By Larry Jensen, Director of Admissions
More and more families are considering non-public options for their children, primarily because of the smaller class sizes, the safe campuses, the excellent college preparation, and the access to extracurricular activities. The visit is often the first part of the process. These questions are among the most important to ask during that visit:
What will the first month/semester/year be like? You want to be able to anticipate any challenges so that you can plan for them. During your visit, try to schedule conversations with some of the people who will work directly with your child — teachers, coaches, administrators — so that you can gather the most accurate information possible.
How does the school communicate with parents? Will you hear from teachers only when something isn’t going well? Is the school reactive, or is it proactive? During the school year, your child spends more time with teachers than with any other adult, so it’s critical to have a good line of communication with professionals who know your child well.
What if my child has a hard time with the academics? How will the school help your child if he/she is struggling? What support mechanisms are in place? Are teachers accessible outside of regular class hours? Ask specific questions based on your child’s strengths and needs.
Is it easy to make friends in a school where the kids have been classmates for years? At a great school, faculty and staff focus on making sure that new students settle in well. Ask about how this happens. Will your child have an advisor? Are there clubs, sports and after-school activities that can help your child make friends?
What type of student excels in this school? Does the school value non-cognitive areas (kindness, curiosity, determination, etc.), or does the school seek to enroll only high academic achievers? The answer to this question will help you determine whether your child can thrive, rather than merely survive.
Asking lots of questions over several visits can inform parents and help them make the best educational choice for their children.
With the ever-changing landscape of education, it is important not only for educators, but also those in the community to pay attention to the trends and forces that influence and impact schools and students. Whether it means adding innovation to the core curriculum, rearranging learning spaces, individualizing instruction and/or collaborating to solve problems, these trends influence how learning happens. And external forces – political, economic, environmental, global, social, or technological – affect the focus and mindset of teachers and students.
Four words come to mind to help us understand where education is headed, how teachers share information and encourage thinking, and what students may need to do to ensure they are preparing for the future. These words are TIME, PLACE, PATH, and SPACE, as detailed in a recent issue of the Independent School Magazine. Many questions arise when considering these words within the context of the future of education. Do class periods have to be 45 minutes long? What is the appropriate length for a school year? What should schools look like? Where else can learning occur and still be considered school? How should a curriculum be shaped in order to be truly valuable?
To help answer these questions, Saint Stephen’s hosted an educational summit we called ALIVE: Assembling Leaders for an Innovative Vision of Education. The objective was to gather local thought leaders and harvest their ideas about what education could be. We felt that not only would SSES glean valuable information to influence its strategic thinking, but those attending would be able to take back the outcomes of these discussions to share within their communities.
We invited 18 leaders affiliated with area colleges, universities and schools, along with CEOs of businesses, experts in economics, child psychology, social advocacy, the arts, and researchers in science and technology. It was our hope that by bringing together people from a broad variety of disciplines, the discussion would be robust and approach key questions from different angles.
Although many were meeting for the first time, there was a common thread binding the group – everyone truly cares about children. The participants answered an array of questions in an effort to uncover the emerging forces/trends that our young people will face and how education can best be designed to help them thrive. The answers came without hesitation in an hour-long back and forth.
Participants were then asked to create the school of the future using simple props including popsicle sticks, straws, markers, cotton balls and glue. Through this activity, a variety of ways to present education, construct schools, and encourage student learning emerged.
The outcomes of the Q&A and design sessions uncovered a number of major themes. It is apparent that most feel education has never been in a greater state of change than it is today. Navigating different pathways of learning to meet individual needs is important and the structure of a program influences how much students gain from the experience. It is also clear that technology is a huge influence on how students learn. With so much knowledge at one’s fingertips, it is imperative that students are taught skills over content, that environments are created where students learn to problem solve, think critically and globally, and can navigate their own learning rather than just being receivers of information. The classroom should exist beyond the four walls of the school building.
There was much discussion about students being able to develop keen emotional intelligence to help them learn to be more adaptable in accepting and including others. Education must become more experiential with a hands-on approach that allows for exploration, and educators need to create a culture of constant creation and re-creation that allows students to collaborate with others, yet be grounded in who they are and what matters to them.
