A Message from the Head of School



You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. — Jane Goodall


Dear ECFS community,


"Care and courage." Those were the first words of my November 14th letter to you. In this message, I want to revisit care and courage in the context of our school community and our national culture—as we clearly can never have too much of either one.


Recently, I spoke to upper school students and faculty and then to the Board of Trustees about the tensions in our school community related to our work focusing on identity. I have spent more time in conversations with individuals from each constituency of the school listening to their thoughts on these efforts than any other topic in my first months at ECFS. As you might imagine, our views are diverse and divergent and even polarized in some respects—about what the school has gotten right in its program and offerings in recent years, where it has failed, and where we have opportunities to strengthen our curriculum and co-curriculum; about which aspects of our intersectional identities are more important to each of us and why, and whether we get to say how we identify or get categorized by others; about whose identities are privileged and not privileged in our school, our society, and our history, nationally and globally; about whose voices are welcome and whose are not in our various communal conversations; about whether we are teaching children how to think versus what to think and educating them about the intellectual (or anti-intellectual) underpinnings of positions across the political spectrum versus proselytizing them to a particular social or political orthodoxy; about what it feels like to be a person of color, a woman or girl, gender queer, a person in transition, or a religious or ethnic minority in our school; about whether it feels safe to learn, to be vulnerable about one's ignorance and blind spots, and ultimately to grow as a consequence of risk in the face of the perceived righteousness of one's peers and teachers. And so on.


We are a community. Communities are bound in some common sense of identity or purpose. Our commonalities may be as simple as our ties to this school. We go to school here; we chose to send our children here; we work here; we grew up here. Or they may be as complex as our perspectives on the mission and purpose of the school and our different expectations of the school. Regardless, we are interconnected and interdependent. Given this reality, a web is a meaningful metaphor for community. All of us stand at some point in the web. I have always loved Herman Melville's observation about our interdependence as human beings: "We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results." Whatever happens at any point in the web vibrates through the web, even though the intensity of the vibration for each of us depends on our proximity to the point of impact.

Tension always exists in a community and a web as well. At the root of the word tension are the meanings hold and stretch. Holding and stretching are essential to a web and a community. Attending to the tension is critical too; as in a work of art that balances opposing elements or forces, we as individuals must strike a balance between pulling our own ways and leaning in. If we pull too hard, the connection snaps. If we lean in, we give a little, sustaining the connection and the possibility of further growth for ourselves and others with whom we are in relationship in the web of community. If we become disillusioned or apathetic, we let go of the commonalities or strands that connect us. Healthy tension—holding and stretching, caring and challenging—is ideal for learning regardless of our ages as students, parents, or faculty and staff.


Our ability to sustain healthy tension, to hold and stretch, to care for and challenge one another in this community has, in my view, never been more important given our mission and values and current developments in our country and even on our globe. We must be able to do in this place of community what is so sorely needed and required of us in the world, now and in the future. Felix Adler wrote, "The ideal of the school is not the adaptation of the individual to the existing social environment; it is to develop individuals who are competent to change their environment to greater conformity with moral ideals." Like the founding documents of the United States, our mission is not partisan. Nevertheless, it does presuppose some immutable moral ideals or self-evident truths.


At its founding our school was known as the Workingman's School. Felix Adler realized a vision of an inclusive school in which children from all socioeconomic classes and all racial-ethnic and religious backgrounds learned together. He created a learning community where students engaged with a curriculum and pedagogy that enlarged their humanity and prepared them to make not just a living, but a life as engaged participants and moral agents in our society and democracy. Adler's vision grew out of his direct experience with the population of New York City during his lifetime. As New Yorkers, we know that our city has always been a city of immigrants. Our country is a country of immigrants, and our strength as a nation is in large measure attributable to our rich diversity and fundamental ideals: liberty, equality, opportunity, individual rights, justice, and democratic self-government.

We now find ourselves in a moment where our foundational principles are more important than ever.


