Last spring, the Park faculty and staff gathered in the West Gym to begin uncovering what might best be summed up as “What is it that gets us out of bed and on our way to Park with a smile on our face?” Even as so many of us acknowledge that it was Park’s core values that attracted us to Park in the first place, the long months of the pandemic tested us in many ways. It was good to come together and turn our collective focus to the reasons we do what we do, and what we value in our work.
The articulation of what matters most at Park impacts every one of us, and so it was essential that every employee had a voice and opportunity to influence it.
Academic Excellence. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Social-Emotional Learning.
These ideals are fundamental to everything we do and everything we are at Park. Having affirmed our agreement around these ideas, we might have just moved on. However, like many fields of work, the education field has its own language, a collection of jargon that may just mean something to the people who work with it most closely. As with most jargon, these words can often lose their meaning or even mean different things to different people. And, it can be that we say the phrases so often that they become stand-ins for ideas, and the meaning itself has blurred or dimmed. Words matter, and meaning gets lost if we’re not attentive to keeping it active and relevant.
Building on the work accomplished by the collective faculty and staff last spring, a team of 16 Park administrators, faculty, and staff has come together as the Vision Task Force (VTF). This committed group of professionals, working together over the course of the last six months, has been teasing out all the elements we value when we talk about academic excellence, social-emotional learning, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Park. That last part is essential: what do these ideals mean to us at Park? How might we best articulate these principles? How do we clarify the ways they guide teaching and learning? And, how do we speak to their interdependence so that we are firm in how each informs and supports the other?
I often say Park graduates don’t only enter the world ready to achieve, they enter the world ready to contribute. These outcomes, best articulated by the Park Portrait, are the result of the academic excellence we pursue each day at Park.
What do we mean at Park by academic excellence? I can tell you what it’s not: the old ideas of hard for the sake of hard, volume for the sake of volume, pace for the sake of pace. At Park, we believe that academic excellence grows from lasting curiosity and a hunger for learning. It grows from problem-solving, on one’s own and in active collaboration with others. It is built on a foundation of confidence, of feeling safe, taking the risks that lead to growth, and knowing that you will be seen and heard. We believe that academic excellence, above all, supports more than just short term achievement or scores on a test – academic excellence should drive engaged lifelong learning.
In our pursuit of academic excellence, we balance the progressive and traditional ideals of pedagogy and curriculum. We value knowledge — the traditional. We want our graduates to leave Park confident in what they know and curious about what they still have to learn. We value skill — the progressive. We want our graduates to leave Park clear about what they can do and knowledgeable of skills and traits they are yet to master. I often say Park graduates don’t only enter the world ready to achieve, they enter the world ready to contribute. These outcomes, best articulated by the Park Portrait, are the result of the academic excellence we pursue each day at Park.
What do we mean at Park by social-emotional learning? The field of social-emotional learning itself grew out of research-based evidence that academic performance improves when educators support “the whole child.” Over the past three decades, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a partnership of multidisciplinary researchers, educators, practitioners, and child advocates, has defined social-emotional learning (SEL) as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” Learning is hard work, and effective learning — or excellence of any kind — cannot happen if we are so hampered by fear of failure, self-consciousness, and uncertainty that we can’t even approach the task before us. This is true for adults; it’s all the more true for children, who are just now building the toolboxes that will carry them forward as confident learners and as mindful leaders.
At Park, we believe that SEL not only supports the achievement of academic goals — it supports the pursuit of any goal students set by encouraging and fostering reflection, collaboration, risk-taking, empathy, resilience, and courage. SEL creates the opportunities that transform “knowledge” from rote memorization to meaningful connection, lasting impact, joy, and the creation of a more inclusive and just world.
What do we mean at Park by Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)? When faculty and staff gathered last spring, they captured the essence of DEIB as follows: Diversity is who we are. Equity is what we strive to provide. Inclusion is how we get there. At Park, we strive to cultivate academic, social, and emotional growth to prepare students to be responsible citizens of the world. DEIB at Park, therefore, is not abstract — it’s the definition of who we are, what we do, and how we do it. The work of DEIB prioritizes pathways to equity and belonging. What does it mean to be neurodiverse? What does it mean for a student to see mirrors and windows in the classroom? What does it mean for a student to feel they truly belong at Park, able to fully engage in their learning, honoring differences in socioeconomic status, race or ethnic heritage, gender expression, family structure, learning difference, or any of the distinctions that make each of us uniquely ourselves?
At Park, we know that neither academic excellence nor social-emotional learning and well-being can exist with the deep sense of belonging that grows from a firm foundation of equity and inclusion.
This is just a brief summary of the work in which the Vision Task Force continues to engage. I have been inspired and gratified by the intensity and focus the team has brought to this work, and by their openness to listening to each other and to deepening our collective understanding of these values. I have also been gratified to find that, broadly, we are all already in agreement about so much. We are a group of thoughtful individuals who are listening to each other, leaning into uncertainty, and expanding our collective understanding of Park’s core values.
The challenge before the Task Force is not, therefore, to re-invent Park. It is to distill from that which we all already recognize as “the reason we show up every day with a smile on our face” and articulate it in a way that is clear, powerful, aspirational, and defines “why Park matters” and what makes our school truly unique.
Later this winter, members of the VTF will be reaching out to our various constituencies – families, students, employees, alumni, and trustees – to invite and gather their insights to the work accomplished so far. The vision – Park’s vision – belongs to all of us, and it is larger than any one of us. I look forward to our ongoing conversations.