After 18 years, one chapter ends and a new one begins

Editor’s note: This is Upper School Principal Dr. Jon Vogels’ 2021 Commencement speech, delivered on June 3, 2021, to the Colorado Academy Class of 2021.

The end of the school year is always a time to be nostalgic, to look back fondly on the many moments that have led up to Commencement Day. That is especially true for me and my family as we collectively close a chapter of our lives, one that has been 18 years in the making.

Colorado Academy Upper School Principal. Eighteen years is a long time for me to be at this job, and it’s also the approximate current lifespan of all these students. As I look back, not only on this unusual school year, but on the many years that preceded this one for our graduating Seniors, a flood of happy memories and notable moments comes rushing back. In many ways I can say the years have passed quickly, but in other ways I can say the journey has been appropriately long and sometimes winding. There are so many stages and individual highlights that go into a graduating Senior’s life story so far. I have known one of the graduates since birth and many of the others since they were barely out of diapers. I have seen all of you accomplish so much and develop into such interesting people along the way. That’s one of the things that makes this particular graduation so meaningful to me and to many of the other adults in the community.

Having long-standing connections with families is one of the many things that makes Colorado Academy unique. We are one of just a few Pre-K—12 schools in the entire state. Schools like ours are also multifaceted and complex, even more so during a year like this one. We have a lot of moving parts! Yet, from both a parent and educator standpoint, I wouldn’t trade this environment for any other. There are so many features that make it special: the ability to walk across our beautiful campus and see children of all ages, the fact that we can see kids literally grow up before our eyes, and the wonderful interactions that multiple grade levels can have with each other.

When speaking to prospective families, Dr. Davis frequently mentions that a Pre-K—12 school like ours has the ability to take a long view on education. I appreciate that idea and have seen it borne out time and time again. First, taking the long view means we can be patient with children and know that some of the issues that might emerge one year often get resolved the next with a little bit of caring intervention and a lot of patience and reassurance. Or we might see a student who struggles with something in Middle School suddenly blossom in unforeseen ways in Upper School. Therefore, we can help parents to be patient with their children and themselves. I have seen positive growth over time in ways I could never imagine and would scarcely have believed. It is not always easy in a world that rewards immediacy, but experience tells us most things do work out over time, especially when you can work with a family over many years.

Second, taking the long view also has a positive impact on the student community as a whole. Our older students embrace their responsibility as role models. Younger kids look up to and want to emulate the older students. I know our Upper Schoolers value and look forward to the interactions they have with younger students, culminating in our special tradition of pairing Seniors with Kindergarten Buddies. Students also comment on how they appreciate checking in with their teachers from previous years. Even a sometimes-cynical teenager welcomes the fact that their favorite Second Grade teacher is still around and can say “hi” to them on campus. In arts and athletics, those teacher connections might last for the entirety of the student’s experience at the school.

Finally, the long view means we have an even greater appreciation for the benchmarks and traditions that occur over the years. We have Homecoming, All-School Assemblies, Giant Relay Day, pep rallies, the musicals . . . all of which are meant for multiple age groups and bring the entire community together. And our transitional celebrations are among the most memorable of these honored traditions. From our Kindergarten celebration to our 5th and 8th Grade Continuations to Commencement, we recognize and honor the passage from one phase of school life to the next. Even though most of our students stay with us from one division to another, we still mark this time as a milestone and give families a chance to celebrate the journey so far, while looking forward to what comes next.

I am grateful beyond words for my experience here as principal and the experiences my two children have had since they started as toddlers. My son Henry was fortunate enough to be a pioneer from the earliest days of the faculty childcare center. Henry, Garrison Ebel, and Jared Goldstein were all there, and I have the photos to prove it! It speaks to the power of a Colorado Academy experience that all three of these students and their parents would maintain such a long relationship with the school. But they are not alone. The number of students who have been here since childcare was available or who joined very early on is remarkable. Specifically, we have 34 graduating Seniors who started in Pre-K, Kindergarten, or First Grade, which at the time was another entry point. Another ten students joined along the way in Lower School. Clearly, those families saw the benefits of taking the long view, and I hope all those students will always consider CA their second childhood home.

But I don’t want to overlook the significant and powerful additions to the class of 2021 who joined CA along the way, especially in the major transition years, going into 6th and 9th Grades. As much as a Pre-K—12 school needs its long timers, it also needs that infusion of new energy and new personalities. I have often said that our long-time students are like siblings in many ways—they have a deep familiarity and connection with each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t crave other social relationships. It’s so important that we add new students when our capacity increases. We need new parents in the mix, too. Everyone can contribute to the overall positive community. Because of the thoughtfulness of our Admission Office and the faculty-based admission committees, we can build classes over time that support each other, and we can keep adding people who also understand the value of a Pre-K—12 experience.

This year’s 101 graduating Seniors are an eclectic and dynamic bunch. They have earned the highest cumulative GPA in the history of the school, they have been part of multiple state championships in sports, created thousands of pages of code, written hundreds of poems and stories and plays (some of which have won national awards), they have solved complex math problems, played multiple instruments, delivered PPE supplies to Native American reservations, and tutored DPS elementary students over Zoom, just to give a few examples. Oh, and they endured a global pandemic during the last fifteen months of their high school careers. They are going off to colleges and universities all over the country and Europe. Most of all, they have lived up to the values spelled out in our mission statement. Colorado Academy aspires to create curious, kind, courageous, and adventurous learners and leaders, and these 101 students have been just that. I would like to commend them for being especially strong in the kind department. We will miss your steady presence here, and your leadership of all Pre-K—12 students in this most stressful of years has been noticed and valued.

My advice for you as you go out into the world beyond CA: keep taking the long view. Few things that are positive and worthwhile happen overnight. Be patient, keep an open mind, take your time, enjoy the journey. Eighteen years from now, I hope you will look back at this moment in your lives with pride and happiness. By then you will have double the perspective and life experiences. The year will be 2039, the same year that an infant just now entering CA’s faculty childcare will celebrate their Commencement. And another group of nostalgic faculty and parents will look back fondly on the years at this school.