The Class of 2018: They Open Our Windows to the Future

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The end of the school year is always a time for joy as we celebrate our high school graduates who leave us, some ready for adulthood and others a bit tenuous as they take first steps to try out a new freedom of life beyond school. However, as I sat on each graduation stage this year and watched our seniors approach the stage, I could only marvel at what they have accomplished to get to this point in their lives. On their last walk as seniors, some walked forward with ease, poising at the top of the steps before moving forward as their names were called. Others came forward, somewhat shyly as the principal beckoned them to their diplomas. Then there were the dancers who took a brief moment to show the audience a more personal side as they pirouetted to music only they could hear. And, finally, we all paused in respect for teens who came on crutches or in wheelchairs to make their way slowly across the stage.

“Honestly, we are just a tight-knit group. Our graduation isn’t an individual accomplishment, It’s an accomplishment as a whole.”  (A graduate)

All together, regardless of color or ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, socio-economic background or parents’ level of education, these graduates are Generation Z, unique in that they were mostly born in 2000, the Y2K year that many of us feared. They were born in a year when we feared that technology might fail the world, all over a software glitch defined by the use of two-digits rather than four-digit calendar data. But software engineers fixed the Millennium Bug and turn-of-the-century babies instead bounced into a world that changed rapidly and radically as a result of technological advances. They are the Smart-tech generation, defined by the emergence of apps such as YouTube which began when they were just five. At seven they handled their parents’ newly released iPhones, and by ten years of age, their photos were showing up in Instagram accounts. They’ve tweeted, facebooked, snapchatted, face-timed, and texted their way through high school.

“They approach projects with a level of complexity and they take pride in their work. They actually built a foosball table from scratch and had an almost Jumbotron attached to it.”  (A teacher)

Today they are defined by their speed of communication with anyone and everyone in their circle of friends and beyond as well as a willingness to adopt and adapt devices and apps as quickly as the next new one appears. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the next thing that will come after Netflix or a faster way to share information and images that makes Instagram obsolete, this generation will continue to show their generational counterparts – from baby boomers to Gen X and Y – what it means to be a digital native in its most authentic iteration since the term was coined. As one teen said, “adults need to stop calling us millennials – we are not that at all.”

Gen Z cares. I have heard over and over from their teachers, principals, and peers that recent graduates of our schools help each other out and are committed to others.

“They are empathetic and truly will go out of their way to support each other – in good and hard times.”  (A teacher)

They care about issues of significance in their community from mental health to the environment to school safety and beyond. They value their devices but they value adults more – teachers and principals alike – especially adults who have invested in developing positive and healthy relationships with them. These teens know the difference between teaching with quality and what they have come to refer to as “phoning it in.”

“They are lively, vibrant, determined leaders with strength and self-awareness. They get excited about being able to impact their community and they look at the world as opportunities.” (A teacher)

They understand the power of authentic community service that benefits others versus inauthentic service that simply gets them a check towards their diploma. They also know their voice matters at the ballot box as well as in making personal choices to walk or not in public support of different political points of view.

“They are varied and talented and passionate about their interests. They are serious about their music, the environment, and sciences.” (A teacher)

The Class of 2018 graduates have also accomplished a great deal in life before they walked across the stage these last few weeks. They already are accomplished musicians and singers online and in the local community venues. They’ve successfully lobbied for a law to support mental health services in schools across Virginia. Students in this cohort have a sense of voice and its evidence in those among them who have blogged, publicly spoken to the School Board and Board of Supervisors, written and performed a play of social activism, tutored peers and younger children, and created websites to give voice to issues of import.They’ve created, invented, and marketed start-up products that represent their entrepreneurial mindset. More of them are bilingual than at any other point in the history of our schools. They’re already on life’s journeys as artists and athletes, musicians and historians, designers and engineers. They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over their collective years in schools for local community charities, individuals with health challenges, and national organizations of for common good such as the American Heart Association.

I am fortunate to have had thirteen years as a superintendent to watch this cohort of recent graduates grow up. I’ve watched them paint and build with blocks in kindergarten, tackle their early reading books in first grade, perform with Orff instruments in fourth grade, and rise up from fifth to sixth grade. They have demonstrated their creativity and critical thinking in Destination Imagination in middle school. I’ve watched them adopt a can do mindset in the AVID program as they head towards being a first generation college student in their families. I’ve observed them running student tech help desks in our libraries and working as auto mechanic interns in our bus garage.

This group of young people has created, made, designed, invented, engineered, and produced learning across all thirteen years of their K-12 education.

Our division is a better place today because of the Class of 2018.

They open our windows to the future…

 

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A New Year’s Resolution: Renewing Our Collective Commitment to Care

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Dear Colleagues:

This past week, Walton Middle School opened their doors to local residents to distribute food and toys to families in need. Students were part of the effort to collect these items, learning an important lesson about what it means to care about all the members of your community, even those who too often can be invisible in our thoughts.

Crozet Elem donates to Veterans Affairs Medical Center

What happened at Walton was not unique to that school of course; many of our students, staff and parents across our division come together at this and other times of the year to lend a hand to those who are in need. It is the most satisfying of expressions of our school division’s values.

This particularly is a year when such expressions reverberate with a higher voice. Even a casual observer of public events here and throughout our nation would acknowledge the importance of revisiting and strengthening our collective commitment to care about those whose life circumstances or beliefs differ from ours. Empathy is a difficult life skill to acquire and maintain under the best of circumstances much less in times of stress.

That’s why efforts such as the one at Walton, or programs such as Responsive Classroom, AVID, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Community Diversity Celebrations, Equity & Access, are so invaluable. They energize us to look beyond our own interests.

The Center for Public Education calls this An American Imperative. They note, “public schools are uniquely positioned to convey….such vital concepts in our civil society as integrity, individual responsibility, fairness, justice, patriotism, respect for others, doing a good job, being on time, working well with others, being a good citizen, and exercising democracy in government and other interactions.”

Conveying these values, the Center adds, “involves more than teachers lecturing or students reading about values. It involves day-to-day practices within the classroom that help students learn to recognize and exercise these values in everyday life.”

That’s why one of my favorite memories of 2017 was that of the Woodbrook third grader who wrote to her principal asking if the school could help students in Houston whose families had been victimized by Hurricane Harvey. With the help of her peers who gave up their ice cream money, Woodbrook’s students eventually sent nearly $1,000 to a heavily free-and-reduced lunch school in Houston, bringing tears to the eyes of the school’s principal.

Learning Civility Begins Early

Our strategic goal pledges us to prepare students for lifelong success as learners, workers and citizens. It is the citizen piece in particular where schools and their graduates will have the greatest long-term impact on the civility of our nation.

So especially in this season of giving, I want to thank each one of you for the selfless dedication you bring every day to your work with our students and families…. and for how well you model what it means to care deeply about one another and our community, to find satisfaction in working together to make each of us better and to find joy in seeing others overcome a hardship.

All the best to you and your family. Have a happy, healthy and rewarding holiday season.

Pam