Hello, my friends! I hope you’re enjoying the additional hours of sun and warmer temperatures as much as I am.
I’ve been away a lot in recent weeks, visiting with alumni and friends of the School and attending the National Association of Independent Schools conference. This is fun, rewarding work and there’s a healthy buzz about Park, so hearing about our impact from alumni, past parents, and other friends of the School is an affirming experience, to be sure. Yet, I’m glad to be home and I miss this place a lot when I’m away for too long!
Being home also gives me the chance to share with you some of the things that being away prompts me to remember about our school, either through reminiscing with alumni or hearing from peers about their own school communities. Park’s Progressive approach is unique to a comparatively small number of schools nationwide, and we’re more practiced and better at it than a great many of them.
The Park Difference
The clearest and most consistent message I hear from and see in alumni and their parents always centers on the independence and self-confidence they developed while students at Park. Often, they didn’t even realize it had happened until after they left, and admittedly, its cause is a hard thing to put a finger on. I’ve worked with Park students for 16 years now, and even I struggle with articulating how it all works at times. For parents of our younger learners or whose children are new to the school, some of what we intentionally do can feel unfamiliar, maybe counter-intuitive, and occasionally even a bit scary. My own education in other local schools served me well, but it was also very traditional, and looked an awful lot like the education my parents and grandparents had experienced in similar schools before me. Happily, Park is different on purpose, but that can also make it feel unfamiliar. It can feel confusing that kids actually enjoy school, or are allowed to independently struggle a bit through developmental challenges, or have facility with people of all ages, rather than just their own peer group.
Just in the past few weeks, there have been activities at Park that help demonstrate the results of this different approach.
A couple weeks ago, the Park Players theatre group performed four shows of The Lion King, Jr. for our community. As most of you know, our unique program involves students of all ages in all aspects of the program, from singing and acting, to stage crew and technical support, to ticket sales and concessions. The results are moving, both as a dad in the community with a child in the production, but especially as the head of school. Our intentional practices of being inclusive and trusting young people to shoulder responsibility allows our students to do great things together. The range of ages, the diversity, and the level of collective, talented accomplishment here is remarkable, and there are very few other places where such results are possible.
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of accompanying our varsity boys basketball team, Coach Rich Jacob, Assistant Coach Bob Bateson, and Athletic Director, Marcus Hutchins, to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s office at City Hall. Mayor Brown recognized the boys for their recent accomplishment of repeating as New York State Catholic League Champions, and for returning again this year to the State Federation Playoffs, where they made it to the semifinals. These are significant athletic accomplishments, because of their consistency, and especially because Park is a small school competing against opponents whose enrollments are much larger. The best part though, was that the Mayor, Coach, and I all got to speak to the boys’ whole selves, their admirable character, and the fact that their team grade point average for the first semester - right in the middle of their season - was over a 93%.
Again, this is the result of an intentional approach we take with our young people, holding them accountable as individuals and as a team to be their best selves. When our athletes don’t achieve the grades we expect, or fail to behave according to our life rules, they don’t get to play. That may hurt us on the scoreboard on occasion, but it benefits them in terms of who they become for years and years to come.
Finally, Park allows for the risk of trying new things, innovative thinking, and a collaborative spirit. Like what’s listed above, this doesn’t come from a specific unit of study or a one-shot professional development day. Rather, it is the result of holding onto and continuously supporting a culture that accepts change as inevitable and exciting, and as an opportunity to do even better tomorrow than what we did today. This requires an equally tenacious adherence to our core beliefs and mission, balanced with a constant willingness to examine how we complete that mission, and whether or not we might improve. It is hard work, but it is also central to our foundational core.
In this light, you’ve hopefully heard about the partnership we’ve entered into with Kadimah, a local Jewish day school that is closing after this year, and the Jewish Federation. They approached us nearly a year ago to ask if we’d consider exploring ways to help them maintain their mission in some way, and to partner in giving their families a place to land. Our willingness to do so was driven by our mission-based belief that we ought to help others when we can, and by the innovative, collaborative spirit I’m discussing here. The partnership will allow Kadimah to remain intact as a voluntary scholarship program that they will fund in perpetuity, for Park students who are interested in learning Hebrew and Judaic Studies. Our community will gain some new Pioneers, and Kadimah will continue in a new way that honors and upholds their traditions within Park’s academic program. As a third partner, the Jewish Federation will support the partnership by funding the salaries of staff that Park hires in support of this effort.
And of course, recent weeks have also demonstrated that there are times when we can do better. I regret that the press release we made public happened before I had a full conversation with our parent and alumni bodies. We’ve been discussing all of the details organizationally and at the board level for months, and I even fielded some questions about it at the National Association of Independent Schools conference in California (word in the world of schools spreads fast!). I let the shared excitement between Park, Kadimah, and the Jewish Federation get the better of us. I apologize for that, and understand that you may have questions. You can read the original press release here
and a Frequently Asked Questions sheet here
that we’ve put together to address at least some of what you might be wondering.
The main concerns I’ve heard center on whether this is a merger that indicates Park’s poor health (it is not!), whether Park is moving away from its historic, secular mission (it is not!), and why we’ve decided to do this work with Kadimah, specifically. The result of all of it will be that Park will welcome a number of new families to our school across a wide swath of grade levels, gain funding from both institutions that allows for us to continue our development of globally-minded programming that’s accessible to all interested Park students, and we’re gaining a lot of attention nationally for an innovative approach to community collaboration as a means of strengthening schools. You’ll see in the attached FAQ document that this model is something I’ve been working on for some time, and the opportunity to partner with Kadimah is an excellent way for us to pilot its efficacy. As things unfold about the attention we’ll get for this work, the development of the model over time, and the specifics of the logistics involved, we’ll be sure to share them with you. If you’d like, feel free to contact me at your convenience with questions.
Knopp-Hailpern Science Center Update
As you probably know, the completion of our new science center has been a real challenge as we worked through a number of issues over the winter. We are very close to being able to move in and fully use the building. With the warmer weather, site work around the building will be underway soon and the plaza will be completed. Every time I am in the new building, I am excited about the space and the new program and partnership opportunities this incredible facility and associated stream and pond work will allow us to pursue!
Park is a place that can hold fast to its history and mission. Time and our alumni have routinely demonstrated that what we do is significant and impressive. A key part of that is the willingness to risk ventures into unknown territories, and a willingness to make changes, adjust our course, and try new avenues when they present themselves. It seems counter-intuitive, but we hold fast to our mission by embracing change. The courage to do this is a key part of who we are, and truly demonstrates the Pioneer Spirit. As always, I’m grateful to share that spirit with all of you.