Archive: HOS Blogs from 2016-2017

The Strongest Possible Academic Background

It’s September again. I like to begin every school year by revisiting our mission statement:

Thomas Jefferson School gives its students the strongest possible academic background through a classical education. Within a nurturing community, students develop a responsibility for their own learning and a desire to lift up the world with beauty and intellect.

Those are lovely words. But what, exactly, do they mean? As a school, we need to be able to answer that question. If we can’t, then our mission statement amounts to no more than lovely words and isn’t the aspirational touchstone and guiding force that we need it to be.

Beginning with the first key phrase— strongest possible academic background— here is what the TJ mission statement means to me:

Seventy years ago, Harvard graduates Robin McCoy, Charles Merrill, and Graham Spring founded Thomas Jefferson School with the objective of opening a top-flight boarding school for bright boys in the Midwest. Their new school’s academic program and standards were meant to equal or exceed those of well-known boarding schools in the East.  From the outset, there was no question that the bedrock of TJ would be intellectual: this was a school founded by scholars, for scholars. Academic excellence was its first priority.

The TJ of 2016 adheres to that same priority and continues to be an academically intensive school, offering one of the most challenging programs in the St. Louis area and the wider region. It is an amazing place for students identified as gifted or high ability. TJ students must be able to take on a rigorous, classical liberal-arts curriculum that includes a significant number of Advanced Placement, college-level courses.

TJ’s strong academic program prepares students for college by developing their critical and expressive capacities in truly remarkable ways. Highly interactive, discussion-based classes, a relentless program of writing, insistence on skills and knowledge that allow for imagining possibilities and solving problems—all of these things set TJ apart from other schools. We certainly pay close attention to trends and innovations in education, but even as we adjust and change, we remain committed to the classical core that has been with us since the beginning. In fact, in some ways, TJ is ahead of the curve. For example, we’ve had “flipped” classrooms forever—our students have always been expected to work ahead, to come to class ready to discuss, expand, question, argue, challenge, and be challenged. TJ has always been interested in building resilience, by allowing students to make mistakes and to be wrong at times. What our founders knew is what we still know today: Without some amount of struggle or setback, there is no real learning.

Obviously, the quality of our academic program matters because we want our students to be successful in college. However, beyond that short-term goal, we want TJ graduates to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to be self-reliant in a challenging world and thrive in a professional landscape where ways of working and living are continually being reinvented. Some of that reinvention will be activated by TJ’s own. Ultimately, isn’t that the best argument for providing the “strongest possible academic background”?

Brains + TJ Education = A world of possibilities

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I recently attended a TJ alumni reunion in San Francisco. It was an informal gathering in the stylish home of a member of the class of 2005, bringing together people from every decade of the school’s seventy-year history. As we talked I was struck by how much these diverse individuals had in common. And it wasn’t simply by virtue of their TJ education; rather, it had to do with the quality of their lives and careers since TJ. To give a small sampling of who was there: the senior-most alum in attendance, a Holocaust survivor and refugee who came to TJ thanks to our founder Charles Merrill, went on to college and law school, and eventually became general counsel for one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. Another attendee took his TJ foundation in Ancient Greek through the graduate level, en route to a career in academe. But at a certain point he decided he’d really like to go to medical school. So he did. A member of the class of 1997 described a dizzying but obviously successful career path that has taken her into and out of a wide variety of domains and enterprises, both public and private. As for the host of the reunion, he studied economics and then became an artist, designer, software developer, and entrepreneur who has created everything from iPhone apps to street art and murals.


Why, one asks, do TJ alumni choose to do all these different things? Well, because they can. Or more precisely, because they KNOW they can.


We see evidence of that phenomenon in TJ’s inner workings today. A few years ago, we needed to find someone who could teach geometry, AP Statistics, and Italian. The résumés that came our way offered either math or Italian, but not both. So for that unusual combination we went to a TJ alum. He now also teaches yoga and leads the service learning program. Similarly, when we were looking for a new school trustee who could truly understand and support TJ, we went to an alum. During a campus visit he was asked by a student what he had thought he’d do as he entered college, and he replied that as he had always loved English, history, and writing, he thought he might go towards humanities. But then an inspiring biology professor fired his interest, which ultimately led a Ph.D. in computational biology and a return to St. Louis to start up a genomics enterprise…


It’s simple, really: TJ is a haven for tremendously bright and creative students, a perfect place for them to grow and thrive, both intellectually and personally. They’re immersed in an accelerated program that is unusually deep and rich, one that challenges them with the occasional, indispensable gift of constructive failure. Such opportunity doesn’t exist everywhere.


So I will now make a sweeping statement:

I know of no school, proportionally speaking, that has more interesting and accomplished alumni than this one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that TJ’s alumni are extraordinary in their achievements— their stories are endlessly fascinating. But what really sets them apart is the capacity and confidence they have to embrace, execute, and lead change. They envision possibilities and pursue them. I can say this objectively, as a well-educated person with long experience in a variety of educational, business, and not-for-profit settings, who did not have the joy and privilege of a TJ education. I can’t change that fact, but what I can do is my utmost to ensure that the brilliant minds our world so desperately needs will continue to find a safe, stimulating, and necessary home right here in this remarkable place.

