Written by Alex Domine, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications.
Upper School at Charles Wright is a four-year course of enriching study, but for Hayden F. ’20, it is so much more.
It is where he discovered his highest potential in an impressive suite of academic classes after gaining the foundation for study habits in Middle School. It is where his social circle flourished and he now advocates for the needs of his peers as part of the student council.
And it is the only place where he built the confidence to navigate the future—a phrase that you can find in CWA’s newly minted mission statement. While new, the statement has always been true. Especially for Hayden, who began his life as a Tarrier as a first grade student in 2008.
Now a senior, Hayden and other Upper School peers reflect on their eventful journeys, all of which include developing skills and finding each morning that they are more confident than the last. “I have learned how to academically succeed here in the Upper School. I’ve learned how to collaborate, how to engage socially, and how to balance classwork with social time,” Hayden said.
For Hayden, ninth grade was the year he applied the good study habits he learned in Middle School. “Ninth grade set a good foundation, because I took some hard classes, and those helped me get my study habits in line,” he said. “I’m taking more AP classes now, and I’m better prepared to study for those hard classes as a senior.”
A ninth grader herself, Kelsey H. ’23 agrees. “When I arrived in the Upper School four months ago, I was used to the length of time and homework because Middle School taught me how to manage life with my classes,” Kelsey said. “I was already used to my ninth grade schedule, because the eighth grade schedule reflects what the Upper School feels like. I feel like I can trust myself.”
Halfway through her ninth grade year, she is already visualizing her future and beginning to explore topics that speak to her. “I really want to join the women’s empowerment club because I think it would be fun to speak out and share my ideas and be with people who are like me,” said Kelsey. “I know I can explore my ideas in a safe and comfortable environment here.”
A safe and comfortable environment is the outcome of a low student-teacher ratio in the Upper School. Kelsey is the kind of student who naturally thrives in an academic setting where she has access to individual attention from her teachers. She is a hands-on learner who credits her teachers for equipping her with the right tools to push through self-doubt. “I’m not always comfortable reaching out for help, but it really helps that my teachers are open and available,” said Kelsey. “They reach out to me so I don’t have to stress about approaching them. Once you get to know all the teachers, everything is fine. I have good relationships with all my teachers now and can reach out myself if I need to.”
Getting over self-doubt is what afforded her the latitude to think, focus, and embrace the opportunities in the Upper School— opportunities like Winterim, when students elect to travel near or far to see their classwork applied in the real world. For a hands-on learner like Kelsey, now unburdened by the initial nerves of ninth grade, Winterim is exactly what she needs to grow even more confidence in her coursework. She will be going to study biology on the southern beaches of Florida. “In the classroom, we talk a lot about textbook biology, but we don’t get to see it in action. In Florida, I’m going to get to see the moments we talk about in the classroom,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to the relationships I’m going to build during Winterim.”
As Kelsey looks forward to Winterim this year and her sophomore Outdoor Ed trip next year, older students reflect on the deeper benefits that come from experiential ed opportunities. Benefits like exposure to different customs and cross-cultural perspectives prepare them for their lives after CWA. “I have so much more knowledge and context about other cultures and their powerful histories after these trips,” said Hayden. “Those experiences help me understand a different side of the world. I’m thankful because a lot of students at other schools don’t get those opportunities.”
Hayden has traveled the world with his friends, which brought them closer socially, and fostered an even more collaborative spirit with his peers. During his time in the Upper School, he studied in Peru, Cambodia, and Costa Rica. Next, he will be embarking on a trip to Mt. Everest base camp in Nepal.
Much of Hayden’s recollection of his Winterim trips are in line with the things that Kelsey looks forward to in the coming years. “Winterim will be a good opportunity to see other cultures, get closer to classmates, and get closer to teachers,” she said.
In addition to the experiential ed component, tenth grade students are also beginning to explore different interests. They are engaging in different activities to discover what excites them for the future. “I’m trying to make sure everything I’m doing this year is a learning experience,” said sophomore Dara O-P. ’22.
Dara is a football player who discovered the important role his team plays in his academics. Whether it is performing arts, visual arts, sports, or one of the new electives introduced in the Upper School this year, students have ample opportunity to navigate different choices and find what makes them feel most excited for the future. “My team is like a second family and is the reason I enjoy going to school every day. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a team,” Dara said.
