A Vision from the Head of School

Acting on the promise of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School

Our school’s story is one of immutable values and continuous evolution consistent with our ideals. The distinctive cornerstone of our identity is a commitment to ethical education and progressive practice. This commitment will not change, nor will our legacy of advocating for social justice and honoring diversity in its many forms.

In keeping with our school motto, fiat lux, or “let there be light,” the very essence of our mission is the pursuit of enlightenment through intellectual endeavor, contemplation, and moral will. Achieving enlightenment requires not simply acquiring knowledge and skill, but using both for virtuous purposes beyond oneself: care for others, care for the world, and dedication to the common good.

Our challenge today lies in making sure our commitments and our mission are viable and compelling for this generation of students who will play a significant role in shaping this century. Our founder Felix Adler stated boldly from the school’s very beginning that “education must change with the change of the world, must refit itself to fit its students and the world.”

Consequently, while our philosophical underpinnings may be fixed, our curriculum, our pedagogy, and the student experience cannot be. At this juncture in the school’s 140-year history, we must be clear about the values and aspirations that guide us so that we are unified in our goals.

In this spirit, I offer my understanding of our opportunities and challenges and my vision of our priorities in the hope of engendering communal thought and conversation as we sunset the school’s last strategic plan, Mission Manifest, and begin to contemplate a new strategic planning process involving all stakeholders in our school community.

Education must change with the change of the world.

Ethics must lie at the heart of all that we do.

Our students must grapple with ethical questions and decision-making at every stage of their journey through our school. Understanding moral frameworks, developing critical thinking skills, and cultivating a clear vision of our essential humanity will be fundamental because in their lives our children will confront unresolved dilemmas along with questions that were unimaginable to us just a decade ago, and they will do so at a pace as yet unseen in history.

Will our students be the ones to lead nations through shifting boundaries and migrations driven by climate change? Will our students be the strongest voices confronting ethical challenges brought forward by extraordinary developments in medicine? Will our students be the ones leading the way in reimagining a society increasingly served by robots? Will our students be the ones to disrupt systemic injustices and bring the best of democracy and civil discourse to others, inspiring unity in a world that is increasingly fractured?

Our curriculum for every student should encompass 1) the study of ethics or moral philosophy, 2) engagement in service learning, and 3) the opportunity to develop the habits of citizenship and the skills of leadership. We must teach our students how to think critically and compassionately and direct their attention to compelling issues, accompanying them in their explorations without championing our own points of view.

We must embrace the key tenets of progressive education.

These tenets guide us, but they do not dictate a single method of teaching in a given unit, classroom, course, or department. Indeed, they invite pedagogical imagination and innovation. They promote a multiplicity of approaches to teaching and curriculum design that honors the expertise and passions of our faculty. They ensure that we deliver to our students an excellent education that is still personalized, differentiated, challenging, and supportive.

Because our school’s reputation stands on the proud legacy of our progressive program, we must remain at the vanguard, seeking new ways to offer even more robust interdisciplinary, place-based, and service learning educational opportunities for all students. Our Progressive Teaching Institute should evolve and grow in its offerings for our own faculty, staff, and administration and also begin to serve as a think tank and national destination for educators eager to collaborate with us.

The world needs light, the promise of this school, and especially the idealism and moral will of our students.

We must support the well-being of our students: socially, emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Following our longstanding tradition of creating engaged citizens and leaders with the intellectual and spiritual fortitude to effect positive social change, ECFS must address the challenges students face today within and beyond the classroom that affect their ability to learn and thrive. Helping all students develop their intellectual and emotional capabilities is an essential part of our mission. We must take a hard look at how best to do this in an era where children are facing unprecedented social and emotional pressures during the years in which they are the most open-minded, but also the most vulnerable and susceptible to self-doubt.

All of our noblest and most pragmatic aims for children depend on their social, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health. Yet over my 30-year career, I have become increasingly concerned about the pressures on students that can become debilitating as they strive to meet unrealistic expectations for achievement. The scripts many of our children feel compelled to follow can have little to do with the fulfillment that comes from engagement with purposeful work — the vocation or calling that originates from listening to the inner voice that speaks to each of us. Sadly, this voice is easily drowned out by other voices in our lives telling us what we ought to do, should do, could do with our education and talents.

From our youngest students to our seniors on the brink of graduation, not one of our children is immune to these challenges, a reality that underscores the vital importance of implementing a robust health and wellness program and of staffing an in-school network of expert adult professionals. Over the last two years, we have bolstered three key areas of student support: learning services; health and wellness; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have sought psychologists, counselors, nurses, health educators, and teachers with multiple types of expertise, but common values and vocabulary.  

Among other initiatives, our talented ethics and educational-technology coordinators have engaged students in discerning decision-making around their use of technology; other colleagues have pioneered mindfulness practices, both in the curriculum and as co-curricular options. We have made progress in introducing a social-emotional learning model into our two lower divisions and our middle school that will provide our faculty and students with a common vocabulary and strategies to manage inevitable challenges. (For more information on our approach, visit instituteforsel.net.) We must continue to assess our needs in these areas to be sure we deliver a high-touch experience for all of our students in and across all four divisions, and especially to those students who are struggling, most vulnerable, or in crisis — or who simply do not feel a sense of belonging in our community.  

