2021

Tony Hinton joined Cary Academy in January 2021 as the Director of Facilities. Before coming to CA, Tony was Chief of the Lease Compliance and Construction Division with the Maryland State Department of General Services. A member of the Association for Facilities Engineering and a Certified Professional Manager, he brings a broad background to the role, having previously served as a director of facilities and operations, quality assurance manager, and police officer at various points in his career. He
is married with five children.

Tony is responsible for overseeing all aspects of facilities’ operations, ensuring not only that CA’s buildings and grounds are properly maintained, but that they follow a mission-aligned path of facility innovation. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with Tony to discuss his vision for CA’s Facilities Division and the perspective and insights he brings to his new role.

Beyond keeping the lights on and maintaining the beautiful campus for which CA is well-known, how does the facilities team support CA’s mission and opportunities for innovative, relevant, personalized learning?

The number one goal for the Facilities Division is making sure that the school is ready and able to help students learn every day. Without classrooms that are comfortable, clean, and support the faculty’s teaching needs, the school won’t be able to perform its whole reason for being. For us, the number one priority is preventative maintenance. Sure, unexpected problems happen, but as Director of Facilities, you don’t ever want to have something go so wrong that you have to close the school.

The environment we create and maintain is crucial to making sure students are ready to learn. Having a welcoming campus makes it more enjoyable to be here each day. It also signals that we take care of our assets, which tells prospective parents that it’s less likely that an HVAC problem or a plumbing issue will prevent their child from learning any given day. Having safe, reliable, eye-catching activity buses does the same—it gets people’s attention and puts CA’s name out there in a way that instills pride.

My team—and I consider us all teammates, myself included—is divided into facilities maintenance and landscaping. We are responsible for all buildings, the grounds, the foodservice facilities, school vehicles, and athletics facilities. My staff includes trained electricians, a plumber, an HVAC technician, and a certified athletic field technician.
You might be surprised to know that there are specific standards by which we have to maintain the athletic fields to host games; there is work that has to be done to the fields before and after every match.

It’s our job to make sure everything you see and touch at CA works like it’s supposed to—to the point where you don’t even have to think about it working; it just does.

Looking ahead, what challenges are most critical for CA’s facilities, and what opportunities do those challenges present?

Since it opened, CA has done a great job of introducing and maintaining cutting-edge technology in the classroom. However, the ideas of how to use our spaces—classrooms and offices and the campus as a whole—have changed a lot in the past 25 years. Some of those forward-thinking ideas—like LEED certification and giving faculty offices rather than dedicated classrooms—have been put into practice in the Center for Math and Science. I believe such innovative use of space, green practices, and a greater focus on efficiency should be a goal across campus.

One of the most important ideas shaping educational facilities these days is creating more welcoming, efficient spaces that help make the day-to-day experience even better for students and faculty. Increased natural light is a big part of that, and much of the Upper School renovation project is about increasing the amount of natural light inside the building. I also want to see even more green spaces on campus; we have many of them compared to traditional schools, but I want us to have even more.

One of the biggest questions I’m wrestling with is how we grow and where we grow. The recommendations in the Master Facilities Plan are based on the idea of CA staying pretty much the same as it was when the original review was done. If we grow—and we have been growing—it’s essential to know which of those recommendations make sense to follow and which would hinder the school over the next five to ten years.

How does your background influence the way you see your role and potential impact at CA?


I think that having such a diverse background—I’ve been a cop, I’ve worked with ex-offenders who were transitioning out of prison, I’ve worked with homeless populations, I’ve taught in the classroom—has given me the ability to relate to people with many different perspectives. I’ve seen people at their highest heights, and I’ve seen people at their lowest depths. That empathy to understand —to say ‘I may not share your experience, but I understand your joy, pain, needs, and concerns’—I think that’s especially important with students.

Many of our students experience so much stress and face challenges that we, as adults, don’t always understand; they struggle with peer pressure, socioeconomic differences, uncertainty about their future, and a sense of responsibility as the next generation of leaders. CA goes a long way towards helping our students navigate those challenges by giving them the tools to take ownership of their education and their future—and I love that. I think my experience in showing compassion will help support them.

