Director's Office

Thoughts for the start of the 2014–2015 school year

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect... - E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910


Welcome to the opening of the 2014–2015 school year. Whether you have been a member of this community for many years, or are, like me, a fortunate newcomer, your choice to send your child to Lab signifies your commitment to the mission of this school, to “ignite and nurture an enduring spirit of scholarship, curiosity, creativity, and confidence…(and to) value learning experientially, exhibiting kindness, and honoring diversity.”

As I wrote to you in the Back to Lab publications, I am honored and thrilled to join this community. The opportunity to learn from the success of the Laboratory Schools, and to contribute to the development and future of this historic institution, is this educator’s dream.

I am fortunate; I have spent my career working in ambitious, forward-thinking schools with creative, dedicated colleagues. But Lab’s roots, which still inform and shape the educational experience of its students today, ensure that Lab leads when it comes to hands-on, experiential, and inquiry-based learning—which is as essential, or perhaps even more essential, in the “Information Age” than it was at this school’s founding.

As most of you know, I was able to travel to Lab from Dubai three times over the past year, spending about a week each time at the Schools and in meetings with teachers, administrators, University leaders, students, and parents. Despite the whirlwind pace of the visits, I was able to learn so much from all of those with whom I met, from Primary students in the Lim Family Library at Earl Shapiro Hall to some of Lab’s longest-serving faculty. After a year of transition, and more hours spent on airplanes and unpacking boxes than I care to remember, we finally begin together. And for me, here is where it begins.

Only connect.

The quote is from E.M. Forster’s fifth novel, Howards End, which at its core is a study of the human desire to make genuine connections despite the distances created by class, race, nationalism, gender, and all of the other categorizations of human existence that may drive us apart. I started my educational journey as an English teacher, and I loved teaching Forster. The humanist message, the glorious prose, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the characters appealed both to my 11th grade students at an independent school in Buffalo, New York, and to me. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Prose and passions, words and actions; at the beginning of this school year, at this new beginning, I am reminded to ask myself, “Do I do what I say I do? Do I do what I believe?”

The passage has stayed with me for decades, and served as a linchpin when managing changes and challenges and building relationships throughout my career. As a teacher, and later as an administrator, I have always believed that connecting is the essence of our purpose as educators.

We must connect with our students, and with one another, and engage with other people’s passions. We must listen to, and honor, the importance of the stories, the values, the learning of others. When we are self-aware and self-reflective, we help others to be—and we are that much closer to achieving the goals of our full purpose as educators in a school that places the needs of its students first—not only in its mission statement, but in its actions. Indeed, this is another area in which Lab leads, because our mission is backed up by our diversity statement, which makes explicit the ways in which we will act on our commitments to connect to one another.

One of my most important goals as I start this school year is to get to know our community. It will take some time, but I’ve put together a plan for the first few months of this school year through which we can begin to connect. I want to get to know you, and through you, this school. I am deeply conscious of the importance that I “Learn Lab.”

I will be initiating an organized series of one-to-one meetings with representatives of every constituency within the school: teachers, administrative leaders, support staff, students, parents, Board members, and alumni. These meetings will take the format of a conversational interview—I want to know what you believe makes Lab so special, why you chose to come here, and why you’ve chosen to stay. I want to know how the diverse members of the Lab community act to “connect the prose and the passion.” From these stories, I’ll gain access to a shared narrative of the many perspectives and experiences that make up the past, present, and future of Lab.

Obviously I can’t meet with everyone, as much as I’d like to. This is a big school. Some people will be specifically invited to participate, such as all Board members, administrative leaders, student government members, and parent volunteers. Others will be selected on a random basis from each constituency group. And finally, anyone who wants to volunteer to talk will be included.

After these many conversations over the next several months, I will share an overview with everyone to stimulate further community commentary. My hope is that through this process, we will all broaden our knowledge of the various perspectives that will ultimately shape decision-making in the future.

This year, Lab will undertake a thorough self-study process as part of the seven-year reaccreditation cycle defined by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS). This process will allow not only me, but all of us, to know more about our school. The ISACS self-study involves the creation of committees including faculty, staff, Board members, and parents, that will meet several times across the course of the year to discuss every aspect of our Schools’ programs and organization. As such, the ISACS self-study is a great opportunity to reflect on our commitment to our mission and values. The thorough process leads to well-structured, meaningful conversations through which we can measure how well we do what we say we do. This is essentially a labor of love, requiring that we ask important questions of ourselves and allowing us to plan for the future of the Lab experience. I feel fortunate that the timing of the self-study process happens to coincide with my first year at the Laboratory Schools.

As we start his school year, I also want to draw your attention to something that occurred at the end of the last school year: the Laboratory Schools gained membership in the Council of International Schools, which is a not-for-profit association of secondary schools and universities dedicated to education for global citizenship. Of the more than 600 international schools that are accredited or hold membership in CIS, there are only 22 in the United States. Admission is not automatic, and involved a substantial, qualitative application process and a two-day visit to the Schools by a highly respected member of CIS’s US regional office who has worked in international education for decades.

The visitor’s report cites six key strengths that set Lab apart, and as it’s always good to start the year with praise, I’m delighted to share this feedback on what makes Lab special:

  • Lab’s long, successful history and the high level of ethical awareness that runs through the entire institution; 
  • our affiliation with the University of Chicago and the many benefits that come with the relationship; 
  • the number, quality and, in some cases, longevity of service within the teaching staff, many of whom are recipients of prestigious awards; 
  • the ambitious Lab+ Campaign which has resulted in the imaginative Earl Shapiro Hall, the renovations at the main campus, and the soon-to-be completed Gordon Parks Arts Hall; 
  • Lab’s extraordinary range of academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities for students of all ages; 
  •  and the depth and breadth of special support services including counselors, academic advisors, and learning coordinators, as well as student-centered advisory activities.

CIS schools actively promote global thinking and an intercultural perspective. Like Lab, CIS schools value ethics, diversity, global issues, multiple language acquisition, service, and leadership development. Membership in CIS provides Lab teachers and students with opportunities to build partnerships with other like-minded schools around the world. With its historical mindset of experiential learning, critical thinking, respect for diversity, and acceptance of social responsibility, Lab can and should actively contribute to the on-going global conversation on 21st century education and skills.

And so, with these opportunities, we begin. I hope that you share with me the desire to forge a strong and positive connection this year, and that, no matter how long you have been at Lab, you continue to feel gratitude for the gift of being a member of this community.

Thank you.

Robin Appleby
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
September 2014