In Parent Meeting, Shaw Addresses Student Support, Board Focuses on Anti-Racism

A recording of the State of the School Zoom plays on a laptop. Photo by Sawyer Thompson.

Head of School Russell Shaw, in his State of the School address on Jan. 24, outlined GDS’ efforts to support students’ wellbeing, develop their academic skills and rebuild the community as the school emerged from virtual learning. Members of the Board of Trustees then presented the over 300 Zoom meeting participants with updates about the school’s finances and a change to the enrollment contract emphasizing parents’ role in the school’s anti-racism work. 

Students fell behind in developing study skills over the course of the pandemic, according to Shaw. “We have eleventh graders with ninth grade muscles trying to lift eleventh grade weights,” he said, adding that GDS has “lowered the weights for our kids in the short term in order to help them rebuild capacity in the long term.

“This is the only childhood that they are going to have,” Shaw said. “They will tell stories of what it was like going to school wearing masks and being told to not get near their friends.” Addressing the multitude of challenges plaguing the nation and the world, Shaw said he wants GDS to give students “a different story to tell” in which they feel included in the school community. 

Later in the meeting, Board Chair Lisa Fairfax introduced a new provision in the GDS enrollment contract, which parents are required to sign, mandating that they be actively on board with GDS’ anti-racism efforts. 

David Leary, the former chair of the Board’s diversity committee, praised the change in an interview with the Bit. He said the provision in the contract “memorializes the general understanding that when you enroll in GDS, you’re there to get a great education and support its mission.”

To start his 37-minute presentation, Shaw provided results from Stanford University’s Challenge Success survey of GDS students. The number of student respondents who felt they had an adult at GDS they could approach with personal problems decreased from 76.2 percent of freshmen, 84.8 percent of sophomores and 90.3 percent of juniors in 2019 to 61.5 percent of freshmen, 72.6 percent of sophomores and 82.3 percent of juniors in 2021. 

His slides did not include data regarding seniors. Shaw noted that there were no racial or gender disparities in responses to that question. “The confidence with which students engage with teachers has waned,” Shaw said. 

When asked whether she thought GDS has eased students’ return to school, junior Sophie Bronner told the Bit that, to the contrary, her academic workload remains high. She added that, despite the school’s renewed focus on mental health, not all teachers are understanding of students’ personal and academic needs. 

Amy Dixon, the mother of a sophomore, said in an interview with the Bit that parents have noticed “a real regression” in their children’s self-advocacy at school. “There’s a lot of kids whose teachers think that they’re doing fine, but it’s a more complex issue than that,” she said. “Kids are good at masking their problems.”

To support students academically, Shaw said that the school has increased the number of counselors and the size of the learning services department, added instructional coaches to advise teachers and encouraged teachers to reach out to students who may be hesitant to seek help. 

A word cloud in Shaw’s slides showed that “inclusive,” “liberal” and “stressful” were among the most common words students chose to describe the high school in the Challenge Success Survey. But the largest word was “fun.” Shaw said that, according to Challenge Success researchers, “it is rare for the word ‘fun’ to be featured this prominently.” 

Julie Fanburg ’89, the parent of a GDS sophomore (and Bit staffer), attended the Zoom and was impressed by the efforts Shaw described. She said in an interview that students’ emphasis on fun, “even through COVID and adolescence and high school, is really resonant and really GDS.”

When told about the survey results, freshman Henry Cohen said he was surprised by the size of the word “fun” given GDS’ stressful academic environment. “That’s weird,” he said.

Following Shaw’s speech, members of the Board of Trustees spoke about the need for parents to support the school’s anti-racism initiatives.

“These conversations are not easy,” Fairfax said, urging parents to be actively involved in anti-racism along with their children. “Our hope really is that you join us in these conversations.”

Fairfax told parents on the Zoom that the Board added a new clause to GDS’ enrollment contract to reflect that goal. “Parents acknowledge and understand that GDS is an institution that values diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the addition says in part, according to a Dec. 15 email to parents. “By signing this document, parents and students agree to join in the school’s commitment and to engage in actions and efforts in furtherance of these values and commitments within the GDS community.”

Fairfax also explained the nomination process for Board members and a set of largely technical proposed changes to the school’s by-laws, its governing document. Parents—who, under GDS’ legal structure, are owners of the school—will vote on Board nominees and the by-law amendments.

Ciera Ashley, the Board’s treasurer, said that GDS’ finances are “on solid footing,” adding that the school’s debt ratios are “appropriate” and that enrollment demand is at “an all time high.” At the same time, she said, GDS has increased financial aid this year by 9.5 percent from the 2020-2021 school year, now accounting for 18 percent of tuition revenue allocation. 

Zachary Jager contributed reporting.