Stewardship of the JMSG Mission & Culture

Dear Parents,
During my first meeting with Ann Clarke, JMSG’s founding head, in 2006, I remember her asking me how I envisioned my role should I come to JMSG. My answer was simple: as a steward of the mission and the culture of Julia Morgan.
To embrace the culture of an institution, of course, it is to understand it first. That does take time, honoring the practices and traditions along the way. And if one is to be a steward, then it means considering every decision, large and small, through that lens. Knowing that creating a new tradition,  establishing a new practice, or eliminating one or the other, could either chip away at the mission and culture or deepen it has guided me these past 15 years.
As I announced three weeks ago, Scott will be stepping into the role of Interim Dean next school year. During his candidacy, he spoke eloquently to our colleagues about this very thing, recognizing that even strong cultures can dissipate quickly if not nurtured and given attention every step of the way.
As I look back on steps I initiated or oversaw during my tenure at JMSG to steward and deepen our practices and culture, in essence my love letter to JMSG, I am sure you are looking forward to ways in which Michele will do so as well. There is always an abundance of opportunity and fresh ideas!
During my tenure, I focused on creating a deeper sense of community, on emphasizing a fierce feminism, and on continuing to honor research in our practices.
Creating a deeper sense of community: I saw this as central to all else. If we could deepen our connections to one another: students, faculty, and staff, strengthening the relational model upon which the school was founded, our work with the girls would only better each year. Our collegiality as a faculty and staff would bolster us to do the work, give us the ability to celebrate the good and to help us weather the more challenging times. I have taken great inspiration from John Dewey, Pablo Freire, and Nel Noddings, all three having found their place in doing my own work to deepen the JMSG culture and its reflective practices.
Community band of time
I also knew that “community” would not happen without taking the time to purposefully work at it. A real community does not serendipitously happen. Thus was created the “Community Band of Time”. The first step for me was working with my colleagues to create a schedule that would afford the girls and us time each day, 5 days a week, to purposefully connect. This became a critical step for all of us in recognizing the importance each day to stop in order to do precisely this. We landed on this band to provide us the ability to continue with advisory two times each week, Families or cross-graded activities one time each week, class meeting or office hours one time each week, and All School Meeting for our 5th time.
Other ways in which helped to strengthen our bonds with one another were establishing:
This was added shortly after Cornerstone was in order to allow advisings to meet each morning for a brief check-in, to go over the layout of the day, and to take attendance before classes began.
I always want to give thanks to a meeting with two 8th graders who were readying to graduate several years ago. A spark of an idea came from them to create Families, the cross-graded group of students, with the sole purpose of bonding across grades. After we established Families, girls spoke about saying “hello” in the halls to girls in different grades for the first time and we watched the difference this made in helping to create community. In what might seem a small thing, this was huge as community connections were built.
Meeting with every 6th and 8th grader
Inspired by a practice at a school where I had been on an accreditation team, I also asked new students to write a letter about how they would like to be remembered by their peers and their teachers once they graduated from JMSG. This was a way for students to begin to think about how they wanted to be as a middle schooler. What were their values? Their interests? Did they want to challenge themselves? Pre-Covid, I met with each new student in late September or October to check in to see how the year was going, what their transition was like, and whether they had any advice so far! I also encouraged them to share their ideas with me since we often used girls’ ideas to incorporate change.
Pre-Covid, I also met with each 8th grader before graduation. It was a way to hear their musings on their time at JMSG, as well as their thoughts as they were readying to launch their high school careers.
I chose not to continue these via Zoom as I felt the pressure of meeting one-to-one with the head of school for new students would be too much. Pre Covid I had had the opportunity to greet them each day or to see them in the halls of the school. Without that opportunity, I felt I would only add to the pressures of a new school, Covid, and Zoom learning. I feel the same about our 8th graders: meeting on Zoom is significantly different from them popping into my office for a chat. I did not want to add to the pressures any of them might be feeling during our Covid impacted lives this past year.
My office location and open door policy
When I became head, I purposefully chose to use an office on the 2nd floor rather than the office used by Ann Clarke, our founding head. Knowing myself, I recognized that if I placed myself at the end of one of the wings in what is now known as Julia’s Room, I would easily get lost in my emails, phone calls, paper work, and meetings. Selfishly, I needed to remain connected to the students and to the faculty and staff. There was an office right across from one of the main student bathrooms on the second floor, the floor where most classes took place, so this became my office as head. I kept my door open unless I was in a meeting and am grateful I am one of those people who can concentrate on work even through a good deal of noise. Girls, faculty and staff would often just pop in for a chat.
Inspirational quotes: our better selves
When I was learning about how to create or deepen a culture in organizations, there was mention of shared values expressed as well as those that could provide inspiration to the many. This is why there are inspirational quotes throughout the building.
Las Gracias at All School Meetings (ASM)
We never looked back after adding this segment to every ASM. Expressing gratitude for even the smallest of things to a fellow community member connects all of us. When I heard about another school doing something similar to this, it seemed as though this would allow those who were expressing gratitude to be enriched as it deepened our connections. It has done both!
Mystery Music at ASM
Although this is a fun game where the girls have three guesses as to which faculty or staff member has chosen the music just played, it was added to help break down an adult/student barrier – just as the use of our first names with students – so this, too, connects us to students even more. Plus, we just have fun together as we guess!
