Custom Class: post-landing-hero

2020 may well be remembered as the year of overwhelming stress, and research shows that it’s not only adults feeling the pressure—students feel it, too, and it plays a big role in how they learn.

Schools have long known that they play a critical role in supporting students’ mental well-being. Even before 2020, a heightened understanding of how mental health initiatives contribute to students’ welfare and their ability to learn shifted curriculum and priorities at Rowland Hall. Today, a strong social-emotional learning (SEL) thread runs through all school divisions, and a variety of resources that support students’ mental well-being—from trained counselors, to grade-level advisories, to SEL-based curriculum—are in place. Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund explained that the shift toward this support structure began in 2010, as educators across the country began to better understand how an overly anxious mind affects learning.

You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

“You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill,” Ryan said. “We knew we needed to focus on the whole child, giving them tools to free their cognitive load so they can give greater attention to learning and social connections.”

Upper School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Dr. Mindy Vanderloo said that a good way to think about this approach is to remember the phrase “Maslow before Bloom,” which underscores the theory that human beings must have their basic needs met before they can take on higher-level desires or thinking.

“If you don't have your basic needs—home, security, food, mental health—then you can't do those things that are higher up on hierarchy,” said Mindy. “Research has demonstrated the relationship between academics and mental health. We understand the importance of identifying and treating mental health problems; we also know that incorporating SEL can improve mental health.”

And while this is true in any academic year, it has become even more important in 2020, when heightened anxiety around issues including COVID-19, the election, and social unrest can further impact students’ mental well-being—which was already concerning mental health professionals. Mindy pointed to American Psychological Association research released in 2019 that found that the percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders—serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts—has risen significantly over the past decade. Though there isn’t a clear cause why, she said, issues like social media, political divisiveness, and climate change may play a role.

“Mental health disorders have increased over time, and there isn't a known cause,” Mindy explained. “Prevalence rates are going up—and it could be we feel more comfortable talking about it now, and so we notice it more—but there is something categorically different that has changed over generations. Schools, appropriately, have responded and said, ‘This is a bigger problem than it used to be, for whatever reason, and we need to address it.’”


Resources that support students’ mental well-being are available in all Rowland Hall divisions, starting in the beginning and lower schools, where a supportive SEL foundation is first established. Guided by Emotional Support Counselor Chuck White, Rowland Hall’s preschool- and elementary-aged students begin building their social-emotional skills through programs like Second Step and Responsive Classroom. Faculty and staff also cultivate strong partnerships with caregivers during these years, providing resources that advise adults on how to talk to young learners about issues such as COVID-19 and social unrest or the election, as well as how to have healthy conversations around topics such as race.

As students move to the Middle School on the Lincoln Street Campus—and begin a phase of life known for a great deal of change—educators take even more action to help them understand and manage their own mental wellness.

“It's important to remember that in middle school brains are changing at a high rate,” said Middle School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Leslie Czerwinski. “Then on top of brain changes, hormones start to change.”

Middle schoolers on the Lincoln Street Campus.

The middle school years are an ideal time to practice health coping strategies.

At the same time, students are learning to navigate the world in new ways, with an increase in online time—including, for many, access to social media, which can add new layers of pressure, such as the need to present perfection. It is therefore important to help these students find healthy coping strategies that they can practice in Middle School and carry into their Upper School years, and beyond.

That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged. I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.—Ryan Hoglund

“The goal is not zero stress; that's really important to emphasize,” said Ryan. “Stress is normal—it drives us to deadlines that keep us accountable. But how do you keep it productive?” To do this, he said, Rowland Hall focuses on productive struggle, also known as the zone of proximal development, a sweet spot for each learner where the student has found balance between being too comfortable and too overwhelmed.

“That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged,” said Ryan. “I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.”

Productive struggle not only prepares students to build resilience and succeed under the pressures of life, but to learn how to head off more serious issues, like chronic anxiety, that can develop under too much stress. In the middle and upper schools, this skill is purposefully encouraged by faculty and staff in classroom conversations as well as in advisory, a program designed to help build community and promote student wellness. Advisory now plays a major role in the Rowland Hall experience—one that is so important that sixth graders’ placement into their advisory groups is a thoughtful process handled by the middle and upper school counselors, principals, and assistant principals, who understand that identifying the best advisor for each student can lead to strong relationships that support mental well-being throughout their years on the Lincoln Street Campus. This is necessary, Mindy noted, because research shows that one of the biggest ways to protect students against mental health problems is to give them access to consistent, healthy adult mentors.

“Individual connections to supportive adults is one of the best things we can provide for students as a school,” she said.


Healthy adult role models also help students discover their own leadership capabilities. During their time at Rowland Hall—particularly as they move from sixth to twelfth grade—students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence.

During their time at Rowland Hall students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence. This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum.

“In the Upper School, what we want to do is build self-efficacy and empower students to take care of themselves. They've learned skills in advisory through informal discussions with teachers—and so how do they take the next step?” Mindy said. “We shift from a focus on adults teaching students to what students can teach each other and take into their own hands.”

This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum. In support of this goal, in 2019 Mindy created a student group called the Mental Health Educators, whose mission is to help build awareness of and combat stigma around mental health issues. Since its founding, Mental Health Educators has played a vital role in normalizing mental health discussions on the Lincoln Street Campus—members address peers at chapels and morning meetings, and they build long-term relationships with students through advisory groups, where they lead discussions around topics like stress and anxiety, as well as offer tips on areas like healthy coping mechanisms.

“The school’s been doing a good job trying to reduce stigma around mental health,” said Samantha Lehman, a Rowland Hall junior and Mental Health Educator. “The Mental Health Educators are working to improve mental health resources, and I think we’ve already seen a lot of improvements and a lot of good feedback from the student body.”

Two students presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills in an advisory class.

Mental Health Educators Max Eatchel and Amanda Green presenting Deliberate Dialogue in October.

They’re also continuously finding new ways to bring their mental health training to their peers. For example, Samantha used some of the topics the group discussed—like motivation, relationships, and the importance of mental breaks—to create Instagram challenges that engaged and connected students during the long weeks of quarantine this spring. Senior Mena Zendejas-Portugal applies her mental health knowledge to her work as a member of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee. And this fall, the entire Mental Health Educators group partnered with Dr. Carolyn Hickman, English Department chair, and Mike Shackelford, political science teacher and debate coach, to present Deliberate Dialogue, an initiative Carolyn and Mike designed to help reduce student stress during a contentious election season by giving them opportunities to practice civil discourse. Over two weeks in October, the Mental Health Educators taught the five skills of Deliberate Dialogue—open-mindedness, speaking, listening, responding, and reflecting—to all students in grades nine through eleven, as well as helped them practice constructive conversation techniques, which center around exchanging perspectives openly, challenging viewpoints respectfully, and building empathetic understanding. Samantha said the initiative fits in well with the Mental Health Educators mission “because you’re coming to the conversation seeking to understand, seeking to listen.”

