Looking back at KO’s 2020 Vision, looking ahead at future strategic development plans

Investigative

By Teddy Crowther ’22 and Ashleigh Stepnowski ’22

Strategic planning is an integral part of the development of any institution, and Kingswood Oxford is no exception. The strategic planning of KO has undergone numerous changes over the past few years, and the ideas present continue their attempt to foster a productive, intellectual, and inclusive community.

On Oct. 30, 2014, a new vision for KO was born as the Board of Trustees approved plans for an extensive renovation project and development effort, known under the moniker of the “2020 Vision.” The original plans included transforming Conklin Library into a modern and advanced library known as the Conklin Research and Innovation Center, as well as the conversion of Brayton Ice Hockey Rink into a multipurpose fieldhouse. Other proposals included the renovation of Lower Roberts, College Advising, and the Trout Brook entrance to campus.

Seven years later, looking back at the plans that were set to be accomplished last year, the school can take refuge in the fact that this strategic plan did come to fruition in some respects. KO successfully renovated its hockey rink into a fieldhouse that serves a large portion of the student body, while also creating a new student lobby area in Lower Roberts, complete with workspaces, a new College Advising space, and an updated outdoor entrance. “We made the area by the Dean of Students’ Office  more welcoming,”  Senior Associate Head of Admissions Rebecca Benavides said, “a place where students can hang out when they’re in between classes or waiting for their ride.” 

However, the entirety of the 2020 Vision was not about altering the physical landscape of the campus, as it was also about raising the school’s endowment and creating a better learning environment for students. “I think what was really exciting is more of the programmatic changes,” Director of Communications Jacqueline Pisani said, “whether the classes were more hands-on, or more interdisciplinary, and linking you to more real-world experiences,” 

That being said, many of the goals set for the school seven years ago have not been met. A library renovation, set for completion by 2020, still remains in the early stages, and questions regarding the goal to raise endowment from alumni and donors are still uncertain today. “I think one of the challenges of it was that it was sort of an all-encompassing strategic plan,” Head of School Thomas Dillow remarked, “so it sought to do a lot of things together and all at once,” 

Around the KO community, Mr. Dillow’s words seem to ring true for many people, as this big ambitious goal was potentially a weaker strategy; it did not deal with small, incremental, and specific steps, but instead a rigid vision, one that was not fully realized. While the 2020 Vision today is often regarded as a forgotten part of KO’s recent years, its impacts have not gone unnoticed, and many incomplete components of the vision are still goals the school has currently.

Nearing 2020, the administration at KO realized that a new strategic plan would position the school in a better place after learning from the 2020 Vision. It is important to note, however, the changes in the school’s administration since 2014. The positions of Head of School, Head of the Upper School, Head of the Middle School, Dean of Students, Athletic Director, Director of Communications, Director of Advancement, and Director of Admissions all have had a change in personnel since the introduction of this plan.

KO’s new strategic vision still includes eventual plans for the renovation of Conklin Library and a continued emphasis on changing the environment and curriculum inside classrooms. It was not a surprise for many to see KO embark on a new strategic vision, one that Mr. Dillow officially released in February 2020 as part of the State of the School Address. “I think that a fresh perspective is always good,” Mrs. Pisani said. “I can’t say that the change of leadership was the thing that did it; I think it was a little bit of both. I think it’s like a new set of eyes to look at things, and also what the school needs after 10 years.”

The most significant and noticeable change about KO’s new strategic vision is that the objective was not to launch a large campaign and generate press about a singular vision, but instead to set minor goals and changes that would provide concrete steps towards improvement. “There’s a lot of facets that come together to support this,” Mr. Dillow stated, “including facilities, including becoming a more sustainable school, including raising money, for instance, for raising faculty professional development, and also thinking about curriculum and classes.” 

While the 2020 Vision was undoubtedly fixated on improving the school’s image, infrastructure, and facilities, some shifts in KO’s ideals and community have also changed how the administration has gone about assembling a new strategic plan. 

A focus on student development, altering the curriculum, and developing new teaching methods have become of the essence for the school. “Our goal is to continue to improve our facilities,” Mr. Dillow said, “but we want to be smart about our growth, and not simply spend money on new buildings and renovations all the time, but try to invest in people, try to invest in programs that we think are going to have the biggest impact on our students.” 

As it has on every aspect of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the strategic plan. A month after the debut of the new strategic plan, KO was forced to go into an online learning format as the country dealt with the ongoing pandemic.

 Despite this, the school forged ahead with aspects of the plan. “We launched the strategic vision and made it public last February in the State of the School Address, and a month later, we were dealing with COVID,” Mr. Dillow said. “That said, we still put in place some things we wanted to do this year that would start moving us towards that, and a number of those things are going on.”

One of these aspects implemented despite COVID-19 has been new interdisciplinary classes. For students in Form 3, the previous “Empires and Republics” course has been replaced with “Global Cities,” a course focused on cities across the world and connections back to Hartford, and how Hartford can become a smart city, with the intent of students drawing connections between local and international issues. The Upper School also plans to introduce new electives next year geared towards the practices of their strategic vision, with one of them relating to African-American history. Similarly, students in Form 1 now take an interdisciplinary course called The Power of Water, where they study the Connecticut River and its impacts across English, science, and history courses. 

While these course modifications have taken place, other parts of the plan have been put on hold entirely as a result of COVID-19. In order to obtain the resources necessary to ensure the school was COVID-safe, funds initially earmarked for the strategic plan were shifted to be used for COVID-related purchases, such as PPE, new technological equipment, and additional sanitary aid on campus.

In the future, as the pandemic winds down, the school plans to return to the strategic plan in full force. Renovations of the Conklin Library that were not able to be completed in the 2020 Vision are planned to be completed as a part of the new strategic plan. “In particular, there is a plan for the renovation of the library,” Mr. Dillow said, “and its conversion into a community commons and the possibility of more outdoor spaces for students and faculty and staff to dine, to study, and to socialize.” 

Such renovations of the library and other on-campus areas require funds. In addition to typical fundraising and campaign efforts for these renovations, money from the eventual sale of the Children’s Museum will go towards these projects as well. 

The Children’s Museum, a building that KO owns but rents to a private entity, was recently announced to be going up for sale. “It doesn’t really do anything for the school; it doesn’t really align with our strategic goals, our mission, it’s just kind of sitting there,” Mrs. Pisani said. “By selling that and however much money we make on that property, we’ll put it back into programming.”

Not only will the money from the sale of the Children’s Museum go to the renovations, but it will also go towards funding the other ideals of the vision. According to the KO website, the end goal of the vision is to “…ensure that our students are well-prepared and that our School is well-positioned to continue to deliver on our compelling mission to inspire students to excel and lead lives of integrity and involvement.” 

The vision is centered around preparing students for success in the future, in college, and beyond. The school, recognizing the uncertainty of the world as a result of COVID-19, intends for the plan to help students learn how to face challenges and learn new skills to prepare them to take on the future. 

These programmatic changes are one of the things that community members are most optimistic about. Head of the Upper School Daniel Gleason agreed, and the reaction from the community has been positive as well. “From what I’ve heard, the reaction has been pretty positive,” Dr. Gleason said. “It’s pretty exciting to think locally.”

As the school has moved forward and continues to progress towards the future, it will continue to adapt, change, and work towards its goals guided by a new strategic vision.