Even though the 2017-2018 school year is only halfway over, Durham Academy administrators are drawing up new plans for the next Upper School academic year. With underclassmen trips being revamped and moved to May, mission-driven life activities slated for the start of the year, and Senior Challenge shifted up a week, the DA experience is about to be redefined.
The first change to the Upper School schedule is to reinvest in Senior Challenge, the only fall trip next year. “It’s the one trip that hasn’t really changed over the history of DA,” recalled Upper School Director Lanis Wilson. “The other trips have come and gone…[The] idea is... to keep the tradition that connects past, present, and future.” To highlight the tradition, seniors will gather before the school year officially starts. Wilson explained, “Instead of seniors coming back on that Monday… we’re gonna have... a senior picnic on the Friday before school starts. It’s a chance to get seniors here, paint the bench, decorate the rock, talk about Senior Challenge and what it means. And, then, they’ll leave Saturday morning and come back Wednesday night. Then, they’ll have Thursday off, and then their first day of classes will be that Friday, when we have convocation.”
While the seniors are away that week, underclassmen will have different activities to kick off the school year. “For 9th graders, it will be a true orientation. They’ll get their computers, we’ll go through our study skills program, we’ll go through an orientation of ‘Welcome to DA’s Campus,’ all the stuff we typically do,” clarified Wilson. Sophomores and juniors will instead have programming centered around a “mission-driven life,” part of DA’s initiative to craft “moral, happy, and productive” students. For summer reading, “we’ll probably put together a collection of essays for kids to read that will talk about, ‘What do you want to accomplish during your sophomore or junior year?’” Wilson explained.
“We’ll also have some guest speakers on those days, [and] we will do our community service one afternoon for each class… That Friday will start with homeroom but go into convocation and then have shortened versions of all our classes… That’ll be our start launch into the school year immediately without an interruption.”
Underclassmen will have their own trips, but they’ll be shifted to the end of the year. Final exams will be scheduled the week of senior graduation, and after Memorial Day weekend, underclassmen will return to school to participate in Maymester-type activities and trips. “We’re going to call them… ‘Cavalier Capstones,’” described Wilson, “And they will be these sort of culminating experiences so that students are working with a faculty member throughout the year to sort of plan it, prepare for it, and then make [it happen].”
While past classes required all students to attend an outdoor experiential education trip (or the civil rights tour for the juniors), students will now have the opportunity to choose from a variety of trips each year. Alison Mattox, Global Programs Coordinator and Upper School English teacher, is working with teachers on international trip plans and was excited for students to choose their own Upper School experience: “I think it’s beneficial because whether it involves students taking a course or just signing up for a particular experience untethered to a course, students will have an experience culminating the end of the school year that is based on their own interests. If they want to do an outdoor hiking and camping trip, great, there’s gonna be an option for that. If they want to do a civil rights tour in the Deep South, great, there’s gonna be an option for that. If they want to do a service project in North Carolina, great, there’s gonna be an option for that. If they want to do a language immersion in another country, great, there’s an option for that. It’s the student buy-in part that’s gonna be really big.” Furthermore, she explained, with DA’s increasing class size, Cavalier Capstones allow for easier planning logistically: “[The] idea is not only for student buy-in but also to kind of break the groups up a little bit more to make each group more manageable.”
Even though the Capstones are geared towards student interests, many teachers are looking forward to getting to know their students further. Mattox explained, “Students are going to be able to see their teachers in action in a different kind of way. Maybe a faculty member has some kind of passion or hobby or whatever that they wouldn’t ever normally get to engage with the students about, and this is gonna open up an opportunity for them.”
Some faculty members already have plans in the works, like Laci McDonald, DA Upper School dance teacher. “There’s a ton of places [in New York City] that teach all genres of dance,” said McDonald. “So, I’d like to create a workshop where the dancers and I will take various genres of dance classes at various locations and then possibly culminate with some kind of experience with Hope… Boykin, who is a DA alum and currently a professional dancer in New York… with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.” McDonald hoped to teach both her students and other dancers at DA about careers in professional dance: “I would love for the dancers to see professional dancers in a dance class setting: what that discipline looks like, what that rigor looks like.”
Wilson encouraged students and faculty alike to think deeply about what they want to accomplish with these changes next year: “Think about what our real goals are. Try to personalize those with these opening discussions, but also personalize them with what you’ll be doing at the end of the year. What is the capstone event that’s gonna culminate my junior year that I’m gonna be excited about?” Many capstone trips have yet to be imagined, and not all of the details are set in stone, but Durham Academy is definitely moving in a new direction. Wilson explained, “We haven’t fully envisioned every permutation, but I think we’ve got a lot of momentum… [We’re] going to cement some DA traditions while also being innovative with some of our other opportunities.