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From Donald M. Austin, Head of School

Preparing for Engaged Citizenship

This issue of Lumen profiles alumni who are exemplary citizens, each contributing to their communities, large and small, in a spirit of selfless service. They remind us that an enduring purpose of a Newark Academy education is to prepare students to participate actively in society as informed and engaged contributors. A good school can function as a crucible in forging the attitudes and capacities that are so often found in citizens like these profiled alumni.

At Newark Academy, that process begins with our accomplished faculty, whose approach to teaching is collaborative and student-centered. In their classrooms, they create an environment that both fosters and demands a high level of student engagement. To quote one teacher: “There is no back row at Newark Academy.” Each classroom becomes its own mini-community, with students playing an active role determined by the subject, level, and teacher expectations. Students frequently drive discussion, pressing each other for greater detail or turning to the teacher to clarify or explain. As they progress into higher-level courses, students assume greater responsibility in advancing the collective work of the class. With its focus on inquiry, the International Baccalaureate encourages students to consider essential questions, to design their own experiments and research projects, and to marshal evidence to support their solutions. NA’s unique classroom culture provides excellent training, not only for university studies, but also for the complex problem-solving that our graduates undertake in their careers and communities. If their formal studies train NA students to be responsible participants and informed contributors, their extracurricular pursuits help them hone those skills outside of the classroom.

In February, in the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, I sat in on a student-led discussion about responses to the tragedy. Sponsored jointly by three different groups – Think Tank, the Young Republicans and the Young Democrats – the discussion included 30 students, who represented a range of opinions and perspectives. In a spirited exchange moderated by two club leaders, they listened respectfully to each other, voiced questions and concerns in non-partisan ways, and shared information and knowledge. They grappled not only with the horror of that incident, but also with the pros and cons of possible responses at a policy level, and even the potential flaws in their own proposed solutions. While there were occasional contributions from the few teachers present, the students ran the entire meeting. There was a striking level of maturity and self-awareness on display as they wrestled with a very difficult topic. Quite honestly, the quality of the discussion, both in terms of content and tone, was superior to many comparable conversations that I have witnessed among adults over the last weeks.

Another way Newark Academy students prepare for engaged citizenship is through the outsized roles they play in the daily life of their school community. As leaders of clubs, team captains, and members of student government, our students work closely with faculty to formulate agendas for meetings and activities, to address issues of concern, or to help team-mates play together more effectively. They routinely make announcements at Morning Meeting, devise and deliver presentations, and perform in front of their peers and teachers. The quality of student presentations, which has always been strong at Newark Academy, has risen to an even higher level in recent years. These demonstrations of leadership, organization, performance and speech are hallmarks of the NA student culture.

“…an enduring purpose of a Newark Academy education is to prepare students to participate actively in society as informed and engaged contributors.”

Importantly, many of the student-led traditions, from Spirit Week in the fall to the Student Voice Proposals, are designed to improve the student experience. Our students are thoughtful and generous as they try to do their part to make the school better for succeeding generations. Such focused attention on the common good serves as effective preparation for civic engagement later in life.

Another signature NA experience that may foster engaged citizenship among our alums is our Community Service Program. The recent expansion of service projects undertaken by our students has broadened their exposure to communities beyond our walls and provided many opportunities for impactful contributions. Whether it is volunteering at a local soup kitchen or building houses in Guatemala, the direct service our students provide shows them first-hand that they can provide meaningful help at a young age, that their efforts are appreciated, and that the act of working with others creates authentic bonds with people of different communities and nationalities.

Our current Newark Academy students are being forged in the same crucible of citizenship that helped shape the model alumni citizens featured in the following pages. It will be fascinating to see the many ways in which they will contribute to the betterment of our society.

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