What drew you to the Director of Facilities position at CA?


In a previous role, I had the opportunity to teach sixth-grade science. So, I have a heart for teaching and children learning and a sense of what’s key to helping children learn. I was very encouraged by the ways CA invests in its students and how the school gives them the tools and opportunities to own their learning—the ability to manage their educational pursuits. It was a completely different concept than I’d encountered before.

And then I saw the campus setup. CA is like a college campus. It gives everyone—students and faculty—room to relax and decompress when they are not in class. Combined with the chance to find their own way to learn, it gives students the opportunity to get a feel for the college experience at an early age.

I also noticed that many employees have worked here since the school opened. That says a lot about CA as a workplace and the community as a whole.

That said, sometimes, longevity can be a double-edged sword. Some of my first thoughts were: is it going to be hard to innovate and bring change in this role? Are people going to be receptive to new thoughts or new ideas?

When people have had a part in creating a policy or making a decision long ago, they are reluctant when someone new asks, “why do we do this?” But, so far, everyone’s been open to that question and been willing to give new ideas consideration. That’s a big part of my job—to think ahead about what we will need in the future and how we get from here to there, which means sometimes following a different path than what got us here.

What’s the most surprising aspect of working in facilities at a school like CA?

The ongoing investment from the CA community—including the founders—was surprising to me. It’s not something I’m used to. Often, in my experience, facilities’ needs are seen reactively; we will deal with things when they happen, not before—because of the costs involved in being proactive. CA’s openness—not just to fix things when they break, but to sit down and listen to needs and plan ahead on big picture matters­—was like a foreign language to me at first. It’s been a welcome surprise.

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

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Looking ahead to a new ‘typical’

December 10, 2020

Every year about this time, we circulate a draft of the next year’s academic calendar before finalizing it in January. It is an opportunity to give our community a heads up so they can start thinking about the coming year and a chance to solicit feedback. Over the past several years, there have been no changes to the calendar once the draft has been posted. 

However, this year, I want to draw your attention to a fairly significant change to the Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks and explain a bit of the background. Please indulge me with what will no doubt be the longest “calendar explanation” you’ll ever read.  

For those who would prefer just the highlights of the significant changes:  

  • Thanksgiving Break for MS students: Wed Nov 17 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Thanksgiving Break for US students: Mon Nov 22 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Winter Break for MS students: Mon Dec 20 – Fri Dec 31 
  • Winter Break for US students: Mon Dec 20 – Wed Jan 5 

If that gives you a headache: take an aspirin, rest your eyes for a moment, and read on for a more detailed explanation.  

It all starts with semesters vs. trimesters 

This year, the Upper School switched to a semester academic schedule, while our Middle School remained on trimesters. This may seem odd, and it is worth a more in-depth explanation.  

When the school was founded in 1996, a great deal of thinking went into building around a trimester schedule. Two significant advantages stood out. 

  • Assessment and Stress: Trimesters were viewed more favorably than semesters because they gave teachers and students more exposure to material before a grading period (which traditionally came at the quarter mark). CA has always believed in the intrinsic motivation of learning and wanted to institutionalize that by having fewer times when we give report cards and focus on grades – three as opposed to four times a year.  
  • Planning and Recoup Time: Another key feature of the trimester schedule was the ability to build in a two-week break for students at the end of a marking period. Importantly, several of these days have been used by faculty as professional days to close out one term and collaborate on curriculum and activities for the next term.  

Changes in the Upper School 

As a part of our strategic planning process, the Upper School has made several changes to their program to enhance student choice – giving them more chances to “own their own learning.” These changes started even before the strategic plan with the introduction of the Path Program in the social sciences department, which introduced a selection of topical, trimester-based history courses in the ninth- and tenth-grade years. This has expanded in other grades to new trimester-based selections in English, world languages, PE, and fine and performing arts. 

Not only are these choices beneficial in helping students delve deeper into areas of interest, but they also give students more flexibility and variety in course selection and more ability to craft their own unique narrative about their educational journey. That sense of self-awareness and ownership is so important as students apply and prepare to transition into college – where even greater choices and decisions await.  

