September 9, 2021
Neil Mufson, Head of School
I often wonder if I were destined to be in schools for so much of my life because I carry such strong memories of my own early schooling. I can still picture walking into the classroom on my own first day of Kindergarten. Mrs. Beaulieu was at the door to greet us and seamlessly separate us from our parents. She then directed us to play on the huge locomotive and train cars that occupied half of our very large room and that she had fashioned out of very large boxes and construction paper. Soon we were playing, forming nascent friendships, and taking the first steps towards independence from our parents. It was an exhilarating new beginning, at least for most of us.
In schools we are so fortunate to have abundant new beginnings. There is the start of the new school year, the start of the new calendar year, and the start of Spring with its resplendent signs of new life. Summer also brings its own start of consolidating gains, adjusting to a less structured routine, and making the most of plentiful opportunities for fun, fresh air, and new activities, places, and people.
With young learners especially, actually every day brings the promise of a new journey. This is part of what I love about working with these ages. There are constantly new connections, new learning, new questions, new discoveries, and new skills introduced and mastered. One factor that drew me to PDS for my own new beginning is the way the school embraces all the possibility and joy of this stage of life while remaining grounded by the deepest expertise in what our young learners most need.
Your children’s days at Primary Day this school year, like the 76 prior years at PDS, will nourish their bounding intellects, their expanding sense of what it means to be a community member, and their growing practice of what it means to be a lifelong, fully engaged learner. Their days will be full, their minds engaged, their joyful spirits nurtured. Of course academics will be important, but where we will also excel will be in partnering with you to help develop good people.
I often think of that seemingly larger-than-life cardboard train of my own first day of “real” school and the journey that was ahead. At PDS we are beginning, supporting, and boosting your children’s lifetime voyage of schooling, with all its promise, all its excitement, and all its beginnings. The faculty, staff, and I are here to guide your children and you with all the twists and turns ahead. Please be sure to call on us when you have a question, concern, or idea. We will do the same. In the meantime, know that I am so grateful that you and your family are “all aboard.”
Statio, Lectio and James Joyce
May 19, 2021
This is it. I’ll be brief. A final blog.
Primary Day is a success. In this special place, our shared mission is lived with passion and the future is bright indeed. As I approach my final weeks in your service I am certain, now more than ever, that I will carry the spirit of Primary Day with me always and follow the progress of the School with keen interest.
At a crossroads, I am ready to embrace the monastic practice of statio. A Benedictine custom born centuries ago, statio is the practice of ‘stopping one thing before beginning another’. Intended to center us and force our observation of what we’re about to do, statio is the desire to do consciously what we might otherwise do mechanically. Statio is the virtue of presence, set out to get our attention before the great blur of life continues unabated. It’s going to be hard to accept silence and life away from schools – this I know – but do it I must.
Lectio is an equally foundational premise of monasticism. A counter-weight to statio, it is the practice intended to keep us always true to who we are and what we have yet to grow into. This particular moment in life is exactly that commitment to personal maturity, to the development of insight rather than a profession, that is my charge now.
My life and work have always been filled with idiosyncratic endeavors – goals and challenges which made obvious the circle of life and love. My ‘retirement’ is no ending at all. It’s like where Joyce leaves off in Finnegan’s Wake – in mid-sentence, without much explanation but with an incomplete connection to the sentence that begins the book – an unending cycle confirmed. A stream of consciousness perhaps, but a comfortable one and I like it. And, no, monasticism is not on my bucket list.
Hail to Beako!
Letters in the Time of COVID
February 3, 2021
I was raised in a family of letter writers. My mother wrote prolifically to ‘the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’! In a time before iPhones and laptops, I was taught that written communication was to be valued on an equal footing with lively, informed conversation and was even more impactful if it was rendered by hand. Of course, I protested and vowed that I would write letters in longhand as infrequently as possible, my thinking vindicated when ‘word processers’ became commonplace in the early 1980’s. Nearly forty years on, as a school head in the time of COVID, I have never written so many letters and emails as I now do each day. While the opportunities for handwritten communications have been eclipsed by the need for frequent, and often immediate, messaging each time I do pick up my pen, I channel my mother, seated at her desk writing yet another card of condolence or letter of advice.
In recent weeks, I have discovered (and re-discovered) letters of meaning, new and old, handwritten and published. Heartfelt and passionate, they resonate for me now, as I lead a school in extraordinary times. I’ve excerpted some great finds. Enjoy the urgency.
“Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking. We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered….there can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.” – Ruth Bader, (grade 8), The Bulletin of the East Midwood Jewish Center, June 21, 1946.
“During this pandemic, a lot has changed but one thing that never will is my strong family-like bond with everyone in the school…” – Violet Klasko, Our Lady Star of the Sea School, The Catholic Standard, January 21, 2021.
“You may be tempted to find solace in the diversity of opinion that is American democracy. You should resist any such temptation. Diversity ought not to be confused with division. Nor should you underestimate, as others have before you, America’s will.” – George H.W. Bush to Saddam Hussein, January 13, 1991.
“If Joe Biden called me, first thing I would say is ‘hello’. Then: we should have a doctor on every block and you wouldn’t have to pay money to see them. And I would like for all the schools to be open. We’d have to spend money on more teachers, pencils, desks and chairs - kid-sized chairs.” – Prudence Lipkin,- ‘if Joe Biden called you…’ – New York Times, January 3, 2021.
“..what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellent, that is what will survive, what is essential to foster…” – Mary Cassatt to John Wesley Beatty, September 5, 1905.
“Don’t be afraid of failing. It’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. What matters is how many times you get up. And don’t wait for everybody else before you to do something. It’s always a few people who get things done and keep things going. This country needs more wise and courageous shepherds and fewer sheep.” – Marian Wright Edelman, a letter to her sons, January 12, 1993.
“Dear God: I am Amearican [sic], what are you?” – Robert, Children’s Letters to God, 1991.
“Each and every one of us, regardless, have our trials and tribulations and in my lifetime I have had very many and sometimes they have been difficult to overcome….living takes courage and fortitude for all of us, and I am sure you have this in full measure.” – Marjorie Merriweather Post to unknown Texas correspondent, 1965.
