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Leading with Purpose: Our Aspirations for Our Future

As part of the recent Reunion Weekend, Head of School Jenny Rao shared an update on the “Leading with Purpose” strategic plan in an information session for alumnae. This five-year plan was launched just last fall with incredible progress already made toward many of its key objectives. Watch Ms. Rao’s video welcome and read through the provided transcript of the presentation for a comprehensive look at our aspirations for the future of Emma Willard.

On Saturday, June 11th, Head of School Jenny Rao held an information session on the school’s strategic plan for alumnae visiting for Reunion Weekend. Please watch below for Ms. Rao’s welcome to the visitors in attendance and read on for the presentation slides and complete transcription.


"You've come to this session to learn about the future at Emma and the plans that we're laying to continue to make sure that Emma Willard is an incredible place and leads in girls education. We put together a really compelling and ambitious strategic plan called An Imperative to Lead. And this plan took over two years to put together. It was an inclusive process. We had deep, long, and multiple conversations with faculty, with staff, with students, with board of trustees. And I had the opportunity to meet with alumnae and get their input over regional events that we had."


Academic Excellence


“Let's start with what's most important at Emma Willard, which is academic excellence, and there are four key points in our strategic plan to continue to focus and always make sure that our academic program at Emma is excellent. There are four things that I'll be talking about: the center for teaching and learning, our unique advanced studies program, experiential learning, and professional development. So let me start with the center for teaching and learning.

This is a new initiative that we will have at Emma because, as you know as Emma graduates, at the heart of a fantastic program is a fantastic faculty. And we want to make sure that we have an intellectual hub to continue to inspire and strengthen and bring about the very best of our faculty, a place that will allow for constant growth.


And there are three key things that I want you to remember about the center for teaching and learning:

One is our curriculum innovation project. And here's what that project is about. We have excellent faculty. We're not concerned in the least bit about not having the right people for the job. We absolutely do. What we want to provide is more time and space for our teachers to have more room to innovate pedagogically, to design interdisciplinary courses, et cetera. The curriculum innovation project is going to allow us to add one faculty member to every department over the course of three years and in doing so, will build more time for everyone in the department towards curricular innovation.



The second is our academic leadership development program. And what we mean by that is we are going to establish a partnership to deliver formal leadership training for all academic leaders at Emma. So when someone becomes a department chair, a class Dean, a leader of a club, any kind of leadership at Emma, we want everyone to have formal leadership training. We all know that leadership is hard and knowing how to lead doesn't just happen. We will have mentoring, coaching, and formal sessions for everyone that's a leader at Emma and in, so doing, we believe two things will happen. One, Emma will become an even more attractive place to come work because you will receive this formal training. And we will role model for our students. Excellent leadership, um, in a greater way.



The third thing about our center for teaching and learning is professional development and strategic partnerships we've already in this first year, had a wonderful partnership with Bard College and with Harvard School of Education and our department chairs and our faculty have been doing some great work on pedagogy, curriculum, design, classroom observation, and we're looking forward to deepening and expanding those partnerships.



Next I want to tell you about our unique advanced studies. Over time (we learned this in 2018 when we had our accreditation process) we learned that the most rigorous curriculum at Emma Willard became defined by the Advanced Placement courses and that wasn't quite working for us. If you're familiar with Advanced Placement courses and studies, they're densely packed in content and leave little time for going deeper into topics. And I've said many times that one student stopped me once and said, “Ms. Rao I'm in AP US History, and that course goes so fast that one day I went to the bathroom and I missed a war!.”



There was a deep dialogue led by Meredith Legg, assistant head of school, with our faculty about how we could make learning intrinsically motivated at Emma, because over time with AP defining our advanced curriculum, it was becoming much more about performing well for the test rather than learning the concepts and the skills.


So, our phenomenal faculty have started the process of developing our own Emma Willard advanced studies program. By the end of this summer 18 brand new advanced studies courses will have been developed next year. Fourteen of those will be implemented by the fall and a year from now all 18 will, in essence, be in operation…allowing Emma Willard to move beyond AP. We did this in consultation with colleges and universities and have received very strong feedback saying that it’s a great direction for Emma Willard to go. That's our advanced studies program.