The time the group spent together went quickly, but the conversations were truly ALIVE! In capturing this “blue-sky” thinking about the future of education, we set forth on a path that we hope will eventually lead to a new blueprint for learning.
The Lower School’s countdown to Christmas 2017 included a daily “Kindness Calendar,” which taught students to be aware of and committed to acts of kindness. The instructions were as simple as, “Smile at somebody today.”
“We want them to learn how what they do and say impacts others and how small things can start a whole kindness chain,” Lower School Director Jennifer Helbing said. “We weave it through everything we do and it actually starts during the admission process. We tell families about our focus on the development of the whole child, and character development holds just as much significance as our academic lessons.”
Just as with the academic curriculum, Saint Stephen’s sees these learning opportunities as something foundational and built upon as students progress from division to division. Perhaps no time is more critical in teaching about kindness than the middle school years.
“They’re trying to figure out who they are as individuals. It’s a time when friendships are changing and it can be confusing when they’re moving away from each other. Navigating all of that is difficult,” Middle School Director Joel Erby said. “So we do a lot of things to help students remember that it’s okay to be nice, that it’s not taboo and it doesn’t make you soft or weak.”
One of the visible approaches Erby uses is a “Gratitude Tree,” which hangs prominently on a second-floor wall in the middle school building. Students add leaves to the tree with messages when they notice teachers or their peers being nice, kind or helpful to others. Each week at chapel services, Erby selects a handful of the leaves to read and recognizes the students publicly. During the opening weeks of school, the tree featured just a handful of notes. It now overflows.
While it might seem easy to dismiss the value of these types of exercises, the results can be significant, and the scientific data is plentiful. A recent Stanford University study showed that if you prioritize happiness, you will be more productive, creative, resilient, energized, charismatic and influential. Researchers conducted a series of studies that observed how witnessing kindness inspires kindness and causes it to spread.
Researchers in Great Britain directly related happiness to acts of kindness. Participants in the study were given a life satisfaction survey and then assigned randomly to one of three groups. One group was asked to perform a daily act of kindness for 10 days. A second group was instructed to do something new each day. The last group received no instructions. After the 10 days, the participants completed another life satisfaction survey and results showed that the individuals who practiced acts of kindness experienced a significant boost in their happiness.
Exhibiting kindness may have an even longer, more profound effect. Harvard and University of British Columbia researchers gave participants small sums of money and the choice to spend it on themselves or someone else. Two findings were observed. First, people in general felt happier when they were asked to remember a time they bought something for someone else. This happiness boost was the same regardless of whether the gift cost $20 or $100. The happier participants felt about their generosity, the more likely they were to spend on someone else instead of themselves.
Author, speaker and researcher Shawn Achor has demonstrated that if you perform random acts of kindness for two minutes a day for 21 days, you can retrain your brain to be more positive. Studies such as his show that when your brain is more positive you are more likely to be creative, intelligent and productive.
Even the most successful companies are recognizing the virtues of benevolence. Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban was recently quoted saying, “Nice is way undervalued right now. It’s one of the most valuable assets out there.” Within the workforce, kindness towards one another can inspire employees to be more productive and make businesses more profitable, attributes that can translate to job success, wealth, healthy relationships and better health. The adage that success breeds happiness may be turning on its head.
“The goal for us as educators in independent schools is to help create great kids who not only are successful academically but have great character traits,” Erby said. “You want them to look back when they’re older and remember how they were treated here and realize that a lot of the things they learned about how to treat people with respect and kindness, those were ideas that were reinforced at Saint Stephen’s.”
The Saint Stephen’s Academic Team defended its Manatee County championship for the fourth consecutive year on Dec. 5, hosting and winning the final meet and the season title. SSES completed a dominant run, finishing the campaign with 938 total points. The 2nd-through-5th-place teams scored between 611 and 538 points. Three Falcons also topped the individual leaderboard – senior Jack Berry, juniors Matthew Thomas and Sidney Knowles (pictured) – and qualified to represent the county at state competition in April along with three students from public schools. Congratulations to all of the team members, including: Colton Melnick ’19, Maria Erquiaga ’20, Kassandra Haakman ’20, Mikayla Woodard ’20, Annie Class ’21, Tyler Katchen ’21, Connor McCray ’21, Jules Pung ’21, and Anusha Singh ’21.
