When reflecting on events of the last academic year, many well-worn phrases spring to mind. Unprecedented challenges. Uncharted territories. Unpredictable futures. Amidst so much uncertainty, however, an unwavering absolute: CA’s enduring resiliency, creativity, and commitment to our mission—to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence—to each other, and our broader community.
At CA, we teach our students to lean into discomfort. To look for the learning opportunities. To own and leverage their strengths. And to embrace challenge and adversity as an opportunity for further discovery, growth, and positive change. It is through this same introspective lens that we—as an institution and community—have approached the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Success in the face of the crisis—with its requisite shift to virtual teaching, learning, and working; a decrease in face-to-face instructional time; loss of in-person social interactions; and a heightened focus on wellness in all its forms—demanded new perspectives and insights into our traditional programming and curriculum. It led us more quickly down the path to creating the competency-based learning environment envisioned in our strategic plan.
“The need to pare down our curriculum to essential learning goals jump-started the process of establishing core competencies for our students in each content area. And the challenge of securely testing in a virtual environment led many teachers to experiment with more project-oriented ways for students to apply their learning and demonstrate their mastery,” points out Dean of Faculty Martina Greene. “Both represent major strides toward our strategic goal of transitioning from a content-driven to a skills-based approach, and that makes room for a lot more student voice and choice.”
Sheer necessity helped to cultivate an increased sense of flexibility, openness, and tolerance of change that would prove remarkably productive. Guided by our mission, we made fruitful discoveries—uncovering unique opportunities to advance our strategic plan further and benefit our students and community. What could have been a stagnant period became, instead, one of creative and lucrative experimentation, showing us new—perhaps even better—ways that we could teach, work and learn together.
“Change is only as difficult as you want it to be,” offers math department chair Craig Lazarski, reflecting on one of his key takeaways from the last year. “Often, we are paralyzed when thinking about what possible changes may do to our existing paradigm. This has taught us that we can try new things, to not be afraid of the unknown.”
Unfettered by conventional constraints and open to change, a laser-focused discovery process lent momentum and new urgency to a host of forward-thinking ideas—many of which had been long under consideration as part of our larger strategic plan. The later start times and new hybrid schedule that will debut in the fall are just two such examples of pivotal and promising changes on the horizon.
Designed to maximize student wellness, the new schedule reflects lessons learned from our pandemic experience and is informed by research around stress reduction and student wellness—including the importance of sleep and the need to ease cognitive load by reducing transitions and task switching throughout the day. Blending synchronous on-campus learning with asynchronous and synchronous off-campus virtual and experiential learning opportunities, the new schedule also offers a full “flex day” to provide students and teachers alike unscripted, dedicated time to pursue various projects.
“Our new weekly schedules in both divisions actually improve on our prior schedule and enhance opportunities for experiential learning,” enthuses Experiential Learning Director Michael McElreath. “The flex day and what it can do for teaching and learning at CA is huge—I can’t wait to see how we use it!”
Innovation and collaboration
Innovation has always been at the heart of CA, denoting the vital role that technology plays in our learning community. Without question, our existing technological infrastructure and fluency played an integral part in our successful virtual pivot.
Information Services agilely launched a new institutional platform for teleconferencing—Zoom—that would be instrumental in our virtual learning efforts, while simultaneously grappling with heightened demands around online security and access. Students and faculty alike experimented with transformative new digital tools like Flipgrid. And faculty delved into the advanced features of OneNote and Microsoft Teams to find the best ways to engage students, foster personal interaction and connection, and provide feedback online.
While crucial, CA’s pandemic innovation did not start and end with technological implementation, however. Rather, it was the driving force behind a highly collaborative effort to create an engaging curriculum that sought to translate all aspects of a well-rounded CA experience into an engaging virtual one.
Recreating advisory programming and student club experiences. Organizing virtual field trips, guest speakers, and online cultural exchanges with students from across the world. Improvising makeshift sporting equipment to create agility and obstacle courses at home for PE classes. Figuring out how to design art projects around the unconventional and natural materials students might have at home. Devising socially-distant ways to support student emotional and physical health (Zoom yoga, anyone?). Honoring important milestones with meaningful and heartfelt digital celebrations. And countless other examples—far too many to list here—illustrate the many ways our community rose to the occasion with bold, outside-of-the-box thinking and adjusted on the fly with remarkable resilience and good humor.