Next. I want to talk to you about experiential learning. The heart of this is that we learn best by doing. Things that we're able to do and put into practice, not just learning theory, really stay with us. So all of our faculty have gotten trained on experiential learning and we've established an experiential learning department.



That department has gone through an even more thorough training this entire year. All of our courses over time will have experiential learning components. So that experiential learning is part of everyone's experience at Emma. And we also are very excited that we will be designing a “minimester” program, which we will be rolling out a year from now. Many colleges have this, some secondary schools, but we're basically planning to take a pause in the month of January for a couple of weeks where we abandon our schedule entirely. And we put together a set of courses where students can delve deeply into a topic of their interest with students in other grades. They are unbound by schedule and can go deep into their curiosity. There will be some travel involved, et cetera. We have a great mission statement about minimester and it is affectionately being named the “Jester-mester”…I don’t know if that’s going to stick but right now it’s just a fun way to think of it!”


Access and Affordability
“Next I wanted to move on to the next pillar: improving access and affordability. And there are two key points that I want to tell you about here. Financial aid and tuition. Using the objectives of the strategic plan, we're in the process of creating financial aid, tuition and enrollment models that will allow Emma Willard to be strong and sustainable into the future…and to be perpetually creating greater access. We want to make sure that any student who is deserving of an Emma Willard education, but may not be able to afford that education, has a means to be accepted and become part of our community here. We believe that the richer and more diverse our community, the richer and more excellent our program and the conversations on campus.

So, to give you a sense of what financial aid looks like at Emma Willard every year, we have $5.5 million thereabout that are awarded in financial aid, $800,000 of that $5.5 million is endowed. The rest of that $5.5 million comes from our operations. 43% of our students receive aid. So almost half of all students who come to Emma Willard receive financial aid. The average package is $47,000 for a boarding student and the average financial aid package for a day student is $24,000, that’s just so you have a sense of how it works.


Again, nearly half of our students receive aid and so our objective with the strategic plan is to grow the amount of dollars of financial aid that are endowed. This will allow for Emma Willard to have guaranteed financial aid in perpetuity, because so much of our financial aid comes from operations currently. If we're able to endow those funds, regardless of what happens in the world, we can guarantee that access will be ensured at Emma. That's something that we're working hard to do in this strategic plan. Aid and access go hand-in-hand for recruitment. And again, it allows us to attract fantastic students from across the country and globe, regardless of their means.

Let me move on to our tuition model. The flip side to financial aid is tuition, and we know that coming to Emma Willard is a major investment for any family. What we're working hard to do is to decelerate the increases of tuition as much as we can to make our school as affordable as possible. We want to make sure that Emma remains competitive in the United States and across the globe. For this year, I'm really excited to announce that, for what we believe is the first time in Emma Willard's history, we will be keeping tuition flat.


There will be zero increase in intuition going into next year. We did this for a couple of reasons: One, our families like everyone around the world, experienced hardship with COVID and we wanted to do our part to make it easier for our families or have one less thing to worry about. Secondly, over time we were becoming among the most expensive schools, boarding schools, and that's not a position we necessarily want to hold. We would like to be able to move more towards the middle of the pack or towards the bottom in terms of cost. By holding our tuition steady next year, that will put us more in the median rather than leading in tuition, which is something that we want to make sure we attend to. And we're modeling long term plans with tuition to achieve two things: long term sustainability and access for our student body.



