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Innovation with Impact: U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Visits Heathwood to Explore Signature Programs

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Heathwood was honored to host U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais on February 12 as he toured the school to learn about innovative Heathwood programs and their impacts on students.

Dr. Zais, a retired Army General who has also served as President of Newberry College and S.C. Superintendent of Education, came to Heathwood in support of the Department of Education’s goal of diversifying K-12 educational offerings to better meet the diverse needs of American students. To that end, he heard from Heathwood students, teachers, and parents about their experiences with signature Heathwood programs such as Mindful in the Hall, Senior Exhibition, and Winterim.

“I used to get really stressed before quizzes, tests, and sporting events,” seventh grader Robert Sims Tighe told Zais. “But the deep breathing and other things I’ve learned through the Mindfulness program have helped me be a lot more calm and focused.”

That, said Middle School Head Suzanne Nagy, is one of the main goals of the Mindful in the Hall program, which was developed in response to growing levels of anxiety among students who are grappling with the challenges of social media and other facets of their digital lives on top of the perpetual stressors of adolescence. “We’re working with kids in a variety of ways to help them calm their nervous systems so they can be more successful in school and in their extracurriculars,” Mrs. Nagy said. “And so far we’re seeing great results.”

Likewise, Upper School Head George Scouten and Upper School Dean of Students and 12th grade English Teacher Elise Hagstette explained how Heathwood’s longstanding Senior Exhibition program equips students for success in college-level coursework and beyond. Because the program requires all Heathwood seniors to write and present a thesis-type piece of original research, they learn skills that many students are lacking when they arrive in college: “They’re putting together an advisory committee, including taking the initiative to reach out to an outside expert,” Dr. Scouten said. “They’re learning how to manage schedules, meet a series of deadlines, put together a prospectus, research, write, and present a lengthy paper – all skills that our graduates tell us over and over prepared them very well for college and their careers.”

Dr. Zais concurred, citing a study that found effective written and oral communication skills are increasingly important as a military officer’s career progresses. Having visited almost 300 schools during his tenure with the Department of Education, he also noted that he’s learned that really good schools know how to encourage parents to be involved in their children’s educations, something the parents in attendance said they appreciated about Heathwood.

Apart from the value of signature programs that create significant opportunities for personal and intellectual growth, the theme that emerged most clearly from the session was the importance of relationships in creating a strong learning environment. Students and teachers alike cited small classes and a school culture of respect for the value of all as making a big difference in the academic experience at Heathwood. For example, said Upper School English Teacher Sally Plowden, because her daughters felt respected by their teachers when they were Heathwood students, they were very comfortable connecting with professors when they got to college in a way that many students are not. “It was like they just took Heathwood with them when they went to college,” she said. “And that made them very successful in the college classroom.”