Who We Are and What We Value: HB navigates the tricky terrain of today’s hyper-competitive environment by putting students at the center of all we do

Authored by Hathaway Brown Head of School Dr. Fran Bisselle

In recent months, HB educators and administrators have engaged in important and meaningful conversations about who we are and what we value as an institution. We’ve also welcomed a number of professionals to HB who have shared their perspectives with us. 

We were enlightened by the points of view of Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is, and Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University—both of whom reminded us that stress and anxiety are at an all-time high for adolescent and pre-adolescent girls. They also offered advice on how we might continue to counter that at HB. 

Additionally, we’ve been paying close attention to the news and mining the landscape when it comes to the high-stakes world of college admission and how it affects students across the country. And we’ve been in regular consultation with our school psychologist Dr. Mark McConville and continuing our own school-wide initiatives to bring a healthy balance to students’ lives through the Center for Leadership & Well-Being.

All of this introspection and outward analysis of the terrain our girls navigate has prompted us to clearly articulate the student-centered philosophy that guides and animates our work at HB as we prepare girls for the world beyond our campus. While I’m writing this month about issues that mainly affect our Upper School students, research demonstrates that girls are feeling these very real stressors at younger and younger ages, so it is important for everyone in our community to be cognizant about our students’ life experiences and how the adults in their lives can support them. HB is dedicated not only to the academic development of our students but to their social-emotional growth too. 

Although it might not always appear to be the case, teens pay close attention to what the adults in their lives do and say. And, it is because of this that at Hathaway Brown School we are very deliberate in how we show what we value and how we celebrate our students’ many successes and achievements.

In a competitive independent school market, we often feel compelled to share with families quantifiable metrics to convey the value of their investment in an all-girls education. Typically, we share milestones such as National Merit Semifinalists and National Merit Commended Student designations (this is based on the junior year performance of the College Board’s PSAT) and the college matriculation list, which identifies where the graduating class has decided to attend college. We are proud to honor our students not only by recognizing these markers, but also in the wide array of other weighty accomplishments they earn during their time at HB including, but not limited to: Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholars, Tri-M Music Honors, Melvin Scholars, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Speech and Debate All-Americans, performing arts, service, entrepreneurship, and other types of specialty program recognition, and championships in athletics. We are also deeply proud of our students’ achievements that don’t have a medal or score to go along with them: spearheading advocacy and awareness initiatives, organizing voter registration drives, showing years-long dedication to after-school tutoring, volunteering for area nonprofit organizations, or even managing large responsibilities for younger siblings and chores at home.

Schools, by and large, create an “output” that can be tough to measure. While it is less messy to quantify content knowledge and subject-specific skills through measures like standardized test scores and class grades, what is the metric for confidence? Intellectual curiosity? Open-mindedness? Adaptability? Enthusiasm? Self-Discipline? Integrity? Determination? Creativity? Resilience? Work Ethic? Bravery? Time and again, employers across the nation speak of “soft” skills such as these to be the traits they are looking for in a workforce. An excellent school that is truly dedicated to educating the whole student cultivates all of these traits in an individual, and HB’s dedication to this is like no other. In fact, we intentionally designed our signature Institute for 21st Century Education, established in 1998, and the 11 distinct Centers it comprises as a reinvention and reimagination of the traditional academic architecture, giving our students room to develop these important soft skills and character traits in authentic, supportive environments. 

Hathaway Brown students work exceptionally hard, and in a desire to achieve the goals they set forth for themselves, as well as the goals they perceive their parents have for them, they can feel a lot of pressure. HB students are not alone. In September, The Washington Post shared scholarly research discussing how students in high achieving schools are now deemed an at-risk group. The Post refers to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which listed poverty, trauma, discrimination and “excessive pressure to excel” among the top environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness. While the causes of tension and anxiety for students at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum are very different, both groups have been deemed at risk for exhibiting symptoms of toxic stress.

Similarly, the nation’s most prominent universities have taken note of these weighty issues. Challenge Success, a research group housed within Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, urges families to better understand the criteria for US News and World Report’s rankings. Likewise, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education has recently introduced the Making Caring Common initiative, which features resources highlighting how to cultivate character through college admissions.

It is through this lens that educators and administrators at Hathaway Brown School have developed our philosophical approach in how we celebrate students’ accomplishments. The students are paying attention and are following our lead. 

We feel strongly that accomplishments should be celebrated! At the same time, we want to make sure we don’t place an unhealthy emphasis on any one aspect of students’ academic and life experiences.

We only share information on student accomplishments when it is complete and accurate. We never want to be in a position in which a student is inadvertently overlooked, or is recognized for something that actually hasn’t come to fruition.

The accomplishments belong to the students, and we honor them if they do not want their accomplishments shared.

In early May, we are proud to share the list of colleges our students choose to attend, and we always respect the choices our students make. It is key to remember that a variety of factors well beyond name recognition and academic reputation affect their decisions. We do not provide a large list of every single offer of admission students have received, as we feel it feeds into society’s growing “commodification” of college admissions among the nation’s most selective institutions. Additionally, it doesn’t serve our relationship with colleges to announce in a public forum how our students have declined offers of admission to their schools.

This approach is rooted in sound educational philosophy that keeps our students at the center of all we do. It also is in keeping with our strategic plan, which guides our work. As that plan notes, “It is our collective responsibility to make sure that the virtues of a Hathaway Brown education are passed on to future generations of girls, along with the values that define us:

  • Our unwavering faith in the unbounded capabilities of girls and women;
  • Our conviction that character matters most of all, that the potential for leadership dwells in everyone, and that there are myriad pathways to success;
  • Our fascination with excellence and, beyond excellence, with imagination;
  • Our insistence on educating and valuing the whole child, mind, body, and spirit, each girl each day;
  • Our belief that we are responsible for the welfare of the community beyond our campus, and that we must share our knowledge and gifts and touch the lives of others who need support, especially girls, in Greater Cleveland and around the world; and
  • Our emphasis on endless learning and the power of ideas to change the world.”


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