“Have a told you that you are strong? A woman named Helen Keller fought her way through long, silent darkness. Though she could not see or hear, she taught us to look at and listen to each other. Never waiting for life to get easier, she gave others courage to face their challenges.” – Barack Obama, a letter to my daughters, 2010.
Heroes ‘in relationship’
November 4, 2020
For all of us who live, work and learn together each and every day, the advent of the Thanksgiving holiday offers any number of ways to demonstrate our commitment to the best of life on River Road. This is the season of gratitude, of thankfulness, for the relationships that make life worth living and for all that we are.
Strong supportive connections are the underpinnings of all that we do. The power of being ‘in relationship’ with each other is a legacy of the founders that is ours today. It is intentional and never taken for granted. In fact, our collaborative success has been achieved by the sustainability of effort, the capacity of the program, and a deeply held belief in our unique mission. In practice, four key relationships set the tone at Primary Day - the relationships that children have with one another, the relationships between children and teachers; the relationships teachers have with one another and the relationships that staff have with families. All are critical and, for all, we are most grateful.
I believe that, as a society, in our neighborhoods, in our places of worship and in our families, there must be a re-commitment to a foundational valuing of relationships; those based on trust, respect and positive regard. This is nothing less than essential and we must be heroic in our effort to realize this important goal.
Every society, throughout history, has its myths by which it finds meaning for life and for living and those myths have certain similarities. For example, the story of the hero who sets out into a realm of super-natural wonder, meets and conquers fabulous foes and returns again to bestow boons on his fellows. This is a story that occurs over and over in the mythologies and folk and fairy tales of the world. Now more than ever, we must be the heroes our children need us to be. Dragon slayers excepted, the ‘boons’ we must bestow are those of being ‘in relationship’. This, a clear-sightedness and a passion for each other’s success, will assure a continued forward trajectory for this special school.
May our heroics nurture our community paradigm as one of simplicity, harmony and yes, of brilliance. The realization of Beako’s Golden Rule is a collective responsibility.
September 21, 2020
epiphany - (n). 1. a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something; 2. a comprehension of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization; 3. an intuitive grasp of reality through something simple or striking.
It happened. Labor Day weekend. I experienced an epiphany. A sudden intuitive realization. And my new reality is ‘holding steady’.
For nearly four decades, Labor Day has signaled for me a new beginning – another chance to pursue my life’s work with passion, to make a difference and to serve with joy. Having spent my career with young children, their teachers and their parents, I have always subscribed to the wisdom of the British educator Janet Erskine Stuart, who once said, “we bring up children for the future, not the present. Therefore, we must have to do with things raw and unfinished and unpolished….we must remember that it is better to begin a great work than to finish a small one.” Writing of teaching and learning a century ago in the midst of another pandemic, she believed, as I do, in the realities of childhood and in the nobility of this profession.
As the 2019-2020 school year came to a close, and faced with an uncertain future, I was both anxious and apprehensive about my own abilities to lead, to listen and to ‘steer the ship’ with confidence. Our children and their schooling had been caught in the cross-hairs of the coronavirus, national civil unrest and the politicization of seemingly every aspect of our lives as Americans. Our complacency was shattered by the lack of trust in our democracy which, paradoxically, brought out the worst in some and the level best in others.
This was a summer like no other and indeed a very personal one. A close relative passed away unexpectedly and I was left to manage a large, complicated estate. I learned I was to be a grandfather for the second time (JOY!) but, as an educator, I was in a funk. I doubted my competence, my energy and had lost my way. By the end of August, the uncertainties had mounted and the days seemed endless and unproductive.
Labor Day dawned, and as the sun rose that Monday morning, I realized that I had a choice – a clear one. It was time to be the best I could be for myself and for my leadership of this special school. Moreover, it was apparent that the truth in my epiphany lay in my deep belief in the Primary Day mission and in the partnerships that empower life lived here on River Road. This intuitive realization was just the reminder that I needed, at just the right time, and my psyche was re-calibrated. I am lucky to serve this community – unfinished and unpolished work notwithstanding.
I wish you your own epiphany.
'We' the People
July 13, 2020
The state of our nation is bleak. Taken together, the social divisiveness sustained by politicians at the highest levels of government, a pandemic unlikely to be bested until we respect science over rhetoric, and an imperfect commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion have all but assured a cultural collision unlike anything we have known before in our history. What is happening today is a result of our failure to be honest, courageous, and willing to compromise for the benefit of our democracy.
In the summer of 1776, the call was for independence and revolution. For many Americans in 2020, this is a season of similar unrest. In the heat of this summer, in our streets, in the media, and with our fellow countrymen the mood is not entirely unlike the year that Jefferson penned a declaration for freedom, for a new order - for ‘We’. The fifty-six signers of this extraordinary document were resolute in their unity to sever ties with Great Britain and with an ego-centric monarch with a tendency towards madness.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”
Notwithstanding recent partisan musings to replace ‘men’ with ‘people,’ Dr. Matthew Delmont, a Dartmouth history professor reminds, “The ‘we’ Jefferson [was] representing was a very particular ‘we’ that didn’t speak for all the people who were in the Americas in 1776. The ‘we’ did not include enslaved Americans [nor women and children].”
In fact, ‘we’ is repeated ten times in ‘our’ Declaration. This is neither insignificant nor sufficient yet powerful just the same – but only if we can regain our moral compass, stand up for what is honorable, and advocate for who was included in the Jeffersonian ‘we’ and who was not. As a nation we are better than the politics. We must be for my children and for yours.
Consider this – as pandemic-related deaths continue to rise, we can’t even agree on the truth about COVID-19. Our national strategy is to quarrel in times of crisis and, as a result, our mutual pledge to each other and the country has been marginalized. We can’t unite to form a more perfect union. ‘We’ has become ‘me’.