Despite these numerous virtual “wins,” we developed a more profound appreciation of the in-person relationships that form the heart of our community—and which ultimately grounded and facilitated our virtual efforts. However, the crisis also demonstrated that our bonds are strong enough to sustain us while we are physically apart.
“The bonds we formed with our students allow us not just to persevere, but to flourish when we are only together on computer screens,” offers Upper School science department chair, Heidi Maloy.
Whether Zooming in for community lunches with leadership, participating in a virtual alumni meetup, getting the family out for the first-ever virtual 5K, or donning Charger gear for online Spirit Week, innovative virtual community-building efforts helped to nurture that important sense of connection.
And, as is the CA way, our innovative and collaborative energies did not end at our virtual campus. They were also channeled into helping others, particularly as the virus lay bare the stark inequities, heightened needs, and challenges facing our broader community.
Prohibited from in-person service-learning opportunities, Delta Service Club—the Upper School’s service-learning club—collaborated to compile a list of socially-distant ways to make a difference (https://bit.ly/DeltaServiceClub). Using CA’s 3D printers, Middle School math teacher Leslie Williams partnered with North Carolina State University to print much-needed, FDA-approved personal protective equipment (with many others in the CA community following suit). And stories shared by alums highlighted the many ways Chargers collaborate and innovate for the greater good even after they leave campus—from working on the frontlines of the crisis to launching fundraising campaigns to support their community to developing new technologies that address COVID-related challenges.
While we can say that our experimental virtual pivot was a success, our enduring commitment to excellence demands that we not rest on our laurels. Instead, we continue to push the envelope, to strive for improvement and growth, and to flex further to meet our students’ needs.
That’s why, this summer, our hard-working faculty dedicated three weeks of their well-deserved vacation to intensively redesign their curricula for a hybrid approach to course delivery, building a strong digital core that serves as a virtual home base for learning, whether students are on-campus or off. Developed using the same design thinking approach we teach our students, the digital core incorporates lessons learned and newly-discovered best practices gleaned from recent months. It is designed to offer all CA students a high-quality virtual learning environment that complements our physical learning environment and reflects the academic rigor, innovation, and holistic, personalized, relevant learning for which CA is known.
Our commitment to excellence also demands ongoing efforts to evolve into the best versions of ourselves individually, as well as the best version of our community. In the face of adversity and undeniable evidence of the division and inequities within our broader community—it demands we find ways to work across differences, to work for equity, and to support each other and our broader community with inclusivity, empathy, and kindness.
To that end, over the next year, we will also be actively engaging in ongoing anti-racist and equity work as a community. Together, we will work to ensure all members of our community feel valued and known for who they are, and can fully participate, lend their voice, and be heard with respect and compassion.
As we prepare to welcome students back to campus and attempt to plan for the unknowns of the next year, we rest assured not only in the lessons learned from recent months, but in those reaped from a twenty-four-year tradition of discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence. We are well-prepared for the challenging opportunities that lie ahead. And, with clarity of vision, mission, and values, we will continue to learn, grow, persevere, and thrive, together, no matter what 2020-2021 brings.
CA FUND KEEPS D.I.C.E. ROLLING DURING T3
Our commitment to discovery, innovation, and collaboration in the pursuit of excellence never wavered during the spring trimester. Our ability to lean productively into our mission and find success was made possible, in large part, by the generosity of our community and the unrestricted resources of the CA Fund.
Flexible CA Fund dollars granted us the freedom to think creatively and outside of the box while still preserving CA’s fiscal health during these unforeseen circumstances. It allowed us to seek out, unhindered, the most innovative and student-centric solutions to challenges wrought by the pandemic.
As a result, we were able to seek out the best technological and digital tools to foster secure, easy collaboration—whether advancing group projects, sketching out curriculum, hearing from the Head of School, or participating in a virtual variety show. And support a technological upgrade for Berger Hall that allowed us to better live stream events, such as Baccalaureate and the Upper School End-of-Year Awards, to your phones, laptops, and tablets.
The CA Fund supported our community by protecting our faculty and staff’s job security, alleviating stress, and allowing for unwavering focus. It allowed us to launch a new program—the CA Emergency Tuition Assistance Program— to provide financial support to those families that were negatively impacted by the crisis.