The View From Here

A snapshot into life at Sonoma Academy taken from many angles, The View From Here is our bi-monthly blog featuring reflections from the Head of School, and other staffulty members. 

The View From Here: Current Article

List of 3 news stories.

  • The View From Here: Creating Our Community

    By Sandy Stack, Director of Enrollment, Financial Aid, & Institutional Research

    At one of our Open House events earlier this month, I looked out over the crowd of students and parents as they huddled over the packs of cards we distribute to each group. The cards are printed with phrases like, “be accepted for who you are,” “encouraged to take healthy risks,” and “inspiring teachers,” and they are designed to spark conversation about what the family is looking for in a high school experience. Each group was having an animated discussion about what is important to them, and each group’s answer was a little different. Some were looking for something familiar to latch onto in order to feel more comfortable, while others were eager to venture out into something entirely new. Every year, this is one of those moments that I enjoy observing; you can see these young eighth graders lighting up as they consider all the possibilities laid out before them. And surprised parents light up, too, seeing the unexpected energy levels of their teens toward high school and learning.

    Conversation is at the heart of our Admissions process; in fact, I often think of the admissions season as an ongoing conversation with prospective families. You start with small talk; then, as you establish more of a connection, you get to the headier stuff, and my favorite part: what is important to you and for your teen? What do you hope for from the high school experience? What will your teen need in order to thrive? As we enter into the time of year when these conversations get deeper, I am curious, excited, and extremely full of pride in our school. 

    Throughout the fall, we have been visiting many middle schools around the region. Our All-Star student represpresentives come along to speak about the everyday experience at Sonoma Academy, answering questions and sharing the things they love about their school. Their enthusiasm and passion for their school is the best advertising, and it is extremely valuable for prospective applicants to hear directly from current students themselves. 

    Our Early Decision deadline is right around the corner, and this is where we really get to know the first round of our applicants. The admissions committee looks carefully at the whole picture —not just grades and test scores (although those are important, too), but activities, recommendations, and attitude. This year, we have added a new element to our application process, the SSAT Character Assessment. This survey of social and emotional temperament will provide another fascinating data point, painting a more detailed picture of each applicant. 

    It’s impossible to say exactly what kind of applicant is the ideal fit for Sonoma Academy, because our students are such wonderful mashups of skills, passions, and abilities. Essentially, the ideal applicant is interested, motivated, curious, and eager to be a part of an inclusive learning community, and those characteristics come in many guises. Just as it is in a great conversation where the participants are on the same wavelength, understanding and engaging one another, sometimes there is an intangible “click.” That is what we are looking for, above all. 

    In a few weeks, I will have another one of those moments that I look forward to during admissions season, when I sit with visiting families in the bleachers during Community Meeting on Visit Day. I am always filled with pride as I see the talent, confidence, and capacities on display, and prospective parents are often in awe of what our students can do. Community Meeting always reminds me of how inspired I am by our collaborative, supportive culture, where students are encouraged to develop deep self-knowledge and to maintain a healthy balance, even as they take risks and stretch themselves. As I watch prospective families begin to understand our unique and special community, I feel fortunate and honored to be involved in introducing them to our school for the 12th year!
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  • The View from Here: Creating Curriculum

    Kelly Castañeda thinks about a lot of things. Sit down to have a conversation with her and you might find yourself deeply immersed in an exploration of ethical decision-making, the role of cross-cultural experiences in student learning, or a cool project happening in the Studios right now. Three years ago, she returned to Sonoma Academy as our first-ever Dean of Curriculum. “Returned” because Kelly had worked here once before as a STEM teacher (from 2004 to 2010, she taught chemistry and math, and served as our STEM Department Chair). She returned after a long stint at the Crossroads School where she also taught math and was a grade level advisor assisting with academic advising and social-emotional support.

    As Dean of Curriculum, Kelly sees her primary work as ensuring that our mission is made manifest throughout our curriculum. She also seeks ways to build connections between various elements of our programming — amplifying work that is already being done, utilizing different programs to enhance meaningful learning opportunities, and looking for ways to evolve current programs to make them even better at meeting their stated learning objectives.

    Says Kelly, “We have the benefit of working in an environment where our programs are always evolving. So we are continually looking for ways to build bridges and make connections, as well as explicitly amplifying programs that focus on a student’s sense of meaning and intrinsic motivation.”
    This year, Kelly is spending a lot of time in the classroom. She has made a commitment to spend time in every single teacher’s classes, focusing especially on our core academic subjects. Doing this allows her to get a deeper understanding of both what it is like to be a student here and to have a more thorough understanding of what is currently happening, so that she can build programming that leverages the learning that is already occurring.