You and I are the guardians of those who will inherit this nation; our children are the future. In 1963, the award-winning Ella Fitzgerald, told radio host Fred Robbins “The die-hards, they’re just going to die hard. They’re not going to give in. You’ve got to try and convince the younger ones, they’re the ones who’ve got to make the future and those are the ones we’ve got to worry about. Not those die-hards.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today’s 6-to-21 year olds are projected to become ‘majority non-white’ in 2026. Young people are more familiar with diversity and many are using activism to edge the country closer to a version of America they feel embraces different identities. Generation Z - the “post-Millennial” generation - is the most racially and ethnically diverse [of any generation], according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
At Primary Day, ‘we’ profess to be a community dedicated to cultivating and preserving a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. ‘We’ welcome, value and respect all students, families, faculty and staff. This commitment inspires each of us to serve as role models in order that our actions and choices may positively influence the world.
Let us be brave, the future need not be as bleak as the present. ‘We’ must challenge one another to engage in constructive, civil discourse, and continue our work to make our nation wholly inclusive.
“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Our children and grandchildren are counting on us.
A 'Must Do'
February 27, 2020
‘tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we want to be…’
These are complex times. This I know. After a weekend of long walks, the Sunday Times and the television pundits, I have never been more certain of anything in my life. Global warming is a concern, our world is consumed by geopolitical unrest, a worldwide health emergency is upon us, and as a nation, we are faced with a societal partisanship unlike anything in recent memory.
While no one path, however well-conceived, will ever disentangle us entirely from the issues we face together, it seems to me that we still must do something! I believe the place to begin is with ourselves. It is a matter of conscience. We need to hold firm to this simple truth if we are to “come down where we want to be.” It is our conscience, together with our moral compass, that is the foundation of a life of purpose and re-discover it we must. It’s that simple.
At Primary Day, simplicity is as much a part of our conscious life as is the Phonovisual Method and Beako. Virtuous yes, but simplicity is also valuable. It enjoins us to live to the point, to clear the way to the best and to keep first things first. Our founders had grit. They had a conscience and they had confidence in a simple mission from the very start. They believed in professional inquiry, had faith in childhood and persevered in the face of real adversity. They were truthful and clear and they are the role models we need here and now. Their simplicity gave extraordinary meaning to their work and we are indebted to them for their courage to act.
Robert Lawrence Smith, the Quaker scholar and former Head of Sidwell Friends School once wrote: “…listening to and acting on our conscience is a scary and lonely enterprise...” Don’t be deterred, instead be courageous. Start simply. Listen and act, in spite of your fear. Together our small acts will make a difference. For the next generation of learners here on River Road, this is a must do.
January 23, 2020
The legacy of the founders is ours today. Their courageous vision is alive and well in the lived experience at Primary Day. They were certain, that all children could learn if they were given the best tools to do so and they knew these years were the most important of a child’s learning life. But what of another legacy?
Despite our curriculum, programs, admissions and fundraising efforts, we must routinely and strategically remind ourselves that our work is about people. An African proverb reminds: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to far, go together” and, as we plan for our future, we must do so together. Earlier this week I was reminded of the legacy of another resilient, risk-taker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His legacy is multi-faceted for sure, but his dream for his children and ours is embedded in our mission and evidenced in our graduates. Character is everything and academic success is hollow without an understanding of, and an appreciation for, individual and diverse gifts.
“In a warm, embracing community where each child is known and understood, our rich, engaging curriculum is distinguished by academic excellence and designed to inspire curiosity, nurture young hearts and minds, and build strength of character. At Primary Day, we guide our students on their journey to a lasting appreciation of learning and exploration. This is who we are.”
This mission statement, approved by the Board of Trustees last spring, affirms our commitment to the legacy of our founders; it was their charge, and it is ours. Each year at this time when I visit schools to which our grade two students have made application, I routinely hear three things about our graduates. First, they are academically well-prepared – not a surprise given our carefully designed, challenging curriculum. However, I also hear two other things about our children – they are great people and friends and they welcome opportunities for challenge and risk-taking as learners.
“…..An education at Primary Day assures lifelong success by endowing our graduates with an inspired academic foundation and the intellectual resourcefulness to actively engage as young learners. Well-prepared, thoughtful and kind, they are courageous risk-takers and compassionate friends...”
Our Statement of a Graduate affirms our intentionality and articulates just those qualities that Primary Day alums demonstrate as they continue their educational journey at schools throughout greater Washington. Truthfully, when it comes down to what drives us as educators, and I believe what motivated our founders, it is creating the type of experiences that help us feel more connected, more whole and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to empower our collective success as a society and a world. This is a must do. It is a legacy in the making.
Now more than ever, we need to see difference as excellence. Now more than ever, we need to model love and curiosity in the face of fear and anxiety. Now more than ever, we need to be the ones to reach out to others with the confidence to know that like us, other people also want to connect, learn and grow. This is our time as a community to take risks like Miss Schoolfield, Mrs. Buckley, Miss Timberlake and Dr. King.
This is our time to continue, in earnest, our dialogue about who we are. Conversations about diversity, justice, equity and inclusion are our risks to take. In a school, these issues are first and foremost learning tools. We would no more imagine Primary Day without Phonovisual charts or a STEM classroom than we would imagine our school without diversity of opinion or belief. I believe strongly that the quality of this school, of any school, is measured by the quality of its conversations, brave or difficult though they may be. Please join the dialogue and help us craft our future legacy for this special school
“I cannot preach like Dr. King, or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou, but I care deeply and am willing to serve.”
-Marian Wright Edelman
In your service,
Generations of Innovation
December 5, 2019
For me, the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break have always been a time for reflection. Time to prepare for the winter greys. Time to re-read old favorites and think about a new year. And it was in the pages of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner, that my wonderings about the transactional thinking of millennial consumers relative to the choice of independent education were satiated at last. It is clear that it is less about whether we communicate via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or offer tuition payment options that include Venmo, and more about where the skills and habits of mind relative to true innovation are taught and learned.
As both a Head of School and the ‘baby-boomer’ parent of two millennials, I have spent the better part of the last decade trying to understand why this generation is the most ‘written about’ of any in our history. Often described as diverse and connected, this inimitable group will make up a majority of the workforce within a decade. Millennials are innovators in real time and they want the same for their children. Our founders were like-minded pacesetters; they were curious, collaborative and dedicated to experimentation. For 75 years we have followed their lead and worked diligently to balance invention with tradition.