We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID.—Dr. Mindy Vanderloo, Upper School social-emotional support counselor

Mena added, “Once you learn how to have Deliberate Dialogue in your everyday life, that really helps you better your mental health and your relationships. The conversation turns toward building bridges and relationships, which then translates into how you perceive yourself and others.”

And this is a big deal, said Mindy, because by taking action to fight the stressors that affect their well-being—like a divisive election within a global pandemic—students feel a sense of purpose amid chaos.

“We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID,” said Mindy. “If you can take a difficult or tragic event, take action, and decide to make change, it is so good for not only your mental health, but other people's mental health.”

Mena agreed. “You see students confront problems in such an elevated manner—they’re incorporating all these skills we’ve taught them, and they’re able to relieve themselves of so much stress,” she said. “It makes you feel a sense of joy and pride, not only in yourself, but in your community and in those students.”


Banner photo: Junior Remy Mickelson presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills during an advisory class.

Academics

From Social-Emotional Learning to Deliberate Dialogue: How Rowland Hall's Focus on Mental Wellness Supports Today's Students

2020 may well be remembered as the year of overwhelming stress, and research shows that it’s not only adults feeling the pressure—students feel it, too, and it plays a big role in how they learn.

Schools have long known that they play a critical role in supporting students’ mental well-being. Even before 2020, a heightened understanding of how mental health initiatives contribute to students’ welfare and their ability to learn shifted curriculum and priorities at Rowland Hall. Today, a strong social-emotional learning (SEL) thread runs through all school divisions, and a variety of resources that support students’ mental well-being—from trained counselors, to grade-level advisories, to SEL-based curriculum—are in place. Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund explained that the shift toward this support structure began in 2010, as educators across the country began to better understand how an overly anxious mind affects learning.

You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

“You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill,” Ryan said. “We knew we needed to focus on the whole child, giving them tools to free their cognitive load so they can give greater attention to learning and social connections.”

Upper School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Dr. Mindy Vanderloo said that a good way to think about this approach is to remember the phrase “Maslow before Bloom,” which underscores the theory that human beings must have their basic needs met before they can take on higher-level desires or thinking.

“If you don't have your basic needs—home, security, food, mental health—then you can't do those things that are higher up on hierarchy,” said Mindy. “Research has demonstrated the relationship between academics and mental health. We understand the importance of identifying and treating mental health problems; we also know that incorporating SEL can improve mental health.”

And while this is true in any academic year, it has become even more important in 2020, when heightened anxiety around issues including COVID-19, the election, and social unrest can further impact students’ mental well-being—which was already concerning mental health professionals. Mindy pointed to American Psychological Association research released in 2019 that found that the percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders—serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts—has risen significantly over the past decade. Though there isn’t a clear cause why, she said, issues like social media, political divisiveness, and climate change may play a role.

“Mental health disorders have increased over time, and there isn't a known cause,” Mindy explained. “Prevalence rates are going up—and it could be we feel more comfortable talking about it now, and so we notice it more—but there is something categorically different that has changed over generations. Schools, appropriately, have responded and said, ‘This is a bigger problem than it used to be, for whatever reason, and we need to address it.’”


Resources that support students’ mental well-being are available in all Rowland Hall divisions, starting in the beginning and lower schools, where a supportive SEL foundation is first established. Guided by Emotional Support Counselor Chuck White, Rowland Hall’s preschool- and elementary-aged students begin building their social-emotional skills through programs like Second Step and Responsive Classroom. Faculty and staff also cultivate strong partnerships with caregivers during these years, providing resources that advise adults on how to talk to young learners about issues such as COVID-19 and social unrest or the election, as well as how to have healthy conversations around topics such as race.

As students move to the Middle School on the Lincoln Street Campus—and begin a phase of life known for a great deal of change—educators take even more action to help them understand and manage their own mental wellness.

“It's important to remember that in middle school brains are changing at a high rate,” said Middle School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Leslie Czerwinski. “Then on top of brain changes, hormones start to change.”

Middle schoolers on the Lincoln Street Campus.

The middle school years are an ideal time to practice health coping strategies.

At the same time, students are learning to navigate the world in new ways, with an increase in online time—including, for many, access to social media, which can add new layers of pressure, such as the need to present perfection. It is therefore important to help these students find healthy coping strategies that they can practice in Middle School and carry into their Upper School years, and beyond.

That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged. I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.—Ryan Hoglund

“The goal is not zero stress; that's really important to emphasize,” said Ryan. “Stress is normal—it drives us to deadlines that keep us accountable. But how do you keep it productive?” To do this, he said, Rowland Hall focuses on productive struggle, also known as the zone of proximal development, a sweet spot for each learner where the student has found balance between being too comfortable and too overwhelmed.

“That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged,” said Ryan. “I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.”

Productive struggle not only prepares students to build resilience and succeed under the pressures of life, but to learn how to head off more serious issues, like chronic anxiety, that can develop under too much stress. In the middle and upper schools, this skill is purposefully encouraged by faculty and staff in classroom conversations as well as in advisory, a program designed to help build community and promote student wellness. Advisory now plays a major role in the Rowland Hall experience—one that is so important that sixth graders’ placement into their advisory groups is a thoughtful process handled by the middle and upper school counselors, principals, and assistant principals, who understand that identifying the best advisor for each student can lead to strong relationships that support mental well-being throughout their years on the Lincoln Street Campus. This is necessary, Mindy noted, because research shows that one of the biggest ways to protect students against mental health problems is to give them access to consistent, healthy adult mentors.

“Individual connections to supportive adults is one of the best things we can provide for students as a school,” she said.


Healthy adult role models also help students discover their own leadership capabilities. During their time at Rowland Hall—particularly as they move from sixth to twelfth grade—students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence.

During their time at Rowland Hall students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence. This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum.

“In the Upper School, what we want to do is build self-efficacy and empower students to take care of themselves. They've learned skills in advisory through informal discussions with teachers—and so how do they take the next step?” Mindy said. “We shift from a focus on adults teaching students to what students can teach each other and take into their own hands.”

This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum. In support of this goal, in 2019 Mindy created a student group called the Mental Health Educators, whose mission is to help build awareness of and combat stigma around mental health issues. Since its founding, Mental Health Educators has played a vital role in normalizing mental health discussions on the Lincoln Street Campus—members address peers at chapels and morning meetings, and they build long-term relationships with students through advisory groups, where they lead discussions around topics like stress and anxiety, as well as offer tips on areas like healthy coping mechanisms.

“The school’s been doing a good job trying to reduce stigma around mental health,” said Samantha Lehman, a Rowland Hall junior and Mental Health Educator. “The Mental Health Educators are working to improve mental health resources, and I think we’ve already seen a lot of improvements and a lot of good feedback from the student body.”