Dara’s sportsmanship on the field easily translates into curiosity in the classroom. Turning curiosity into self-directed action is part of what makes Dara both a successful athlete and a successful student. His broad participation teaches him lasting habits that he will bring into his future pursuits. “I use football plays to help me understand geometry,” Dara said. “The angles I see in class are similar to football plays, so I use the way I study football plays to study for geometry. Once I figured out that I can think about geometry in the same way I think about football, I created my own study method that works for me.”
Now halfway through the year, current sophomores like Dara are already preparing for an exciting and demanding eleventh grade year. The transition between tenth and eleventh grade is fraught with decisions and self-reflections that lead to a student beginning to make specific academic choices. This spring, Dara will be assigned a college counselor to help him through some of that reflection for his future in college. “I heard that eleventh grade is the hardest year, so I’m mentally preparing,” said Dara. “I’m starting to visualize doing what I want to do next year.”
The college counselor assignment comes early in the Upper School experience so that by the time students enter college application season in their junior year, the counselor has a solid individual understanding of each student’s unique goals for the future. It is the work of the entire Upper School faculty and staff to ensure students feel confident and become successful.
This academically challenging and highly individualized guidance is what brought current junior Ava N. ’21 back to CWA after leaving in the ninth grade for public school. She quickly returned to her Tarrier roots after finding that the CWA experience was one-of-a-kind. “When I came back, it drove me to work harder because I knew I needed to take advantage of these opportunities. Not everyone gets this,” Ava said. “Teachers are more connected to their class, I feel more academically challenged, and teachers are more attentive to what I need. All of those things are helping me develop confidence.”
The desire for a larger public school experience is common and natural for students as they transition from Middle School to Upper School. For Ava, it was clear that she needed to reverse her decision after only a few months in the public school system. “Everything here at CWA is more vibrant and energetic,” she said. “There are more opportunities here.”
She went so far as to prepare a slideshow presentation to her family to make the case for returning to CWA after transferring out. “Coming back here helped me realize that learning new things is a fun thing, although there are some sacrifices,” said Ava. “When there are weeks when I have all this homework, I think about all the other opportunities that I get here, and that helps me stay motivated. I have a better education and still manage to have a healthy social life.”
As she approaches her senior year, Ava aspires to go into sports medicine and kinesiology. Her motivation combined with the faculty and staff devotion to student success props her up for a challenging but enriching senior year.
Head of School Matt Culberson accurately stated in his 2019 State of the School letter that the student experience is exciting, demanding, and rich with opportunity. Hayden, Kelsey, Dara, and Ava are all testaments to that statement and what it looks like in the everyday life of an Upper School Tarrier.
Whether an Upper School student has four more years ahead of them or four more months, they will develop the tenacity to overcome doubt.
“I’m leaning into the discomfort of being here in the Upper School. The more I get involved, the more friends and relationships I’m getting. I’m doing what I want to do and trusting myself,” Kelsey said.
They will also experience rigor and excellence in the Upper School, proven in the ambition and curiosity you can find in students like Dara, whether he is on the field or in the classroom. “If I feel like it’s going to be a tough game, I visualize how I’m going to do in the game and prepare for what will happen,” he explained. I want to enter eleventh grade as positively as I possibly can.”
Students live the Upper School story with persistence and self-discovery—the kind of self-discovery that Ava embodied when she embarked on a journey to neighboring schools and navigated her way back to CWA. “I’m excited to be a senior! Thinking about my future is exciting again,” she said. “School doesn’t come easy to me, and it’s academically challenging here, but I know there are people to help me if I need it.”
It is clear that all four of these students are raised to be explorers so that by the time they walk across the stage at commencement, they are equipped to launch into their futures knowing how to take risks, how to ask questions, and how to overcome. “My social confidence has grown a lot. I’ve known my classmates since I was in first grade. These are my best friends. We’ve traveled the world together,” said Hayden. “As time has gone on since freshman year, I feel like I’ve become a leader.”
They are all on different paths, but each of them is united by their ambition to navigate their way through four years of excitement, challenge, and opportunity and explore passions and places they never once thought they could go.