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November Head of School Letter: Pursuing Academic Excellence

Thursday, November 3, 2016

All schools tout their pursuit of academic excellence, and as head of GUS, my top priority is ensuring that we “develop a sustainable process to evaluate, review, and revise our educational program.” That recommendation emerged from the visit by our reaccreditation team in spring 2016, prior to my arrival. It would have been at the top of my to-do list regardless.   

GUS is serious about continuously working through a process to ensure academic excellence. That task began with the faculty in early October when we met for two hours to read through and discuss some of our founding documents. We reviewed the school’s original philosophy and our approach to children. Grounded in the science of developmental psychology, GUS believes children learn in an expanding spiral that begins with the student at the center and works outward to encompass the larger world. Consequently, our place-based curriculum leads children to explore our campus, then Beverly Farms, West Beach, the people and places of Essex County, and beyond.

At that October meeting, the faculty also finalized a review timeline for the academic year. Each month, grade-level teachers will present to their assembled colleagues their programmatic overview; curriculum maps; content, skills, and projects; and they will ask three essential questions: “How does our theme run through the grade’s curriculum?”  “How do we teach language arts and writing?” “What help can our colleagues provide in an area of need the team has identified?”

We agreed to start with these questions because the theme defines the broad parameters of our interdisciplinary program at each grade level. We also chose to focus on language arts and writing because exceptional proficiency in this area is a hallmark of great independent schools and has been a historical strength of GUS. (We count at least three published authors among our alumni, Orren Fox ՚11, Anna Solomon ՚90, and Nathaniel Bellows ʼ88.) Focusing on reading and writing instruction will also allow us to review what we teach and how and why we teach it across the kindergarten through eighth grade programs. This “scope and sequence” work will help ensure the strongest experience for all GUS students.

In coming years, we will follow a similar process for all the academic disciplines, from math to science to social studies, Spanish, Life Skills, and the arts. One goal of involving the entire faculty in the feedback and critique process is to jump start those conversations so that we’re not waiting until 2023 to talk about the arts, for example!

Additionally, annually we will invite focused groups of colleagues from peer schools, secondary schools, and the college level to conduct intensive external reviews of our curriculum. These outside eyes will help us benchmark the GUS academic program to other schools. Our goal is not to copy our neighbors, but to bring outside perspectives to our efforts to improve the academic program for GUS kids.

Finally, we will use three professional days this year to focus on curricular work. On November 28, the Monday after Thanksgiving break, GUS will not be in session.  Instead, faculty will spend the day with child development expert Erin Akers of the Gesell Institute of Child Development. Ms. Akers will review the ages and stages of child development for the teachers. For most of the faculty, this will be an in-depth review of concepts they encountered in undergraduate or graduate studies. The exercise will also enable the entire faculty to develop a common knowledge base and language as we chart a course ahead.

As we draw closer to the end of the fall term and reflect on perspectives shared in parent conferences, we welcome your feedback in our ongoing and determined effort to offer the strongest academic program possible at Glen Urquhart School. Trust and go forward!

David Liebmann

Head of School