The Winchendon School
John Kerney, Head of School, The Winchendon School
It was a late spring morning when the tears were being choked back at my office door. I looked up to see one of our popular and generally happy seniors - looking pensive and with tears in his eyes. The thoughts come rushing forward; Someone is hurt or sick, or he had gotten in trouble just weeks ahead of graduation. RJ was a good kid, but at times he flirted with a bit too much adolescent adventure.
I got up and went over to RJ. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing - I just wanted to come by and thank you.”
“Thank me?” I asked. “Thank me for what?”
“Mr. Kerney, I am going to college.”
“I know. Does that surprise you? You should be smiling, not sad,” I replied.
“You see, I never thought that I was college material,” RJ responded. He continued recounting how he had come to doubt that he would ever make it through high school, much less attend college. He felt that teachers at prior schools had given up on him. Then he wanted to express his gratitude for the opportunities and support that he had received from our faculty and staff. He was thoughtful and gracious - and soon he was sporting his smile again.
Several weeks later, RJ graduated and at the end of summer went happily off to a competitive, four-year college, the kind of college he had wondered whether he would ever be “material” for.
And our team kept doing what it does, engaging kids in their learning and helping them find their intellectual confidence.
I regularly think back on this moment and so many others like this when talented and thoughtful kids have arrived at Winchendon with the proverbial wind having been knocked out of their sails, their confidence blown, and an overwhelming fear of school. So many of our alumni talk about how they had hated or feared school until they landed at a school that understood them. Consider one alumnus whose high school counselor told his mother (in front of him) not to waste her money on college for him. She pulled him from that school and sent him our way. He subsequently graduated from one of the country’s highly selective colleges and then from a top graduate school, Wharton to be specific. In a very successful career, he has taken not one but two companies public on NYSE and spends a lot of his energy giving back and mentoring a new generation of leaders.
There are many of these Winchendon stories, and we reflect on them all of the time as we think about how to provide the most engaging and effective education for the significant and growing number of high school students - a plurality if not majority - who don’t like high school. Many don’t see any benefit in school, or they can’t connect their learning to their reality or future. Others have struggled with different learning styles and lack of supports, or have given up hope like RJ had. Their attitude is often that it’s easier not to try rather than be defeated again.
We have learned that there are lots of ways to better engage these students - each a potential success story - but also a very high risk of school failure, or at best a marginal experience resulting in unrealized potential. Often finding that “hook” takes a lot of time and patience - something for which many schools are not ideally designed. Often that engagement comes out of left field - the serious athlete who discovers her passion for engineering on a construction site and then regains confidence in being a math student, or the gamer who turns out to really love politics when he can listen to books rather than only reading them.
There are too many really bright, high potential kids who need that different setting, another opportunity, or someone really committed to getting to know them. Some of these will become the very young adults who break the mold - who think differently about problems and come up with highly creative solutions to our biggest challenges. We know that many of those who have generated the greatest societal changes and improvements were non-traditional learners and took different pathways to success. Now, we need to continue to create ways to better engage the next generation of paradigm-busters in their constructive learning. Just because we can’t understand their incessant gaming, or why they can create raps all day but won’t write a paper, or why they are more excited by building robots or doing street art with friends - doesn’t mean that they aren’t college material or may not turn out to be the most successful person in their neighborhood. #