What would you do with your time if you were given a day to explore any interest? What if you had one day each week to do just that? What curiosities would you pursue? What passions would you discover? What opportunities would you seize?
That’s precisely the concept behind Cary Academy’s new Flex Day—a designated day each week when students are free to explore ideas, interests, and activities beyond the classroom. Not only are the opportunities nearly boundless—for Upper School students, Flex Day activities need not be offered by or connected to CA in any way, shape, or form—but the programming comes from students themselves.
“We want the sky to be the limit,” offers Danielle Johnson Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement. “At CA, we pride ourselves on being dynamic, on challenging students to ‘own their learning.’ Flex Day is the very embodiment of that philosophy. We’re giving students the latitude to explore their interests, the flexibility to choose how they spend one of their days, and the dedicated, unscripted time to make it happen.”
Since Flex Day was introduced in August 2020, students have used it to start new clubs; mentor their peers; study music; perform community service; improve athletics rankings; participate in dialogues to help manage the stress of the pandemic and election; take on part-time jobs; practice mindfulness and yoga; work on long-term academic projects; pursue research with local universities; and even learn to sail.
With guidance from the Center for Community Engagement, any student can propose and plan Flex Day activities, which are made available to other students through a weekly signup. For Johnson-Webb, the learning that happens in that discovery and planning process is nearly as important as what happens during the proposed activity itself.
“That we empower students to seek out learning opportunities that are meaningful to them, that we instill in them the independence and initiative to do so, that we demonstrate the value of open-ended discovery—it is a crucial part of the CA experience; it is what sets CA apart,” offers Johnson-Webb.
“When students are in the driver’s seat, they cultivate important skills that serve them long after they leave CA—self- awareness, empathy, leadership, perseverance, resiliency, time and project management, and an authentic passion for lifelong learning, to name a few.”
College counselor and eleventh-grade advisor, Brandon Carter has seen enthusiasm for Flex Day from students and college admissions officers alike. “That Flex Day’s programs are mostly student initiatives gives them the chance to be inquisitive, explorative, open-minded, and engaged. It allows learning to be fun, new, exciting.”
“It’s a game-changer that lets students start to figure out who they are—something that will help them find their path in college and life beyond,” continues Carter. “When I talk to college admissions staff, they’re wowed by the idea of having a day of exploration built into the daily schedule—and, frankly, most of them wish they’d had something like that when they were in school.”
Flex Day has had the added benefit of unlocking exciting opportunities for Middle School and Upper School collaborations. Before Flex Day, limitations of the traditional schedule, which maintained marked differences between a Middle School and Upper School day, made cross-divisional activities nearly impossible. Now, however, students can work together across grades and divisions, opening rich opportunities for peer-learning and peer-mentoring.
While the health imperative presented by the coronavirus pandemic helped to fast-track the Flex Day initiative, the idea of building in more flexible time for students to explore their interests has long figured prominently in CA’s strategic plan. It is all part of CA’s commitment to creating learning opportunities that are personal, flexible, and relevant.
“Some iteration of Flex Day is going to be a regular part of the CA experience even after the pandemic subsides,” promises Johnson-Webb. “The Center for Community Engagement is always looking for ways to offer signature experiences that empower students to own their learning, that expose them to new things, experiences, and perspectives. It is what sets a CA student apart, what positions them so effectively to tackle whatever comes next.”
Middle School entrepreneurial learning sprints
Seventh graders have had the opportunity to engage in hands-on entrepreneurial exploration thanks to two Flex Day learning sprints held in partnership with the University of North Carolina’s Young Founders Institute. In the first, students tackled app development, monetization, and marketing. In the second, they learned the ins and outs of raising capital for a startup, including creating an eye-catching pitch deck to appeal to potential investors.
Virtual Charger Corner
Entrepreneurial Upper School students learned about the ins and outs of e-commerce, website and database design, product marketing, copy-writing, branding, and photography while tackling the design, development, and launch of CA’s new online student store during a long-term, multi-Flex Day project.
Middle School Debate Club
After the success of a student-run speech and debate camp (check out that feature in this issue), Upper School students Andrew Lake (‘22) and Neha Sharma (‘22) used Flex Day to develop and launch CA’s first-ever Middle School Debate Club. Already over fifty students strong, they meet on Flex Day and receive instruction, coaching, and guidance from their experienced Upper School peers.
Campus art installation
Arts met mathematics in a joint Middle and Upper School Flex Day collaboration. Sixth through tenth graders designed and fabricated a new campus art installation—a large, symmetrical sculpture fashioned out of PVC pipe—that demonstrated interesting mathematical properties.
Affinity group expansion
Student leaders of the African American Affinity Group have used Flex Day to support their members better and forge community connections. They have expanded meeting times and bridged the formerly siloed Upper School and Middle School affinity groups to enable peer mentorship opportunities aimed at improving the student experience.
Expanded service opportunities
Students in the Upper School have logged an impressive 130+ hours of service learning during expanded Flex Day offerings that allow them to pursue service opportunities that align with their interests.
Flex Day has dramatically increased opportunities for the popular Upper School Outdoors Club. Typically only able to enjoy three excursions a year, the club now explores local state parks on a nearly weekly basis.
Girl Unit Club
Whether starting as a first-year student or transitioning from Middle School, the ninth-grade experience can be challenging for our students, especially girls. Cam Wood (’22) started Girl Unit to create a safe space for ninth-grade girls to learn how to navigate school, relationships, stress. The club has helped to form new and strengthen existing friendships amongst its members.
Student-led strength and conditioning program
Daphne DiFrancesco (’26) created a stretch and strengthening class that she offers to all her Middle School peers every Flex Day. She crafted the curriculum from scratch based on her own dance and conditioning experience and reports that it has been “a great learning opportunity on how to teach, how to lead, and a great way to get to know people, not just in your grade, but throughout Middle School.”
One of the more adventurous additions to the Flex Day calendar, CA’s new Sailing Club has officially, well, set sail, thanks to the efforts of club founders Matthew Schricker (’23) and Max Li (’23). Novice and experienced sailors have participated in a free sailing clinic with the Carolina Sailing Club and RTP High School Sailing to learn the ins and outs of sailing and responsible boating. The club has plans for regular outings to Lake Crabtree and Jordan Lake, where students can put their newfound skills to practice, with an eye to competitive opportunities on the horizon.