Letter from Steve Piltch - April 2017

April 28, 2017

Dear Shipley Families,

As we approach the final month of the school year, everything happening in the community takes on an especially wonderful – and hectic! – feeling. It seems that there's a special event of some kind almost every day. It has been, and will continue to be, essential to slow down to appreciate each event for its own value and to make sure we take the time to appreciate our children and students outside the context of these events, too.

Thus far, I have particularly enjoyed the fifth grade poetry reading, Impact Day, the visit of Martha Mukasa from the Brain Tree Primary School (our sister school in Uganda), and our final All-School Assembly of the year. Individually and collectively, these events have celebrated our children for the individuals they are, reflected their growth, and demonstrated our sense of community. These events have captured the essence of our mission.

For example, in the poetry reading, each student wrote his/her own poem and shared it with classmates and parents. Early in the year many of the students worried about the assignment. Public speaking is often new to them, and writing poetry is never easy. But, across the board, their worries proved unfounded: They all did a fantastic job. Their creativity and confidence to explore new ideas were apparent. Short or long, serious or funny, the poems hit a cross section of topics including but not limited to friendship, school, sports, music, and other interests. Most importantly, they represented who our students are and what's important to them. Here's one by Sam Goren that brought a smile to my face:

Broccoli, Taste shameless
Parents say it’s an airplane.

But it tastes like dirt.

Meanwhile, Impact Day, which happens every year, provides our students with the opportunity to spend a day learning about and reflecting on issues of interest as identified by them. Although there is overlap in the issues discussed in each division, the nature of the discussions is dictated by the age and interests of the students. The shape of the day is developed by students and colleagues together. In turn, the day is slightly different in all three divisions.

In the Upper School, our students had the opportunity to hear about and discuss many relevant topics about race. The day began with Dr. Jason Javier-Watson and Dr. Kelsey Jones, who work with the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at Penn, presenting the challenges of discussing race and sharing strategies to deal with those challenges. After a very engaged session, the students went to Bryn Mawr Film Institute to see American Promise, a documentary that follows two students of color during their time at an independent school in New York City.

The students then returned to campus for presentations and discussions around a series of topics, including “Systemic Racism,” “Mass Incarceration,” “Hip Hop,” and “Independent Schools and Race.” The topics were chosen by the students, who played a major role in the facilitation of the discussion. Many came away from the experience wishing that they felt as comfortable talking about difficult issues all of the time. As one student said, “I felt free to share my own opinions which made it easier to listen to others’ points of view.” Isn’t this the kind of community we want to be all of the time?

The Middle School morning was similar. The students worked through topics involving privilege and being allies with others with DeVon Jackson from Villanova University. The students then saw and discussed the movie Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women who played an integral role at NASA during the early years of the space program. It is a movie well worth seeing.

In the Lower School, the fourth and fifth graders also watched Hidden Figures. The simple discussion opener, “What was your goose bump moment?” generated robust discussions that touched on race, gender, and discrimination, as well as the tremendous accomplishments of the women portrayed in the movie.

Believing the student to be right is just one of the reasons we are committing to be a school of positive education; communities where all students feel safe and valued are communities where more difficult issues are discussed more easily. It will take us time, and we will get there!

The visit from Brain Tree’s Martha Mukasa, which was an important part of Impact Day in Lower School and Middle School, brought to life a relationship that first began 15 years ago. It reminded us of the importance of understanding and making a difference in the world beyond Shipley and clarified our sense of purpose and direction. Students and adults who attended assemblies with Martha were mesmerized by her stories and appreciative of her openness and candor.

She reminded us that Brain Tree was founded by her mother, Agnes Mukasa, as a school for very poor and often parentless children, and it was totally funded through contributions from people. Today there are actually some tuition-paying students in the School. Interestingly enough, when Brain Tree was founded, Martha had no interest in being involved in it. Having received a college education in the U.S., she saw herself doing other things. Gradually, however, she became more and more drawn to return to her family and the School. Today, the School (along with her daughter) defines her life and passion. During the years of our relationship, the Brain Tree Primary School has grown in size, scope, and quality, and the relationship has allowed us to do the same. I look forward to seeing how Brain Tree and the relationship will grow over the next 15 years.

Turning to our final All-School Assembly, you may recall that at our opening assembly, our seniors—our Mighty Oaks—welcome our Pre-K, K, and first grade students—our Little Acorns—to our community. At this final assembly, our Little Acorns returned the favor by presenting our Mighty Oaks with their first diplomas of the year. Numerous students and parents became nostalgic and even teary. For some of our seniors, receiving that diploma is more meaningful than the one they will receive in June.

The assembly also allowed us to give thanks to our student leaders, especially All-School President Katie Balun as she handed over the gavel to Owen Verzella, and to celebrate our entire senior class as well as colleagues who are leaving or retiring. The exchange between Katie and Owen was heartwarming and reinforcing, and the acknowledgment of those moving on reminded all of us that we are first and foremost an institution that revolves around the commitment to people as individuals; we are defined by the relationships between and among adults and students. As we sang the school song, I was struck by the energy and commitment of the community.

One grandparent of a current little acorn (who is also the parent of an alumna) brought a smile to my face with the following observation after the assembly:

Acorns to Oaks is brilliant in so many ways. The leaders Shipley is producing! It's impressive that all of the speakers were remarkably poised, and that's not easy.

Over the next month, there will be many more events and celebrations that will bring you to campus. If possible, celebrate and savor each event and appreciate all the good things that have happened. Knowing that closings and transitions can be challenging for people, we want to be sure to connect with our kids and be aware of what they're thinking and feeling. If we do, they and we will finish the year with smiles on our faces, greater excitement and satisfaction for what has been accomplished, and more optimism about the summer and what is next.

Be well, enjoy, and hug your kids.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.