A Cry from the Heart of all Independent Schools & An Elite School Meltdown | Joel Backon | 12 Min Read

February 23, 2022

This story is not just about last Friday’s walkout at Choate Rosemary Hall, although it would have been Exhibit A in many of the articles we have run this year on the fraying fabric of independent schools: it’s a story of students fighting back against a childhood robbed of learning and joy in the name of rigor, of a curriculum expanded and expanded without careful consideration in the name of student choice and the marketing of that rigor, of confusing and divisive ideologies implemented without the capacity for understanding or acceptance, of mental health, of generational conflict among teachers, and of a broken governance model. It’s a story of independent schools across the nation. And unfortunately, it’s one we see as just beginning.

The heartwrenching story at Choate, unfolding at this very moment, is more than an elite school meltdown. It is an emotional cry from the heart of students, alums, and faculty at independent schools across the nation. It is also a dramatic outpouring of unity in the face of crisis across several different school constituencies, normally accustomed to respecting their boundaries.

On Sunday morning, I heard from an OESIS Network Leader on the West coast about a student and faculty “walkout” at Choate Rosemary Hall in CT, one of the nation’s finest independent schools. Until 3 years ago, I had spent much of my adult life there as a teacher, a good 27 years. More reactions from those who contacted me on a shared thread spoke of a wider context: “our school is on the verge of the same thing…” By dawn Monday morning, text messages flooded in, a few of them with an attached petition signed by 410 Choate community members.

The preamble of the Choate petition details the particulars and frames the broader issues facing our schools. It’s not a list of grievances, but a call for wellness and change:

The Plan: Sleep. Skip all classes. Meet at Hill House steps Friday, February 18th at 10:30 am. Wear black. Silent protest. The email will be sent at 7:30 am to the parties noted in the comments. Disruption is inherently uncomfortable, but we need community in order to create change. This is the first step in an uncomfortable process, where we need to trust we will be heard when we come together collectively. 

The characterization of the current environment and list of demands would not surprise any independent school person. They have been heard loud and clear around the country for the past three years, and as the petition points out, COVID only made the issues more acute. Thus, the first part of the petition calls for a profound change:

As a school, we are at a tipping point, and we are writing to you to bring attention to this reality: both students and faculty feel as if the administration continuously disregards, overlooks, and fails to address the pertinent issues facing the Choate community. At this moment, we can either lean into community care and acknowledge and seek to repair the severe harm, trauma, and difficulty that has been inflicted upon us for at least the last two and a half years, or we can continue along as we have been and ignore this truth. 

The second part defines the grievances as a wellness issue, something that is essential for the excellent education that is expected of a school such as Choate:

To be clear, many of the issues we are facing (inequitable compensation for increasing workload among faculty, inequitable distribution of workload, lack of work/life balance, increasing asks of an already strained faculty and staff, lack of community, general toxic pace of life, rigor at the expense of student health and well-being, white supremacy and racism, disregard for community health and lack of community support [my emphasis]) are not new issues. They have certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the school’s response has been lacking, dangerous, unsustainable, and frankly irresponsible. We are calling on the administration to collaborate directly and intentionally with students, faculty, and staff to create feasible solutions to the issue of an unhealthy Choate culture. 

But here is the most disheartening part of the plea, words that could only make me feel empathy for all those impacted by what has been happening:

We write this to plead with you to open your eyes to a struggling campus. While change is difficult to make and can take a long time to enact, as a community, we have little faith in the administration to make actionable, efficient, and long-term changes to the way we function as a school. What we are looking for is a promise, something immediate, to tell us as a community that we are fighting for a common cause. 

Schools are meant to be bound together by a common cause, and yet after 130 years of success at this school, the quest to fight for a common cause must be of the greatest concern to those in charge at the Board level, head of school, and in the senior administration. That common cause is a healthy culture, and that is a fundamental issue for all independent schools. This is more than a canary in a coal mine. It is an ever-present challenge for every school to address. Success is fleeting, contributions are lasting.

If you are a school administrator, you may be bristling at these words. The past three years have been the most difficult of most administrative careers; hard work and long hours were the rule, not the exception. Furthermore, disagreements between administrators and faculty or students are very common, but that doesn’t translate into a lack of respect and trust for talented people who are coping with many complex issues. It’s also likely that senior staff meetings did not consist of conversations about how to make the lives of their faculty and students miserable. Then what happened at Choate and is spreading at many other schools based on reports we have received over the past 12 months? What are the essential questions to be answered at each school? I am not in a position to analyze what happened as I have not been privy to school life since June 2019, so my focus will be on those essential questions that should apply to all schools.

The pressing questions fall into two categories that are reflective of what has been reported in the petition and consistent with what we have been told by other schools. There have been a number of articles published on our site that address the questions (some of those articles are identified at the end of this piece). Essential questions are designed to be discussed, reflected upon, and answered with an expectation that there will not be an immediate transformation of the culture, but a promise of community problem-solving, a commitment to improving the environment to the point where the excitement of learning is restored. Isn’t every school committed to the hard work of creating that environment? 

We’ve written before on the unusual nature of rushing into major cultural and programmatic shifts without sufficient capacity and strategic alignment. Many of the issues identified by the Choate petition and feedback from other schools provoke questions about the schools’ approach to DEI. As this collection of articles shows [Part I, II, III, IV, V], the fundamental issue is dis-integration.