    Although there are endless examples of this (see future Couriers for articles that focus on these!), Kelly highlights a couple that are top-of-mind for her right now. In the arena of teaching our students to communicate across cultures, Kelly is interested in finding ways to more deeply anchor our international travel programs into the curriculum. Because our Humanities I curriculum--built around the central question “How does geography shape culture”—already develops a certain level of cross-cultural skill, any additional program developed can start at a much higher level.

    Our teachers also naturally make use of learning opportunities when they present themselves. For example, Colin MacNamara already teaches a section of his Humanities II courses on Japan. This year, because a number of our students will be traveling to Japan for Intersession, Colin created an exercise for his students to make a travel guide for for those students traveling to Japan. They also worked on creating a series of scenarios that are helpful for newcomers to Japanese culture (things like, “At SA, you are required to wear your shoes on campus. In Japan, you will likely be required to remove your shoes when entering a home or indoor space.”). Kelly is excited to think about opportunities that can build on Colin’s curriculum or other segments of the Humanities courses.

    Lastly, Kelly is focused on the overt articulation of meaningful and purposeful learning within the curriculum—opportunities that build on a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn. She believes that our ungraded programs—Exploratory, Connections, and Intersession—provide wonderful opportunities to help students connect with the joy of learning, or learning for the sake of learning, and she is currently assessing each of these programs for ways to ensure that students have as much opportunity as possible within these to try new things and pursue interests in the relatively pressure-free environment created when grades and transcripts for college don’t factor into the equation.
    A great example of this comes out of our Student Sustainability Leadership program that arose last year. Two of our students, Amelia McDonald ‘19 and Izzy Ryan ‘19, took the learning and activism from this program so seriously that they didn’t bat an eye at being picked up from Grad Night to go to Washington DC with Nancy Metzger-Carter for more lobbying and political action. They had already graduated, enrolled in college, and chose to miss part of an important rite of passage to continue the learning that started here last year. In fact, Amelia and Izzy have both continued on in their climate activism work and continue to make use of Sonoma Academy to further their learning and work in this arena.

    Kelly believes that a core vision for Sonoma Academy is to help all students find the passion, purpose, and meaningful impact of their learning. Ultimately, that is the essence of the work she does. We will share updates from Kelly’s curriculum work throughout the year.
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  • The View From Here: Annual Fund Giving

    As some of you know, my son Keefe (pictured above wearing his Teachers Field Day T-Shirt) is starting a new career as a sixth grade teacher at the Presentation School in Sonoma. He’s deeply engaged in his new work, getting up early to review lesson plans, digging into scholarly articles about educational theory. As he has been settling in, he’s called me for bits of advice about various curricular and classroom conundra. The other day, he called to ask me how much he should give to his new school’s Annual Fund. 
    At first, I wanted to say “it doesn’t matter, as long as you give something.” Participating in the Annual Fund shows that you believe in the school, that you’re invested in its success… literally. But then, I reflected about it a bit more and realized that I actually wanted him to know it’s important that he stretch a bit. As a first year teacher, just about anything would be a stretch, but I suggested that he think about the following: what would you spend on a nice dinner out? Maybe a concert or sporting event? What would you give to a political campaign or other organization you felt passionate about? I wanted to make sure that he understood, in his first year as a teacher, that giving matters. It’s a way to support what is most fundamental: children and education. 
    Keefe’s question was one of those serendipitous moments, because we are about to kick off our own Annual Fund efforts. And really, the message is the same. Most important is your participation at whatever level works for your family, but also, we’d like you to stretch just the tiniest bit (or a little more!). We know you already have given us the greatest gift you can—the opportunity to spend these transformative years teaching and learning alongside your children. And we know that you all give to us in countless ways, from all the volunteer hours to your enthusiastic attendance at games, theater productions, and family events to your engagement with your child’s learning, for which we are deeply grateful and honored. 
    You’ll soon be hearing from our Kim and our Advancement Team, and I hope you will join Keefe and I in giving a gift to your children’s education.
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Sonoma Academy Is...

Sonoma Academy is the only private, independent, college preparatory high school in Sonoma County. On our beautiful campus nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in Southeastern Santa Rosa, our students are able to explore their interests and passions in a rigorous and inspiring environment that develops a lifelong love of learning and prepares them for college and beyond.