A long-time Wildwood parent and I were at a school event recently. It was an admissions event, and we’d just heard a panel of current upper schoolers answer questions about the long-view of their Wildwood School experience. Two of them were his, and he was understandably proud. His third child is already off at college, after 13 years at Wildwood.
As we parted, he made an observation that stuck with me. Empathizing with the hundred or so prospective parents gathered, recognizing the weight of the decision about to be made—which school was going to be right for their family and would that school see it, too?—he wished aloud that he could encourage them to live up to the best version of themselves and their highest ideals as they think about schools and what they want for their children. Then he noted that it’s becoming clearer every day that Wildwood is ahead of the curve in what can feel like uncharted territory, which can make it challenging for parents to remember to focus on their highest ideals along the way.
I think I was particularly primed to have his “remember our highest ideals” message resonate so, having just had multiple Wildwood parents share with me Frank Bruni’s recent article. Bruni received an advance copy of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s new report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, and continues to shine a spotlight on a system that is increasingly seen as broken. Using only slightly more dramatic language than I’m prone to use, Bruni notes that “…many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions.”
The report, the creation of which was led by Harvard GSE’s Making Caring Common project, was developed and is endorsed by representatives of a huge range of colleges and universities to which Wildwood students have, will, or wish to matriculate. Several of those universities, the report notes, “…have already made changes in their admissions materials or practices…”
From the report: “Admissions processes inevitably send messages about what colleges value, messages that young people may interpret as signals of what society values as well…These messages can exacerbate young people’s sometimes singular focus on achievement or, alternatively, motivate behaviors that are likely to develop in them a greater commitment to others and the common good. Some colleges have sought diligently to communicate the importance of this commitment in the admissions process, but too often these messages are overwhelmed by messages from the larger culture and from parents that narrowly emphasize academic performance and personal success.”
With schools like Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, CAL, Cornell, Harvard, Michigan, Smith, Swarthmore, University of Chicago, Penn, USC, UVA, Wesleyan, Yale, and others large and small, public and private coming together to address this topic, I am more hopeful than ever that the hyper-competitive environment that’s surrounded high school students during their college process—and so negatively impacted the high school experience everywhere—will change for the better. And change for good, I hope.
The report offers three specific recommendations for reshaping the college process:
- Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
- Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class.
- Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.
Reading the full report (the Executive Summary provides a quick overview if you don’t have much time) I was, as I so often am, energized to see how consistent the recommendations are with the principles we espouse—and actively teach—at Wildwood. Our founding philosophy, the vision that guided our expansion to a K-12, and the research and reflection that continues to guide us today was and is decidedly ahead of the curve. Everything from the encouragement that students’ community service should focus more on “doing with” than on “doing for” (I think of our ICI students working side-by-side with locals to build houses in Guatemala) to the recommendation that colleges begin to convey that, “…taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas” (In the years before many very well-regarded independent high schools decided to disband their Advanced Placement programs, a move becoming more and more common in independent schools, Wildwood introduced its upper school program and eschewed the standardization of those types of programs). Calling on themselves and others to prompt change, the writers of the report noted that all too often, “Academic performance becomes not one important theme, but the theme in the large composition of a life.”
As much as anything, the recommendations repeatedly require that students reflect on the degree to which they’ve contributed in positive ways to their families, their schools, and their communities. College applicants will be called on to think about the range of actions that fall under Wildwood’s Habits of Heart as they seek admission. As the writers explain, “Reshaping college admissions needs to be coupled with more purposeful, intensive and wiser efforts across our culture, at home, and at every level of education, including colleges themselves to develop in young people deeper commitments to others.”
None of this important work is as simple as it may sound. It takes a strong culture, agreement among the adults involved, and time (this week, this year, and over the span of many years) to guide young people to be the best version of themselves, both with regard to academics and citizenship. It has to begin early, and it can’t stop.
Our middle school students earned first place again in the annual Future City competition, held in San Diego this year. They’ll go to nationals in Washington, DC and will have the opportunity to present their project to President Obama if they win there. Our students placed in many sub-categories, as well. As great as all of that is, multiple people—colleagues and parents—came back reporting to me not of the win or the successes in multiple categories. They separately spoke of the power of seeing kids celebrate the successes of others, share and give credit where credit was due, and reflect on the strength of the teams and the benefits of the collaboration.
They aren’t ready for college yet. But they will be.
Head of School