Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs: Compiled Thoughts

In the Spring of 2012, I wrote a number of blog entries about the role of pilot programs and courses in creating thoughtful progress in a school. These entries feel more relevant than ever to me. My writing in this area grew out of other thinking I had been doing around a concept of a healthy school culture called, “Progress Culture.” Given its relevance to the discussion of the role of pilot programs and courses below, I encourage readers to see my original blog on Progress Culture here: “School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture.”

My reason for compiling all my thinking here is that I find I am coming back to these ideas over and over again in my current work at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. St. George’s is a fascinating and powerfully diverse community with two PK-5 campuses, one in the City of Memphis and the other just east in Germantown, and a 6 – 12 campus a bit further east in Collierville. It is a school that has grown remarkably in the last twelve years from roughly a 350 students PK-6 on one campus to around 1150 students PK-12 on three.

The school remains forward thinking, entrepreneurial–it is in its DNA, thus I can feel the relevance of the work I participated in at both Hawken School in Cleveland, OH and at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, as both of those schools were steeply ambitious during the time I was on staff at each school.

Everything I have included here (except section VI) I have published elsewhere on the blog. It is my hope that it is helpful to have everything in one place.


RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion)
RMS Titanic ( )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:


  • “Supporting pilots points toward the progress we want to see in the school. Piloting an idea foreshadows the direction we are trying to go (I have written about the importance of foreshadowing progress in an earlier post). Accepting the idea of a pilot course or program is far easier than making a change that purports from the start to be permanent. Pilots allow a school to test drive ambitious ideas.”

Schools have a hard time changing course in large part because the muddiness of transition to something new feels too risky, and the pressure to be perfect from day one is oppressive. Doing something new in a school can feel like skipping all of pre-season practice and just showing up for the first game…or having to know how to juggle the first time you ever try.

In an earlier blog I tried to capture this predicament this way: “There is an old metaphor for leading change in schools: ‘Leading change in a school is like needing to be the best airplane mechanic in the world because you can only fix the plane while it is in the air.’ The tentativeness this statement encourages is inappropriate for the pace of progress that will be demanded of schools in the coming years.”

Creating pilots helps us avoid that tentativeness, and it provides one way to avoid having to be perfect at something before there is ever a chance to practice and refine. Additionally, when a pilot is successful, it provides an artifact in support of the direction of the school that will help provide momentum for what is next.


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  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities to extend what is already good in the school culture or curriculum. The lion’s share of progress should allow additional space for the most strategically aligned parts of the existing culture and curriculum to flourish as unconstrained by other factors as possible.”

There are programs in our schools, often ones that have grown up organically, that reach a kind of ceiling in their progress. In order to continue to allow them to grow (or, even better, to accelerate their growth), a pilot expansion may provide a good option. I am particularly interested in this as it may pertain to augmenting a successful and strategically aligned existing program with a curricular program or course offering.

At St. George’s the best example of potential in this area may be the school’s Institute for Citizenship. As one of the marquee programs in the school, the Institute occupies a key strategic placement in the Upper School curriculum. “Grounded in the school’s mission to prepare students for a life of meaningful contribution, the St. George’s Institute for Citizenship offers dynamic academic lessons and real-world learning opportunities to juniors and seniors who are selected to participate in this prestigious program. Through coursework and off-campus experiences, students grapple with what it means to be an engaged citizen both now and in the future, focusing on the regional, national, global, and environmental interplay.”

It is an important part of the Upper School Program, yet as it stands it is limited in the number of students it is able to serve. An area where we are likely to explore the use of pilots is in trying to determine ways we might expand the reach of the Institute. The guiding question is: how might we find ways to get the work of the Institute to touch more of our students? This does not mean simply expanding the number of students who apply to the original course. It more likely means thinking about the purposefulness of the program and finding different means to accomplish some of the same goals.


  • “Supporting pilots encourages experimentation and mitigates the damage that may occur when a new idea falls short. If we are trying to push the boundaries of what we can make happen in a school, we are likely to take a bridge too far from time to time. A pilot course or program creates a safer space for trying something new.”

Part of what we are trying to encourage in a moment of cultural and curricular transition in a school is a kind of entrepreneurial spirit. We want faculty members to experiment and to try new things in order to find a better way forward in our work with students. In the business world this approach, when thoughtfully and creatively applied, pays off in increased profit and market-share—in schools our “profit” is deepening and enriching student learning.

