As winter break came to a close last week, I found myself thinking about a New Year’s resolution for our great school. What should RE resolve to do in 2024? My mind kept returning to our core values, all of which serve as guideposts and are critical to our students’ growth and the school’s identity. Yet as we prepare students to enter a world that is increasingly divisive and fractured, and which can offer quick rewards at a great ethical cost, the core value that seems particularly worthy of renewed commitment is Honor and Excellence.
Honor and excellence have always framed scholarship at RE, a fact supported by their inclusion in the alma mater (circa 1955) of the Everglades School for Girls, whose students promised to “strive to gain ‘honor through excellence’ forever.” Everglades founders Marie and Ed Swenson built an inclusive school that put honor into practice daily, prioritizing community service and personal integrity as much as academic excellence. And, as any current or former RE student knows, the Ransom School – which merged in 1974 with the Everglades School to produce RE – set the century-old tradition of producing graduates who put more into the world than they take from it. The long-held mantra “obedience to the unenforceable” continues to hang in the Pagoda.
Honor and excellence, in short, have shaped our school’s identity for decades.
It is critical that institutions like RE continue to take responsibility for producing moral, honorable and compassionate leaders. The world is depending on us. A Gallup poll last summer showed that 54 percent of U.S. adults described the moral values in the country as poor – the worst assessment of morality in the United States in 22 years. Perhaps even more distressingly, a poll of 70,000 high school students in 2020 found that 64 percent of students cheated on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism and 95 percent confessed to engaging in some kind of cheating.
I hope you will be encouraged to know that – even considering RE’s history of honor and excellence – I can’t think of a time when this institution has ever placed a greater emphasis on instilling that value in our students than today. The saying at Ransom Everglades is that you cannot have excellence without honor. If we are going to equip students to tackle the most difficult problems of our times, we have to first ensure that their instinct is to act with ethical and moral integrity.
Besides being highlighted in our newly defined core values – also known as The RE Way – honor and excellence have become staples in our curriculum and a regular presence in our students’ co-curricular lives. Discussions of honor and ethical decision-making have been front and center since the opening in 2021 of the Holzman Center of Applied Ethics, whose goal is to empower students to act with honor, excellence and integrity. The center, which now resides in the Ransom Cottage, is directed by Associate Head of School John A. King Jr., and its activities are executed by dedicated faculty and student leaders.
Last fall, our students enjoyed “A Day of Ethics” at the upper school and welcomed three outstanding speakers from the Holzman Center of Applied Ethics Speaker Series: Federal judge Rudy Ruiz ’98 addressed students on October 19; U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe spoke at the Lewis Family Auditorium on November 13; and entrepreneurs Mike Fernandez and Armando Codina visited RE on December 12. All of those esteemed speakers helped students reflect on honor and ethical decision-making. The Day of Ethics in December included an ethics gallery walk featuring student projects from the Applied Ethics in the Humanities course taught by faculty member Jenny Carson ’03. In that class, students study real-world ethical issues, participate in community events or activism, and propose solutions. Ms. Carson also teaches an Applied Ethics in STEM course at the upper school.
Last semester, Dr. King led a series of medical ethics roundtable discussions during the mid-day break that featured insights from RE parent Dr. Kenneth M. Zide, a cardiac electrophysiologist. Meanwhile, student leaders at RE also took the initiative to deliver dynamic presentations on RE’s honor code to fellow students on both campuses. They urged their middle and upper school peers to make ethical choices, prioritize doing the right thing, and utilize the support systems available to them on our campuses.
We are also grateful to Flavia Tomasello and John Tsialas, who provide ethical training to our students through the Antonio Tsialas Leadership Foundation. Mr. Tsialas and Mrs. Tomasello meet annually with our seniors to teach them about compassionate leadership in a seminar that is always powerful and deeply moving. Through the foundation, the Tsialas family also presents a leadership award and scholarship to a select junior and holds additional meetings with our younger students.
The RE Way offers a constant reminder of where RE stands on honor and excellence, stating that “we build on a tradition of honor and academic excellence where students, mentored by inspiring faculty, are challenged to think deeply, critically, empathetically and creatively.” From the moment they arrive to our campuses until they depart, students confront these challenges in and out of the classroom.
Though Honor and Excellence is not more important than RE’s other core values, I suspect we have all feared that particular value is on the decline – or often absent – in society today. At Ransom Everglades, we want to make sure that our students carry Honor and Excellence wherever they go in the world, providing an example of moral and ethical behavior and integrity that is worth emulating.
Head of School