Black History Month

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February is a time to focus on the accomplishments of black Americans and honor their contributions to our country and the world. It’s also a call for all of us, whatever our race, ethnicity, or background, to consider more deeply and purposefully what black experience in the United States has been over time. Recent history has shown in a vivid way how this country continues to struggle with a very significant part of its history and culture— clearly, there remains a great deal of hard work to be done. At TJ, we are committed to doing such work.


TJ was founded in 1946. In 1950, it enrolled a Japanese student, one of the first from that nation to bravely enter an American prep school following World War II. In 1952, two years before the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, TJ was the first independent school in this area to admit an African-American student. Our doors have been open for a long time.


As I look at TJ now, I take great pride and pleasure in its remarkable diversity. It is the bedrock and, I truly believe, the greatest strength of our school. But we must not take it for granted. Welcoming students and their families is only the first step— the real question is, what happens next? How do we design and deliver our programs to give our students the depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding they need on the topics of race and social justice? How do we foster and facilitate honest and informed discussion around those topics? What relation do they have to the development of character? How do we ensure that they remain among the values that reside at TJ’s core?


In the wake of Ferguson and all that has transpired in connection with the November elections, we are more resolute than ever in our commitment to educating our students in ways that will help them be thoughtful, compassionate, and principled people. We see this as crucial to their well-being and to that of our necessarily interconnected world.


Please join TJ in celebrating and learning about Black History: follow our daily posts on Facebook. Attend the Morgan Lecture on February 28 featuring Dr. Jason Purnell. Engage in conversation with TJ students and teachers about what they are reading and discussing. Seek out the resources that we highlight in our weekly TJ Updates. And going forward, engage fully with us to ensure that TJ continues its tradition of being a knowledgeable, inclusive, and equitable community.  


photo source:

The WOW Factor


It’s admission season. We’ve opened our house. We’re conducting interviews and hosting “shadow” days. Skyping with students on the other side of the planet. Running ads. Our perennial task, as it is for all schools, is to make a clear argument for what we have to offer and to show what sets us apart from the competition. We have to highlight what one prospective recently referred to as our “WOW factor.”


Of course we understand that what “wows” one person may not matter much to another.  Some people are excited by a maker space with 3-D printers or a video production studio; others are drawn in by collegiate-grade athletic facilities or performing arts centers or fancy dorms. Certainly, all those things are great to have and nice to show off to prospective families, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have them. But are they true necessities? How do they improve and enhance what we do as a school? Are they in keeping with our particular mission, philosophy, and priorities? Put another way, how do they figure into our value proposition?


Before we commit resources to things like new buildings and new technologies, we must be able to answer those questions— which, by the way, prospective parents should also be asking. Because at some point, every new building, every new technology, every new program will have to be paid for, and the reality is that some things will actually become obsolete before that happens. Are we prepared to deal with that?  


So now to TJ’s WOW factor. In my view, it’s less about what we have, and more about who we are and what we do. It’s what drew me to this school in the first place, and it’s what keeps me here, thinking about what we’re doing now and what we’ll need in the future to sustain the effort. To me, it’s very clear: TJ’s WOW factor lives and breathes in all of our spaces, day in and day out. Our “shiny object” is an intangible one: deep engagement and meaningful, real-time interaction. It can be seen all over the school, wherever students and the adults who work with them happen to be. At every turn, the remarkable intellect that is the hallmark of a TJ student is being challenged, nurtured, and developed. And along with intellect, character.


TJ’s WOW factor is most vividly present in the work of our devoted, multi-talented faculty who are themselves inveterate learners. Their daily task, as teachers and scholars, is to envision, design, and deliver the best, most relevant version of the education that our incredibly talented students need and deserve. It’s the kind of experience that will shape what our students eventually become. And I must say, when I see what they become, all I can say is, “WOW!”


Talk less. Smile more.

"Talk less. Smile more."


In the Broadway show “Hamilton” (yes, I’m among the fortunate—I’ve seen it),  Aaron Burr repeatedly tells Alexander: “Talk less. Smile more.” For me, implicit in Burr’s advice is an invitation to listen.


 We live, teach, and learn in a noisy culture, one that tends to reward  extroversion. I think that, on the whole, our educational system doesn’t do a very  good job of purposefully developing the skill of listening. The fact is, we spend  more time teaching and requiring students to talk. How often a student’s voice is heard in class  remains a grading criterion (“class participation”) for many teachers, which is why the parents of quiet students continue to receive comments like: “Alex produces excellent work but needs to speak up more in class.” Or “Jesse has wonderful ideas to share with the class— we need to hear them.”


Of course there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to talk—oral communication skills do need to be developed. But is “class participation,” in the traditional sense, a true measure of learning? Is there some other means of holding students accountable in class that doesn’t force them to talk before they really have something to say?


If you tend toward extroversion, talking is usually easy. Listening can be hard, especially when your mind is racing and your preference (and habit) is to articulate your thoughts as they form. It’s tempting to say that the converse is true for a more introverted person—i.e., listening is easier than talking—but that really isn’t quite right. Introverts aren’t necessarily better listeners; they, too, have to understand process. However, they do have the advantage of knowing how to be quiet, which is a start.


My wish is for every student to be in an environment where the skills of both talking and listening are purposefully modeled and taught.  Perhaps we can borrow from Burr and teach them this: “Talk less (but when you talk, talk well). Smile more (and while you’re smiling, listen well).”