Millennial thinking is innovative thinking. It is balanced thinking, guided by a differently calibrated emotional compass that those of us boomers have used to steady our personal ships throughout our lives. It is the action of ‘creative problem solving’, of tackling real problems as a bridge to twenty-first century thinking that renders a PDS education relevant in ‘real-time’!
Schooling is only a year-to-year, result-oriented enterprise when crucial constructs are not actualized as they are at Primary Day. Our learners are engaged as a matter of course. Here on River Road, the underpinnings of innovative thinking include:
- Curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply
- Collaboration, which begins with listening to, and learning from, others
- Associative or integrative thinking
- A bias toward action and experimentation
In this reflective season, my gift to innovators young and old are lines from a piece entitled Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann, nearly a century ago before we named generations. Believe!
‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…Be yourself….you are a child of the universe…you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe in unfolding as it should…strive to be happy [in the face of innovation]’
A Diamond Jubilee
October 31, 2019
Our 75th anniversary is a diamond jubilee of sorts. If golden anniversaries are celebrated 50 years on, then the diamond anniversary traditionally signified 75 years. Such is true for us at Primary Day.
This past August, as the faculty and staff gathered to inaugurate our anniversary year in real time, they were each presented with a large, nearly 100 carat, acrylic diamond as a symbol of their collective commitment to this distinctive school – a passion that is deeply understood by generations of alums, parents and students. As stewards of our mission, the Trustees know well of this commitment and, a result, one of the four distinctive ‘pillars’ articulated in the Strategic Plan published last May is aptly entitled Teachers and Teaching: Our Educators. In their plan, the trustees expressed a steadfast belief in the faculty this way.
“The success of the Primary Day program depends on its extraordinary educators: their passion for their craft, commitment to their young students, and expertise and thought leadership in their fields are vital to creating the Primary Day experience for our students. Our teachers build skills and confidence, forge positive, supportive relationships with students and create a joyful learning environment, positioning students to thrive now and into the future.”
Specifically, in support of our ‘diamond-toting jubilarians, we will:
- Retain, develop and hire exceptional faculty and staff who embody educational excellence, possess a deep understanding of and dedication to the growth and development of young children and reflect the diversity of our community
- Enhance competitiveness and consistency in faculty and staff compensation and benefits
- Develop and implement a comprehensive, research-based orientation, development and evaluation system for all faculty and staff
- Expand professional development and diverse recruiting opportunities, including through partnerships with leading teacher education/early childhood education/research programs
We must remember that this jubilee, as well as our ambitious plan for our future, would not have been possible without the stalwart determination of our founders – their legacy is ours today. Our thriving existence wasn’t assured by its founders alone, but by the faculty and the parents of the children taught in those early classrooms. Candid conversations, active listening, strong partnerships, and mutual trust enabled institutional growth in very real ways.
Likewise, the move to our beautiful campus in Bethesda was made possible by a group of intrepid parents and benefactors who demonstrated an unwavering confidence in a school that had produced successful young learners from the very start. Our successes are a consequence of the unfaltering stewardship of our mission and resources by generations of trustees, faculty, parents and alumni. Seventy-five years on, we are the grateful beneficiaries of their tactical thinking. My colleagues, our children and their families keep me grounded and for their support, I am more grateful than you will ever know.
Now is the time. Join with me in service to our faculty and staff. ‘Raise Your Paddle’ and open your hearts. Our teachers are treasured as much as diamonds, and together, we can guarantee our “diamonds” will sparkle for the next 75 years.
Growing Like Wildfire
September 19, 2019
Last July, in the heat of a Washington summer, we mounted some permanent trellises to enhance the aesthetics of our distinctive outdoor classroom. In due course, the landscapers arrived to install the plantings at the base of each screen, including those beside the entrance drive. Expressing surprise at how small the sprouts were, I was assured of their hardiness. “Just trust us, you’ll be amazed. With the proper care, they’ll grow like wildfire, and cover the screens entirely.”
Among my greatest joys as Head of School are the interactions I have with your children. Each morning as I greet them at drop-off, when they visit my office to deliver birthday treats or at morning meetings when they share their lives with each other, I am reminded of how special they are and how thankful I am to be a part of this community. Joy puts the world and life into perspective, I think. Trust represents our faith and confidence in our reciprocal life with the world. Trust and joy sustain life at this extraordinary place we call Primary Day.
Still, trust and joy are just part of our story. There is specialness here, a distinctive care for each and every learner. Carefully cultivated, this uniqueness has grown like wildfire for decades, embodies all of who we are and inspires our plans for the future. A uniqueness that is nothing short of remarkable. But what of the how? How do we capitalize on the hardiness in our children so as to assure their future success? How does a small, sturdy school continue to thrive? The answers are in the story.
I enjoy the great privilege of serving this thriving school as best I can. Over the course of my career as a school leader, I have thought myself a teacher, a manager, a coach, a listening ear, a chief mourner amid angst and a cheerleader in the best of times – and yes, a storyteller. A recent article authored by a fellow independent school administrator rendered a powerful definition of ‘chief storyteller’ that I fully embrace.
“I tell the story of my school, and I help people find their place in that story. I think about what the story of the school is today, as well as what it might be tomorrow. I try to find new ways to connect this story to people at each stage of the school’s life cycle.”
It is the life lived in tandem with joy and with trust that is the story at Primary Day – and I am proud to ‘tell it’! With that said, nothing tells the tale like our recently adopted Portrait of a Graduate. The growth is like wildfire! Enjoy.
A Portrait of a Graduate
Our alumni are curious, self-reliant and accomplished. An education at Primary Day assures lifelong success by endowing our graduates with an inspired academic foundation and the intellectual resourcefulness to actively engage as young learners. Well-prepared, thoughtful and kind, they are courageous risk-takers and compassionate friends. Equipped with a confident resilience, our children are sought after applicants to independent schools throughout greater Washington.
