As Winchester Thurston developed the strategic priorities for A Smart Future 2018, the faculty, administration, and board have wrestled with important questions: What does it mean to be an equitable and inclusive school? What does it mean to have strong moral character? How are the forces in our culture shaping our students’ minds and hearts, and how are the pressures and stresses in our society affecting their resilience and health? These questions have now converged into a vision to foster a culture of well-being at WT through a focus on three key areas: equity and inclusion, moral life, and student wellness.

“There is an overall realization at our school, and at other schools around the nation, that we need to dedicate more time and resources to the overall well-being of students,” says Head of School Gary Niels. “Students can’t learn where there’s ‘noise’—whether it’s the distraction of relationships, internal tension, or things they are struggling with at home or with friends. Those factors impact learning. Historically, schools have spent 98% of their time on academic curriculum and 2% of their time on paying attention to the lives of students as a whole. That balance needs to change.”

The Well-Being Initiative aims to enhance the WT student experience. It evolved from many different angles: a committee of faculty and administrators gathered feedback on school climate from the WT community; input from renowned educational leaders like Dr. Thomas Lickona, a national expert on moral life in schools, informed the initiative’s moral life component; and Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that promotes caring, inclusive school communities was also a resource.

Equity and Inclusion

“In the Equity and Inclusion area, there was a growing realization that students from such a variety of backgrounds bring their own cultural lens to the school. It is naïve for us to assume that all will understand each other,” explains Niels.

The need for cross-cultural understanding has grown right along with WT’s nine straight years of record enrollment; last year, Niels decided that it was time to bring in a dedicated expert to move equity and inclusion work from a grassroots effort to one that WT embraces institutionally. After a national search, WT hired Diane Nichols as its first Director of Equity and Inclusion. [See Q&A with Diane Nichols.]

Part of Nichols’s mission is to work with the community to develop a shared vision and language about equity and inclusion, so that they can begin to talk openly about what it means to be equitable and inclusive, to understand each other’s identities, and to agree to the value of this work. “How do you tell other peoples’ stories, or bring other peoples’ stories into the room, and why is that important?” asks Nichols.

Some of those stories come to light in a new ninth grade Multiculturalism course designed to instill greater cultural awareness and understanding. Nichols teaches a section, as do Dr. Josh Andy and History Department Chair Dr. Mike Naragon, who designed the course to help students “… understand the historical and social forces shaping their identities and opportunities, so that they will aspire to create and sustain a multicultural America stripped bare of structural inequity and grounded instead in a more inclusive understanding of democracy.”

Moral Life

The Moral Life component grew from the school’s concerns about the effects of modern culture on children. “When young people observe that adults verbally degrade one another and politicians get ahead not by espousing their positions, but by personally attacking their opponents, then it seems acceptable to young people to behave this way as well,” says Niels. “‘Manners’ is a very old-fashioned term, but the characteristics of ‘good’ manners enable young people to lead fulfilled lives: looking people in the eye, shaking their hand, greeting them, using their names, holding doors,” reflects Niels. “All of these common courtesies in our society seem to be eroding.”

By drawing upon the very foundation of WT—its credo, Think also of the comfort and the rights of others—the Moral Life component seeks to counteract such negative influences and in fact replace them with positive values, like empathy, humility, respect, and honesty, and to rely on lessons instilled in the Lower School’s use of Responsive Classroom and the Middle School’s Developmental Designs program. In addition, Middle School students own the responsibility to create a caring community by writing and signing a shared moral charter. “The Well-Being Initiative is an ‘exclamation point’ to these efforts,” says Niels. “They set the stage for young adults to take on the greater responsibility and freedom of the Upper School with the strength and fortitude they need against myriad social pressures.”

Student Wellness

Students also acquire practical tools, particularly with respect to Student Wellness. Mindfulness, an age-old practice that can improve attention and focus, increase empathy and emotional regulation, and combat stress, anxiety, and depression, leads the way. “There are clear positive medical and psychological impacts to the practice of meditation and mindfulness,” states Niels.

The school’s drug and alcohol education program has also expanded, and Upper School Dean of Students Matt Bachner reports that the ninth grade seminar, designed to help students transition from Middle School to Upper School, affords other opportunities to put wellness into practice. Running each trimester during the freshman study hall block, the seminar seeks to empower students with information about adolescent health and with skills to navigate peer relationships.

Looking Forward

“The Well-Being Initiative is an emerging program that we will continue to evaluate and improve,” notes Niels. “I look forward to watching all of this unfold and to continue to discuss the challenges that WT students are facing and how we might best equip and encourage them along the way.”