Administration to establish community building discussions

Small groups of students and faculty will gather to discuss community issues and events seven times this year as part of the new Civitalks program.

Each section of 18 students will “come together and discuss matters of importance to our community,” Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas said.

The first Civitalks meetings will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Barzdukas hopes to incorporate current events and school issues into the discussions of values and community and “pay attention to what’s happening in the world around us,” he said.

Upper school dean Pete Silberman and former Character Education Committee and head math teacher Ashley Satterthwaite, who moved to Utah at the end of the last school year, had been searching for a way to improve what they saw as a lack of community among Harvard-Westlake students and faculty without imposing significantly on either party.

“This came out of some clear problems we identified at the school: the need to build a community and a desire to have more unstructured time between students and faculty,” Silberman, now the head of the committee, said.

Barzdukas worked with the Character Education Committee to implement the idea. They dealt with the lack of time and space by splitting students into much smaller groups and incorporating the discussions into the school day.

Discussion themes will vary throughout the year, with the first segment focused on ensuring that students feel comfortable talking within their Civitalks group, Silberman said.

“We also know that things come up,” he said. “For example, it would’ve been wonderful to have this last year after we lost Justin [Carr ’14], to have this space built in.”

Assistant to the Head of Upper School Michelle Bracken divided the upper school student body into 49 groups of 17 or 18 students. Two or three faculty members will lead each group discussion, and each group will include a Peer Support leader or trainee along with an equal balance of sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“There’s a lot of kids in the upper school, and you can’t always get a perfect mix, and that’s one of the things we’ll see, how the groups will play out,” Silberman said.

Barzdukas likened the Civitalks concept to a “family dinner” in which students and faculty would bring their own stories to a collaborative discussion.

“The way family dinner works is we’re all doing what we do and somebody says it’s time for dinner, and we stop doing our own thing and we come together for dinner and we sit around and we talk while we eat,” he said.

The school will not, however, provide food for the Civitalks program; Bracken hopes that students will eventually begin to bake or bring food to their groups as part of a bonding process. Food for the entire student body would have cost $60,000, she said.

“Logistically, even if we had pizza delivered just for one of [the meetings], it means someone would have to be at the stations to deliver them and we couldn’t participate in the activity,” Bracken said.

Silberman also vetoed the idea after considering the message the budget would send to students.

“It certainly would be in our interest to spend $60,000 to get food for everybody, but the truth is that we didn’t necessarily think that was the best use of $60,000,” he said. “Part of it is that we want to model that you kind of have to prioritize the community over your own interests.”

Student planners include a Civitalks module along with other assembly schedules, but Bracken realized that the planned Civitalks schedule would interrupt one of the school’s most common double lab periods. The program will follow Special Schedule D instead, meaning groups will meet for 45 minutes between fourth and fifth periods on the indicated days.

Barzdukas said he would welcome discussion topic ideas from students and faculty, and he hopes that the program will further unite the Harvard-Westlake community and capitalize on its preexisting unity.

“Last year was my first year in this job and one thing that I learned was that in times of triumph, like when the baseball team won the championship, and in times of tragedy, and we experienced the ultimate tragedy this year, our community is incredibly strong,” Barzdukas said.

The other six meetings, also on Wednesdays throughout the year, fall on Oct. 9, Nov. 13, Dec. 11, Feb. 12, March 12 and April 9.

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