What Makes a School Resilient?

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Catlin Gabel sees change as opportunity

By Lark P. Palma, Head of School

Resiliency is an important character trait that we nurture in our students at Catlin Gabel from their earliest years. During their time in school—both in class and in their home lives—students will encounter difficult situations and what may appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Our charge is to support them as they navigate the shoals, fostering in them the ability to get through these situations with positivity, to think creatively about how to approach and solve them, and in the end to learn from these challenges, building the skills to get back on their feet, smarter and stronger. When the next hard situation presents itself, our students will have built confidence in their ability to do what needs to be done and bounce back.
The same dynamic applies to institutions. Catlin Gabel serves as an example of a resilient school, one that has come through hard times to emerge healthier and hardier. Catlin Gabel itself grew out of crisis. Both the Catlin and Gabel schools were undergoing hard times that threatened their continued existence. The visionaries who saw the wisdom in merging the two schools created a positive solution that—although it seemed risky at the time—forged a school that benefited from the philosophies, practices, people, and long, noble histories of both the Catlin and Gabel schools. Our school today as we know it turned out healthier from this union than its founders might have imagined.
Catlin Gabel has also weathered recent crises, a case in point being the economic downturn that began in 2008. The hard times hit our families, resulting in a 38% increase in new requests for financial aid for the 2008–09 school year. That could have been a devastating moment for Catlin Gabel. Instead, we all took a deep collective breath and thought hard about how to weather this situation well. I took some tough and necessary steps to intensify our fiscal prudence, including mandatory budget cuts. I suspended our capital fundraising campaign, taking stock of how financial conditions had changed for our families and allowing our endowment the time it needed to rebound. Retaining our students and keeping our community intact was my biggest goal through this crisis.
And we did prevail. Today Catlin Gabel is stronger than it’s ever been. I believe that that recovery is due in part to the character of this school. As a school that’s always seen itself as a laboratory for new concepts, we are wired to see change as an opportunity, not as an obstacle. We are predisposed to changing with intention, always analyzing how we can learn and grow from the inevitable challenges of being a school that must move with the times, a school made of people who are affected by the winds that move the world.

You’ll read in this Caller about how our students, counselors, teachers, alumni, and families build resiliency in and out of the classroom. These stories speak to how we stay strong as an institution, and how, along with our families, we help create the conditions that are necessary for our students’ education, growth, and well-being.