A Day in the Life (of a Brearley Girl)

Our guest’s knees hit the bottom of the low worktable as she sat in the small chair observing next to her the young girl fastidiously working on letter formation for 20 minutes. Next period, our guest joined the girl on the rug to engage in letter-sound correspondence and sight word recognition activities with a small group of her homeroom classmates. Then, she accompanied the girl as she and her eight classmates traveled down the stairs to library class.

This industrious girl is a Brearley Kindergartener and her guest was none other than Maria Zimmermann, Assistant Head of School for Student Life and Head of the Lower School. Her purpose? To shadow this Kindergartener through every period of her Brearley School day. Dr. James Mulkin, Assistant Head of School for Academic Life, explains, “Our goal is to give each girl the best experience we can during the day while she is here. One way to approach this is to look at the day from the eyes of a student.”

Dr. Mulkin is spearheading the important and mission-related initiative to revamp and refine a Student-Centered Schedule. In support of this, shadowing is taking place across the three divisions of the School in an effort to ensure “that the schedule is centered on the student.” Nineteen Brearley teachers and administrators have been shadowing a girl in every grade, and in some cases two girls per grade, for an entire school day from beginning to end, with the goal of getting a broad range of experiences. They are looking at a number of questions, including: are breaks in the proper places and with enough time to relax and to eat lunch? Is there time to do work during the day? Does the student have time to play (in Lower School)? Does she have time to foster friendships (in Middle and Upper School)? Are the periods the optimal length and number, and are they sequenced in a good way? Dr. Mulkin calls the shadowing process “an exercise in empathy:” the teachers and administrators are looking to understand “how the student is thinking and feeling about her day.”

Shadowing is an activity in which schools across the country are engaging. In fact, there is a website (http://shadowastudent.org) and even a hashtag (#shadowastudent) to support and connect schools pursuing these activities. The idea comes from the collaboration between IDEO and Stanford University d.school’s K12 Lab Network, which is focused on how to effectively bring about change in schools.

For Brearley, the idea of rethinking the student schedule came about “both as a necessity as well as an opportunity,” says Dr. Mulkin. With the need to get Middle and Upper School girls to the new building at 590 East 83rd Street for some of their classes, “we know that we have to create a new schedule.” Lower School girls will reside primarily at 590 but may come to 610 for some activities. Therefore, the School is looking at the best way for this to happen efficiently and safely. The School is also “treating it as an opportunity, as the schedule has not been changed in a very long time, and there are a lot of things that we have been wanting to do a little differently for a while.”

The review which Dr. Mulkin, Brearley Registrar Jody Krause, the Lower School Scheduling Committee, and the Middle/Upper School Scheduling Committee have undertaken is true to the Brearley way. They have examined a considerable amount of research on the best uses of time in various disciplines. Dr. Mulkin has spoken to over 50 schools to collect schedules and see “how they put their days together.” There have been numerous meetings with the faculty to gain feedback as well as a meeting with all Upper School students to gather ideas verbally and in person. Upper School students expressed their thoughts in written form by completing a survey, and a group of Class VII and VIII girls were invited to share their thoughts at a recent meeting.

In addition, the November Parents’ Association meeting was focused on hearing from parents on the Student-Centered Schedule. In division-specific groups facilitated by Ms. Fried, Dr. Mulkin, Ms. Zimmermann, Ms. Segal and Mr. Brownell, parents discussed their daughter's day, school start/end times’ impact on families and on after-school activities, pick-up and drop-off needs, and a number of other questions. Dr. Mulkin plans to engage parents even more fully as the initiative progresses.

“We are very much in the exploratory phase” at this point, Dr. Mulkin notes. “Shadowers have been reporting how invigorating the process is for them and how affirming it is of what a wonderful program Brearley has.” They shared their experiences at a faculty meeting in December. The committees have reviewed findings and are drafting schedules to present to faculty on March 1. Dr. Mulkin expects to have decisions made by the end of the current school year, so that testing of the plan, and implementation of related professional development, can take place the following school year and so that there is “plenty of time to do whatever due diligence” is necessary to have the new schedule ready for school year 2019-20. He is looking forward to creating several iterations of a mock schedule this spring as they continue to solicit input and refine based on learnings.

This illuminating process of shadowing and refining the Student-Centered Schedule will provide invaluable insights as the School continues to strive to give our students the best experience possible during their day at Brearley.
A huge thank you from the community to Maria Zimmermann, Betsy Warren, Joy Barbosa, Marisa Ballaro, Zachary Papas, Patty Aakre, Rebecca Chynsky, Kasandra Stark, Tim Brownell, Dale Emmart, David Moroney, Caroline Chang, KB Jones, Clay Squire, Natasha Gray, Heyden White Rostow, Gail Marcus, Evy Segal, Jim Mulkin and Jody Krause.

--Melissa Raso (This article originally appeared in e-News from Brearley)
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