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Head of School Chuck WebsterJune 28, 2019

Dear University families,

This end of term letter comes to you from the home of the 2019 IHSAA Class A Baseball State Champions. Congratulations to coaches Estep, Andrews, Cushenberry, Carson, and Nerney, to athletic director John Walls, and to a team full of accomplishment and character.

Twenty years ago, we began University High School with four portable classrooms, 28 students, and seven teachers. We lost $1 million a year for the first five years, had several ‘should we pull the plug’ meetings when enrollment failed to meet projections, and diversity was almost nonexistent. We were not yet able to attract the level of students nor the breadth and depth of faculty and staff that we can now. We were at the beginning of this journey. But here is what else happened in those earliest, high-risk days of University: we became crystal clear about our purpose, about the meaning of what we do, and about why it matters so much. The consistency and character we see here today, that clarity of purpose, came out of the crucible of fighting for our institutional lives.

That level of care and remarkable commitment began almost three years before school did, when founding Board members began to design the architecture of ideas and feelings that would become University High School. They wrote our mission. They wrote the core values, diversity first, and included trust and respect, which became the context for our community and culture. Five founding Board members are still active after close to 23 years of service. The Board’s institutional commitment to our values and beliefs continues to this day, exemplified by the way they conducted the search for my replacement. They took the path less taken, the more courageous one, the better researched one, the one true to those values and beliefs. After eight months of listening to an array of University stakeholders, the decision to begin the formal search with highly qualified internal candidates was made because of the importance of those founding values and because of the deeply felt, shared experience of the University community that the search committees recognized and responded to.

As the search headed inside first, the results of regional and national independent school searches began showing an array of problems and challenges. There are 240 schools in 16 states in ISACS, our accrediting body. In a 12-month period, 53 Heads of School left their schools, 22 having given less than two months’ notice, an astonishing figure. Over a five-year period among Connecticut independent schools, 17 internal candidates were hired, all of whom received second contracts. Less than 40% of external hires in the same period were offered second contracts. One of the data points considered in our search committee’s decision to begin internally was that external candidates hired to replace founding Heads last less than three years on average.

What’s all this mean? For some time now, many for-profit companies, responding to similar issues in their industries and to the rising costs of hiring CEO search consultants, have instituted succession programs to develop the next generation of leaders from inside their companies. Culture fit is critical to effective leadership. Fifty years ago most independent schools were more alike than different, administrative structures were most often top-down and siloed, and prospective Heads, almost all of whom were white and male, rose through the ranks of schools likely to remain as they had always been. External candidate retention was much better in those days. Institutional change and growth were not on the agendas of most schools.

In those earliest Board conversations, and in the subsequent design of University’s program and core curriculum, innovative teaching and learning, deep-seated relationships, and the commitment to build a community of caring, engaged learners became the University way. People matter. Values matter. Collaborative decision-making, constant improvement, and mission-driven problem solving are at the heart of this enterprise. What the search committees and Board did, with clarity and grace, is confirm the value and importance of who we are, of who we have always been. To Board Chair Jeff Lewis, to search committee chairs Mike Klemsz and Marcy Bandick, to the two search committees, and to the University Board, a heartfelt thank you.

Part of what truly distinguishes the work of University teachers and students is their emotional engagement in learning and in each other. This is one of the reasons we use the Wellington Engagement Index (the dots) to measure this important characteristic. As David Brooks writes in his January 17, 2019, New York Times editorial, “Students Learn From People They Love”, “Emotion is not the opposite of reason; it’s essential to reason. Emotions assign value to things. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t make good decisions. Furthermore, emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember… Early neuroscience breakthroughs remind us that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love – an exciting field of study, new friends. It reminds us that what teachers really teach is themselves – their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminds us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”

We have become active regionally and nationally in our second wave of educational innovation – the first wave included the design and inception of University culture, morning meetings, January Term and mentoring. Two years ago, we were asked to participate in NAIS’s original designing of what was called the Innovative Kitchen, their model for independent schools to modernize their curriculum and culture. We will participate in their newest effort, The Strategy Lab, this fall in Chicago. University faculty and staff present regularly at ISACS and NAIS conferences, and other schools seek us out as leaders in school innovation. We are currently mentoring the Elgin Academy, a school outside of Chicago, through their January Term implementation process. Ten more University teachers will take online Harvard courses this fall on topics related to deeper understanding. But our educational bearings are set by our emotional engagement with each other, ‘willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.’

Kris Schepers is moving to Westfield High School as their new athletic trainer. One of the benefits of this move is that in a year she can go to school with her son Gabe. Kris is moving, not leaving. She has served University beyond the call of duty or any job description. She taught in and out of our classrooms, mentored years of students interested in her profession and its related fields, has taken care of University athletes as if they were her own, became a consultant and quiet coach to a decade of University student-athletes, watched her son Grant develop here into a successful college student, and gave her heart to the people of University.

