This story was first published in the Harker Quarterly Spring 2011 Edition
More than 500 parents, students and alumni attended Harker’s Jan. 8 screening of “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary film exploring stress related disorders in high-achieving American teenagers and the ironic fact that many are not prepared for college.
Head of School Christopher Nikoloff praised the film as affording an important opportunity for reflection. It also comes at a good time during Harker’s yearlong accreditation self-study.
“A lot of the issues in the movie … we have been talking about for a long time with parents and teachers,” he said. “Now that they are in the national spotlight,” he added, “it’s a great time to make sure we’re part of the dialogue.”
Indeed, more than 130 parents attended follow-up discussions in the lower, middle and upper schools. They were joined by Nikoloff and Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs, as well as deans, division heads and counselors from each campus.
Nikoloff opened each discussion by highlighting where Harker is, has been, and is going with respect to some of the issues raised in the film. By way of background, he referenced the 1981 book “The Hurried Child.” “Over the last 30 years, there have been a lot of hurrying dynamics in our children’s lives,” he said. “Now there is something of a backlash. It’s important not to get caught up in either end of the pendulum swing.”
With that in mind, Harker is continually evaluating its own programs from the perspective of its core values. “Our guiding star is love of learning, or intellectual curiosity,” Nikoloff said. “So when we ask questions … our goal is always deeper learning.” He then outlined some concrete steps Harker has taken over time in accordance with this philosophy.
The steps include improving the student experience by scheduling final exams before the winter holiday break, reducing schedule conflicts between athletics and performing arts, and moving to trimesters/semesters to allow more time between assessments.
Other initiatives have deepened the scope of the upper school wellness program, established advisories for grades 6-12 and created an upper school dean of studies position to help families formulate a plan for high school. The school culture has also been moving in the direction of fewer awards ceremonies and greater restrictions on acceleration.
Going forward, Harker is exploring the possibility of becoming a Challenge Success school and, perhaps most importantly, round table discussions have been scheduled in the upper school to solicit student feedback about the “Race to Nowhere.”
Nikoloff also addressed some common questions, including the issue of homework. “We are doing a deep homework audit, and we do think we can accomplish more with a little bit less,” said Nikoloff. But he also cautioned, “You probably will not feel that tonight. It’s a reflective process that will slowly yield results.”
That sat well with parent Julie Moncton (Michael, grade 7), who said she appreciated the opportunity for parents to weigh in. “It’s nice to see that change is in the works, and yet it won’t be changing so radically that we end up with something that won’t work out,” she said.
Other questions focused on math and language arts grouping and whether it contributes to competition. Nikoloff urged parents to see grouping as part of the process of learning, not as a goal to be achieved. The idea behind grouping is to match each student with “the pace that is within his or her zone of proximal development,” he said. “That means children are being challenged without being stressed.”
Seeking Balance in Parenting
As Nikoloff opened the discussion to attendees, questions naturally evolved into lively exchanges. Parents in each division grappled with how to walk the line between encouragement and pressure and, on the flip side, how to preserve time for truly nourishing extracurriculars.
One question, in particular, hung over all the others: what will colleges think?
On this as on other points, Nikoloff urged parents not to compare their children with anyone else’s, but rather to evaluate their activities by whether they are happy and meaningfully engaged. “That will translate into getting into the college that is right for them,” he said.
His message resonated with Trish Tobin (Sheridan, grade 8; Brendan, grade 6; Ryan, grade 2), who said, “I really appreciate how much time this school invests in learning how children learn and what’s best for them as a whole — not just their academic selves.” Kindergarten parent Jennifer Hargreaves (Sydney Adler, K) agreed. She particularly valued the “variety of perspectives from parents,” she said, and the fact that “the school is leading the conversation in the best interests of our children.”
Dodging Trouble in the Teen Years
Discussion at the upper school event focused heavily on the specifics of right now, with many parents wanting to know warning signs of stress to watch for in their teens. Among the recommendations offered by Nikoloff and upper school counselors Lori Kohan and Chris Colletti were to find some unscheduled time with children in which to gauge their stress levels and to take notice of an extreme response to a bad grade.
At school, teachers and advisors make sure to work as a team to solicit one another’s observations if something seems amiss, the counselors said, and parents should always feel free to contact them with concerns as well.
At all three forums, parents were encouraged to communicate their own values, for example by asking kids more questions about the “process” of learning than about their grades. Padmaja Indukuri found that seeing the film with her daughter Laya (grade 8) propelled their communication in precisely that direction. “I was asking questions, but I didn’t know how she was feeling,” she said. “She is telling me now, so I understand.”
Casey Near ’06 offered valuable perspective based on her own experience. The Harker students who thrive are “the ones who really take the Harker message to heart – that it’s about the process, and it’s about the ability to think critically,” she said. “So it’s the parents’ role to make sure that’s the focus – and not that test, that quiz or that homework assignment.”