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Twenty years ago, Cary Academy was founded as a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence. This mission has been our guiding force for two decades, and our anniversary celebration this year provides a natural time to follow the thread from the school’s founding vision to our current reality.

School for the Future

From the beginning, Cary Academy was touted as a “school of the future” — with a great deal of attention paid to our strong integration of technology within a core liberal arts program. The school’s founding in 1997 coincided with a great deal of excitement and innovation in the world of technology-enabled communication. Our students had email accounts! Our network was available throughout campus and in the home! Our computers and systems would facilitate new, engaging ways to interact with each other, content, and the wider world.

CA opened during the lift-off of the global internet. We have grown alongside web pioneers like Yahoo, Amazon, and Netflix that were foundlings in the late 1990s. Not everything turned out as advertised, but in the subsequent years two of these firms have gone on to completely disrupt the way we shop and the the way we watch “television.”

School assembly on quad in 1998.

School assembly on quad in 1998.

We had the great fortune to have visionary and generous founders. Inspired by the quad at the University of Virginia, we opened with a beautifully formed campus that immediately set the tone that this would be a serious place of learning. We would infuse a traditional liberal arts philosophy with new pedagogical and technological techniques for the 21st century — bringing to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of first-rate intelligence: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time and still function.

Well, we have done more than just function these past 20 years. A recent survey of 225 alumni makes it clear that we have transformed lives. A few representative comments:

“When I went to college, I was markedly better prepared than most of my peers- my ability to write and think critically put me ahead straight away, and helped me stand out to my professors. I was used to being asked for more than memorizing and spitting back information. Not only did those skills serve me well in college, as I’ve gone forward in my career, they continue to be a key factor in my success.”

“Cary Academy provided the environment and academic rigor that shaped me into the person I am today. My experiences at Cary Academy were more influential in my development than any other period of my life. In short, Cary Academy taught me what it takes to be successful in life. I am forever thankful to my alma mater, its faculty, and staff.”

The Future is Always Moving

As we celebrate 20 years of being a school for the future, it is appropriate to look forward as well as back. We are thrilled that our early bet on the power of information technology has borne some fruit — but where are we headed next?

At my opening meetings with faculty and staff, I shared some visioning from the World Economic Forum. They believe that we are on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will take us beyond the information age into a merging of biological and physical systems, not only disrupting systems and creating new ways of interacting with the world but literally transforming who we are as physical beings.

It is pretty heady stuff, and it is by no way clear how many of these ideas will play out. However, we are preparing students in 6th grade today for a world that could be markedly different when they finish college.

We have attempted to capture this spirit in the vision for our current strategic plan:

Cary Academy will create learning opportunities that are flexible, personalized, and relevant. We will cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world.”

If you have followed our strategic updates or my earlier blog posts, you can see we have begun launching new programs and initiatives that will help us fulfill this vision. Examples include the new MS “citizen science” component that engages our students with data collection and analysis to answer real-world problems or the Work Experience Program launched in the US last year that allowed more than 20 juniors to have an individual, embedded experience with a local business or not-for-profit during the Discovery Term.

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Back to the Future

As we take the opportunity during this anniversary year to reflect back on our founding, we can draw some clear threads from our past to our present. Evan as much has changed in our world and our operations, two things most readily connect us today with the founding vision for the school:  

Cary Academy remains optimistically future forward
In 1997, Cary Academy believed in the future potential of a technology-rich learning environment. At the time, that meant web sites and email communication, and we’ve since moved to mobile, blended learning, and an introduction of many new hands-on tools for science and robotics. At the core, our culture has always been about walking towards the future rather than away. We expose students to a learning organization, and make our learning a part of their learning. We have always believed that students will be much better served to head into a changing world if they are a part of a school that eagerly and transparently embraces change as well.

Cary Academy remains student-centered
In 1997, Cary Academy strived to inspire each student as an individual. We did this by giving our teachers smaller classes and the freedom to adjust their curriculum to match their students needs. We have lately been pushing the boundaries of our institution to look at new programs and paths of studies that are more flexible, relevant, and connected with others outside our walls. We know that learning happens in a social and emotional context, and we want students to work problems that are meaningful to them.

In the end, we want to nurture both institutional and individual curiosity. There is joy, meaning, and impact in this approach towards school and towards life.