Before the World Changed

Spring 2006

By Catherine O'Neill Grace

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, it has become a truism to say the world has changed. But when I looked through the stack of Independent School magazines published between 1991 and 2001, I was newly struck by how different things really are in this millennium — for schools as for everyone else.

 It's more than security concerns and an ongoing war that have changed us. Today, as an English teacher back in the classroom after nearly 30 years away, I see at every moment of my class that the process of teaching and learning — indeed, kids themselves — have been retooled by technology. Yet in the 23 issues of Independent School that I reviewed for this article, technology is discussed infrequently — and there is certainly no premonition that our world will be shaken by terrorism in the 21st century.

In my small classroom in Western New York, I am newly aware of the "flatness" of the world, to borrow Thomas L. Friedman's term. The convergence of technology, economics, and politics has transformed, and is transforming, all of us.

In the early '90s, when I was editor of Independent School, my work was done on a computer that now seems positively antediluvian. At the NAIS offices at the time, there was no email, no website, no Google to facilitate fact-checking. A fax machine provided instant communication of a sort — and often saved us in the last phases of production as we corrected page proofs. But things did start to change. By 1993, NAIS was offering an online message center at the New York City conference — with tech support from local students, who were already way ahead of the curve when it came to using cyber-tools.

When I interviewed for the position of editor of the magazine, NAIS was still firmly entrenched in Boston and identified with New England — or so it seemed. By the time I accepted the position, the board had voted to move the association to Washington, D.C., where new president Peter D. Relic was already based, and where the concerns of the organization would change.

As a reflection of the world of independent schools — and the larger world of information exchange — the magazine changed, too. One outward and visible sign happened in 1994, with a total redesign undertaken by The Magazine Group, a Washington-based custom publisher that continues to design the publication today. At the time, our new look and the new NAIS logo were pretty daring — and the magazine quickly began to garner the design awards that proved it. But it is the content that really tells the story; my walk through the pages of the magazine took me back to a more innocent world — although a world with its own pressing and legitimate concerns.

When I joined the NAIS staff in May 1991, I walked into some formidable shoes — those of Blair McElroy, who was the magazine's editor from 1972 to 1991. That first summer they were way too big for me; my feet swam in them and I trod tentatively. But, before long, the vibrancy of the independent school community captured my imagination and fired my vision for the magazine. Stories for Independent School poured into my office. Some I assigned, but most arrived over the transom (and by "snail mail"). Ideas battled for space; preoccupations emerged.

In my tour through the decade, a bell sounded occasionally on the impact of emerging trends such as charter schools and technology. But several key themes recurred. Among them were multiculturalism, gender equity, environmental concerns, the changing nature of leadership/headship, strategic planning, fund-raising, and the marketing of independent schools.

Some highlights:
  • In the '90s, as the NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC) burgeoned from the 200 attendees at the first meeting in 1986 to the 1,000-plus who were gathering by the end of the decade, questions of diversity and multiculturalism were very much on people's minds. Early in the decade, the magazine contained single stories about developing teachers of color, the impact of the NAIS Multicultural Assessment Program (MAP) on schools, and an excerpt from Cambridge Friends School (Massachusetts) teacher Linda Mizell's book, Thinking About Racism, which explored how to work with students to combat discrimination.
  • By winter 1999, the conversation had broadened and deepened. That edition of the magazine featured equity and justice on the cover — with nine stories inside. The articles ranged from coverage of student-led programs to combat prejudice, through diversity and international relations, to a piece on addressing homophobia in schools written by Kevin Jennings, executive director of The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and an essay on class bias — "the real enemy" — by Dane Peters, now head of Brooklyn Heights Montessori School (New York). The issue also included extraordinarily moving photographs of and testimonies from students at the Perkins School for the Blind (Massachusetts). In a report from the 1998 People of Color Conference, then NAIS's director of multicultural services Randolph Carter said, "I want diversity to work in our schools. I want everyone to see it as in the best interest of the school. I want to see schools become more inclusive communities and to have pedagogies that reflect that community." That work continues. And certainly, with the growing number of attendees at the conference, the increase in the number of students and faculty of color within independent schools, and a greater understanding of just what we mean by inclusivity, there is a clear sense of progress.
  • In San Diego in 2005, the NAIS Annual Conference focused on sustainability — a larger context for some of the issues raised in the magazine in the '90s. Fall 1995 offered an entire issue devoted to outdoor and environmental education. In response to a call for stories, I had been inundated with calls, letters, and faxes (imagine if we had had email...), and chose a range of offerings, including a tour of the Chewonki Foundation in Maine, the decades-long "ecoprogram" of Millbrook School (New York), student-centered environmental education on the Chesapeake Bay, a "green" social studies curriculum, and more. As Virginia Matthewson of St. Gertrude's School (Virginia) wrote, "We hope that... our students will incorporate environmental awareness as one of the many factors they will weigh in evaluating their choices as global citizens — choices that will affect our survival into the twenty-first century." That work continues, too.
  • In spring 1993, the magazine featured a cover package about trusteeship. The lead piece, by Pearl Rock Kane, director of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, addressed the need for better trustee education in independent schools. Other pieces were concerned with best practices in nurturing the head/board chair partnership and engaging the board in institutional planning rather than misguided micromanagement of day-to-day operation. Susan Stone, author of two NAIS books about strategic planning, addressed the question of how to implement the long-range plan. Michael Thompson, school psychologist and author of numerous books on education, offered a piece about how to identify and celebrate the uniqueness of each school's particular culture. In his column, NAIS president Peter Relic looked to the future and trusteeship, suggesting that, in the 21st century, boards would increasingly be concerned with legal issues, government relations, and matters of economic survival. How right he was.
  • The winter 2000 issue of Independent School looked to the millennium, opening with an essay about rededicating ourselves to independent schools' original mission to educate an informed citizenry for leadership. Also included were "Lessons from Littleton," a story about what kids are really like; a look at the federal government's relationship with independent schools; a forum of views on how far schools have come — and how far they still have to go — toward creating inclusive communities; and a primer on taming technology. In one essay, independent school consultant Debbie Freed wonders if independent schools, in their struggles with the '90s challenges I listed above (multiculturalism, leadership, and so on....), have lost their way. "Schools are complicated networks of human relationships," Freed wrote. "They cannot thrive without changing and growing.... It is up to those who have been part of a school's legacy, as well as those who are responsible for its current reality, to be able to see the connection between what is occurring in the present as a function of the past, and a predictor of the future. As T.S. Eliot said, 'Time past and time future, what might have been and what has been, point to one end, which is always present. The detail of the pattern is movement.'"
  • In 1998, Philadelphia Inquirer education writer William Kashatus interviewed Earl Harrison, who had just retired as head of Sidwell Friends School (Washington, DC). Harrison spoke about the challenges independent school leaders face, among them an increasingly consumerist approach from parents who see an independent school education as a commodity, and the pressure of equitably balancing faculty salaries, financial aid, and other budget matters. Harrison remarked, "It takes enormous energy to sustain schools, let alone refine and improve them." Harrison's statement helps me understand what it was I hoped to do with Independent School during my tenure as editor: provide a channel where the amazing energy and creativity of the people in schools could flow, transmitting their dreams and their practical advice, their fears and their hopes. The magazine is a finger on the pulse of school people — and has been for 65 years. That work, too, continues.
Catherine O'Neill Grace

Catherine O'Neill Grace is senior associate editor of Wellesley magazine at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.