The Light Ahead

By Bryan Garman

A lot has changed in a year, but not our spirit.

On a cloudy February afternoon, I wandered across campus, looking for light in a gray landscape. With luck, I encountered the Upper School Chamber Chorus rehearsing in front of the Kogod Arts Center. Worried that they may not be at their best, the choristers smiled sheepishly beneath their masks as they socially distanced across the courtyard. Under less than ideal circumstances, they moved tentatively but determinedly through a piece they had once mastered, rediscovering familiar lyrics, reconstituting community, and forging beautiful harmonies. They were inspiring because, under the direction of Sarah Markovits, they found opportunity and joy in the imperfect.

The pandemic has provided challenge and change, which have had major impacts on how our students experience learning. Moreover, it has profoundly altered the college process. The most selective colleges and universities have become test optional, a decision that dramatically increased their applications and curbed interest in other institutions, two-thirds of which reported enrollment decreases in 2020/21. Colgate’s applications doubled, Harvard’s soared by 42 percent, and Quaker-rooted Haverford and Swarthmore saw double-digit gains. Applications from first-generation students, as well as Black and Latino teenagers, have fallen. Many institutions have reduced staff, overspent financial aid budgets, and now face existential questions.

These developments have introduced more uncertainty into a process that had already been in flux. Our students have been fortunate to rely on the leadership of Director of College Counseling Laurén Carter, who last year returned to the position after a three-year hiatus. In short order, Laurén has reorganized the office, recruited three stellar full-time admissions professionals to the staff, and significantly improved and expanded the program. She and her team have been especially skilled at
providing support and insight during this recent turbulence. As a parent and three-time veteran of the college process shared, Laurén, whom she described as “organized, smart, calm, strong, and available,” does “so much to make things better.” In particular, the counselors teach students that they need “to work hard, face reality,” and “dust off” when this arbitrary process does not end the way they had hoped.

“As I limp away from the process,” the parent wrote, “I’m reminded that it is a demon for those who seek control. It also spawns panic and blame. Above all else, in the moment, it dissolves perspective.” Laurén, she observed, simply wants the students to “land well,” and in preparing for that landing, there is no better advisor, no shrewder strategist, no stronger advocate, no more grounded ethicist. “Thanks to Sidwell,” the parent wrote, “for revamping the program and finding someone with the perfect combination of grace and expertise to lead it.”

Thanks to Sidwell for revamping the [college] program and finding someone with the perfect combination of grace and expertise to lead it.”

The pandemic has also shifted the admissions landscape at Sidwell Friends. We have seen double-digit growth in our applicant pool, and are delighted to welcome our extraordinary new families to the Sidwell Friends community! We too waived standardized-testing requirements for this admissions season. In fact, under the thoughtful leadership of Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Frankie Brown, we had been considering the possibility of discontinuing standardized testing altogether, both because tests limit our understanding of candidates and because they contain racial, gender, and class biases. In accordance with our Strategic Plan, Sidwell Friends wants to welcome a wider community of talented and diverse students, and Frankie and her team continue to find new strategies for recruiting, assessing, and greeting families. She and her staff have built an engaging and effective online program for prospective families and have especially focused on inviting current students and alumni to speak about how they have benefited from our program. There are no better examples of wisdom, adaptability, and resiliency, qualities that define the School’s success.

Our persistent if imperfect commitment to accessibility and inclusion infuses our Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) Strategic Action Plan, which too has grown out of our strategic objectives. Under the leadership of EJC Director Natalie Randolph ’98— whose position has been generously endowed by a former parent, grandparent, and now trustee family—the EJC Strategic Action Plan was built from honest conversations with students, young alumni, parents, and faculty and staff; it provides a dynamic blueprint for how we can reckon with the shortcomings of our past and transform them into a hopeful future. Our recent partnership with Howard University, the establishment of the Señora Supervía Chair in Spanish Language and Latino Studies, and accelerated efforts to fund the Faculty Chair in African and African American Studies, represent important milestones in our work, as does our ongoing effort to assemble an outstanding faculty and staff that look like the 54 percent of our population who are students of color.

Meanwhile, plans for the Center for Ethical Leadership, an all-School space that will be built in the new Upper School on the Upton campus, are also taking shape. Exciting student programs in community engagement and justice-based courses—such as Natalie Randolph and Robbie Gross’s senior seminar, “Metropolitan Policy and the DMV”—will combine to deepen the intellectual lives of our students and encourage them to practice Quaker values in School and out.

The storms of the past year have darkened our days, but we have never stopped seeking the Light. As the clouds begin to clear, we hope that it shines more brightly on and from our students than ever. With the commitment of our faculty and staff, the welcoming of new students, and the ongoing support of parents, alumni, and our philanthropic partners, we are confident that we will see brighter days ahead.

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Sidwell Friends Alumni Magazine is published three times a year for the community. It features School news, stories, profiles, and alumni Class Notes.

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