Amplifying the Arts



“Next, I’d like to talk about amplifying the arts. Let me tell you what we have in mind with that. Arts have always been a hallmark of the Emma Willard experience. I'm sure during your time you had arts courses and exposure to the arts that were important to who you are, who you've become. We continue to be a school that attracts phenomenal student artists and phenomenal faculty in the arts. We're building on that strength at Emma. We offer, I believe, more than 30 courses in the arts every year. Our students participate in over 15 performances in music, dance, theater, orchestra, et cetera. By amplifying the arts and investing in the arts we're going to expand our arts offerings. We're going to have musicals beyond Revels, technical theater classes, podcasts, film, and much, much more; it's an interest that already exists at Emma and this will allow us to feed it. We also want to become an artistic hub in the Capital Region.
Let me tell you specifically about the performing arts. We're going to begin the construction of a really wonderful performing arts facility for Emma that will allow us to strengthen and house the arts in the way that they ought to. The location of this planned arts center will allow us to have an arts “hub” at Emma, where we can bring performing arts and visual arts all together. The collaboration that can happen among all of our arts teachers will be powerful. The project will be split between the renovation of our existing alumnae chapel into a contemporary concert hall and the addition of a below-ground “annex” building that will house dance practice facilities, a studio theatre, music studios and more!
The fact that we are using an already existing building and that the new construction will be underground, makes this project incredibly environmentally sound. The greenest buildings are the ones you already have. Secondly, by putting a construction underground, it makes it much more feasible to keep heat and cold in in a less energy demanding way. There are many other ways that we're attending to environmental sustainability. The other thing I want to tell you about in this project is that we have worked with a phenomenal architect Ann Beha. Those of you in Boston may know of her and her firm, Ann Beha Architects, and Ann has focused her entire career on historic preservation.

That was incredibly important to us. Our buildings are magnificent, they're beautiful, and they are historic. Anytime we touch them, we want to make sure that we are attending to their historic preservation. Secondly, Ann founded her firm as a woman and it is now minority owned, so that is very much in line with our mission. Just one many reasons why we're so proud to work with Ann!”


Belonging and DEI
“I'm going to move to another pillar of our strategic plan, which is belonging and diversity, equity and inclusion. So here is a picture of Christine Gilmore, our inaugural head of institutional equity and inclusion. We're thrilled to have Christine on our team! Our goal is to value and affirm each person in our community and, by bringing Christine to our campus, we've established the diversity equity and inclusion department to lead this important work.
We have a lot of elements of diversity, equity ,and inclusion in our strategic plan. If you read those 25 pages, you'll see DEI on all aspects, and under Christine's leadership, we've also started an annual reporting process on all of the work that we're doing in DEI, how we're measuring our progress, et cetera. We've also organized and established both an adult diversity working group and a student diversity working group. This was the first year that we organized them and Christine inspired over 50 people on campus to work on this. They covered tremendous ground. We're bringing really wonderful speakers to Emma to make sure that we're learning from the best. For some of those speakers, we will have alumnae sessions with for you. For example, in January, we had a speaker that we opened the session to alumni and others. So keep your eyes open for more opportunities to come and join us in conversation about DEI.
Next, I'll talk about student health, wellbeing and resilience. Wellbeing, and resilience is a core skill that we want our students to take with them when they leave Emma Willard. It will not only matter for their success, but it will matter for their wellbeing over a lifetime. So here's what we're working on: in terms of wellbeing, we will create a student wellness and resilience center that will bring all of our resources around wellness under one space. We will also have an enhanced role for our residential faculty. You may or may not know that we are one of only four schools in the country that have a dedicated position for residential faculty, meaning that for our residential faculty their entire job is taking care of our students in that living environment. Many schools have what they call a “triple threat”: the same person teaches, coaches, and lives in the dorms.
At Emma we make those roles distinct because we believe that the time with the students outside the classroom is incredibly valuable. And what we're doing is we're expanding the role of our residential faculty so that they have an impact beyond only our residential program and into our entire program in a variety of ways that you can read in the strategic plan. Lastly, we've started to do important research on wellbeing for adolescent girls. We partnered with Yale last year in doing some interesting analysis on what goes into girls' wellbeing at this age that they attend Emma. This year, we also have a member of our faculty who completed their master's thesis at Columbia, trying to tease out how rigor and wellbeing are not opposing forces, but can be mutually complimentary. And then we had a wonderful survey called “Authentic Connections” that is built for high performing high schools. It teases out modifiable aspects of behavior that we can influence to create greater resilience in our students. So a lot of research going on at Emma to improve and support our student's wellbeing.

Next, increasing the diversity of faculty and staff. When we did those two years of strategic planning, one of the most important goals that our students gave us in the realm of DEI was diversifying our faculty and staff. Basically, they were saying: “Ms. Rao, we wanna see ourselves in the adults who are here at Emma, let's work to mimic the diversity that we see in the student body in the adults.” We said: “you're right, let's get on it!” So, a key goal for DEI for us is to diversify our employee base. We have done a myriad of things: we have trained every single hiring manager on diversity recruiting, we have been tracking our recruitment and retention numbers and over the last four years, and we have made measurable progress in diversifying our employee base. It continues to be a goal that we need to work on because we are far from matching the diversity that exists in our students.