However, there have been two significant tradeoffs to adding so many trimester based courses into the schedule:  

  1. First off is that a trimester is not that long, and it can be a challenge to find opportunities to dive a bit deeper into more complex material or build off of earlier aspects introduced in a course.  
  1. Second, all of these trimester courses end up on the transcript – introducing waves of grade anxiety that didn’t exist when nearly all our courses were year-long. In essence, these new courses did the exact opposite of what we chose the trimester calendar for all those many years ago … to reduce stress and unnecessary focus on grades.  

Finally, a smaller but not inconsequential factor is that, as we’ve expanded our opportunities for choice and experiential learning, more and more students are blending outside courses and programs into their learning journeys. They may be taking online classes with the Global Online Academy or the VHS Collaborative or participating in place-based programs such as High Mountain Institute or the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. All of these programs operate on a semester calendar, and meshing them with our trimester system has grown more complex as more students pursue more programs.  

While we are only in our first year of the semester calendar, early feedback has been positive. When discussing grade anxiety, it is also important to note that, with the change to semesters, we have not adopted quarterly report cards. We do report “mid-term grades,” which we also did at the mid-trimester level. These are important check-ins but very different than a report card.  

All told, these changes are unique to the Upper School. While the Middle School has adopted more choice within their courses, they generally still remain year-long, with grade check-ins three times a year. The trimester system still fits the needs, and the program set up in the MS quite nicely.  

So, what does this mean for the calendar? 

This background can be helpful in understanding why we have shifted the breaks in the calendar. The addition of a week of instructional time for the Upper School does two critical things. First, it gives more balance to the first-semester and second-semester courses. Second, it takes away the momentum killer of a two-week break right before semester end, rather than at the end of the trimester.  

The breaks also take into account the now different divisional needs for planning/professional time.  

We recognize that this might prove slightly inconvenient for some families with children in both divisions. However, we hope that, given enough advance time for planning, it will be manageable.  

You will notice that we made no changes to the two-week break in the spring. That break does fit nicely as a mid-point break for the US semester.  

Finally, a preemptive answer to some lingering questions 

We suspect that you may have two other questions regarding next year’s calendar: 

Will the start times remain the same? 

Yes. We implemented new, staggered start times as both a pandemic and wellness initiative. We believe the sleep research is strong, and will continue with these new start times next year. We will reassess again a year from now, when we get a better sense of potential impacts on travel time and athletics.  

Will Flex Days remain? 

Yes. We appreciate the flexibility (pun intended) families have shown as we roll out some new programs this year. We’ve learned a lot, and we expect the program and the communication will continue to improve.  

We will communicate a much more detailed Flex Day calendar in the spring. The calendar will look different; we expect that some flex days will be used for more academic purposes once we can get everyone back on campus (such as days where all classes meet for shorter periods or some classes meet for makeup/review sessions).   

That was a lot, and we are open to feedback. Please feel free to send it to me directly.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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Image: Cary Academy has been preparing for unprecedented times since it’s opening in 1996.

My first role at Cary Academy was as a member of the US English Department. As I have grown as an educator here, and journeyed into other roles, there is one challenge that haunts me in times of stress: finding the right words.  Somewhat ironic for an English teacher, I know.   

Chargers spend a great deal of time in their ELA and English classes discussing an author’s word choice – their diction in a piece. From daily greetings to webinar titles, “unprecedented” seems to be one used quite a bit these days. (I would offer an appropriate synonym; however, “novel” is the most recommended, and that too, gets frequent press these days.)  

In my newest role as Director of Admissions, I am asked regularly how Cary Academy is preparing to open the 2020-21 school year, knowing that learning will continue to “look different.” Will we “be ready” by mid-August?  

Our strong academic program is often the first focus for prospective students and families considering CA, and there are many questions about the ability of an institution to deliver the same caliber of learning when a teacher isn’t physically present with one’s students.   