May 30, 2019
How grateful I am for another joy-filled year! Working together, our achievements have been many. I thank you for sending your children to be schooled at Primary Day and for your abiding trust in our work together!
The annual second grade picnic lunches are a great opportunity to enjoy the company of our children and to hear, first hand, of our successes in real time. Beginning this week, a small group of students join me each day for lunch and the conversations are interesting indeed. We discuss weekend activities, plans for the summer and thoughts about a move to new schools. It is clear that this latest group of graduates will carry with them the joyfulness that is a hallmark of a Primary Day experience. What is equally clear is that our accomplishments as a community are manifested in the faces of these youngest alums. All that we have realized is for them – this is as it should be.
Now for the conundrum. If boastfulness is incongruous with Beako and the Golden Rule, then should we not ‘toot our own horn’? Maybe just this once as this has been a ‘banner year’!
Did you know?
*Our enrollment for 2019-2020 is up 8% and is very close to our long-term target. Of the 133 children registered for the fall term, 50 will be new to the school representing 38% of our student body.
*With the support of every constituency over the course of the last two years, we have completed our strategic plan, It Starts Here, which will guide our future work together.
*The faculty and staff have participated in a wide variety of professional growth opportunities. Our Social Studies curriculum is nearly completed, we have begun work on revising both our report cards and professional performance evaluations and are poised to advance our diversity work with the administration of the NAIS community survey early next fall!
*We have been recognized by the Association of Maryland/DC Schools (AIMS), as an A+ WellEducated Rated School for our innovative and effective wellness programs for faculty and staff. The only Maryland school to receive the honor this year, PDS earned a grant in the amount of $10,000 to fund financial aid programs.
*The 75th anniversary celebrations have begun in earnest! We have exceeded the goal for our Annual Fund, The Primary Circle, by 6% and begun a feasibility study for a potential Capital Campaign, the first in our history.
*Revised Mission and DEI statements as well as newly minted “portraits” of both an applicant and a graduate have been adopted and will be posted to the community in late summer.
*Earlier this month, we were acknowledged for our recycling efforts by Montgomery County and were one of ten programs awarded this distinction at a county-wide reception.
*All of our graduating students have been enrolled in exceptional grade three placements, both public and independent, with 93% offered admittance to their ‘first choice’ school.
Breathe – summer is here! Tomorrow, our youngest children will perform their final program and the Class of 2009 will return to campus for their reunion with Field Day and Commencement on the docket for next week. In the coming weeks however, I anticipate regular opportunities for careful reflection – the kind that clears the head and recalibrates the compass – and that is not a conundrum.
Detained at the Border
May 3, 2019
Aptly named Beako’s Learning Nest, the plans for our outdoor classroom were unveiled in 2018 at our spring gala – Never Grow Up at Badlands. The funds raised that evening were augmented by an anonymous gift and construction began in earnest last September. An outdoor learning space equipped with easels, musical instruments, outlast blocks, dramatic play equipment, a refurbished garden and greenhouse as well as a small amphitheater for teacher-led lessons, the concept of the Learning Nest was predicated on the fact that in the early years, many learning activities that can be done indoors, can be done out-of-doors. In fact there are some that occur best out-of-doors and others that can only be done in an outdoor classroom!
Notwithstanding the addition of living “grow walls” and auxiliary fencing, our progress has been slower than we might have imagined – with some of our custom-made pieces detained at the border! Committed to the very best for our children, the search for distinctive, high quality equipment led us to vendors in both the United States and Canada. In particular, our large acrylic easels, the custom musical instruments and the acoustic pipe fence were designed and produced by Canadian firms. While the easels were delivered and mounted last fall, the other items were not due to be shipped until after the spring recess when, armed with hard hats and shovels, our children could assist with their installation. Unfortunately, an administrative issue has arisen with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and our marimbas and drums have been detained! As we negotiate the release of our tuneful contraband, we’re moving forward with new box gardens, stadium seats, the installation of both an additional storage shed and the greenscapes.
Throughout our history, we have faced any number of challenges and overcome them with aplomb. In this seventy-fifth year, here in this special place, we will not be detained! We must “practice what we preach” and demonstrate the patience, resourcefulness and resilience we expect of our students! While it is likely that the entire project will not be completed until mid-summer, this inimitable outdoor learning space will represent all the best of the learning life at Primary Day.
Beako’s Learning Nest is coming together – one expat “twig” at a time!
The Hedgehog on River Road
April 5, 2019
“try to do one thing uncommonly well….” Nearly twenty years ago, this was the advice given her sons by civil rights attorney and author Marian Wright Edelman as they were preparing to leave home for university. The focus of the hedgehog.
The fable of the hedgehog and the fox is well-known and was operationalized in Jim Collins’ leadership text, Good to Great (Harper, 2001). The fox, armed with clear thinking, an understanding of the landscape and adapted reasoning skills appeared ready to outwit his prey, yet he was often bested. The hedgehog does one thing uncommonly well – he rolls into a ball and offers a spiny mouthful to his foe.
Collins’ explanation of the ‘hedgehog concept’ is inspired by three questions overlapping in a figure not unlike the one in the blog post The Venn of Teaching (1/17/2019). Imagine those questions in real time at Primary Day.
#1 – What are you deeply passionate about?
Together as trustees, faculty, staff and families, we share one clear goal – success for all. From the start, our mission was clear – a zealous commitment to take each learner as far as each could go and to prepare our graduates for lives of purpose. The legacy of the founders is ours today. If the fall and winter terms were distinguished by consistent, collective successes, then in the final weeks of the year we redouble our efforts to challenge and support our young learners in every way. This is our shared passion. This is what brings the team to campus each day to serve as we do. This is who we are.
#2 – What are you the best at?
“simply the best, better than all the rest…” – Tina Turner, wasn’t it? What we do, we do with great clarity and we do it exceedingly well. We are a school like no other and as we consider the future through the lens of both the anniversary celebrations and the strategic planning process, our path is clear. The future is defined by a nimble traditionalism that is ours alone and has characterized the ethos of the school throughout our history. Unequivocally, Primary Day is the school where the most important years of a child’s schooling are actualized to the fullest extent possible. The parents of our second graders know this as their children have realized many options for their next school experience, our current parents know and enjoy a full immersion in school life and the excitement of our newly enrolled families is demonstrable. How lucky we are.