Our priorities in the coming years include strengthening advisory in our middle and upper divisions and launching a task force this year to design a comprehensive health and wellness program with an appropriate scope and sequence that touches every child, pre-kindergarten through 12th Grade.

We must examine our educational program in light of our ethical and progressive educational priorities and redesign our student schedules to serve those priorities.

Within and across the four divisions of our school, our educational program must be coordinated and our daily and weekly schedules must serve the needs of our students. We must review and evaluate our curriculum, pedagogy, and schedule based on our priorities, recognizing that the very nature of prioritization means that we cannot do everything. In each grade — and in the transitions from year to year and between divisions — we must ensure the excellence of our core program while thinking deliberately about the ways it intersects with elective, enrichment, and co-curricular options.

We must also ensure that each student has meaningful and relevant interdisciplinary learning opportunities every year that engage them directly with our community, our city, and other locales in the world. Our commitment to teaching ethics should be reflected and mapped in a thoughtful scope and sequence that engages every student from pre-kindergarten to 12th Grade. As an ethical imperative, we must also take a more deliberate approach to instruction in social-emotional learning, health and wellness, and cultural competence.

Schedule design, rooted in current brain research, can also enhance learning and student wellness by diminishing the frenetic pace of the school day; the best schedules for students create fewer transitions in the day, greater opportunity for differentiation in a teaching period, and more time on task for students and teachers. We must redesign our schedules.

In opening ourselves to become a more aligned and collaborative school, we need not sacrifice some of the distinguishing features of each division’s identity, yet all students should have signature experiences in common — hallmarks of the ECFS experience that distinguish us from other schools. We also must ensure equity of access to learning and to meaningful and fair assessment, regardless of a child’s constellation of teachers or entry point into the school.

All of our noblest and most pragmatic aims for children depend on their social, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health.

To honor our mission, we must recognize its intention and capacity to create and embrace a community of individuals with richly diverse backgrounds, identities, beliefs, and convictions. No single person, faction, issue, or cause should co-opt or appropriate this mission that is expansive in its moral imagination. As the adults who nurture and further our students, we should remind ourselves often of Adler’s wisdom in envisioning the composition of our school community and the ideal of our mission: “diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed.”

I am proud to be a member of this community and to embrace our mission. I am also mindful that membership in this community is a privilege, not a right, and comes with expectations — in spirit, word, and deed — to honor and safeguard our communal values. We are at a critical inflection point not only in our society, but also in our school community as we navigate the differences, tensions, challenges, disagreements, and conflicts that are inevitable among human beings. We are the stewards of this 140-year-old institution’s noble mission, values, and legacy. This responsibility is real, as will be the consequences of our success or failure in living up to the responsibility.

To treat one another with dignity, to assume good will, and to model civil discourse should be essential to us all, and when we fall short of these aspirations, we should hold ourselves and one another appropriately accountable. We have the power to call and inspire each other to be our better selves and thus to thrive together in this place and time, fostering a sense of belonging for every child and family.

No example is more important for our students and our hopes for their citizenship and leadership. We mean to send graduates into the world who can engage in civil discourse about ideas and treat others with care and dignity even when they disagree so that they can collaborate across divides to solve problems and further the common good.

Financial stewardship and sustainability are crucial to the realization of our vision in this era. Two commitments are primary and costly: 1) securing and further diversifying a school community that reflects the demographics of our city, and 2) maintaining and enhancing two beautiful-but-aging campuses so that they facilitate a 21st-century educational program. Our campuses should be labs for learning that attract the mission-aligned families we seek, nurture students and support teachers, and inspire the entire school community.

We already strive for a diverse student body, faculty, and staff, but we are committed to more robust recruitment of professionals and families who align with our mission. We are also committed to making employment at ECFS attractive and possible: though our faculty is compensated competitively in our market, we need to enhance our offerings to attract and retain top talent. While we devote more financial assistance dollars to families than any other school in the city, we would like to make more funds available so that our school becomes accessible to those who currently feel it is out of their financial reach or could benefit from assistance in particular areas.  

Amidst many other initiatives this year, our Financial Aid Task Force (FATF) will be working on a model of financial assistance that addresses the complete range of expenses beyond tuition so that children receiving financial assistance can expect access to the full ECFS experience. We will be taking a close look at our financial aid assessment tool with an eye toward making appropriate adjustments for the benefit of our families. We will consider policies for faculty and staff children. Finally, the FATF will study different tuition models as ways to increase access to an ECFS education across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Mission Manifest, the strategic plan that guided us from 2013–2018, articulated important facilities needs. Since my arrival, we have carefully reconsidered the various projects as originally imagined to make sure we address significant deferred maintenance even as we renovate and design new spaces. With two facilities projects completed or nearing completion at Fieldston Lower and the Tate Library, we still have significant needs at Ethical Culture and on the Fieldston campus — some that are routine or deferred care and maintenance; some that are refurbishments and renovations; some that are more extensive redesigns, like flexible spaces, maker spaces, and updated science labs.

Tuition dollars will be insufficient to do more than support smaller-scale and carefully scheduled annual capital expenditures. I also am keenly aware of the ever-receding tuition horizon and the inability of families to keep pace with tuition increases like the ones independent schools in New York City have found necessary over the past decade. Consequently, creating a robust philanthropic culture at ECFS is imperative. The viability of our mission and this vision depends on it.