Written by Kimberly Banti.
A class of elementary school students leans into the bitter winter wind, working together to build snow structures strong enough to withstand the elements. Seventh graders crouch in the mud alongside a creek, collecting soil and water samples to analyze back in their laboratories. Eager and engaged high schoolers host on-campus voter-registration drives and assist in oil-spill cleanup efforts.
If that oil spill wasn’t the result of the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, the above could describe a Tarrier’s experiential education upbringing throughout their Charles Wright careers. However, these are the memories incoming CWA Head of School Susan Rice recalled from her own educational experience in Fairbanks, Alaska. “The approach to teaching and learning was very project-based and experiential, which was not usual for that era, especially not in rural public schools,” Mrs. Rice said. “I look back on my time in K-12 education and feel fortunate to have had so many lessons that were outside of a traditional classroom and infused with authentic, hands-on experiences. It really helped to develop my educational philosophy as an educator, but more importantly, my own personal view of the local and global communities that I belong to.”
With such an alignment in educational philosophy, it’s fitting that Mrs. Rice will be the next Head of School at Charles Wright, succeeding Matt Culberson and beginning her tenure on July 1, 2020. She is currently the Head of School at Palm Valley School, an independent college preparatory school for grades preschool through 12 in Rancho Mirage, California. During her five years at Palm Valley, Mrs. Rice led the expansion of their early childhood education program, obtained full reaccreditation with the California Association of Independent Schools, strengthened their experiential education program, and oversaw efforts that led to a 30% increase in family giving, among other hallmarks that closely mirror recent and current undertakings at Charles Wright. Additionally, Mrs. Rice said her initial positive impression of Charles Wright—formed through the “stellar reputation that CWA has within the independent school community” and also via significant long-standing members on faculty and staff—was reinforced on her early campus visits. “Meeting with faculty, families, students, alumni, and Trustees solidified my view of CWA as a warm and welcoming community that places a high emphasis on excellence and inclusion,” she said.
That spirit of inclusion is vital to impactful teaching and learning, as Mrs. Rice learned during her own secondary educational experience. She recalled throwing herself into schoolwork when her parents divorced right before her freshman year of high school and how her teachers went out of their way to care for her during her formative years. “They were not only passionate about their content areas, but also about building relationships with students and creating inclusive classroom environments,” she said. “Those connections and relationships were instrumental in my desire to pursue a career in education and to share those experiences with others.” Her high school choir director, Mrs. Soderland, left a particularly indelible mark, inspiring Mrs. Rice to pursue teaching as a career, first as a performing arts educator and then as a division head and, ultimately, a Head of School. It was a natural progression of leadership that was sparked by Mrs. Soderland’s guidance. “The way she passionately connected music to everything else around us, including languages, poetry, communication, history, culture, aesthetic, and style—even physics and geography—was innovative and inspirational,” Mrs. Rice said. “I became involved with leading choirs and small ensembles while I was in high school, under her tutelage. Strong leadership empowers others to lead, and this was a pivotal moment for me in recognizing how powerful building capacity in others to lead could be.”
And a key component of building such capacity is encouraging self-reliance, cultural competence, and connecting with community. That ability of Mrs. Soderland to associate music with other disciplines extends to learning outside of the classroom, where lessons can often really click for students, and motivates Mrs. Rice to devote resources to project-based learning and experiential education. “I love that Charles Wright has such a thoughtful and thorough experiential education program, with opportunities throughout all areas of the school to not just learn about the world, but to really connect with local, and even global, communities. It’s truly the most powerful learning that exists,” she said. “When students make connections to real-world problems, and teachers can connect classroom learning of content to authentic experiences and physical places, the results are amazing. I love that CWA offers so many varied opportunities for students to learn in that way.”
This comprehensive approach to education aligns seamlessly with the new CWA mission statement adopted in May 2019: “To inspire active, joyful learning while nurturing and challenging our students to develop the character, creativity, and skills to successfully navigate the future with confidence.” The phrase “navigate the future with confidence” came directly from a parent respondent to a survey sent to the CWA community by the mission statement task force as they commenced their work, according to fifth grade teacher Carie Ward, who served on both the task force as well as on the Head of School search committee. “Even before the survey, the task force wanted to include something about preparing students for their future, whatever that may include for each individual student,” said Ms. Ward, who is also the upper elementary cluster chair in the Lower School. “We wrestled with the phrase, and considered dozens of iterations written with variations of language, and ‘developing the skills to navigate the future with confidence’ was a phrase that we kept returning to, because it captured the ultimate goal we have for each CWA graduate: that they will leave CWA with what they need to enjoy a productive, fulfilling life—whatever that means to them personally.”
Fellow mission statement task force member and Trustee Daphne Mackey agreed. “The phrase captured a sentiment we heard from alumni who often mentioned non-classroom activities, like outdoor ed and sports participation, where they had learned valuable lessons that have helped them long after graduation,” she said. “They mentioned ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ and having had a safe place to try new things and take risks. As a parent of a 2011 graduate, Caroline Thompson, I’ve observed firsthand how CWA prepares students for taking on new challenges and for dealing with the ups and downs of life in college and beyond.”
Tarriers are prepared for productive and fulfilling futures through the intertwining of academic, social, and emotional learning that takes place on and off campus every day—and with the constant evolution of technology, those futures are also fluid and dynamic. “We are preparing students for a future and to be part of a workforce that, in many ways, is unknown to us—our students may be creating pathways to and working in industries that don’t exist today,” Mrs. Rice explained. “Continuing to ensure that students have access to and are prepared for a high-quality collegiate experience in regards to rigor, mastery of content, and academic knowledge is a given. However, it’s essential that they also possess a growth mindset and be well-versed in the skills that will ensure that content will remain relevant and flexible in application and that our students can use it to innovate and evolve in their learning long into the future. This is what I believe we can give students today to ensure that they are able to navigate the future, and whatever the future brings, with confidence.”
Creating a safe setting in which to build that confidence—to explore, stumble, and try again—begins in the early education program at CWA and is the foundation on which all learning builds. “Experiencing a learning environment where you can seek excellence in your pursuit of knowledge and understanding and be pushed to achieve a higher standard than you once thought possible—all while being accepted for who you are and making strong connections and relationships—is an ideal all schools strive to create for students,” Mrs. Rice said. “I admire teachers who create classrooms that are inclusive communities of learners and leaders, working together to achieve a common goal. Being a Head of School allows me to support teachers in their work with students and to make connections on behalf of the school with families and the larger community to further support that work. I look forward to finding great paths to connect the CWA community further in the coming years.”
Mrs. Rice will begin her headship at Charles Wright Academy this July.