A community worth bringing together

A community worth bringing together

FARES CHEHABI EDITOR-IN-CHIEF and GABRIEL RUIMY CULTURE EDITOR

Principal Jack Phillips knew something was amiss in his first few months at ASL. The long gap between the year’s opening assemblies and the assembly held on October 15 made him “curious.” For him, questions began to arise: “It got me wondering: What is the community like here? What do we stand for? What’s our shared purpose?”

These questions prompted action. Already one of the busiest individuals of the High School faculty, Phillips has taken on the immense task of addressing ASL’s sense of community; establishing a sense of community is his bare minimum objective. “It would be unrealistic, and I think nai?ve, to say that we want everyone to be friends with everyone. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “But everyone should feel like they belong, and that, to me, is sort of a non-negotiable.”

Early in Dean of Students Joe Chodl’s tenure, no prevailing sense of community was present at ASL. Today, on the other hand, he sees progress. High School students, Chodl said, had a mindset of exploration, not belonging: “There was very much ‘we want to experience London, we want to be in London’ – that’s what it was all about. And whenever [students] had the opportunity they would go away from the school.”

The interpersonal dynamic has changed, Chodl believes. Today, ASL takes on a role that transcends the duties of a school into those of a community. “I would believe there is a greater ASL community, it being a place for lots of American expatriates where they’re connected,” Chodl said.

And furthermore, beyond the American nationality component of ASL’s persona, the school has adopted a stringent sense of activity, ranging from charity clubs to season sports. Chodl justifies the presence of an ASL community: “ASL has [clubs and events] like the Cub Scouts, all these things that are outside what a school normally does; some things that a community normally would do.”

Members of ASL’s community today do not have distinct and limited roles. Students organize events, play in sports, lead clubs; faculty parent students, coach sports, and administer clubs. Chodl’s ex- ample is one of many: “I’m an administrator, I coach, I’m a parent of the community. Very active. Lot of time on the weekends spent at ASL because of the connection.”

World Languages and Cultures Teacher Victoria Hamadache believes that a sense of community is also present beyond the confines of the school campus. Teachers often meet up after school and foster extra- professional relations that facilitate intra- department bonding. After 28 years of teaching at ASL, Hamadache notes that she is not sure there is “a strong holistic community spirit now.” But, attending an ASL anniversary event in Las Vegas, Nevada, where former students and teachers were present, she felt the sense of community there: “As a teacher seeing former students from years before that was just utterly amazing.”

Having moved away from central London, Hamadache felt separated from the ASL community which is largely based in the St. John’s Wood area. However, events like the aforementioned reunion “truly proved that there is an [ASL] community out there.” to her.

Attendance Officer and Assistant to the Dean of Students Akay Mustafa believes that ASL has a plethora of community- building opportunities at hand. Ranging from drama productions to club fairs, ASL’s extracurricular activities foster a culture of student and faculty involvement. The only problem we have is not harnessing them like we should.

“Athletics is an opportunity that we’ve not capitalized upon. As a [soccer] coach, I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had more than just the parents watching the game. It has to be a special designated day or whatever, but we’ve never really done it properly. I think there’s a great opportunity there to foster a good sense of community,” Mustafa said.

Hamadache could only agree. “The rugby match at the Allianz Park was a great effort,” she said. It was well-advertised, it featured the ASL community on the stage and in the audience, so to say. The community cannot berate what it already has, Hamadache said, today it’s only about exploiting the room for improvement we have.

Social Studies Teacher Kenneth McKinley, a member of the ASL faculty for 23 years now, appreciates ASL’s liberal approach to education and interpersonal relations within the school. “I’d be rather uncomfortable, I think, in a big monolithic community where everybody is doing the same thing and has the same interests,” he said. “One of the things I always liked about ASL was that people could form their own groups and do their own things and pursue their own interests with their own friends.” Chodl continued this idea by saying that students can be participants in the community without feeling “some part of an ASL community persona.”

The idea of a community being a congregation of sub-communities has come as a daunting prospect to some and a flexible one to others. Yearbook Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Robertson (’14) reflects on her participation in extracurricular groups like the Student Council (StuCo) and the Yearbook as being beneficial to her overall development as a student and an individual. “Taking part in organized groups helps develop tightly- knit, diverse groups of students. Because of the developed structure of Yearbook or StuCo, there are students from every grade, boys and girls [participating],” Robertson said.

Sub-communities, provided they are established in protocol, create a sense of community between smaller groups of students. These groups find membership from every niche of the High School population – eventually constructing a community built of many other communities.

“In my freshmen and sophomore year,” Robertson continued, “taking part in StuCo was really significant because it helped me make connections with students outside of my friend group and really be part of the ASL community.”

All in all, Robertson noted, “Everyone can be as present as they want, really. It just depends on the person.”

StuCo President Issy Kelly (’14) believes that sub-communities are in no way de- structive to the more pervasive, holistic ASL community; they don’t obstruct inter- group relations in any way. “I don’t feel like the student body is exclusive. I don’t feel like there’s groups of people I can’t approach.”, she said.