As we know, Collin, Liza, Alonzo and Victor Lawrence, and Derek Thomas, Kirstin Northenscold, and Cora are all off to new adventures. Kirstin is going to the Harvard Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D) program, and Cora begins her Harvard career in the nursery. Derek will be teaching at the Cambridge School of Weston. Collin is joining Rivermont Collegiate in Bettendorf, Iowa, in part to lead their boarding program, and his sons will have the opportunity to go to school with him, while Liza joins the faculty at Augustana College as a professor of Chinese history. Collin, Derek, and Kirstin have served University for a combined 23 years, and they have made teaching, learning, and mentoring a rich, deeply satisfying experience for hundreds of University students, one student at a time. They will be sorely missed and are greatly appreciated for all that they have accomplished here.

I have heard from Jill Woerner that she has accepted a position as Director of Educational Services and External Outreach to Schools at AFS-USA. This is a national position in an area where Jill excels and is highly regarded – the advancement of cultural exchange and second language acquisition. She was excellent in the classroom, a fine mentor, and she has great insights about the teaching and learning of world languages. While AFS offices are in New York, her position allows her to work from home. We have begun the hiring process for a new Spanish teacher, and we wish Jill all the best.

And about our 78 newest alumni. First let’s do the numbers. They had an average 3.68 GPA, took over 250 AP exams, were offered over $18.5 million in merit scholarships and have accepted $3.5 million. They applied to 196 different colleges and universities, had an acceptance rate of over 80%, and Purdue is the winner of this year’s University admissions sweepstakes – 14 graduates are headed to West Lafayette. Three University students were awarded full scholarships: Nayara Henriquez is a Lilly Endowment Community Scholar, Ashden Hayden is an Act Six Scholar, and Cole Reinholt was awarded the technical theatre scholarship at Case Western Reserve University. Congratulations to the college counselors, to senior families, to the writers of all of those recommending letters, to the mentors, teachers and staff who have supported and believed in these students, and congratulations to our newest alumni whose search processes and final choices reflect their hard work and their academic success.

What distinguished this class? They took that elegant, aspirational mission – to expand hearts and minds and nurture excellence – written to inspire and direct the grown-ups in their work with students, and they unhinged the grammar. They did the expanding, they did the nurturing, they became the agents in the syntax of their school. They have actively and openly embraced all of it. They went to each other’s games and performances, they celebrated each other’s achievements, and their expressions of joy were everywhere – one needed to look no further than the top row of the pep band in the gym during basketball games, at what was rather loosely called the percussion section. They helped turn Stewardship into an eponymous organization, not just an alternative name for student government. There is nothing routine about the way they served others, and in their music, art and theatre – technical and otherwise – they led gently, mentored convincingly, have taken care of all, and of all that matters most.

I continue to hear accolades about the Blazer Blast from any number of people, including regional and national contacts. One of the things Tim Fish, the NAIS Chief Innovation Officer, says about schools that tell their stories well is that they have a graphic designer at their school. We are blessed to have Nila Nealy – she is an artist, cares deeply about University and its people, and creates designs that communicate beyond the content at hand, ones that capture not just what we are doing but who we are.

Our first-year FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team qualified for the state tournament and then for the world championship (400 teams, 75,000 students), and won the Rookie All-Star Award for the best first-year team at both competitions. I was in attendance for both tournaments and saw how our 13 Robotics team members became a team in the very best sense of that word – listening intently to each other, solving problems collaboratively, trusting and respecting each other. One thing I learned was that one can tell the makeup of a robotics team’s culture when something on the robot breaks. On many teams, adults jump in and direct activity at these critical pressure points. When University’s robot broke at the state tournament, the kids gathered around it, the coaches stepped back, and students solved the problem themselves, including Cole Reinholt’s classic utterance, “Somebody get me a soldering gun.” Meredith and Brandon Hogan created a pitch perfect, student-led learning culture that competed successfully at the highest levels, and that produced learning and human relationships of an equally high order. It was an auspicious first season at every level.

Nate Shatkowski began University’s first DECA club, part of an international business organization focused on career development. Nate recruited students and ran meetings until Mike Hagan came onboard. There is an annual DECA competition that includes over 40 different categories for students to compete in which begins at the district level, then a state tournament, and an international tournament of over 18,000 competitors. University had five state qualifiers, and two students qualified for the international tournament. Many schools have longstanding programs and classes to prepare for the competition. Our DECA experience began with students, added Mike’s energy and business acumen, and had a great first year.

The recognition and awards received by University athletes this year, in addition to our first state title, have been outstanding. Twenty-six student-athletes received the Academic All-State designation, and four swimmers earned Academic All-America honors. To qualify for this honor, a swimmer must be a senior varsity letter winner with a GPA of at least 3.75. University High School tied for third in the state with four honorees. In addition, University is the 2018-19 Pioneer Academic-Athletic Conference champion, and this year’s University teams won six conference championships, four sectional championships, and two regional championships.

Other significant numbers include a 98.3% retention rate, a 100% faculty and staff participation and 86% parent participation in the UFund, which made its $275,000 goal, and for a second year in a row, we were named one of the top ten Best Places to Work in Indiana. On a final note, there is an honor that was bestowed for the first time this year at University – The Scott L. Ray Excellence in Science and Mathematics Scholarship. Scott Ray was a 12-year University Board member, Vice Chair, and a champion of education, particularly of science and mathematics. He relished teaching others almost as much as he enjoyed learning the subjects themselves, and he was a relentlessly kind and encouraging mentor. The recipient of the inaugural Scott L. Ray Science and Mathematics Scholarship is Ari Atlas.

Have a great summer,