Expanding Connections
Next, I will move to another pillar, which is about expanding connections, deepening our connections with you, with parents, and with the world at large. Let me talk about expanding our global connections. Our community provides a multiplicity of perspectives; it is probably one of the most powerful things our school offers. The fact that you can come here and meet folks of 36 different countries, 21 different states, and really varied backgrounds is incredible. What we want do with this initiative is to leverage and benefit more from that global community both by having initiatives on campus that bring that to life but also we have over 750 of our 8,000 alumnae that live over seas. Our alumni office is already working on how we can strengthen that global network, particularly abroad.
We're also  starting to see much greater engagement with our broader community in a myriad of ways. One is Emma Connect, our digital portal for alumnae. I believe we already have 600 of you on that virtual platform and our goal, and I hope you help us if you're not on the platform already, is to have a thousand of you on that platform by the end of this year. We saw — as I'm sure you did over the pandemic, too — an enormous reliance on virtual platforms for connection due to COVID. So it was a wonderful time to really leverage Emma Connect. We've had an opportunity to return to in person events like reunion, nothing beats in person but we are happy to discover how fruitful virtual programming can be and we're going to continue that over time.
We also are identifying and organizing affinity groups this year. We launched our very first alum of color network and our LGBTQ+ affinity group for alumni is in the works and will be launched soon. We will continue to build groups like these in the next few years.
Last but not least, we want to grow our community of parents and families. We want to increase the opportunities for our parents to engage and support the school — as teachers, as partners, as philanthropists, for the school. The main way we're going to work on this is we're going to establish a parent position at Emma. There is no single role devoted to parent relations and, over the summer, one of the many things for our strategic conversations on the leadership team is to see how we're going to do that and in what office that position should live. We have a parent ambassador program, which we affectionately called PEP [Parent EMbassador Program] that launched two years ago. We have about 30 or 40 parents involved. They have a reading group, they meet on campus (COVID certainly made it a bit harder, but it's a group that's re-engaging).

Strengthening Capacity
“Strengthening capacity is the final pillar that I want to tell you about. I will start with the endowment. The endowment is vital to Emma for two main reasons. One, it guarantees our school's long term sustainability and two, it gives us the means so that progress and innovation can always be something that happens at Emma. Our goal is to double our endowment by the end of our strategic plan and campaign. With early campaign gifts, we've already grown our endowment in a significant way from $125 million to $177 million. Our endowment is crucial to achieving our aspirations, but also for the long term sustainability of our school.
Next, I want to tell you about a comprehensive plan to sustain this magnificent and historic campus. Our glorious campus serves as a classroom, a place that connects us to one another across time — you're coming back for this Reunion and I'm sure you've gone to a space and you remember when you were there, when you met someone there, when you talked to a teacher. This place connects us across time and inspires us. I've always felt when I walk onto this campus, that I'm part of something bigger than myself. So it's a campus we want to preserve and maintain. There are three things that we're doing in terms of our campus. The first has to do with IT. Old buildings make it hard, and we're investing in making sure that we can have topnotch connection and technology at Emma.
Number two: there's a lot of deferred maintenance that needs to get attended to in our old buildings. So we're conducting a study so that we know exactly what all the deferred maintenance is and what the cost is and how  to take care of it. Third, we will be working on a campus master plan that will analyze all of our spaces through the framework of the program that is delivered at Emma now and will be delivered in the future and give ideas on how we need to retrofit spaces to continue to serve our program.
And, next, sustainability and sustainable practices. Caring for our planet means that we need to have practices on our campus that provide a light footprint. So here are the ways that we're attending to sustainability: Emma Willard has students who are incredibly invested in environmental sustainability. As you can imagine, Emma Green is one of the biggest clubs on campus. They do fantastic work. They lead many of our good practices.
We're also the first high school to register with fair trade, which is another popular club on campus. The challenge for our campus is to modernize historic buildings into environmentally sustainable places. It's not as easy as when you build a building from scratch today, but again, the greenest buildings are the ones you already have. And over time we're building better practices within our older campus.”