With the recent Board of Regents meeting in New York City in mind, The Mercersburg News interviewed Head of School Quentin McDowell and Associate Head of School Jennifer Craig to assess the state of the school mid-year and review the school’s long-term ambitions. Topics of discussion included DEI, faculty turnover, the new boarding school admissions landscape, defining school culture, faculty committees, and connecting with the local borough community.
Mercersburg News: What can you tell us about the recent Board of Regents meeting in New York?
Jennifer Craig: When we're talking about big changes to the school or governance of the dollars of the school or things like that, that is what that meeting is about. We talked about financial sustainability; we have some campus planning going on for different parts of the infrastructure; there was a gender task force and a section of the meeting where we were talking about gender inclusivity. We talked a lot about PGAs; there was a significant increase in the number of PGAs at one point because of COVID. [We asked,] 'Should [PGAs] be called that? Do we have the right ones? Are we offering what we should be offering to our students? What is the intentionality behind our programming?'
MN: How has school culture changed because of COVID? How is the school attempting to restore or improve its culture?
QM: I think that culture is directly tied to your individual experience. During the pandemic, only 70 of our students had had a full year here, uninterrupted. That's a fraction of our students, so obviously, the culture did weaken. From the little things like picking up trash and holding doors but to larger issues as well. Our culture should be that we see and appreciate the differences and the value that each one of us brings in terms of what we have done. So how do we make sure that we foster culture? One way is listening to students, so I meet with [student council executives] Ruby [Shang ’24] and Jordan [Yuan ’24] regularly now. We are also looking at policy ideas, such as behavior, the point system, the check-in and check-out policy, and we are trying to create a way for students to have sleepovers.
MN: How has the administration been attempting to address the change in school culture following COVID? How has the community evolved over the past four years since COVID? What efforts have been taken to restore that loss of culture?
JC: I am going to talk about schools more [broadly] because this is only my second year, and it is hard for me to talk about pre-/during COVID. I was at a different school in a different country during that time. Yet, one thing I have learned… working at schools in four different countries [is that] students and adolescents worldwide need to be loved first and challenged second. Risk-taking is part of the developmental growth of adolescence. There was such fear that gripped the world during that time, so adolescents weren't able to take the safe risks they would have. That risk is almost the defining factor. If you think evolutionarily—my background is in biology—humans have the longest care period from being a fertilized egg to being independent, so what you do during that time is important. Adolescence is a stage of risk-taking, so a person can be a truly developed being. All the teaching that needs to happen to let an adolescent take important risks [was lacking during COVID]. So now, some of the fear that was rampant during that time is still with us.
Already, adolescence is a time when you think, "Don't stand out," because you want to be a part of something, but the whole point of going to the next step is stepping out, sticking out, being distinctive, and being focused and going for something even if it takes more work or is a little risky or shows you something different, so [our job] is helping and challenging kids [push] farther than their comfort zone. I believe in the power of education to transform lives. If a school can't push and challenge kids to think beyond what they were before they got here, it's not transformative [enough]; we are going back to a moment of transforming kids.
MN: How does the school intend to continue to nurture its relations with the town and people of Mercersburg? Why do you think it is important that the Academy work to strengthen its relationship with the surrounding community?
QM: Here's one thing I will say: there is no Mercersburg Academy without Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. It’s really important to remember that we all own homes in the community and that we pay taxes and do all those things, you know, the practical stuff. We also have this whole area of financial support where we help with emergency services and the fire department and help with the community playground in the summer. I think as we consider the future, it's about building actual relationships, people-to-people. So I've been meeting with the superintendent, I have a meeting coming up with the Water Authority. I've met with a vibrancy committee chair. We now have somebody on the Chamber of Commerce Board, [Director of Executives Services] De-Enda Rotz. I meet regularly with the mayor of Mercersburg. We can be partnering on My Neighbor's Bounty and helping our local food pantry. Dreaming about the future, we may take on a Habitat for Humanity project with students from the high school, but do it in a way that doesn't act like we're helping. It should feel like we're coming together.
MN: What do you make of the recent developments in the DEI Office? How has the Office been making strides? Where does the community have room to improve in fulfilling its DEI goals?