Two students presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills in an advisory class.

Mental Health Educators Max Eatchel and Amanda Green presenting Deliberate Dialogue in October.

They’re also continuously finding new ways to bring their mental health training to their peers. For example, Samantha used some of the topics the group discussed—like motivation, relationships, and the importance of mental breaks—to create Instagram challenges that engaged and connected students during the long weeks of quarantine this spring. Senior Mena Zendejas-Portugal applies her mental health knowledge to her work as a member of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee. And this fall, the entire Mental Health Educators group partnered with Dr. Carolyn Hickman, English Department chair, and Mike Shackelford, political science teacher and debate coach, to present Deliberate Dialogue, an initiative Carolyn and Mike designed to help reduce student stress during a contentious election season by giving them opportunities to practice civil discourse. Over two weeks in October, the Mental Health Educators taught the five skills of Deliberate Dialogue—open-mindedness, speaking, listening, responding, and reflecting—to all students in grades nine through eleven, as well as helped them practice constructive conversation techniques, which center around exchanging perspectives openly, challenging viewpoints respectfully, and building empathetic understanding. Samantha said the initiative fits in well with the Mental Health Educators mission “because you’re coming to the conversation seeking to understand, seeking to listen.”

We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID.—Dr. Mindy Vanderloo, Upper School social-emotional support counselor

Mena added, “Once you learn how to have Deliberate Dialogue in your everyday life, that really helps you better your mental health and your relationships. The conversation turns toward building bridges and relationships, which then translates into how you perceive yourself and others.”

And this is a big deal, said Mindy, because by taking action to fight the stressors that affect their well-being—like a divisive election within a global pandemic—students feel a sense of purpose amid chaos.

“We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID,” said Mindy. “If you can take a difficult or tragic event, take action, and decide to make change, it is so good for not only your mental health, but other people's mental health.”

Mena agreed. “You see students confront problems in such an elevated manner—they’re incorporating all these skills we’ve taught them, and they’re able to relieve themselves of so much stress,” she said. “It makes you feel a sense of joy and pride, not only in yourself, but in your community and in those students.”


Banner photo: Junior Remy Mickelson presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills during an advisory class.

Academics

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Rowland Hall kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins speaks with a student.

Research is clear: Investing in early childhood education is a smart move. Not only is it one of the surest ways to set students on paths of lifelong curiosity and well-being, but it’s also been proven to enhance both individual lives and society at large. At Rowland Hall, thanks to a focus on evidence-based education, we have long been crafting a top-tier early childhood program centered around best practices for young learners during crucial years of their development. As a result, students leave the Beginning School viewing themselves as capable knowledge-makers, ready to thrive in the next stage of their joyful educational journeys.

In Melanie Robbins and Mary Grace Ellison’s kindergarten classroom, a small sign hangs over a row of student cubbies. It’s inconspicuous, but, once noticed, seems to summarize the day-to-day happenings of the energetic and vibrant room.

“Play,” it states, “is the work of childhood.”

This Jean Piaget quote, beautifully succinct, is a reminder that the activities that take place in Melanie and Mary Grace’s room, and in all Rowland Hall Beginning School classrooms, are not just fun—they’re incredibly meaningful, and essential to children’s development. By tapping into the most natural and essential of early childhood activities—play—educators are building crucial connections in young brains and setting a joyful foundation for discovering, exploring, embracing, and creating knowledge.

On a Thursday morning in February, the Piaget quote kept watch over a bustle of activity among the kindergartners. Walking by, a casual observer may have thought the activity was free play, but there was a thoughtful academic purpose behind the fun: the five- and six-year-olds were busy making their way through an array of learning centers designed for their Animals in Winter unit, a study of how animals hibernate, migrate, and adapt during the coldest months.

It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface.

At one table, two girls bent over the covers of the animal reports they were creating for the unit; using library books as guides, they illustrated their chosen animals, a chipmunk and a fox, on the report covers. Nearby, a group of students, sprawled across cushions, worked on core literacy skills on iPads, while another, more rowdy, group rolled an oversized die and moved animal figurines across a homemade playing board. On the far side of the room, students looked through a pile of materials—empty oatmeal canisters, bits of cardboard, string—to be crafted into an animal habitat. In between these stations, children sorted animal pictures into groups or practiced writing letters, some with crayons on paper, others with fingers in sand. For an hour, the students enjoyed the freedom to sample whatever most appealed to them at any given moment, and to take from the group what they needed—for a few, it was a time to step back to reflect and quietly work on activities alone; for others, to engage with peers.

It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. Like taking a cursory glance at a frozen winter landscape, which doesn’t reveal the rabbit blending into the snow or the entry to an animal den, just glancing at the fun would have limited the viewer’s understanding of what was occurring in the classroom. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface: Students cutting materials for the animal habitat or practicing writing the letter S with stumpy crayons were honing fine-motor skills. Those at the game board were mastering math by matching the number of dots on the die to the number of spaces they had to move. And all around the room, students were building social skills, whether while waiting for a turn or while navigating a disagreement.

“This is the power of early childhood,” said Melanie.

A Solid Foundation

At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, an emphasis on well-grounded early childhood research, such as that around the benefits of purposeful play, is at the heart of the student experience—and for good reason. Between the ages of three and six, the time during which they begin to attend school, children’s brains are in the midst of a tremendous evolution that educators need to understand to fully support.

Rowland Hall students enjoying outdoor classroom.

It's important that early childhood teachers understand young children's brain development to effectively encourage early learning. One best practice for this age group is to move outside—research shows that being in a natural environment heightens young learners' cognition.


“The three-to-six age range is marked by huge transformation in the architecture of the brain, and the structures that get laid down during that time will persist,” said Principal Emma Wellman, who has led the Beginning School since 2018, and, in the 2021–2022 school year, took on the expanded role of Beginning School and Lower School principal. During the preschool and kindergarten years, Emma explained, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.

“Early childhood teachers are laying the foundation for lifelong learning in terms of how students relate to school and to one another, and to themselves as learners and workers,” said Emma.

During the preschool and kindergarten years, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.

Through thoughtful play and other proven early education tactics, educators can boost brain-building in ways that last: studies show that students who attend early childhood programs are more likely to later demonstrate high-functioning skills, such as strong emotional and social intelligence, curiosity, and discipline, and more likely to report high rates of fulfilling relationships and fulfilling careers. And it’s not just individual lives that benefit; there are also economic advantages to investing in early childhood education. Dr. James J. Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and an expert in the economics of human development, has found that investments in early childhood education result in the highest rates of economic returns, both for individuals and society at large. Simply put: investing in early childhood education is one of the best ways to greatly impact lives.

“You’re giving extra support in a time when it matters most,” said Emma.