Rather than DEI efforts, strategy, curriculum, and culture all working together, schools have fractured into competing silos. The solution is to re-weave the elements into a cohesive vision… but that’s impossible without first (re)building trust.

Here are a few essential questions to consider (more questions can be found in the Discussion Guide at the end of the article): 

  • Is it possible to truly transform your school culture to one of equity and belonging without first knowing who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, the stuff of the school mission? 
  • Are you able to articulate what every student will be able to do, both on day 1, and then at the end of every year?  And should you expect to see the deltas between highest and lowest growing or diminishing? 
  • What structural and policy changes will result from the previous questions that will ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to feel safe in their own individuality and culture, and have the support of the school to achieve success as each student defines it? 
  • How will you accelerate the development of everybody’s social-emotional skills so that they feel like they belong in the community? Will it be done with systematic navel-gazing or through collective work on common projects of shared value?

Given these new initiatives, even if they are beautifully integrated into your academic program, how will you help your faculty feel a sense of self-worth and appreciation? Perhaps there is a “rollback” step first; getting back to basics often provides great clarification and visibility for moving forward with a fresh start. One approach would be getting rid of the new initiatives and recent old initiatives, rolling the focus back to just providing a high-quality education that might restore the balance. Then you can move forward again. Even after you have answered all the questions, moving forward will be completely dependent on your capacity for change, which is a function of trust. The petition indicates that there was insufficient trust at Choate, and our experience with other schools is much the same. It is rare, but essential, for a community to trust its leaders.

The second set of questions focuses more on our schools’ alignment with the broader culture (again, additional questions are at the end of the article): 

  • Is it possible that schools are at the end of the “product life cycle”, and consequently learning has to be reimagined? Are we trying to do too many things with a general-purpose tool? (like driving nails with a crescent wrench)  Maybe it is time to be smaller, specifically-focused entities.
  • Would it be possible for independent schools to remain the last bastion of schooling as true learning communities? Such communities would be built around consciously shared objectives and belonging as fundamental qualities from the ground up. Parents would be included in conversations and planning regarding the needs of their children, and that inclusion would help to reinforce the professional expertise of a reimagined faculty to define its curriculum and greater program. 

This is a wake-up call for all of our schools without minimizing the pain and suffering that is currently occurring at Choate. From my experience at the school, I would say that they have faced a number of cultural challenges dating back to the move to coeducation during the 1970s. Each one of those challenges was met with sufficient determination and energy to make the necessary changes ensuring that the school continued, a better place than it was previously. I hope that will be the case again, and I hope that all independent schools will heed the call for action before the community becomes emotionally damaged. Missteps can almost always be corrected if one steps back and takes an honest look at what went wrong, who you are, whether you have the capacity to change (including trust), and are brave enough to adapt to the demands of the greater culture.

Discussion Guide

  1. Strategic Alignment and Capacity for Change
  2. School Alignment with the Broader Culture
    • Questions
      1. Returning to opportunities and threats, will it be possible to overcome the limitations of the traditional time- and place-based campus? We know that the communities from which we draw students are very clustered with socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identity biases.
      2. Unless you are a boarding school with an international reach like Choate, how will you be able to create a truly diverse community, and how will every school celebrate the qualities of equity and belonging?
      3. How will the steep tuition hurdle impact your plan to build that sort of community? It may be that if independent schools are unable to address strategy and capacity and meet the challenges of the larger culture, they will eventually end up revisiting their past as bastions of a great education for those who can afford it.
      4. OR RESTATED, Why would an institution designed to keep most people out, through high tuition and an excluding admissions process, pretend to think that “equity” is something that can matter to them without the underlying hypocrisy coming to the fore?
    • Intrepid Ed News Articles
      1. The Long Game in Education: Where do Schools Fit?
      2. The Metaverse Will Bring School Closer to the End of Its Product Life Cycle
      3. What If Schools Became Intergenerational Learning Spaces?
      4. What in the World is an Education?

Joel Backon

Joel Backon is the Editor of Intrepid Ed News, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network as Vice-President from Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held key roles in Information Technology, Academic Technology, classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and roles in academic and student advising. Joel leads the online and professional development initiatives through the Intrepid Ed News website and a variety of other platforms. He has been an OESIS Network Leader since 2015.

4 thoughts on “A Cry from the Heart of all Independent Schools & An Elite School Meltdown | Joel Backon | 12 Min Read

  1. Such an excellent dissection of this long brewing cauldron of issues plaguing our independent schools (especially Choate) for years. Time to stir the pot. As a former colleague at Choate during your 27 years, I concur with your assessment and wish for a healthier future for everyone still at the school- many friends remain!

  2. What a beautiful distillation about what is going on. +1 to Mary Pashley. As a graduate I firmly support this opportunity to “open eyes.” As someone who marched to support the life of George Floyd, I have had a chance to re-examine my own role in this “cauldron” as Mary calls it. Thank you for shining a light on these inspiring students.

  3. A google search reveals nothing about this story. Choate’s school newspaper ran a story in 2018 about a walkout that was supposed to be a senior prank but that’s hardly current events. Can you supply a link verifying the story of the Choate walkout in protest you describe at the top of this article, please?

    1. I’m a current Choate senior and I can attest that this happened. A lot of shocking stuff has happened at Choate over the past few years that has not made it to any outside news. There was a shooter threat where the FBI had to get involved in Fall of 2021 and I haven’t heard a peep about it anywhere outside of Choate.

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