At ECFS and in the United States of America, we have a vibrant history of activism, particularly at moments in our national story when the rights and freedoms of individuals and marginalized or disenfranchised groups have been threatened. Martin Luther King, Jr., who has been on our campus, said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." Eleanor Roosevelt, who has been on our campus, said, "Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both," and "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." In my adult life, I have not borne witness to a darker time in this country when it comes to the protection of cherished civil liberties and constitutional rights. That granted, I will not despair and do not want any of our families to despair either, no matter how anxious recent weeks have made many of you. This school and its enduring values will be—as they always have been—a beacon. All are welcome here, and we will draw strength from our activist roots now when individuals of conscience are rallying across our city and country.


In addition to our ongoing curricular and co-curricular work across all four divisions of the school and our exploration of intersectional identity in the upper school this year, let me share with you just a few recent initiatives in our community that may be heartening to you:


  • Fourth graders at Ethical Culture study immigration. On January 13th, they heard immigration stories from an immigrant panel comprised of faculty, staff, and administration from England, Haiti, Israel, and Peru. Last week students also interviewed one of twenty-one parents, grandparents, and teachers about their immigrant experience. Using iPads and questions they had largely formulated themselves (Did all your family immigrate at once? How did you feel when you were packing? Do you ever dream in your old language?), the fourth graders conducted interviews with individuals hailing from France, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and other far-flung places. The immigration unit will conclude with a "summit" featuring staff from KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), an organization that provides legal representation and other support to unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings. The fourth grade is partnering with KIND for their service project.
  • At Fieldston Lower, fifth grade students have used imagery from artwork from the Women's March as inspiration for their own work on posters in Social Studies Workshop, and one of the third grade classes called their New York senators to talk about the Dakota Access pipeline.

  • On January 21st, two buses of students and adults from our school went to the Women's March on Washington, and many more participated in the March here in New York City. https://ethicalculturefieldston.smugmug.com/FieldNotes-Images-Downloadable/The-Fieldston-Community-at-the/n-HBf7xT/
  • On January 24th, the All-School Multicultural Committee in conjunction with the P+T screened the documentary film "Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement," followed by a panel discussion featuring the film's producer Jason Samuels, who is a Fieldston alumnus.
  • On January 31st, we held a panel discussion in the Ethical Culture Society Auditorium entitled, "Breaking Down Walls: Muslims & Latinos in a Divided America." The program resulted from the shared vision of Fieldston sophomore Amir Mustefa and Friends Seminary sophomore Martin Wilkinson who partnered with Liz Fernández, Director or Multicultural & Progressive Education at ECFS, and Jason Craige Harris, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Friends Seminary, to make the event a reality. It featured the following panelists: Professor Moustafa Bayoumi from Brooklyn College; ECFS parent Chaumtoli Huq from Law@theMargins; Carlene Pinto from the New York Immigration Coalition; and Rebecca Press from Central American Legal Assistance. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0Bz_7u0n5u2w6TnZOWlRld1RSSXc?usp=sharing
  • This Friday, February 10th, middle school and upper school students will have the opportunity to hear from two of the panelists from the "Breaking Down Walls" event, Professor Chaumtoli Huq, mom of 7th grader Zarif Cabrera, and Carlene Pinto, and to ask questions and engage in dialogue.

  • Ethics teacher Roy Blumenfeld, the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, was so dismayed by the recent executive order—issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day—affecting refugees that he wanted "to show solidarity with those subject to xenophobia and Islamophobia" by creating a tee shirt featuring the Arabic phrase, "أهلا وسهلا or ahlan wasahlan," which means "welcome" and comes from an old saying about showing hospitality to strangers, a precept that is important across religious traditions. 100% of proceeds are being donated to the Arab American Association of New York.

  • On Thursday, February 9, upper school faculty will offer an optional teach-in during A & B bands on the Trump administration's recent executive order on immigration and the historical and contemporary issues surrounding it.

Finally, as we lean into care and courage, hold and stretch one another, call each other in versus calling each other out, and continue to build the legacy of this school in keeping with our immutable values and our country's immutable ideals, I will be creating opportunities this spring in a number of small groups for parents to engage with me in a dialogue about community, communal tensions, our educational program, and our mission-based ethical commitments. Stay tuned.

Best regards,


Jessica L. Bagby


Ethical Culture Fieldston School

33 CENTRAL PARK WEST • NEW YORK, NY 10023 • (212) 712-6220 

3901 FIELDSTON ROAD • BRONX, NY 10471 • (718) 329-7300

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