An Emphasis on Relationship

When it comes to how children relate to school, teachers are often the key factor, and this is especially true in early childhood classrooms, where the trust educators build with young students sets them on paths of learning, curiosity, and self-discovery. In fact, said Emma, because warm, trusting relationships are strongly shown to be vital to early learning, they’re the first thing she recommends people look for when exploring preschool and kindergarten programs.

“The most important thing is the teacher-student relationship, because learning happens in the context of relationship,” she explained. “Everything is built on that.”

In the Beginning School, a focus on relationship, alongside an emphasis on reciprocal respect between teachers and students, guides everything from class sizes to division specialties; as a result, students remain at the center of decision-making. A focus on relationships also encourages more natural student participation in classroom happenings, an essential component to building brain connections in young learners.

PreK teacher Lynelle Stoddard reads to three-year-old preschoolers.

The Beginning School emphasizes relationships as well as mutual respect between teachers and students, alleviating tension around power struggles and showing students that their contributions to the classroom matter. "Children who are respected do amazing things," said Emma. 


“We want to make sure that kids remain in charge of big chunks of their own learning so that they don’t become dependent on the grown-ups to drive it for them,” said Emma.

This ownership over learning expands during children’s time in the Beginning School. As they build strong relationships with their students, teachers can encourage them to work on mastering both early academic skills and self-care activities. Through a process known as scaffolding, teachers support students as they make their way through the zone of proximal development—that is, the difference between what a child can do without help and what they can do with guidance and encouragement from a teacher. It’s a way to meet each learner where they are their own individual development, and it can be applied to both academic subjects, like building foundational skills in number sense and phonological awareness, or life skills, like putting on a coat or a mask.

“School is the perfect place for that practice to happen and to develop those skills, which are critical in other learning,” said Beginning School Assistant Principal Brittney Hansen ’02. “We take our time to let everyone learn that they can do an activity all by themselves and feel that confidence, that sense of pride, and carry themselves a little bit taller because of it.”

A Child-Sized Experience

It’s not difficult to find students owning their learning in the Beginning School: the process can be observed in the 3PreK student working to zip her coat, the kindergartner choosing a quiet-time book from the classroom library, and the 4PreK student sorting a pile of twigs, pine cones, and leaves gathered during outdoor classroom. Active learning is around every corner.

“All of our learning is entirely exploratory and we foster kids’ natural curiosity,” said Kelley Journey, the Beginning School’s experiential learning specialist. “We give kids a lot of authentic opportunities to learn in real-world situations.”

4PreK students peel and cut apples.

Faculty look for a variety of ways to actively engage students in learning, including by giving them access to tools and materials that build life skills.


The design of the building even encourages this exploration; you don’t need to walk far into the Beginning School to realize that the place is built for young learners. Bulletin boards, supplies, and books are set at the children’s eye level. Easy-to-access cubbies provide space for each person’s belongings. Child-sized restrooms are attached to classrooms, encouraging independence (while also providing reassurance that trusted adults are nearby, if needed). Simple decor and minimal reference material leave room for imagination. All of these choices, explained Brittney, are based on sound research and made mindfully and intentionally to encourage natural curiosity and to empower students to move effortlessly among spaces as they follow their interests or learn to manage their personal needs. 

“A key function of early childhood education is for students to learn, to be able to take care of themselves and their belongings, to feel ownership over their space and learning environment, and to feel confident navigating the school,” said Brittney.

Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children.—Brittney Hansen ’02, Beginning School assistant principal

Beginning School days are also set up to harness the ways in which children learn best: there are moments of active play as well as quiet time, and educators stretch young brains with both structured lessons and space for choice and self-exploration—what Rowland Hall often refers to as choice and voice. This inclusion of choice, explained Kelley, is important for all students, but especially significant to young learners who often don’t feel they have a lot of control over their lives: when much of your day includes being told what to do, and when to do it, by adults, having choice in how you want to learn—alongside access to child-sized structures and materials that allow you to work without a grown-up’s help—you begin to view yourself as a capable knowledge-maker. Students given choice can see themselves as scientists, engineers, or artists, and they believe in their ability to find solutions, improve processes, or add beauty to the world.

And because Rowland Hall is an independent school, Beginning School teachers (like teachers across all of the school’s divisions) have the flexibility to explore the topics that spark their students’ interests. They’re naturals when it comes to identifying subjects that light up students’ eyes, and they enjoy the flexibility to adjust lesson plans in order to follow these paths, weaving foundational academic knowledge into the areas their individual classes wish to explore.

“Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children,” said Brittney. “We are less about saying, for instance, ‘Now is our time for science.’ Instead, we think of something that’s captivating and interesting for the child and then say, ‘It’s my job to figure out how to weave science into this.’”

A Community of Learners

There is a common refrain about Rowland Hall’s Beginning School: “This is a happy place.” Visitors frequently comment on the division’s warm atmosphere and often report feeling a sense of joy during their time there. For Emma and her leadership team, these reactions to the school aren't a coincidence; they’re confirmation that Rowland Hall is providing support exactly where it’s needed—for young learners, as well as for the adults who make their education possible.

Rowland Hall is so special. All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.—Kelley Journey, experiential learning specialist

“One way we show respect to teachers is by giving them opportunities and responsibility to be learners in their own right, to continue their own professional lives,” explained Emma. And this is important because early childhood programs that prioritize the well-being of their educators see numerous benefits—for instance, teachers with supportive administrators spend more of their time focused on students, and they’re more likely to stay with a school for the long haul. Professional development opportunities at Rowland Hall range from growing personal passions or areas of growth, like when kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins helped incorporate outdoor classroom into the division’s curriculum, to exploring ways teachers can support Rowland Hall’s mission and strategic priorities, such as when 4PreK lead teacher Isabelle Buhler studied equity and inclusion in the early childhood programs.

“Rowland Hall is so special,” said Kelley. “All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.”

They challenge each other too: faculty are encouraged to share takeaways from their professional development experiences, a practice that supports one another’s engagement with, and investment in, their essential roles. It’s a practice that also ensures everything they do comes back to students: by staying current with early childhood research findings, the Beginning School team can provide the school’s youngest learners with what they most need, creating a solid educational foundation for those students and, at the same time, illustrating for them the value of learning.

4PreK students inspect a giant sunflower.

Teachers love to bring natural objects into the classroom to engage kids' senses while encouraging exploratory learning. Above, two 4PreK students practice observation and fine-motor skills while studying a sunflower.


And it’s perhaps this practice that best explains why the Beginning School is such a happy place: it’s a place that highlights the thrill of learning, where students see in teachers the lifelong benefits of staying curious, and where, through the eyes of children, adults are continuously reminded of the pure joy of discovery, of allowing curiosity to take you to new places, and of understanding just what you’re capable of.

It’s the magic of early childhood.


Looking for a preschool or kindergarten? Download Rowland Hall's tips for picking a top-tier early childhood program.

Academics

Rowland Hall Upper School students in disguise for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.