#3 – What drives our economic engine?
Our extant success is a consequence of the stalwart stewardship of our mission and resources by generations of trustees, faculty, parents and alumni. Seventy-five years on, we are the grateful beneficiaries of their tactical thinking. Indeed, it is their example that makes me stand up when I want to sit down, try one more time when I want to stop and head out the door each morning when I want to stay home and sleep in. My colleagues and our children keep me grounded and I am grateful for their support.
The soon-to-be released strategic plan will help us live our vision in ‘real time’ but without a robust enrollment and consistent, achievable fundraising initiatives; our goals may not be realized. With the laser focus of the hedgehog, our ‘economic engine’ will be well-fueled, but our future success is a collective enterprise – each of us must contribute to the next 75 years. We must never waver as we “do one thing uncommonly well…”
-and alums, never forget the courage and resilience of Hopey, the Hedgehog in Kindergarten Phonovisual!
February 28, 2019
for Best Picture: Green Book
for Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Roma
for Best Actress: Olivia Colman – the Favourite
The truth is, in spite of having thoroughly enjoyed both Roma and the Favourite, I was still championing the cause of fellow New Englander, Glenn Close, in her bid to win for her role in The Wife, a film I have yet to see. Curious? No, just paradoxical decision-making at its finest!
Indeed, this is the season of decisions, of questions and of reflective thinking. In spite of the late winter wind, the sun is shining and I am thinking of our children. As Head of School, my commitment to our community and to the education of your children is clarified, and perhaps rendered less paradoxical, by the hard thinking and the intentional self-questioning that real reflection affords. How lucky I am to have thought partners like colleagues, committed parents and our imaginative, hopeful young learners!
Why Primary Day? One of the most important decisions we undertake each winter is the selection of new children and families to join our community. Primary Day enjoys an enviable position in greater Washington and we have multiple applicants to consider for openings at each grade level. In my conversations with visiting families, I always pose the question Why Primary Day? and in a variety of ways, they ask a similar question of me, “Why is PDS the ‘best’ place for my child”? As I describe the unique aspects of our curriculum, I listen with passion and I hope they hear mine. I listen for joy and I hope they hear my joy. Together, we work to ascertain fit. Be assured that our enrollment decisions are grounded in both a deep understanding of our mission and a generosity of spirit. Our current families understand deeply why they selected Primary Day and why the fit was, and continues to be, right for them. Later this week, we will offer admission to a number of qualified candidates and our school family will expand in exponential ways!
Similarly, our second grade families are imagining life outside Primary Day. For those who have made application to independent schools, admission offers will be extended by week’s end. Whatever options our families have available, and whatever their selection, their children are well-prepared, highly regarded applicants and their success is assured.
Next-School Placement is a year-long, collaborative process at Primary Day. Beginning with conversations in the spring of grade one and concluding this month, with each of our families making definitive grade three enrollment decisions, this important process is an integral part of our commitment to families as they join our community – this is enrollment management in action!
In every way, this is a season for decisions. In every way, we labor to arrive at the ‘right’ one. In every category, our children are winners.
Our Mascot IS our Mission
February 7, 2019
Over the course of nearly forty years as an educator, I have encountered school mascots of every sort. As a rallying point for athletic competitions, student council elections and community celebrations, a mascot is an unmistakable symbol of a school’s identity. At Primary Day, Beako is that and more.
The power of Beako has kept us grounded as we educated generations of children and guides us still as we plan for an exciting future. Each time I watch Beako distribute magic powder I wonder, how would I answer his question “what can you do better this year?”
What would your answer be?
Beako is more than a symbol of our life lived – he represents our mission in real time! While renderings of our mascot appear throughout the school building, it is the beautiful mosaic dominating our assembly space, the Beako Room, which captures both the elegance and spirit of our dear friend. His yellow ribbon is prominently displayed and reminds us of Beako’s Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Posted in every classroom and office, Beako’s Code of Conduct renders the Golden Rule a set of practices that govern our collective life at Primary Day.
The origin of Beako has been the subject of speculation in recent years, but as we delved deeply into the archives in this anniversary year, we discovered the truth revealed in a 2004 issue of the school newsletter, The Beakon.
“Beako was the creation of Mrs. Marie Buckley, a co-founder and first [Head] of The Primary Day School. Mrs. Buckley is remembered as a master teacher who had a magical quality about her. She first introduced Beako to her Primary Day students at an assembly in 1944. For his debut, he proudly wore a yellow ribbon around his neck inscribed with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Teaching the Golden Rule was as important to Beako and Mrs. Buckley as the teaching of Phonovisual. The daily practice of respect for others was to become the hallmark of good citizenship at The Primary Day School.”
The tangible source of Beako’s power is the unfolding joy of your children at work. In Beako, our mission has been manifested from the very start. May it always be so.
The Venn of Teaching
January 17, 2019
The Venn of Teaching
Winter has arrived with an irrefutable earnestness! Nevertheless, I am determined that we resist the commotion caused by unavoidable inclement weather and focus on our work with your children which is, by every measure, important work.
Great teaching, the heart and soul of a great school, has long been a hallmark of a Primary Day education. It is how our mission is realized every day. As teachers and co-learners, we are committed to both the academic and social growth of our children as they experience, first-hand, the uniqueness that is schooling on River Road. Our teachers are among the most capable, the most competent and the most compassionate of any team with whom I have ever served. Their dedication to their students is second to none. Teaching at Primary Day is a multi-faceted enterprise. Our faculty are actively engaged in planning and implementing a comprehensive program, inspired by growth and manifest the courage to teach. But what of this profession? How do educators live out their passion to be the best? What sustains them in their work?
