William Diskin isn’t afraid of change. He’s balancing his appreciation of tradition with his passion for adapting with the times to help students at Cannon School nurture a lifelong love of learning.
By Julie Wilson
Upon first glance, Cannon School in Concord, N.C., is a place steeped in tradition. From the brick-and-column façades on campus to the surrounding tree-lined streets filled with gracious southern-style homes, it looks and feels the part. For William Diskin, though, the allure of the school goes beyond its picturesque qualities and high-rated academic track record. He was attracted to Cannon School’s focus on the needs of the student as a whole person, not just on conventional academics.
Diskin hasn’t been ruled by tradition himself, which is evident in his career path. After he earned his undergraduate degree in marketing and worked briefly in that field, he realized he wasn’t passionate about it. He was, however, passionate about writing, reading and education. He returned to the classroom and earned a master’s degree in English. After teaching for many years, he found his way to admissions—and eventually to Cannon School. “It has been a great fit for my experience and skill set,” he says.
Diskin, who is director of admissions and financial aid, has an appreciation for Cannon School’s rich history. Nearly 50 years ago, a group of parents opened the school as Cabarrus Academy, which they ran in the historic home of textile businessman J.W. Cannon. Over the years, the school moved to its current campus and was renamed after the Cannon family, which has been an ardent supporter of the school over the past several decades.
“Now, we have 1,000 students in junior kindergarten through grade 12, and we’re one of the top independent college preparatory schools in the area,” notes Diskin.
Though many elements of the education at Cannon School are traditional, its offerings go beyond the purely academic. It boasts a strong community with an appreciation for diversity, both in its student population and its exploration of different viewpoints and life experiences.
The school also prides itself on its adaptive learning philosophy, an approach that empowers students to take risks, lead projects and solve problems. Faculty encourage students to be reflective and be self-governing, skills that will help them thrive and adapt to uncertainty and change when they go out into the world as adults.
Diskin and his wife, who also works at Cannon School, were so impressed by the school’s philosophy and approach that they send their own four children there.
“This is our family’s second home,” he explains.
In his role at Cannon School, Diskin has the opportunity to share this passion with prospective students and their families. He oversees a team of four in the admissions and financial aid office, and together they enroll between 150 and 170 students each year in the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools
“It means a lot to us when the phone rings,” he says. “Our goal really is to offer the best customer service we can to every prospective student and parent. They are seeking information to help them make a really important decision in their lives.”
He helps them along by building a relationship with them from the first point of contact. From there, he interviews prospective students to learn if they are a good fit for what Cannon School offers. “I listen to what they think about the possibility of a challenging school, what they are looking for, what they are passionate about and what makes them tick,” he says. “For me, that’s the best part.”
Diskin also is proud of the fact that the school provides financial aid to 20 percent of the student body, which amounts to roughly $1.4 million in funding. “Families that maybe wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise have good access to an independent school education. This helps us be more diverse in terms of the socioeconomics, and as a result the range of families and students we can serve is much wider.”
This experience has given him a broad view of students’ needs—and how they are evolving. Diskin stays abreast of enrollment trends through participation in professional associations, such as the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP), and he turns this knowledge into action at Cannon School. One way he’s doing this is by changing the way the school assesses prospective students.
“We’re not hyper-focused on test scores or grades,” he says.
Instead, his teams looks at the whole student, including character traits—what Diskin calls co-cognitive skills, such as persistence, resilience and grit—to determine if the school is the right fit for any given student.
Diskin and his team also are working on making the reenrollment process simpler for parents, part of the service-focused approach they take when working with families. At most independent schools, parents must reenroll their children every year, resulting in frustrating repeat paperwork for both parents and administrators. Shifting to a perpetual enrollment model will assume that once students are enrolled, they will remain enrolled until graduation unless they tell the school otherwise.
“It sounds simple, but it is a significant change for schools that go through this every year,” he says.
Diskin has found a way to strike a balance between his love of the traditional elements of education and the need to adapt to serve students and families as times change.
“There’s no magic formula,” he admits. “It takes time, and frankly, it should be fun.”