I joined the Nueva community 13 years ago when my oldest child started kindergarten. A few weeks ago, I helped him move into his first college dorm.
As a long-time parent who has been involved with the school, I often find myself being a translator for Nueva culture and have been asked for advice about acclimating to life at our school. Here are five pieces of advice I offer new parents:
Nueva's culture is driven by a long term view.
At Nueva, we don’t rely on lots of rules to achieve intended student behavior. We are focused instead on intentions and outcomes. This means we allow for situations to unfold, discussions to happen organically, and shared agreements to be made through the process. Nueva embraced a pedagogy centered around growth mindset long before that term was coined. Understanding that learning comes from mistakes and failures, students have always been given a “longer leash” at Nueva than they might have been at other schools.
This means that how we do things at Nueva is not necessarily documented on our website or codified in a handbook. I suggest thinking about your actions in this way: Ask yourself, "what is right in this situation to produce the best outcome for everyone (not just my student)?" If the student's intention is good but the execution is poor, or the outcome undesirable, know that everyone understands that learning comes from both mistakes and success.
Lead with a question.
In a world that is always striving to change and improve, it is easy to fall into the trap of criticizing and thinking, “Nueva should really do X.” I suggest to new parents that you instead approach situations at Nueva with a question, such as, “Why do you do Y, rather than X?”
Often what you think is the answer, is not the answer at all. I am reminded of an incident when my son was in first grade. He came home and told me that he had been sent to the “time-out chair.” I naturally asked him why he had been sent to the time-out chair, and he had no idea. So I e-mailed the teacher, asking her what behavior had elicited this punishment. She responded that he had not “done anything” — she had sent him to the time-out chair simply to show him that it wasn’t the end of the world. If he were to happen to make a mistake one day and be sent to the chair, it was so that he could reflect and learn from that mistake. Joining the group again would be no big deal. Again, lead with a question and be open-minded.
Play in the Nueva sandbox.
Nueva has been deliberate about building a program that encourages creativity, preserves a joy of learning, fosters intellectual curiosity, and encourages cooperation and empathy.
We have deliberately built a program that builds on students' passions and encourages cooperation and compassion rather than competition. We have an emergent curriculum and passion projects in lower school, intensives in 4th grade, recital project in 8th grade, and Quest every year of high school. No grades are given until tenth grade. Even when grades are given, student GPAs are not calculated and reported on transcripts. There is deliberately no class rankings, no valedictorians, no book prizes — or any other prizes for that matter. The result? Students have preserved joy and curiosity in their learning and developed a camaraderie rarely found at other schools.
College admissions officers have told us that Nueva students naturally stand out for their passion, confidence, and humility. They stand out as authentic. They know who they are and are happy to share themselves.
The Nueva way works, if we don’t get in the way. I have had parents tell me that Nueva doesn't do a good job of supporting students who want to pursue more traditional paths of competition. My response to them is, that’s absolutely right! Students are allowed to play in a small, incredibly rich sandbox where they write the rules. Why would you want to compete and try to stand out in an incredibly crowded sandbox where everyone is playing the same game?
We are a community of ideas, tied together by a shared love of learning.
Nueva is not tied together by geography as a neighborhood school would be, gender as a single-sex school would be, or religion. What binds us together is a shared love of learning and appreciation of a rich exchange of ideas. We are also a very down-to-earth community — one where we don’t feel the need to dress up (literally or figuratively) to be respected. We are sensitive that we are a diverse community and appreciate each other for the unique perspectives and experiences each person brings to the community. We want everyone to bring their whole selves to the school and not feel they have to leave part of their identity at the campus threshold. I have always appreciated being part of the lovely Nueva community where everyone can partake and feel respected.
The best way to understand Nueva culture is to get involved.
I co-chaired the Expansion Task Force, which helped initiate the building of the Upper School. In this capacity, and through my work with charter schools, I've visited dozens of schools throughout the US. Trust me when I say that Nueva is unique. I believe the best way to understand Nueva is to get involved — and don't wait for a personal invitation. There are a myriad of ways to be engaged at Nueva, and when you do become engaged, you will meet parents with different perspectives, learn about the school’s history, be exposed to school staff and faculty, better understand the school’s approach to teaching, and have fun.
Grace Voorhis has sixth and tenth graders at Nueva. Her oldest child graduated from the Nueva Upper School in 2019 and is a freshman in college. In her 13 years, Grace has been a vibrant part of the Nueva community. She has held a number of roles on the Board of Trustees, including leading the Expansion Task Force, the Health, Athletics and Wellness Task Force, the One School Task Force, the Diversity Committee, the Internships Task Force, the Strategic Initiatives Committee, and a number of fundraising-related committees for Nueva.