Editor's note: This piece is republished from Rowland Hall's 2020–2021 Annual Report.


2021 Inspired Brilliance Awards winner badge

This story won silver in the 2021 InspirED Brilliance Awards (magazine feature article writing category).


Computer science impacts our daily lives, but its workforce falls woefully short when it comes to reflecting national racial, ethnic, and gender demographics. Solving that problem starts with K–12 education. The subject’s proponents at Rowland Hall are ensuring equity is programmed into the curriculum—and the curriculum gets the attention it deserves—building toward a computing-literate society where everyone has a seat at the table.

During hybrid learning one February afternoon, about 40 Rowland Hall faculty, staff, and upper schoolers—some working from home, others from the Lincoln Street Campus—gradually populated a Zoom room. It started off as a standard pandemic-era Upper School class, but 20 minutes later, it looked more like an avant-garde digital dress rehearsal. Students unearthed accessories from family members’ closets and Halloween costumes past: a cowboy hat, a pair of aviation goggles, a leopard-print scarf. They cloaked themselves in masks, feather boas, heavy makeup, and oversized sunglasses.

Director of Arts Sofia Gorder and her dance students comprised half of these creative camouflagers, but despite appearances, it wasn’t prep for one of their performances. It was an open workshop held by teacher Ben Smith ’89 and his Advanced Placement Computer Science (CS) Principles class to show the Upper School community how facial-recognition technologies work and how they can be harmful, particularly for underrepresented groups.

One dance student, Mena Zendejas-Portugal ’21, wore a pink wig with bangs that covered her eyes. She used makeup to draw decoy eyes on her cheeks, below the magenta fringe. Mena and her peers smirked at their laptop cameras as a web-based program used artificial intelligence (AI) to guess their ages and genders. 

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith participating in the Upper School's Drag Vs. AI facial-recognition workshop.

Computer science teacher Ben Smith '89 aged himself for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.


Before Mena wore her disguise, the program vacillated between misidentifying her as a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. After Mena changed her appearance, ironically, the program’s guess came closer to the reality: it classified her as a 16-year-old female. 

“It wasn’t a surprise how the AI read me since I have a rounder face along with short hair,” said Mena, one of the leaders of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. “It’s just a confirmation for the thought of AI being built around stereotypes and constructed beauty standards that aren’t applicable to everyone.”

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and flawed coding can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them.

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and the type of flawed coding that Mena experienced can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them. “If these students are going to become leaders in technology, they need to have this perspective,” Ben said. “You can't ask people to have an interest in a career and not prepare them for the future ramifications of that.” 

Ben has long given students space to discuss JEDI issues but formally added it to his CS curriculum during the 2020–2021 school year. And at Rowland Hall, the marriage of CS and social justice is a natural development: the school prioritized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the 2014 Strategic Plan, and during the past school year, longtime JEDI work escalated as a priority. 

February’s facial-recognition workshop—Drag Vs. AI by the Algorithmic Justice League, which “combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms” of AI—helped a cross section of upper schoolers see firsthand why this work matters: “By just learning CS and not looking behind the scenes, the future could be less inclusive than we envision,” Mena reflected. Indeed, AI researcher Joy Buolamwini, a Black woman, launched the league after personally experiencing algorithmic discrimination in her work. In one project utilizing generic facial-recognition software, the program failed to detect Joy’s face until she wore a white mask. In another, she had to ask a lighter-skinned friend to stand in for her. We can solve these problems, Joy posited in a 2016 TED Talk with over 1.4 million views, by creating more inclusive code. Teams must be diverse and driven to create “a world where technology works for all of us, not just some of us, a world where we value inclusion and center social change.”

This ethos fuels Ben’s work. The Rowland Hall alumnus, now celebrating 20 years as a faculty member at his alma mater, started teaching CS in 2015 and shifted to teaching that subject exclusively two years later. From day one, he’s made it his mission to diversify CS, a field “plagued by stark underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and family income,” according to CS advocacy nonprofit Code.org. The US needs more—and more diverse—computer scientists, and efforts to broaden that workforce need to start in K–12 schools. Computing jobs are the top source of all new wages in the U.S. and they make up two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM fields, Code.org touts, making CS one of the most in-demand college degrees. And exposure before college makes a difference: students who learn CS in high school are six times more likely to major in it. Among traditionally underrepresented groups, the likelihood is even higher: seven times for Black and Latinx students, and 10 times for women.

Ben currently relies on one-to-one recruitment to grow CS enrollment among those underrepresented populations. He read a book around 2014, during graduate school in instructional design and educational technology at the University of Utah, that sparked his professional goals: Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing by Jane Margolis. The book chronicles the lack of access to CS courses for Black and Latinx students—and addresses how to change the system. “It was just one of those eye-opening moments,” he said. “There’s no logical reason—except institutional bias—for why computer science education looks the way it does today … It’s incredibly unjust.” Since then, Ben has prioritized combating what he calls the most glaring equity issue in education today. He collaborates with other schools and organizations that are trying desperately to expand CS opportunities, and works diligently to build an equitable CS program for Rowland Hall. “With Rowland Hall's support, I’m committed to a future where all computer science courses have a student population that mirrors the demographics of the school as a whole.”

Building Curriculum from the Ground Up

Fortunately, Ben isn’t starting from scratch when sixth graders meet him in Foundations of Computer Science, a required class since 2016. Since Christian Waters stepped into the role of director of technology integration in 2013, he has crafted an arsenal of computing lessons to captivate the full spectrum of beginning and lower schoolers. Christian teaches at least one unit of digital citizenship, coding, and robotics to every lower schooler. Kids engage in hands-on activities like programming colorful toy robots and building wearable tech comprised of LED lights affixed to felt. They also get the space to think big and consider computing’s real-world applications, like furthering one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. How might they use computing, for example, to remedy a problem like overcrowding or a lack of affordable and clean energy?

Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters at Lower School Maker Night 2018, on the Salt Lake McCarthey Campus.

Christian Waters with students at the 2018 Lower School Maker Night.


Christian draws curriculum from dozens of expert educational resources, including the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Innovation Project, and Code.org. “We've built something that is really relevant, and the best combination of the best materials and resources,” Christian said. “It's not a curriculum that is sold in a big box that you wheel into a classroom, and everyone has to do it the exact same way. It's tailored to the needs of Rowland Hall and relevant to our goals and our objectives.” 

Thanks to ongoing collaboration between Christian and Ben, Rowland Hall’s CS curriculum is also vertically aligned: “We're preparing students for Advanced Placement Computer Science A Java in a way they never were before. Students in the Middle School are learning about objects, classes, functions, and variables,” Christian explained. “It's thanks in part to how we're building up from the Beginning School.”

