As the world rapidly evolves around us, driven by innovations in technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, communication, social awareness, and environmental urgency, the broader academic industry continues to move at a snail’s pace. Beholden to institutional approaches to learning, legacy academics continue to rely on ancient methods to prepare young minds for life outside of their homes and campuses. In the classroom, the default performance metric for high schoolers is college acceptance, with a heavy focus on global rankings as the indicator for how pride-inducing a particular university should make you feel. In their social lives, digital likes and followers drive the day. This is all as opposed to us pushing young people to find alignment between their interests, instincts, strengths, and career decisions.
If you think my statements are overdramatic, or maybe you want more evidence, how about this: in the US, more than 20% of all teenagers suffer from depression; suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 10 to 34 years old. The most significant increase in depression rates over the last several years is in people ages 12 to 20. This is not normal. Mental health experts attribute these rising rates to factors including the effects of increased social media usage, lack of access to mental health services early enough, and not feeling prepared to handle life challenges they encounter on the road to adulthood.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past several generations, parents and academic institutions have been increasingly censoring the world our children are exposed to. We avoid discussing addiction or mental health out of fear that, by doing so, we will increase the likelihood they will be plagued with such issues. The reality is, we are simply not preparing our youth for what they will inevitably face in their lifetimes.
Instead of working to give them a solid foundation, one rooted in practical knowledge and resilience, we are instead pushing our youth more and more aggressively to conform. In doing so, we are setting the bar for success at such an unachievable height for most students that, when they inevitably fall short of expectations, they crumble under the weight of their failures.
Historically, boarding schools have been looked to as a solution to these issues by providing immersive academic experiences for students so they can learn and grow outside of their homes and in some version of the real world. But the entire private school industry is destabilizing, beginning with a lack of innovation and further fueled by a global pandemic, making way for new crops of more tailored learning opportunities. These new programs offer custom solutions to personalized needs (the new certificate programs are digital and affordable), but are not positioned to solve the core problem of saving our students.
So the big question we ask ourselves today is, how do we prepare our students for life?
If one of the primary triggers for depression and anxiety in young people is feeling unprepared for life, our focus should be on nurturing a more informed and ultimately capable generation. There are three basic ways to build our foundation, the emotional core we will rely on throughout our lives. The first is through focused and thoughtful explanation (education), the second through the rich history of those who embarked on similar journeys before us (storytelling), and lastly through active trial and error (experience).
West Nottingham Academy, the oldest boarding school in America, is undergoing a rebirth. In light of industry-wide declines, a range of issues plaguing young adults, and a planet in peril, academy leadership is actively rethinking the school’s role as both part of the problem, and a part of the solution. Beginning in 2022, WNA will undergo a full transformation into an innovative leadership development academy. We seek to become the leading academy in the world for life preparation, resilience, and practical, applied knowledge. We are building a campus where innovative programs are continuously designed, tested, implemented, and refined alongside partners who are category experts in their respective fields right on our campus.
We seek to destroy the legacy systems that prohibit rabid innovation within academic institutions. WNA leadership is setting the stage for innovative new partnerships that will serve as catalysts for what the future of academia should look like in the imminent future.
We envision a new high school curriculum that gears students toward successfully navigating the new world we live in, a curriculum grounded in the following universal truths:
These issues and critical truths are not just limited to the student base, but also faculty, staff, parents, community members, and the wide spectrum of additional stakeholders affiliated with this or any academic institution. The opportunity for impact is enormous when factoring in each group.
Current academic institutions are limited by their loyalty to the past, which makes the transition to a modern academic model nearly impossible. But under the right circumstances, with the right partners, a singular vision, and a rejection of regression, magic can happen. And it’s that magic that can give us the capacity to truly change the world.
We have an incredibly solid foundation in our dedicated alumni community, we have a rich history that provides us a deep understanding of what works and does not work in the world, and we have an incredibly passionate faculty and staff who are at the very core of our efforts.
Above all, we have the leadership required to enact change. It is a rare opportunity to get positively impacted by a person in a way that fundamentally alters the course of your life. I have a few people in my life who have done that for me, but only one who has done it twice in my lifetime. Dr. Sandy Wirth saved me in the late 90s when I was a wayward teen seeking nothing more than a place in the world. Today, she shows me what hope looks and feels like. She gives me hope for not only our academy but for every single beautifully passionate student who steps foot on our campus. She and her tremendous team make me confident the world will get better, and that it all starts here, on a little campus off Firetower Road, in a school we love.
Let’s give her everything we can to ensure her success. To make your tax-deductible gift to West Nottingham Academy, please visit our secure online giving page.
Author Rehan Choudry, WNA Class of 1998, serves as the President of the Board of Trustees.