An Inclusive Environment Where Everyone Succeeds

Interview by Ken DuBois, Editor

An interview with Dr. Barbara Ostos, Catlin Gabel Assistant Head of School

“It’s important that students see themselves in the curriculum, and that we are striving to be a microcosm of the real world.”

You’ve been in leadership positions for most of your career, at both Francis Parker and Catlin Gabel. What is it about that aspect of education that interests you?

I love thinking about how we structure things—how we set people up for success, and especially students, in intentional learning spaces. As a teacher, I had total control of that domain in my classroom, and over the years that was something that I became more and more interested around at a more institutional systems level. When I was the seventh grade team leader at Francis Parker School, we started addressing that at a grade level, and then at a divisional level. 

We do have opportunities to directly impact the students experience, not just in one class but across many classes, and across grades and divisions. It’s that golden nugget that fuels a lot of what I think about in trying to set people up for success, which is about students’ experiences.

Catlin Gabel has greatly expanded its commitment to diversity and inclusion in recent years, and you’ve played a key role in that evolution. Why did you choose to make this a priority?

I’m the product of a high school independent school experience that I attended as a scholarship kid. And despite presenting as potentially white, and someone who clearly has a white skin privilege, I come from a diverse background, being half-Mexican and half-Cuban, not being born here, and of parents with immigrant stories. That made my experience very different as a kid in an independent school. 

An important aspect of our work as an independent school is the ability to think through how we can provide these types of incredibly powerful learning experiences to a wider array of students from different backgrounds. It’s important to me because, of course, I was one of those kids who got to experience something incredible that my family certainly couldn’t afford, and that has clearly propelled me to being here today. 

That’s at the core of my passion around thinking of Catlin Gabel as a place that values equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s important institutionally that students who are here see and hear about different experiences from the adults. It’s important that students see themselves in the curriculum, and that we are striving to be a microcosm of the real world.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of learning differences, and the ways we support students and families. I know this has been an important area of focus for you.

One of the great things about Catlin Gabel since our inception is that we think about how students learn, and we value everyone for being different. And I hope that what I have brought to that is a mindfulness of how we are doing that, and how consistently, and how direct, candid, and empathetic we’re being with parents who are trying to figure that out for their kids. 

We’re not trying to label kids. We’re trying to provide strategies and empower students to own who they are. I’m trying to help students think about how they propel themselves into a really successful future where they’re happy, competent, and confident. And I think that the work that the learning specialists have done for years, aligning practices, is really important to students and families. It’s a seamless experience, even while teachers and home rooms and activities are changing.

What are some of the opportunities you see for Catlin Gabel School in the coming years, and the challenges?

Our most exciting opportunity and our most daunting reality is the fact that we are a preschool through 12th grade institution. We hope that families come here for that one school experience, and that there are things that tie us together from the preschool experience to the 12th grade experience. And our challenge is that the needs of the four-year-old are different than the needs of an 18-year-old, and how we engage in their learning is different. So, while we do amazing work, there’s this nut that we keep trying to get after. Like the little squirrel in the movie Ice Age, we’re always going after that nut!

It’s been really exciting to work on defining who we are and who we want to be, and trying to bring some clarity to that. It’s been important work for us to define progressive education at Catlin Gabel School. And we’ve come up with what I believe is a really important and clear definition: whole child, inquiry based, experiential education with a focus on teaching for democracy. Our ability as a school to figure out what that means across four divisions, across 14 years of age, that’s a really big, essential question. It’s exciting for me to think about how we—and I mean all of us—will grapple with that. 

We are uniquely positioned to change how teaching and learning happens at independent schools. We can push the boundaries of what people are willing to do and trust when it comes to really talented teachers working with students, and thoughtful people all working together on the design of that. I do think the industrial model of school in many ways is dying because it’s not evolving on the national public school level, and we can be leaders. This school is positioned to do that because of our history, our strength as an institution, our really impressive faculty, and the conversations that we’re having right now.