One example of vertical alignment and mission-centric curriculum: Christian uses a Code.org activity where lower schoolers train a computer to recognize facial expressions—broaching some of the same issues upper schoolers examined in their February workshop. The crux of the Lower School lesson, according to the educator: “How do we distinguish between facial features and whether someone is happy or sad or excited, and is that even ethical to do that?” Students exercise their critical-thinking skills and confront questions involving how these programs work, and how to ensure they’re as ethical and unbiased as possible. “Ultimately what students get is that there is a lot of subjectivity in how we humans train computers,” Christian said. 

A Group Effort

Part of attracting younger and more diverse students to CS—and, down the road, reducing bias in code—entails continual, widespread exposure. Christian has not only integrated CS into classrooms, he’s also created community-wide opportunities to rally around computing and engineering. He organizes three annual events that are now synonymous with STEM culture on the McCarthey Campus: the beginning and lower school Family Maker Night in the fall, the school-wide Hour of Code in the winter, and Lower School Maker Day in the spring. “These events are designed to demystify technology and making,” Christian said. “All students can see themselves as computer scientists, coders, makers, roboticists, engineers.”

These events and the school’s CS curriculum as a whole are dominated by collaborative group work that occasionally reaches across subjects and divisions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Smith's Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students collaborated annually with Tyler Stack's fourth graders to make an app that helps young students learn math. Upper schoolers worked in groups to devise and test app concepts on the lower schoolers and use their feedback to improve app design. For Katy Dark ’21, it was a highlight of Rowland Hall’s CS program: “The thing that will stick with me the most is using new interfaces to help people.” It’s a fitting favorite memory for Katy, who in 2020 became the first Rowland Hall student to win the top national award from the Aspirations in Computing program, sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She won, in part, for her efforts tutoring students and developing a coding club at Salt Lake City’s Dual Immersion Academy, a bilingual Spanish-English charter school she attended during her elementary years.

Two Rowland Hall computer science students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.

Two CS students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.


The app project is a prime example of group work that can encourage underrepresented populations to pursue CS, according to Dr. Helen Hu, a Westminster College computer science professor whose work examines how educators can improve diversity in CS. “In industry there's something called agile co-programming, which is people working in groups,” said Dr. Hu, also the parent of a Rowland Hall ninth grader and seventh grader. “This is actually an important skill in computing—being able to work with others.” While some students love computing for computing, she added, a lot of others love it because of what it can do, “because of the problems you can solve, because of the impact you can have,” she said. “By doing both, by emphasizing these other parts of computing, you're helping both types of students. The students who love to code, still get to code. The students who love coding to solve problems are getting to do that. We know that students aren't going to learn it as well when you just teach it at the level of, ‘Where does the semicolon go and where do parentheses go?’”

Alex Armknecht ’20, a 2019 Aspirations in Computing regional award winner who’s now a CS major at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), appreciated learning CS at a more holistic level. “I loved the CS classes at Rowland Hall and they were consistently my favorite classes throughout high school,” she said. “I loved the way Mr. Smith taught and allowed us creative freedom … his class is the main reason I am majoring in CS. I learned the importance of asking for help, creativity, and collaboration, which all have been helpful to me in my college CS classes.”

During her senior year, Alex also participated in another shining example of collaborative group work in CS: the Upper School’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge Robotics team. The team started off strong in its inaugural 2019–2020 year and has continued to evolve, Ben said: “It’s expanded the opportunities for young women to become leaders, compete, and see how other girls across the state are involved with technology and engineering.” 

During the 2020–2021 school year, juniors Irenka Saffarian and Tina Su stepped into unofficial leadership roles that bode well for the near future. Both have taken Advanced Placement CS A and are great coders, Ben said, and they pushed hard for the team to make it to the national semifinals in the FIRST Global Innovation Awards. Rowland Hall was the only team from Utah and one of only 60 teams internationally to make it that far. “Our theme right now is take it to the next level,” Ben said. “We realize we are right on the verge of getting to that level where we’re really competitive—where we actually compete with the best teams in the state.” And Irenka and Tina, Ben said, are committed to getting the team there. They embody the enthusiasm that Ben and Christian hope to cultivate across the school. “I hope that the future of taking computer science courses at Rowland Hall is increasingly coming from a place of excitement and interest and, ‘I cannot wait to use this skill in anything that interests me,’” Ben said. “It's not about a kid sitting in a basement all alone typing on their computer. This is about groups of people making exciting and interesting and really impactful decisions, and everyone needs to be at the table.”

Progress Made, and the Work Ahead

We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.—Christian Waters, director of technology integration

While Katy, Alex, Irenka, and Tina are recent success stories, Christian and Ben readily acknowledge that Rowland Hall isn’t exempt from racial and gender disparities. But the school is perpetually working “to change that from the ground up,” Christian said. Thanks in part to schoolwide training, JEDI values are ingrained in how Rowland Hall instructors design and teach tech-related classes. “We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.” 

Ané Hernandez, a junior who took AP computer science and robotics as a sophomore during the 2020–2021 year, appreciated the heightened JEDI focus. Ané’s parents are both engineers and she’s been interested in CS for as long as she can remember—the winner of a 2021 Aspirations in Computing regional honorable mention loves the art of programming. Ané, who is Mexican American, has also long been interested in JEDI issues and advocating for more equity and representation, including through Rowland Hall’s student JEDI committee. She found it compelling to see how two of her passions, JEDI and CS, are related. "As technology is rising, racial, gender, and socioeconomic problems still exist," Ané said, "so they're just becoming interwoven." 

While she’s grateful for how the JEDI units have furthered her passion for CS, she hopes her school also uses this momentum to self-reflect on, for instance, how to make CS more accessible to lower-income schools and communities. And that sort of community outreach isn’t unprecedented at Rowland Hall. In summer 2015, and in two summers that followed, Rowland Hall hosted a nonprofit Hackathon centered around teacher training. “That was a way that we contributed to a culture of learning and growth in our community,” Christian said. Educators from local public and independent schools convened on the Lincoln Street Campus to learn coding skills and how to use certain tools, like 3D printers and Arduino robots. The technology team helped cover some of the costs, Christian said, and teachers could earn state licensing credit for attending. Ben's resume is also flooded with conferences and workshops where he’s trained his peers. “It’s great for me to show a group of 15 or 20 educators how to teach a curriculum,” he said, “and then I can show them that I have a classroom with a majority of female students, and that I've been able to recruit and build, and that this is possible.”

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith with a middle schooler on the Salt Lake City Lincoln Street Campus.

Ben teaching in the Middle School. Computer science is taught in all four Rowland Hall divisions.


These sorts of efforts could expand in the future. Rowland Hall is seriously considering ways to increase CS opportunities and spaces, and plans could solidify as early as the 2021–2022 school year. Christian and Ben are drafting a CS strategic plan that involves integrating CS with other subjects, training teachers, and expanding current classes. And Christian, Ben, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Wendell Thomas are starting a CS task force and have asked others to join: one or two teachers from each division, Dr. Hu, and Sunny Washington, a startup COO and CEO who also serves on the board of Equality Utah. One of the task force’s first actions will be to provide feedback on the strategic plan draft.

