It’s September again. I like to begin every school year by revisiting our mission statement:
Thomas Jefferson School gives its students the strongest possible academic background through a classical education. Within a nurturing community, students develop a responsibility for their own learning and a desire to lift up the world with beauty and intellect.
Those are lovely words. But what, exactly, do they mean? As a school, we need to be able to answer that question. If we can’t, then our mission statement amounts to no more than lovely words and isn’t the aspirational touchstone and guiding force that we need it to be.
Beginning with the first key phrase— strongest possible academic background— here is what the TJ mission statement means to me:
Seventy years ago, Harvard graduates Robin McCoy, Charles Merrill, and Graham Spring founded Thomas Jefferson School with the objective of opening a top-flight boarding school for bright boys in the Midwest. Their new school’s academic program and standards were meant to equal or exceed those of well-known boarding schools in the East. From the outset, there was no question that the bedrock of TJ would be intellectual: this was a school founded by scholars, for scholars. Academic excellence was its first priority.
The TJ of 2016 adheres to that same priority and continues to be an academically intensive school, offering one of the most challenging programs in the St. Louis area and the wider region. It is an amazing place for students identified as gifted or high ability. TJ students must be able to take on a rigorous, classical liberal-arts curriculum that includes a significant number of Advanced Placement, college-level courses.
TJ’s strong academic program prepares students for college by developing their critical and expressive capacities in truly remarkable ways. Highly interactive, discussion-based classes, a relentless program of writing, insistence on skills and knowledge that allow for imagining possibilities and solving problems—all of these things set TJ apart from other schools. We certainly pay close attention to trends and innovations in education, but even as we adjust and change, we remain committed to the classical core that has been with us since the beginning. In fact, in some ways, TJ is ahead of the curve. For example, we’ve had “flipped” classrooms forever—our students have always been expected to work ahead, to come to class ready to discuss, expand, question, argue, challenge, and be challenged. TJ has always been interested in building resilience, by allowing students to make mistakes and to be wrong at times. What our founders knew is what we still know today: Without some amount of struggle or setback, there is no real learning.
Obviously, the quality of our academic program matters because we want our students to be successful in college. However, beyond that short-term goal, we want TJ graduates to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to be self-reliant in a challenging world and thrive in a professional landscape where ways of working and living are continually being reinvented. Some of that reinvention will be activated by TJ’s own. Ultimately, isn’t that the best argument for providing the “strongest possible academic background”?