External validation affirms our values

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April 2010 "Headlines" by Lark Palma, head of school

Shortly before spring break, I traveled to the National Association of Independent Schools conference in San Francisco, then to Lakeside School in Seattle as a member of their PNAIS accreditation team. Both trips gave me the opportunity to look at Catlin Gabel from the outside and to gain external validation that what we do at our school is right and good.

I came away from conversations with school heads from other progressive schools, teachers at Lakeside, and CG alumni at a gathering in San Francisco with a renewed commitment to Catlin Gabel’s basic values of progressive, constructivist education.

In the elusive search for the perfect marketing hook, we sometimes shy away from these tenets because the words progressive and constructivist are unfamiliar to most prospective parents and students. In a culture of shrinking attention spans and a proliferation of information, we find it difficult to quickly explain what we all come to understand after we bear personal witness to Catlin Gabel’s essential qualities. The important educational ideals we must communicate, celebrate, and expand upon are:

• Education without emphasis on grades and tests

• Engagement as the number one factor in student success

• Excellent teaching and great student-teacher relationships

• Embracing students with diverse interests, learning styles, intellectual capacities, and social demeanors

• Flexibility to allow student interests to shape the curriculum and co-curriculum

• Giving students voice and trusting their wisdom—limited rules and regulations, judicial councils composed of students and teachers, and no hall passes.

• Commitment to our size: small enough for genuine community building and large enough to accommodate student interests and co-curriculars such as newspapers, robotics, athletics, and an array of social and activity groups

Many schools, including notable East Coast prep schools, are backing off from their traditional messages about prestigious college acceptance rates. Instead, they are focusing on messages about graduating students who know how to plan, self-evaluate, solve complex problems, and nourish their curiosity — the skills needed to succeed in college and career. I learned during my travels that thriving schools across the country are true to their missions. Schools trying to reconstruct themselves for market gain suffer from lack of identity and principle.

It has been good for me to get away from our little corner, join the national conversation, and renew my commitment to our basic values. I am heartened by Catlin Gabel’s commitment to progressive education–even if it is hard to describe in a 30-second “elevator speech.” We are in the enviable position of being a school that others look to for how to do it right. I couldn’t be more delighted.

This article first appeared in the April 2010 All-School News