Saint Stephen’s football completed an undefeated 2017 season and defended its Sunshine State Athletic Conference Independent State Championship with a 49-21 Florida Bowl win over Windermere Prep on Nov. 18 at the Master’s Academy in Oviedo. The Falcons (11-0) started fast with a 3-yard TD run by senior quarterback Fred Billy just more than two minutes into the game and never looked back, racing out to a 28-0 advantage and leading from wire to wire. Billy finished with 146 rushing yards, 49 passing yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Chase Brown was a dominant force, running for 201 yards and scoring five times – four on the ground and one on a pass reception that put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. The Saint Stephen’s defense forced five turnovers with two interceptions, a fumble and two on downs. Junior offensive/defensive lineman Dalton Francis recovered two onside kicks and a fumble. He also made a huge tackle on a fourth-down run that yielded one of the turnovers on downs. The Falcons finished the season riding a 22-game winning streak. SSES has not lost since the opening week of the 2016 season. The Falcons outscored their 2017 opponents 529-83, averaging better than 48 points per game.
The SSES girls and boys golf teams successfully defended their 1A-District 16 titles on Monday, Oct. 16, advancing to their respective regional tournaments on Oct. 23. The girls have now won six consecutive district crowns. Junior Alan Klenor led the boys at Tatum Ridge Golf Links, firing a 4-under par 68 as the Falcons carded a 7-under-par 281 to win the team title by eight strokes over Cardinal Mooney. All five Falcons scored par or better. Massimo Mbetse was 2-under at 70, Ryan Kinkead fired a 71 and David Hu and Song Bai each shot even par 72. SSES advances to the Region 6 tournament at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch. Freshman Maria Huang paced the girls with a strong 75. Catherine Huang scored 81 and the Falcons finished with 375 as a team to win and move on to the regional tournament at San Carlos Country Club in Fort Myers.
Saint Stephen’s is excited to announce that Dragos Alexandru has agreed to become the new head coach of the developing Falcon Rowing Team. Alexandru was a member of the 1980 Romanian Olympic rowing team that participated in Moscow and is a very recognizable name throughout the rowing community. He was one of the first advocates for the development of the current Benderson Park as a world-class rowing facility and played a very significant role in eventually bringing the World Rowing Championships to the area. He will now lead the Falcons as they continue to develop a competitive team. SSES rowing was launched in 2015 and has spent the past two seasons building skills and preparing to compete. You can read more about Coach Alexandru in this story from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Head of School Dr. Jan Pullen was recently profiled by Sarasota’s ABC 7 News in its weekly “Amazing Suncoast Woman” feature. Veteran reporter Linda Carson visited campus and talked with Dr. Pullen about her upbringing in Manatee County, her journey through education, and her 30 transformative years as a teacher and administrator at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School. Dr. Pullen is a graduate of Manatee High School, Manatee Junior College, Florida State University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a driving force in the emergence of Saint Stephen’s as one of the premier independent schools in Florida. Her message: “Never stop learning. Be a life-long learner. The world is full of new thoughts and ideas. Never shut your mind to them.”
The Falcons are tops in Class 3A in the state. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has released its final Sunshine Cup all-sports points standings for 2016-17. Saint Stephen’s Athletics ranks 7th in the combined 3A/4A classification and is the top-ranked 3A school. The SSES boys finished first and the girls were third overall. Falcons student-athletes had a record-setting year on the fields and courts, winning 10 district, five regional and three state championships. See the final Sunshine Cup points standings here: http://www.fhsaa.org/…/alls…/2016-17/class_4a-3a_private.pdf
Senior Vanessa Yan has been named a 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholar – one of only 161 nationwide. The White House Commission on Presidential Scholars selects students annually based on their academic success, essays, school evaluations and transcripts, as well as evidence of community service, leadership, and commitment to high ideals. Of the 3.5-million students expected to graduate from high school this year, more than 5,100 candidates qualified for the 2017 awards determined by outstanding performance on the SAT and ACT exams, through nominations made by Chief State School Officers, and other partner organizations. The 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholars are comprised of one young man and one young woman from each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and from U.S. families living abroad, as well as 15 chosen at-large. Vanessa, who is also one of the area’s top prep golfers and has led the Falcons with Top-30 individual finishes at each of the past three state tournaments, will attend Yale University.