The issue is not with sub-communities; those, for the most part, already impact the greater community in significant ways.

What Kelly sees lacking is our complete community time; “I do feel like because we don’t have so much community time, you just don’t see those groups together so often, so it makes sense that you see these separations.”

ASL has built our community from base to tip in sub-communities; though these groups form a stable base, ASL has not created an identity that is transcendent to this edifice. Community time is an offered solution, letting everyone do what they want is an other. But whether a cohesive, pervasive community is the end goal or not, it should be present for those who need it.

Due to the sheer variety and number of extracurricular activities provided for students to participate in at ASL, the community as a whole could be viewed as a sum of its parts rather than as a uniform entity.

While it is relatively straightforward to determine the number and names of participants within sub-communities such as Model United Nations, Robotics, or Middle East Club, there is currently no database in place to keep track of an individual student’s participation in extracurricular activities overall.

Students who do not belong to a sub- community, if left unaccounted for, are left without a strong sense of overarching community to fall back on. The predicament leaves the administration in a worrisome position, as they cannot locate and subsequently support students who do not belong to a sub-community as easily as they would like without an all-encompassing database in place.

The construction of such a database is currently underway. Phillips believes that this closer monitoring of students will aid the development of a greater sense of community. “One of the things that I think is important when I talk about community is not just developing a shared sense of community but it’s also, again, how we are monitoring and supporting students’ induction into this environment as a member of ASL as well as their own growth, and I think that takes some systematic approaches,” he said. “It’s not just about numbers but it is about being really thorough.”

McKinley, meanwhile, expressed reservations about the implementation of a database to identify students who are without a sub-community and thus unaccounted for. “I think [students] ought to be left alone to some extent. If you want to come to school from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then go home and do whatever you want to do, that might be more important for you and for your development as an individual,” he said.

Clubs tend to be the most student-driven sub-communities within the High School, with faculty members assuming supervising responsibilities as ‘club moderators’. By the year’s end, the clubs collectively achieve a ranging spectrum of productivity. While some raise upward of £1,000 through a series of well- coordinated fundraising events, some hold a couple of poorly attended meetings before falling to the wayside. Mustafa is the faculty member charged with dealing with the logistics of the High School clubs program.

The gap between certain clubs in terms of activity, he believes, is down to the clubs’ purposes and goals. “We might now need to really separate it because we have academic clubs, we have service clubs and we have social clubs. Each one has a right to exist. Each one has a right to have as much activity or as little activity as long as they satisfy the purpose for which they were created,” he said

Overall, though, Mustafa sees the High School clubs program as “very successful.” “I think Right To Play is a fantastic example of something that came in as a small student club and now is a huge part of our community. I look at the stuff that we’ve done with Whizz Kids. I look at the stuff with Doorstep. Now it’s part of our community partnership scheme,” he said. “There are things that came in through the High School clubs program that we need to really applaud and be proud of.”

Moreover, Mustafa highlighted the potential in clubs for individual students to take charge and have an impact. “If an individual wants to really affect things and really have an impact and really create something that they can be proud of, there’s an opportunity to certainly do that,” he said.

Moving forward, the idea of implementing advisories – in which small groups of students regularly meet with respective faculty members – throughout the High School has given Phil- lips plenty to think about. “We can’t just put an advisory in for the sake of an advisory. We can’t have an assembly for the sake of an assembly,” he said. “We need to have a clear idea of what it is we’re trying to accomplish and that’s a combination of being student-driven and adult-driven.”

Otherwise, Phillips sees greater student voice at assemblies as “really important” for fostering a greater sense of togetherness. That said, he also called for greater faculty voice at assemblies. “We focus a lot on the students, which is wonderful. But I think, in my sense, in the schools that I have seen that have a really highly developed community, there are also teachers getting up on stage,” he said.

Phillips is also considering the implementation of regular open meetings in which members of the administration field questions and converse with members of the student body. Kelly sees these potential meetings as “a good way for [the administration] to talk to the students and lay everything out on the table and give students the chance to ask the questions they want answered.”

She believes a more formal setting for such meetings will be beneficial, citing Student Council’s difficulties in conducting similar meetings in the past. “Student Council has tried to do that before, but the problem we’ve run into is sometimes people don’t really attend. In Student Council, there’s people who are in your classes who you can speak to more informally, but with administration it’s not the same thing. It might be better to have a formal setting,” she said.

Phillips’ overarching vision remains clear: “I think [a strong community] looks like a combination of rituals and ceremonies throughout the year that really celebrate the things that make ASL really special and the things that separate us and make us a world-class institution.

“I think it is making sure there are a variety of options for students to find that personal interest point and I also think it is making sure students have deeper connections with people other than just their friends. Again, it doesn’t mean being friends, but it means [having] a supportive network throughout the school,” he said.

fares_chehabi@asl.org

gabriel_ruimy@asl.org