For now, Christian and Ben’s work to recruit more—and more diverse—CS students is paying off. Since 2014, 19 Winged Lions have earned a collective 25 awards from the Aspirations in Computing program, including one win (Katy’s) and two honorable mentions at the national level. Rowland Hall also won The College Board’s 2019 and 2020 Advanced Placement Computer Science Female Diversity Award for achieving high female representation in our AP CS Principles class. Dr. Hu lauded the achievement. “That's pretty impressive," she said—especially for Utah. "There are some states where they have tens of teachers who received this. We have three. I think that speaks to how difficult this is in the state." 

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us.

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us, as Joy Buolamwini so wisely said. Recent grad Katy is now attending Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and majoring in law—possibly cyber law. Anna Shott ’16 emailed Ben in December 2020 to share that she’d be joining Microsoft as a program manager the following year. “Your class truly influenced the path I chose, and I cannot thank you enough for sparking my interest in computer science,” wrote Anna, a University of Southern California grad who also worked as a K–12 CS camp counselor on her college campus. And current student Ané said what she learned in AP Computer Science Principles—that an algorithm can decide whether someone is granted a loan, for example—was a game-changer for her. “This experience has made me want to not only major in computer science, but a specific realm of computer science that maybe deals with AI and diversifying participants and coders so that there isn't such a large bias.”

Alex also plans on working in CS, another testament to Ben’s teaching: “I decided I wanted to go to my college when I met LMU's chair and professor of computer science and he reminded me of Mr. Smith,” she said. “I would not be a computer science major if it weren't for him. He pushed me to work my hardest, to try new things, and provided me with lots of opportunities.”

This sort of feedback keeps Ben laser-focused on boosting equity in CS at Rowland Hall and beyond. “I won’t pretend that it didn’t bring a tear to my eye,” he said. “It’s certainly fuel for the work that I do and it reminds me that it's worth doing. I could sit back on a curriculum and just deliver, and do fairly well at it. But this is beyond that. The work is more than what I teach—it’s who I’m teaching to.”

Timeline: Modern Computer Science at Rowland Hall

STEM

Class of 2021 Cap Toss GIF Banner

Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

The class of 2021 is a diverse and talented group of young adults. During their time at Rowland Hall, they have grown academically and personally by embracing challenges, pursuing their passions, and committing to productive, responsible, and thoughtful lives. They’ve also shown impressive resilience, particularly during their junior and senior years, which were greatly altered by COVID-19. Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

Members of this class took opportunities to expand their learning. They explored careers through internships—both in person and virtually—at organizations like Better Days 2020, McNeill Von Maack, the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the University of Utah, and Utah Spine Medicine. They attended programs at The School of the New York Times and the National Security Agency, studied abroad in England and Ireland, and immersed themselves in languages and cultures in China and the Dominican Republic. They expanded their studies at the college level, enrolling in courses like numbers theory, 1700s American civilization, and introduction to architecture, and they partnered with Rowland Hall teachers to craft independent study courses when COVID-19 canceled classes. The class of 2021 also includes several students recognized for their academic prowess. The group boasts several top-tier debaters, including six individual state champions, three national qualifiers, two Academic All-Americans, and the captains who led the team to its first overall 3A State title in school history. Multiple young women in this class received Aspirations in Computing awards from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Another took home first prize in the Federal Bar Association’s 2020 civics essay contest.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world. Its musicians include a winner of the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music, a principal violinist for the Utah All-State Orchestra and the Utah Youth Orchestra, and a pianist who earned several superior rankings from the National Federation of Music Clubs. One actor is a member of University of Utah Youth Theatre’s Conservatory, and one dancer attends Ballet West Academy. A promising writer honed her skills at a Brown University creative nonfiction writing program, while others wrote editorials on topics like homelessness reform, the importance of grieving lives lost to coronavirus, and the number of women in leadership, all of which were published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Winged Lion seniors led our athletics program to top-five finishes in the Deseret News’ 2A All-Sports Awards each year of their Upper School careers. They captured 28 Region and nine State titles as teams, and four individual Region and State championships. Five seniors were named All-State, with one awarded 3A Swimmer of the Year; four earned All-Region honors; and one was selected to play in a postseason All-Star game. Fifteen Academic All-State and 25 Academic All-Region honorees led their teams to top-three GPA rankings among 2A schools over the past four years. All three seniors in Rowmark Ski Academy finished this season with career-best performances, including 10 Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) top-20 and two FIS top-10 finishes. In addition to school sports, this group pursued diverse athletics interests: they participated in rowing, figure skating, and club soccer. One is a national-championship-winning equestrian. Two are ski mountaineers, one of whom competed with the US National Team at the World Championships and Youth Olympic Games, and another who is a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. They’ve devoted countless hours to the larger community, supporting causes like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, and volunteering for organizations including Circles Salt Lake, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Mission Math, the National Charity League, People's Health Clinic, Salt Lake Peer Court, the Sunnyvale Community Center, YouthCity Government, and YWCA Utah.

Many students held down jobs while in school, working as servers, referees, lifeguards, swim instructors, and babysitters; a couple entrepreneurs even started their own companies. And while balancing school, service, and work, these students spent time on passion projects, whether that meant joining the American Regions Mathematics League, examining area histories and geology with the National Outdoor Leadership School, earning a private pilot's license, or giving a TED Talk on microplastics for TEDxParkCity.

The future is bright for the 65 seniors in this graduating class. Our graduates earned admission to 131 different colleges and universities, and 74 percent of them received at least one merit scholarship to attend college. A few have chosen to take a gap year to work or pursue personal interests. Whatever their next steps, we know these experiences will serve as stepping stones on their journeys to living lives of purpose and impact.

Congratulations to the class of 2021. You have achieved many great things, and we are eager to watch you continue to change the world for the better.

Students

Rowland Hall Head of School Mick Gee chats with Lower School students at the 2021 science share.

There are unofficial rules a new head of school is expected to follow when arriving on campus: Listen. Focus on relationships. Learn the culture. And don’t make too many decisions while doing the first three. 

Of course, rules change if your first year happens to occur within a global pandemic.

This has been a year full of decisions. I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen.—Head of School Mick Gee

“This has been a year full of decisions,” said Mick Gee, who is completing his first year as Rowland Hall’s head of school this June. “I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen. That's been a bit of a dance.”

In fact, Mick’s input on Rowland Hall’s COVID-19-related decisions started before he officially did. Though his role was scheduled to begin on July 1, 2020, Mick began closely collaborating with former Head of School Alan Sparrow in March 2020, not long after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

“Every time there was a decision that the school was making that Alan felt would have impact beyond his tenure, he would run it by me,” said Mick. “He was open and enthusiastic about me being involved in conversations, because I was going to inherit the decisions that were made.”

