In recent posts, I’ve been investigating what I think about change, innovation, failure, and — ahem! — clowns. In some ways, blogs like this one focus on challenges in schools and what to do about them. But as schools like McDonogh continue to reflect on their place in a protean world, we not only account for what can be reproduced elsewhere (at other schools, online), we discover what is irreducible to our school — that is, what’s not for sale.
Grant Lichtman writes that “Nearly everything a school does today can be effectively outsourced except the powerful relationships that grow between students and teachers and between peer students, and the culture and traditions that make a school such a powerful part of young people’s lives”(#EdJourney, 188). I believe this to be true. For many years, online high schools, like online colleges, have continued to find a foothold in the market of education. PK-12 independent school may have a bit of advantage given that we teach children not yet on their own. Still, we cannot think this alone will protect against what is for sale in schools: curriculum, degrees. Moreover, home-schooling communities find ways of providing extracurriculars so that children really do enjoy much of what a bricks-and-mortar school provides.
At McDonogh, our culture, relationships, and place-based programs give us some comfort at the same time that we examine our academic program to ensure our relevance in the future. It is a real joy to see alums, when they’re home from college, put a visit to McDonogh on their list just after their parents. Indeed, we are a school where teachers who are here for fifteen years still seem “new.” And this means that students who graduated thirty years ago can still expect to see a number of their beloved teachers — beloved, I would argue, because of the care they have always shown for their students. Relationships and the culture of caring are most assuredly not for sale.
Sometimes the phrase, “bricks-and-mortar schools,” sounds pejorative. The phrase seems to connote an out-of-touch entity bogged down by rusty pipes, drafty windows, and fluorescent lighting. But place can be a huge asset. What does a place — with its singular history, resources, environment, atmosphere — offer that cannot be reproduced? Every school should ask this question of itself.
McDonogh was founded in 1873 as a farm school for orphan boys — work the farm and get an education in return. Over its 140+ year history, the school evolved, and the farm became a memory, a part of its celebrated past. But about five years ago, the school had an idea to get back to its roots, and so began the tilling of a small plot of earth. Members of the community were encouraged to weed, plant, and tend a small group of crops. It was a success, and, before long, this small corner of the campus became a prized emblem of the school’s history and the example of experiential learning. Before long, it earned the name, Roots Farm.
Today, it is growing in every sense of the word. Just a few days ago, Steve King, a builder from the Pennsylvania Amish community, put doors on a red barn that is the icon of that part of campus. An emerging curriculum for PK-12 students promises to bring this unique piece of our past and present into the lives of all our students.
McDonogh is lucky to have the land and the support to create places like this. We are also lucky to have the vision and leadership of two faculty members in particular, Sharon Hood and Kirk Robertson, who continue to give so generously of their time to make this vision a reality.
Relationships, culture, place. While these things don’t get us off to hook when thinking about how we create and tend a relevant, 21st-century academic and co-curricular program, they aren’t mere footnotes, either. They are the anchors, in many ways, of who we are and of what we can be.
Every school can ask this question for itself: what is not for sale? It’s a good place to begin.
For more on McDonogh Roots, please visit our Facebook page and, if you’re in the area, come and visit us!