An award-winning documentary filmmaker.
A cybersecurity expert.
A world-champion rock climber.
An activist fighting to empower women in war-torn nations.
Authors, actors, attorneys, and architects.
What can the individuals on such a diverse list possibly have in common? That’s easy: They have all been profiled in this magazine – because they are all graduates of The Potomac School.
Flipping through back issues of The Term, you get a sense of the tremendous diversity of vocations and avocations being pursued by Potomac graduates. You see that they are active in virtually every field – that they are out there leading, creating, contributing. And it’s not just in the feature stories that you meet these remarkable people: Pick up any issue and read through the class notes at the back. There, you will encounter men and women from many decades of Potomac’s history who are actively making a difference in their families, their communities, their professions, and the world. You will also begin to detect the common thread that binds and defines graduates of The Potomac School – a thread of thorough academic preparation skillfully interwoven with strength of character.
Certainly, Potomac cannot take all of the credit for its graduates’ successes. Diverse influences – from family life, to activities outside of school, to post-Potomac experiences in college and career – play a part in shaping each individual’s path. Yet the many hours spent in school, the learning opportunities experienced and the relationships formed here, undoubtedly play a seminal role in helping Potomac students become the people they are destined to be. Head of School John Kowalik puts it this way: “At Potomac, we take the long view on education. We are deeply interested in who our students are today, and we are equally interested in who they will become tomorrow.”
It may be that “long view” that makes all the difference. Potomac students understand that their education isn’t about scoring well on a specific exam, winning a particular game, surmounting any one hurdle, or crossing anything off a list. They know that education is about growth; it’s a gradual, cumulative process, a product of environment and effort. The Potomac School’s role is to help its students learn and grow every day, steadily building a strong foundation for their futures.
Potomac’s mission statement asserts that the school “prepares students for lives of purpose, achievement, and generosity of spirit.” A lofty goal, certainly – and a worthy one. But how, exactly, does a child grow into an adult who is prepared to live this kind of life? What knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes position a person to move toward this ideal?
That was the question the Potomac community set out to answer in the fall of 2016 with its “portrait of a graduate” project. Director of Advancement Barbara Overstreet, who co-chaired the effort, explains, “Many schools and colleges develop this kind of document to more fully illuminate their mission and goals. The portrait is a statement of outcomes. It says, ‘These are the qualities that we are committed to helping our graduates develop. These are the capabilities and strengths that we believe position them to lead meaningful, rewarding lives.’”
To begin the process, a task force of faculty and administrators looked at portraits from other institutions and discussed the scope and purposes of Potomac’s project. Who would have a chance to weigh in? Would the portrait be purely descriptive, aspirational, or both? And how would the information be shared and used once it was compiled?
Believing that the logical place to begin any discussion of Potomac graduates is with Potomac graduates, the task force developed an electronic survey that asked alumni to reflect on the knowledge, skills, personal characteristics, and worldview their Potomac education helped them to develop. Director of Alumni Relations Laura Miller recalls, “We kept the questions open-ended in an effort to avoid influencing the responses. For example, we asked, ‘Did your Potomac education help you develop skills that have proven valuable in college or career?’ Those who answered ‘yes’ (which was the vast majority of respondents) were then given the opportunity to list up to three specific skills, with optional comments. We didn’t offer a list of skills for alumni to select or rank, but simply posed an open question to see what they would say.” She adds, “While we received a wide range of responses, patterns immediately began to emerge. Certain answers came up again and again, though sometimes in different words. It was fascinating and, frankly, gratifying to see that happen.”
The task force also developed a survey for parents of Potomac graduates. Laura notes, “It asked many of the same questions, but in a slightly different way. We were trying to get at the value that parents feel their now-adult children derived from their Potomac education. The parents shared lots of thoughtful insights and again, we saw significant consistency in their responses.”
The next step was to talk with people inside the school. The task force decided to conduct a number of focus groups with faculty, staff, and administrators who have a fairly long tenure at Potomac. Task force member and Intermediate School science teacher Mary Cahill moderated these sessions. She notes, “We invited people who have worked here for 10 years or more, on the assumption that these individuals would know quite a number of Potomac graduates. Whether you teach in our lower or upper divisions, if you have been here long enough, you’ve seen students graduate and go on to lead lives of purpose.”
She continues, “Many of the faculty and staff members had anecdotes to share. They have stayed in touch with former students who are now doing impressive things and who are, in many ways, amazing people. Those stories and examples helped us drill down on the qualities that define the Potomac School graduate.”
Barbara Overstreet adds, “This is where the subtle distinction between description and aspiration came up. When we were looking at the responses from alumni and alumni parents, those people were describing their experiences – what they (or their children) actually got out of a Potomac education. Similarly, much of what the faculty and staff shared was descriptive – outcomes they have actually seen, conclusions they could derive from people that they know. At the same time, those internal discussions tended toward the aspirational. The overarching question was slightly reframed; we found ourselves asking not just, ‘Who are our graduates?’ but also ‘Who do we want our graduates to be?’ That seemed like a fair question. After all, if you’re thinking about the outcomes of your daily work, it’s pretty important to be clear about what you are trying to achieve. So in the end, Potomac’s portrait is both descriptive and aspirational. We believe that it is an accurate picture of the kind of graduates this school produces, and we also see it as a clear statement of what we hope to achieve, in even more effective ways, for our future graduates.”
This aspirational aspect gives the portrait additional utility. Director of Communications Shelley Dutton, who co-chaired the effort, observes, “Because of the way our community approached the task of developing this document, the final product is far more than a marketing tool. Certainly, the portrait offers a compelling way to express the value of a Potomac education. But because it fleshes out our mission statement with specific outcomes, and because we see the portrait as simultaneously descriptive and aspirational, it can also serve as a tool for decision making. As we assess our current programs and activities, or weigh proposed new initiatives that would require resources, the portrait can be a useful touchstone, reminding us of our ultimate objectives. We can ask, ‘How does this particular program advance our students toward the outcomes expressed in the portrait? Will this activity or initiative help them grow in some of the specific areas that we have defined as important for their futures?’”
This spring, a number of working groups on campus, including the Academic Council and the Advisory Task Force, began using the portrait in just this way – as a reference tool that clearly delineates Potomac’s ultimate goals for its students.
John Kowalik observes, “This has been a comprehensive process. In addition to the surveys and internal focus groups, we held discussions about the portrait with our Board of Trustees, as well as a number of conversations with parents, alumni, and other friends of Potomac. One thing that emerged strongly through the process is that, as a community, we are all very much on the same page. The things that we value – thorough academic preparation, character formation grounded in our core values, the development of critical life skills, the importance of relationships and community – came through consistently.” He concludes, “I believe that this effort has produced a document that accurately reflects the mission and character of The Potomac School. It is a portrait of the men and women who carry our values and our commitment to excellence out into the world, as they lead lives of purpose, achievement, and generosity of spirit.”