GDS Needs to Make Parent Belonging Amid the Pandemic a Priority

Exterior of the high school building. Photo by Reid Alexander.

According to Stanford’s Challenge Success Survey, GDS ranks number one nationally in high school student sense of belonging. The high school is a place where students old and new can be seen and understood, providing an environment, according to GDS’ website, where students “love to learn and learn to change the world.” Students new to the high school are provided with Bridge Week, during which they can connect with their peers and learn more about GDS, allowing them to feel comfortable and known in the community.

That same sense of belonging and connection has not been felt among new parents due to the pandemic. Although efforts to welcome new students have been robust, new parents, for the most part, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling displeased with the current circumstance they are in. While new parents have been given the opportunity to connect with the community through events like outdoor cocktail parties, there is a looming sense of disconnection. 

Parents of students admitted to GDS during the spring of 2021 unfortunately were not able to have a tour of the school and were only allowed to attend virtual events: a striking contrast compared to the persuasive in-person tours that were offered last year from schools like Sidwell Friends and Potomac. In interviews with the Bit, new parents expressed their feelings of looking at GDS from the outside.

“Us new parents are trying to learn the whole new system of GDS,” Hoda Martorana, parent of sophomore Isabella Martorana, said. “We have no idea what is happening.”

Due to COVID, new parents haven’t had many opportunities to meet other parents, leaving them feeling isolated. This year, the GDS parent association organized a few new parent socials outside the lower/middle school to give them a chance to meet the administration and community members. However, many new parents still don’t feel connected to others at GDS. 

“I’ve gone to two cocktail parties, but they didn’t help actually form any relationships,” Marrianne Noble, mother of freshman Arden Manson, said. “I can’t imagine that these cocktail parties would make me feel connected to something.” 

Some parents who joined the high school before COVID feel similarly. Parents like Leah Getlan, whose son, junior Jacob Getlan, joined the school in 2019, could go to several in-person events before COVID, such as lectures, evening talks by Head of School Russell Shaw and coffee nights, where they were able to connect with the administration. When asked why the school’s virtual opportunities, including curriculum night and the sports banquet, have been less appealing, Getlan pointed to a feeling of “Zoom fatigue.”

“That whole intimate connection of being at the high school in-person was very helpful in getting to know the GDS community,” said Getlan. “This really helped me understand what the school is about, but obviously, that really isn’t possible now.”

Chris Anders, parent of freshman Gracie Schuham-Anders, agreed.

“There’s a big difference between being on Zoom versus being in person for the sports banquet with a big potluck dinner,” he said.

Yet some parents, including Susan Thompson, mother of freshman Sawyer Thompson, believe that “these social events were actually very helpful,” and look forward to more. 

GDS cannot control the current public health crisis, but the school can find ways to make sure new parents are able to have the same experience new families have felt in the past through further in-person events, particularly as the transition to winter makes it more challenging to have outside events. 

An interesting solution that Noble brought up was “discovery dinners” in which new parents would informally meet up with the same group every few months. 

For me, it is upsetting to see how I know GDS so well, but my parents don’t. Whenever I talk about a fun tradition, my parents have a look of confusion on their faces. New parents deserve to feel comfortable and seen at GDS, especially since other private schools have been able to provide much more for their parent community. We have all endured a hiatus in the past 18 months, and hopefully, the ones most important to us will be able to feel the same level of  connection to GDS in the future that students have now.