Because of this, Mick was often doing double duty at Rowland Hall and Allendale Columbia, the Rochester, New York, independent school he previously led, and it became rapidly clear as the weeks passed that the pandemic would continue to be the focus of his first year at Rowland Hall. By the time he arrived in Utah in summer 2020—joining his wife, Amy, and daughter, Madeleine ’21, who had moved to Salt Lake City ahead of him—Mick had a good grasp of how Alan had been guiding the Rowland Hall community and was able to jump right into discussions about the probability of offering in-person learning in the fall. Much of those weeks, Mick remembered, were spent wading through a constant stream of new information about the virus.

“There was a new article coming out every week: kids can catch COVID, kids can transmit it; kids can't catch it, kids don't transmit it as much,” said Mick. “We had somehow to pick our way through that.”

Head of School Mick Gee chats with a student at the 2021 Lower School Science Share.

Mick chats with a student at the Lower School Science Share on May 7. A former physics and chemistry teacher, Mick relied on scientific data when making decisions for this school year, with a focus on student well-being.

It was a time marked by fear, and though the Rowland Hall community was hopeful that classes could be safely held in person, people understandably wondered if that was too risky. Faced with a flood of questions and opinions, and knowing that no decision the school made could be risk-free, Mick, a former physics and chemistry teacher, put his trust in science. Alongside his administrative team and a cadre of medical experts from the Rowland Hall community, he led the charge of weighing the many risks—from probability of spread to the harm distance learning was doing to students’ mental health—through the lens of the most recent sound scientific data, and with an eye toward what was best for students. He accepted that there was no way to make every person happy.

“It's a compromise. I can't remember a decision where everybody felt good. There's always risk and there's always uncertainty,” Mick said. “If we just made decisions based on what's best for COVID protection, we would have closed the school for a year. But we knew that was not going to be the best thing for the mental health of kids. It was not going to be the best way to support families.”

And while Mick understood and trusted in the science behind these decisions, he acknowledged that it was a challenge to ask people to make major changes to their school days—like filling out daily health screenings, wearing masks, and staying home with even mild symptoms—before he had a chance to get to know them.

“I didn't really have a relationship with people, and I’m asking them to do things that are far from normal,” Mick remembered. “I hadn’t had a chance to deposit anything in the goodwill bank, and I was making withdrawals.”

But the Rowland Hall community was willing to extend that credit to Mick, agreeing to adhere to the school’s health and safety guidelines to ensure that students could be on campus in some capacity. From the Upper School athletes who wore masks while competing to the families who chose to forgo holiday travel, Mick knows that every person in the Rowland Hall community played a role in the school’s ability to remain open all year.

We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter. How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.—Mick Gee

“Every single person stepped up,” he said. “It's hard, but everybody fell in with the philosophy and made it possible.”

Mick knows how easily the year could have gone in another direction. He’s heard firsthand from administrators who struggled with families’ willingness to take precautions outside of school, leading to community spread and necessitating continued distance learning, with some schools unable to open until as late as April 2021. He remembered fully understanding these struggles while on a call with 100 other heads of school, where he realized that only 12 of the attendees were sitting in offices on campus.

“We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter,” he said. “How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Mick is especially grateful for Rowland Hall’s choices, and the community’s actions, as each passing week seems to confirm how critically important in-person learning is to student well-being. By early April, Rowland Hall was fortunate to be able to end its hybrid-learning model, opening full in-person learning to all interested students (while continuing to support those who have chosen to finish the year learning remotely). And though things are still far from normal, this decision—alongside increasing vaccinations, which most faculty and staff, and some students over the age of 16, have received—has helped make a difference in students’ mental health. It’s also allowed for the careful reintroduction of certain spring events, which has benefited adults including Mick, who’s been able to safely increase his in-person interactions with students. During this year’s Battle of the Classes, for instance, Mick, a lifelong athlete, joined faculty and staff in a kickball match against seniors, then enjoyed a pick-up game of cricket with a group of middle schoolers. He said letting kids get to know him in these casual settings makes a difference.

Mick Gee playing kickball with students during Battle of the Classes 2021.

Mick enjoys a game of kickball against seniors on April 20. Rowland Hall has been able to carefully reintroduce activities this spring, benefitting students as well as faculty and staff.

“Being out there is probably worth 10 Zoom meetings,” said Mick. “You see students in the hall and you just played sports against them—it's different in the way they see you. It's a game changer, really.”

Moments like these are, of course, what Mick pictured during his first year at Rowland Hall, but he doesn’t let the pandemic demands that took their place bother him. Rather, he’s tapped into his lighthearted personality to find joy in the everyday and to keep this year’s challenges in perspective. “I never really take myself too seriously,” he said. “I think you can do all of this stuff—make all these hard calls—but you have to have fun doing it. That seems a silly thing to say in a year where so many people have suffered, but there has to be levity and joy in the work, and a sense of humor.”

Mick’s also using this year’s experiences to help him make decisions around the future of Rowland Hall, emphasizing the importance of understanding how schools’ decisions truly affect students—a skill that he believes schools have had to sharpen this year and one that shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of the education status quo.

“‘What's the best thing to do for kids? How is this decision going to impact students?’ That's the criteria for making decisions,” said Mick. “I think every school in the country will tell you, ‘Of course, we do that all the time,’ and they do not. That is one thing I think that we can do more of, and we've learned this year.”

I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID. This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful.—Mick Gee

In addition, Mick wants to continue to encourage the ingenuity teachers showed throughout the pandemic. He noted that many have found ways of presenting a variety of subjects, from math and English to arts and PE, in ways that better serve how today’s students learn.

“I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID,” said Mick. “This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful. And knowing that we can get through that and be successful where, frankly, not every school has succeeded, builds a bit of confidence.”

That confidence seems to be reflected in the larger Rowland Hall community, as evidenced by re-enrollment figures. Mick views families’ enthusiasm to sign on for another year as an indication that, though not everyone may have agreed with all of the decisions made this year, they believe in Rowland Hall’s capability to support students and families through crises, while still delivering a top academic program.

“Our re-enrollment has gone really well—that's a sign that people are reacting to what they've seen and experienced this year,” said Mick. “So that feels really good.”

But even with ongoing community buy-in, Mick won’t be taking it easy. He’ll be spending much of next year revisiting his pre-pandemic to-do list, especially when it comes to building relationships with students, families, faculty, and staff. “There's lots of people who don't really know me,” he said. “That's going to continue to be a work in progress.”

And even though he’s had to shift some of his year-one priorities to year two, Mick is excited about what lies ahead: he sees the 2021–2022 school year as a second chance to experience what traditionally makes up a head of school’s first year.

“I feel like I almost get a second lease of life because I get to do my first year all over,” he said. “I feel super lucky to be here and to be part of all we've done this year—and we're not done. I'm always like, ‘What's next?’ And, luckily, there's always plenty next.”

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