QM: At schools, I don't think that there is ever wasted energy around equity and inclusion. And I think that what has been really wonderful over the past couple of years is drummed hot or desired intentions to make our community more equitable and more inclusive, [such as the] creation of affinity spaces. We see a lot of work done to influence programming much of which [comes from both] students and adults. Oftentimes it's not visible, but it's happening in the background to make sure that we're considering how to create a more equitable curriculum and how to generate the kinds of conditions necessary to feel a sense of inclusion and belonging, so I'm really happy with the work today. I think it is a horizon-chasing endeavor, meaning that we'll never arrive. I'm happy with where we are, but if we are still here a year from now, I won't be happy. I think we always have to be continually working on it and making progress, and that might be our neurodivergent thinkers, our international students, considering LGBTQIA+ community, right? How do we make sure all of our marginalized and more vulnerable segments of our community feel engaged and included?
MN: How do you see the inaugural year of the Civic Engagement Committee panning out? What are your future ambitions for the Committee? Are there any other faculty committees you wish to discuss?
JC: To me, we have this phrase, “individual humility and collective pride,” the phrase that I hope comes through civic engagement. The humility piece means we listen deeply to our community members and work on the voices in our lives. We work on those skills so that we come into this inaugural year openhearted and think about what it means to be a part of a community. There is training that the faculty and staff will be doing on deep listening. We go into groups, tell stories, and conduct floor-like interviews.… [W]hat I more concretely think we are going to be doing is students will have a certain curriculum within a certain class. The group is also interested in getting out the vote. There will likely be parts of getting out into the community as well.
MN: Where is Mercersburg planning to improve its infrastructure? What does the timeline currently shaping up to look like? What measures are being taken to ensure future infrastructure endeavors are environmentally friendly and sustainable?
QM: This year we finished a campus master plan, which essentially outlines what we believe needs to happen. We believe that we need a new Science and Technology Center. We also recognize that at some point we're gonna need a new dormitory, and the new dormitory will allow us again to get into our other dorms and start doing the work that needs to be done in those dorms. And then we know that from a community perspective, our dining hall and our kitchen needs to be updated. In particular, it goes back to the DEI work and that sense of inclusion and community and connection and culture. We really need to be investing in food and in the food experience for our students.
Every time we go in and look at a new building or the renovation of an existing space, we also ask ourselves…: Can we take some square footage away? Can we add square footage? And how do we do that efficiently and sustainably? That is by making sure that the architects we work with are certified with LEED and other environmental certifications, which we have made sure of.
Another part of the process is that we are also doing a study about the power plant for the whole school and how we get all of our electricity. How do we get heat and air and gas and all of that? We're doing a full study to understand what it is that we do now. We're also looking at solar arrays. What would that look like? What it would take to tap into our own water sources instead of using refined water from the tap?
MN: How can the school address the recent widespread faculty turnover? Is this a new development, and if so how do you wish to address it?
QM: I don't know that I would categorize it as widespread faculty turnover. The main reason for the large turnover in previous years was due to the pandemic. On the one hand it's really hard for me because we're losing great people that I believe in and want to have here, but on the other hand we are following a lot of national trends that education was hard hit by the pandemic. It was a really difficult stressful time for teachers and educators. And so a lot of people are looking for other opportunities outside of education and other schools. I think that's calmed down quite a bit with a very normal year of turnover last year. I'm hoping and predicting a more normal year. It has forced us to think about our recruitment and retention efforts. I think that the quality of life for educators is paramount. It means that our educators are happy, healthy and balanced. So I've done a lot of things like investing heavily in housing, making sure that we're really making the homes work. How are we really doing a lot to think about compensation? And how do we show the really generous compensation of a place like Mercersburg? …Right now we take on a lot. How can we allow people to focus less energy on fewer things? I think that would really benefit the teachers and help create a more joyful environment for our students.
MN: With Mercersburg Class of ’27 having a record low admission rate, how has Mercersburg been adapting to the more competitive admissions landscape?
QM: I think it's a balance, wanting to continue to have an elevated perception in the marketplace, right? We want Mercersburg to be a school that's desirable, but we are not a pressure cooker. How do we be exclusive while still being inclusive? And I think what our balance is always going to be is making sure that we're not compromising on the type of students that we take. We love to have a well-rounded student body of kids who contribute to the whole community in different ways—academically, athletically and artistically, and with extracurriculars. A low acceptance rate also allows us to make sure that we're taking students that we really want and who we think this is gonna be the best possible place to live. I think every student deserves a chance to go to a school like Mercersburg. But I would also say that we know the students that we can do the most with… we’re able to be a little bit more discerning in the application process.
MN: Do you have any final remarks for the Mercersburg community for the remainder of the school year? Any advice? Any words of encouragement?
I would say just remember that although the winter seems long, long winter weekend is coming up and Irving-Marshall Week is also coming, so I encourage you to work hard until then.