Nearly a century ago, the preeminent educator, John Dewey, styled teaching as neither an art nor a science, but rather a fluid combination of the two – in essence, a craft. Visually speaking, this characterization could be illustrated by a Venn diagram with the professional craft of teaching symbolized as the intersection of the art and the science. As the child-centered spirit empowered by best practices and solid pedagogical knowledge, this is who we are. This rubric has been debated for decades amongst our colleagues and in the professional literature. How can it be that we are nothing more than respectable craftsmen? Undeniably, in cultures throughout our world, the master craftsman is held in the highest esteem, above all other professions, and opportunities for apprenticeships are highly prized. Our craft is our passion.
Why write of the Venn of Teaching on this grey winter morning? For the simple reason that in the days ahead I will enjoy the pleasure of reviewing the report cards that our teachers have prepared for every learner documenting their growth during fall term. I will come to know the progress of your children in new and different ways and I will be inspired again and again by the love and devotion the faculty have for the students in their care. I know, that when you read of your child’s accomplishments, you will see what I see and you will know of our craftsmanship.
Let it snow!
Recess: A Required Course
December 13, 2018
Outdoor play is a critical part of schooling at Primary Day. In fact, it is an essential component of our thoughtfully designed, developmentally appropriate curriculum. Consistent with our commitment to educate the whole child, we believe that the social curriculum is as important as the academic one. Likewise, it is our firm belief that the worlds of academic achievement and that of peer relations are interrelated. Typically if children do well in one area, they tend to do well in the other.
Recess is a well-rehearsed venue for children’s social development – a problem-solving crucible, a place of negotiation where children learn and practice the skills necessary to interact in the larger social world. Albeit with distant adult-supervision, recess is a time for children to interact among themselves. This is as it should be. Engaging in cooperative interactions at play require age-appropriate cognitive skills and, with peers as play partners, young children are provided with the social and emotional support necessary to negotiate academics with greater success. Our youngest learners delight in fantasy, dramatic or equipment-based play while their older schoolmates participate in organized games, which are governed by rules and thus are characterized by operational intelligence at more sophisticated levels. Whatever the case, the research is clear: children are significantly more attentive after a recess than before!
Whether a scheduled or an unscheduled “sneaky” recess, we go outside in all kinds of weather, unless it is raining or the temperature is dangerously cold. Thanks for helping your children remember that hats, mittens, gloves and a warm coat are essential for winter learning out-of-doors here on River Road.
Pensamiento, Pensée, 思考
November 29, 2018
Among the most frequent questions asked by both prospective and newly enrolled families are those about our World Language program. Why do students learn three languages simultaneously? Wouldn’t it be better to teach one language more frequently and more in depth? My child is bilingual and speaks French fluently, how will he be challenged? Don’t the children become confused?
The answers to these important questions lie, quite simply, in the research. By every measure, language study at an early age creates a firm foundation for children to become lifelong language learners. While introducing them to other languages and cultures, it encourages open-mindedness by promoting curiosity about the world and other ways of life. Early exposure to other languages empowers children to become both confident risk-takers and critical thinkers. Most importantly however, early study of multiple languages assures the brain FLEXibility necessary for young children to succeed in related academic pursuits. As twentieth-first century educators, we recognize the importance of action research and from neuroscience we know that the brain is elastic, not fixed. Early language learning programs akin to our approach use the brain’s natural inclination to seek out, recognize and create patterns – every day and with startling frequency.
At PDS, our FLEX (Foreign Language Exploratory) program emphasizes receptive language, with students expected to do more listening than speaking, as they are in the input phase of learning. The idea is to replicate, as practicably as possibly, the way one’s native language is acquired. Pedagogically, the program is delivered in short classes over the course of an academic year or years. Neither oral nor written fluency of the target languages is expected. Taught in multi-modal contexts where both the visual and the textual reinforce conceptual content, the modalities of the brain work together, in a FLEXible manner, not in isolation. A tangential goal is to give students a foundation for future language study, introduce basic phrases in a number of languages in order to sharpen listening skills and familiarize students with the notion that ideas can be expressed in a language other than English.
FLEX programs could be described as ‘language potpourri’ or ‘sampler courses’ which allocate a limited number of classes to each of several languages. Not so here on River Road. We are not a smorgasbord lot – we sample nothing, but embrace our work with gusto, strive to remain FLEXible in our approach and joyous in our lives lived with your children.
Gratitude Requires Courage
November 15, 2018
gratitude. n.: the state of being grateful: thankfulness.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (6th edition). (1999). Springfield: Merriam-Webster.
Gratitude, authentically achieved, can be life changing but it is a high bar, one that demands a good deal of courageous reflection. The algorithm is straightforward, but hardly simple. It requires ongoing, systematic scrutiny to heed the multiple opportunities for gratefulness that are granted us each day.
The best-selling author, Saran Ban Breathnach, set forth the challenge more precisely. “abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend….we [can] choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but [be] grateful for the abundance that’s present”.
I must admit, my struggle to attend to all that is wondrous in my life is underscored each year by the advent of the Thanksgiving holiday. But thankfulness is not an event and an annual inventory of personal abundance is not enough. If I do not want my work to achieve gratitude to go the way of the un-realized New Year’s resolutions, then I need to be unyeilding in my search for gratefulness. I must be more courageous. I need to operationalize my reflections, to plumb both daily and life-changing events for opportunities to be thankful and to record them in earnest. This I know.
But what of life at Primary Day? How can we realize our abundance and demonstrate gratefulness? I think the answer lies in the collective commitment to children and their well-being that we live every day. For us, the question is not which garden to tend, but how to celebrate opportunities to be thankful and turnkey those into genuine gratitude. We must be resolute and courageous, as we school each other in the importance of ‘year-round’ gratefulness.
Be assured of my gratitude for your support and confidence in our shared mission.
Throwing Something Back
October 25, 2018
“We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.”
An essential part of a Primary Day education is a commitment to teaching our children to care – for themselves, for their classmates, for their families and for those in need. The importance of social action grounded in selfless giving cannot be overstated. While our community service programs offer opportunities for all of us to engage and contribute, it is in our conversations, and yours at home, that our children learn about their responsibility to care for others and for our collective future together.