Connecting us beyond the JMSG walls
As I noted in one of the Looking Back newsletters, I have long believed that middle school girls not only need to feel seen and heard, but they also benefit from looking outside of themselves, focusing on the needs of others or on causes larger than themselves. Working for social justice is an extension of caring and of feeling connected, of belonging to something greater than themselves. Middle school is a time of being self-conscious and self-focused, with social media only heightening this aspect of adolescence.
We are privileged. By virtue of working at an independent school or by virtue of attending one, we enjoy the privilege of doing so. There is power to harness in that privilege and middle school girls want to wrestle that power and make change happen! And they can by looking beyond the “walls” of JMSG and of their smaller universes.
Fierce feminism: With this being the central part of our mission: to prepare the confident, capable, creative and compassionate women of tomorrow, it seemed as though there might be “smaller” ways, in addition to the major ways we do this every day at JMSG, where we could reinforce messages to our students that we valued celebrating fierce feminism, standing up for the equality for women and girls, and mirroring to girls what is possible. All would allow them to see themselves in others.
Inspirational women at ASM
I added this feature several years ago. When I first started, I could not tell if it was making a difference. Then came graduation. One of the graduates who had never said much to me other than our greeting each other in the halls, thanked me in her graduation speech for starting this, saying how important it was that she could envision the possibilities for herself through hearing the stories of women and girls who had come before her or who were doing amazing things right now. That was 13 years ago. There are so many women and girls yet to talk about, so here is my hope this tradition will continue!
Women of Courage Panel in Honor of Rosa Parks
This year was the last panel, at least in its form of the past 8 years, when we gathered to celebrate women in the outside community. I began this event since I wanted girls to see and hear from women who were models for them: women who had made a difference, who broke ceilings and who are brave leaders, fighting for racial and social justice. Over 8 years, the girls interviewed extraordinary women: authors, activists, CEOs, journalists, tech leaders, on and on, with several of whom having broken those all-important ceilings. In the early days of the School, there was a Mentor Day when women from various fields sat on panels, speaking to the girls about their professions and fielding their questions. Perhaps some new form or event will emerge in the coming years!
Rooms named
I saw this as not only one more way to honor women who had made a difference, but to also have a visible reminder to the girls that women, so often forgotten in history, had and are making history nonetheless. It is up to us to tell their stories, and for the JMSG students to make and tell their own.
Ann’s Day
As only the second head of school at JMSG, I wanted to be sure to establish an opportunity for the JMSG community to never forget an extraordinary leader who was also the founding head of the School: Ann Clarke. I established Ann’s Day, to be held on or near her birthday each year. We have been thrilled when Ann is available to come speak with the girls on that day to be followed by a shared birthday treat for all (pre-Covid). When she has been traveling, we honor her at All School Meeting and still celebrate with a shared birthday treat! We have been extra blessed when she and her husband, Rick, have been able to stay and have lunch with faculty and staff.
STEAM & tinkering stations
Tech is still vastly and predominantly a male industry. It also enjoys the fastest rate of growth for jobs, so establishing the STEAM program and the tinkering stations when we did was none too soon. The industry needs women. Having Katie, Diarra, Jodi, Suzanne, and Alix as models for the girls, and now with Katie leaving, having Sarah join JMSG, the critical important message of girls seeing themselves in these women cannot be overstated.
Honoring research From the beginning of the School until now, research has guided us. It is that on which traditions and practices are based, and, of course, on which the very School itself was founded: our founders read the research of the crucial importance of these middle school years for girls to be in all-girls environment where their confidence would grow, rather than diminish in co-ed environments.
A full year before the American Association of Pediatrics released their study on the importance of adolescents starting school (academics) later in the morning due to their circadian rhythm changing, we instituted Cornerstone. Once again, I had been inspired by a school where I had served on an accreditation team that had been paying attention to research. Although we could not replicate that program completely, what we could do was significant. Rather than the first academic class beginning at 8:00, we created a schedule with a zero period, called Cornerstone. During the time of 7:30 – 8:50, students could arrive when it was good for them as well as for their families. They could connect with one another, check in with teachers, participate in clubs or activities, or play outside. It allowed all of us to ease into the day.
School counselor
It became clear how important this role was. It’s hard to imagine the years when JMSG did not have a counselor; however, as the research shone a light on the social-emotional needs of girls in adolescence more and more, it became a priority of the School.
I remember when we first added a full class that would focus on the social-emotional needs of the girls in addition to advising, some JMSG parents, who loved advising and the role it had played in their daughters’ lives, were concerned that RISE would dilute the advising program. We felt confident that by adding, we were not subtracting from the program at all, but deepening the kind of work we do. And indeed that is what has happened.
Gender diversity
JMSG was the first “single-sex” elementary, middle, or high school in the U.S. to discuss exploring gender diversity at single sex institutions. That was in 2011 when we had the first application from a self-identified transgender student.  I initiated a Think-Tank in the fall of 2012 with national experts from medical, legal, educational, and therapeutic fields. Joel Baum, from Gender Spectrum, also joined us for this extraordinary event. From here, I spoke at NAIS conferences with JoAnn Deak, as well as at NCGS. In the years that followed, I spoke with school leaders from across the world, again with research leading the way.
JMSG has often led, irrespective of its size. As research continues to uncover the opportunities ahead, we can all look forward to the JMSG mission and culture deepening even more over the coming years. Possibilities abound for the JMSG community of faculty, staff, trustee and administration leaders, and students. What will come next?