I admit that the first time I was asked this question, there was a spark of stress.  Mostly because I could not fathom how to abridge the incredible work I have seen occur over these past months into a single soundbite. So, I took a moment to choose my words.   

We are consistent.   

con·​sis·​tent | \ kən-ˈsi-stənt  \ 
1a: marked by harmony, regularity, or steady continuity: free from variation or contradiction (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consistent

Cary Academy is consistent in its mission.  

Since the founding of the school in 1996, the words learning community, discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence have been the threads woven to create a rich tapestry of educational experiences. A true testament to our founders’ vision for 21st century learning, this one sentence has survived since the days of techo-dinos: the desktop computers. It sets us apart, and we are known for our incredible academics founded on this mission.  

Cary Academy is consistent in its student-centered, reflective practice.  

The heartbeat of Charger Nation is the Chargers themselves. As Cary Academy educators, we continue to reflect upon best practices for our students. We do not rest upon our laurels, rather use success as a springboard into our next wonderings on how to improve.  

Cary Academy is consistent in its focus on professional development of its employees.  

Recognizing that faculty and staff drawn to our mission must be life-long learners, our School’s emphasis on professional learning is unparalleled.  This could not be more evident than in the work our faculty will embark upon this summer, as they take three weeks (from their vacation) to best prepare for the various formats that our schooling will take next year.    

Consistency is an attribute, no doubt.  Yet as the parable of the oak tree and the reed demonstrates, consistency alone does not stand the test of time or the storms it brings. We must be able to bend when needed.  Thus, my second word.  

We are flexible.   

flex·​i·​ble | \ ˈflek-sə-bəl  \ 
3: characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flexible

In a time when all schools must be flexibile, Cary Academy has a track record of innovation and adaptation in pedagogy, curriculum, and programs.  While others were forced to this characteristic just months ago, our Mission has mandated it for more than 20 years. 

We have a long record of flexibility in our practices.   

Mr. Follet’s recent email on the Upper School shift to semesters resonated with me. Eight years ago (in the role as Head of Upper School), I posted a similar letter informing parents and students that we would no longer hold an exam week.  

In both cases, our student-centered, data-driven decisions took into consideration best practices and student wellness. In the years between these two epistles, both divisions have shifted schedules, adapted assessment practices and opened entire departments (the Center for Community Engagement). As appropriate, we have embraced blended, online, synchronous and asynchronous learning, to name just a few.   

We maintain flexible rigor.   

Even before our strategic goal of relevant, personalized, and flexible learning opportunities was published, our academic departments have proposed bold shifts in our curricular offerings.  

The recent curricular review cycle resulted in a menu of course offerings that respond to student interest and aptitude – elective offerings science, English, world language and PE reflect this work. Our unique world history elective program for 9th and 10th graders predated these changes, and our arts department have been embracing the myriad opportunities of aesthetic, design and ensemble instruction since the start of the school. With 46 advanced classes, 20+ levels of math instruction from grades 6-12, and countless electives, students are authentically engaged where they are on their path of learning.  

But students are not just scholars. They are citizens, friends, individuals whose social and emotional growth is equally important.  

We flex to the immediate needs of our students wellness.   

In my many years serving as an Upper School advisor, faculty leaders have spearheaded timely curriculum renewal of our affective education program.  From Charger Trails in the Middle School to social media literacy curriculum in the Upper School advisory program, we are constantly molding our program to meet our students’ needs and to address the challenges they face as young people.   

A leader in diversity and inclusion work, Cary Academy is one of the first schools in the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) to launch an affinity group program. And our work with Essential Partners on Dialogue Across Differences underscores even more our commitment to each student being seen, heard, and known for who they are.   

And this list isn’t even exhaustive of how education “looks different” at Cary Academy.   

So, when I now get the question focusing on this fall, I offer this: 

Since the opening of the school, Cary Academy has embraced the opportunities of being both consistent and flexible in our program. We have been preparing for the past 24 years for a challenging opportunity such as the one facing us in these unprecedented times. We’ll continue to lean into our mission, our strengths, just as we always have. 

Yes, we’ve got thisWe will be ready 

Written by Heather Clarkson, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid

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