As we work to shape the service thinking and future practices of our children, we must emphasize that philanthropy is a critical part of a democratic society. Broadly defined, philanthropy represents a collective responsibility for humankind as it is through our giving that we can provide opportunities for growth and change. Yes, our lives are made richer by our giving and we must do all that we can to cultivate this truism for our children’s sake.
What is also true is that philanthropy represents giving and sharing on many levels. Volunteerism is, at its core, a philanthropic enterprise and represents a contribution of the purest sort. With that said, generous financial support for charities, programs and schools represent another, equally impactful, type of giving.
At Primary Day, we look to every member of our school family to support our philanthropic efforts to the most ambitious extent possible. While contributions to The Primary Circle: The Annual Fund for PDS impact our small community in ‘real time’ it is this, and other, philanthropic endeavors that we need to consistently model for our children. If we make a point each and every day to throw something back our community will grow together in exponential ways – and together we’ll nurture the next generation of a philanthropic society.
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”
- Maya Angelou
Our DNA is Yours – PDS @ 75!
October 11, 2018
Have you ever thought about what makes the Primary Day legacy so compelling 75 years on? What breathes life into this unique school year after year? Of course, we have a distinct brand; a mission statement; a vision, brochures, posters, and a website. They all help get the message out, but they aren’t enough. Not even close. There’s one ingredient that’s greater and more important than all of those combined. It’s you…our parents.
Parents sustain our legacy through their passionate commitment to this unique school. Today’s Primary Day exists through the vociferous, enthusiastic participation and contribution of generations of parents whose active commitment and pronounced support sustains the heritage we share from one generation to the next. Our DNA is yours!
The enrollment team orchestrates and leads our annual enrollment charge. That said, we depend on parents to participate in an orchestral performance that can be heard throughout greater Washington. Through your community connections, you turnkey both your personal experience and your heartfelt emotions in order to energize the next class of parents. The result: nearly 85% of new families come to PDS through parent referrals. That’s powerful in itself, but even more so when you learn that most schools aspire to 75%!
As PDS embarks on another great year, the enrollment team – and now you know that team includes you – will be assembling the next class of PDS families whose community and educational values mirror your own. That’s what makes the Primary Day legacy so powerful, so sustaining. Thank you.
The Power of Agile Thinking
September 27, 2018
The most successful schools recognize the generational value of families and students—from the first inquiry to the planned gift of a proud alumnus. As families traverse the route of admission to enrollment and next-school placement and as their children emerge as alumni who will refer others to the School and engage with the community for a lifetime, the power of a Primary Day education is affirmed.
As an independent school, we have always enjoyed the freedom to explore innovative advancement approaches, respond to community needs with precision and design flexible learning environments to respond to changing demographics. We work hard to keep the thinking nimble and the focus sharp.
Our mission is distinct and our vision for the future, impassioned. To insure a forward trajectory, we have spent considerable time in recent months researching best practices relative to a new concept in independent schools, that of Mission Integration. Enabled by the professional gifts and talents of existing staff and inspired by the true collaboration that characterizes our work together, we have reconfigured both our Advancement and Enrollment teams to sustain our strong culture and brand supported by shared decision making. Traditional job descriptions have been replaced with a more strategic leadership of mission-based initiatives. We have fashioned a Mission Integration team at Primary Day.
In collaboration with the Board of Trustees and the faculty, the team will employ a cohesive approach to advancing the School’s mission. By implementing best practices and, in anticipation of a board-adopted Strategic Plan, the stage will be set for our vibrant future. Members of the Mission Integration team include the following colleagues: the Assistant to the Head of School, the Assistant Director of Enrollment Management, the Business Manager, the Director of Advancement and the Director of Enrollment Management. Agile thinkers all!
As always, I welcome your thoughts and your questions about our thinking.
Magna-Tiles and Rubber Ducks
September 17, 2018
Managed institutional growth is born of community engagement. The power of candid conversations, collaborative planning, and passionate involvement cannot be overstated. Taken together with an unwavering dedication to a clear mission, the very best of schools thrive and serve generations of students. This is who we are.
Primary Day was not your typical ‘start-up.’ Washington, the beleaguered capital city of a nation at war, was an inauspicious environment to inaugurate a new institution. Our tenacious, passionate, and committed founders were not deterred. In the years before the doors opened in the fall of 1944, three courageous women invested much of their time in developing the Phonovisual method, and they were convinced of its efficacy. They had engaged in challenging discussions, collaborated with university-level educational experts and were headstrong in their planning for what would become The Primary Day School. This is the heritage that is ours today.
However, the school’s future wasn’t assured by its founders alone, but by the faculty and the parents of the children taught in those early classrooms. Candid conversations, active listening, strong partnerships, and mutual trust enabled institutional growth in very real ways. Our move to River Road was made possible by a group of intrepid parents and benefactors who demonstrated an unwavering confidence in a school that had produced successful young learners from the very start.
Our enduring success is a product of that same reliance upon and trust in our relationships, and by collaborations that ignite a synergy of ideas, opportunities, and actions. For decades, my predecessors have collaborated with this community, sustaining its changing needs and drawing from its evolving capacity to contribute to its future. With traditions as touchstones, and as steadfast caretakers of a remarkable legacy, they fortified an already firm foundation. I am privileged to follow their lead.
As we prepare to celebrate our seventy-fifth year and chart our future, active listening, sincere engagement, and forthright dialogue will be essential elements for success. The PDS legacy was forged in a turbulent era and today we are challenged to envision our future in likewise unsettled times. Together, our collective resilience will prevail.
So, what of Magna-Tiles and rubber ducks? My challenge to each member of our community is to be as courageous as our founders, as unabashedly philanthropic as those first parents, and as committed as our earliest colleagues. Help us “get our ducks in a row” for the future! If you have a great idea — or a suggestion for growth, improvement, or change — grab a duck from the bowl in the front office, bring it to me with your thinking and together we’ll add your idea to the growing flush of ducks we’ve already collected. Interested in an authentic, engaging conversation about our future? My door is always open, the latchkey is out, and there is a pile of Magna-Tiles on the table to help us assemble a vision for PDS. Together.