Experimenting and trying new things is difficult to say the least if everything happening in a school must operate constantly as if we have been doing it that way forever. Working with a pilot course or program places experimentation in a safer and more exciting place—there is a remarkable pay-off for success, and there is not lasting damage done by falling short.  It gives a school the rare ability to learn from both success and, importantly, from failure.  Interestingly, this also places the school in the position we seek for student learning—we want our students to learn the same way, and thus in working with pilots we model the approach we want them to take in their own education.

Another advantage is that when faculty members design and teach pilots, they are in the position to lead the school toward strategic outcomes. Designing, teaching, and reflecting on a pilot course places the faculty member at the center of the action where they should be. Such opportunities are important levers to impact faculty culture and thus student learning.


  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities for the school community to see the efficacy of the school’s direction. We need chances to demonstrate success in the specific context of our school. Just having examples from other schools is not enough. Just speaking in the abstract has an even shorter lifespan.”

Particularly when the direction a school has chosen may seem abstract, piloting programs can help a community develop a definition of the components of the plan and a vocabulary to describe those components. It may not be overstatement to assert that, without such early artifacts of the strategy, getting people to commit to the bigger picture of progress may be impossible.

During the early stages of any significant initiative, communities vacillate between arguing that the progress the school seeks is not really progress at all (but rather only the latest sound and fury representing nothing) or that it is a dangerous veering from core aspects of the school’s mission, tradition, and identity. A school needs stories to counter these equally inaccurate ideas of the steps the school is taking and the purposefulness of them. Piloting courses and programs can be the basis for that effort by creating institutional campfire stories.

Pilot courses and programs allow for some students and teachers to benefit first hand, but importantly, if the story is told well, they also allow the larger school community to share vicariously in success. In this way the school begins to build what is new into the school identity, and at this point the legacy of the strategy begins to set-up on firmer and firmer ground.


  • Pilot courses and programs have another advantage in that they offer individual members the school community the opportunity to lead and to drive forward key progress in the school. When change is driven up from faculty members and students, it has a far greater chance of success than if it is simply driven down from leadership.

School leadership–the Board in partnership with the Head–can and should create the strategic framework for progress, but how the school fills in that vision forward should have many people leading individual components of work within the context of the strategy. In this way pilot programs and courses provide a way of positively flipping the coin on strategic execution from the Board and Head side over to the faculty and student side. It is all the same coin but each side has a different role to play and a different moment to play it.

I believe independent schools have created an array of valuable and necessary strategic goals over the last decade. Schools have increasingly prioritized Experiential Learning, Service Learning, and Collaboration, and they have worked to create curricula that better connects students to real world learning not only by renovating course work approaches, but also by generating and stewarding partnerships within the communities in which they operate. However, school leadership has only rarely been able to get communities to flip the coin–to move from leadership-driven progress to community held responsibility for moving a school toward serving students in the most relevant and powerful ways possible. In short, we will have to do better if we are to remain vital and necessary.

No matter how efficacious the goals of a strategic plan are, without growing support for it within the community that will live with its results, it is doomed to fail or, not much better, doomed to settle in mediocrity. Pilot programs and courses can be a catalyst for enfranchising the widest possible swath of a school community in the direction of the school.


Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represented the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster SchoolsThe new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Planand it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.

In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community.

In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.

The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.

In the end the Internship Pilot was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program.

4 thoughts on “Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs: Compiled Thoughts

  1. glichtman November 9, 2015 / 11:27 am

    Thanks for sharing and re-sharing, Ross. We could talk all day about the efficacy and pace of pilots; the fact is that there is no silver bullet for all schools. I am working with some schools that have dramatically accelerated the rate of change by being more intentional and overt, and others for whom that pace is not right. I imagine St. George’s is somewhere in the middle and that you are finding that right pace.

    In terms of involving the whole community in on going strategic work that results in real change in the classroom, you might want to glance at what we are doing at Tilton School; these are design teams of fac/admin/trustees/students, and it is creating a real shift in the mindsets across all silos.

    Thanks again for the sharing!

    • J Ross Peters November 9, 2015 / 11:44 am

      Thanks, Grant. You are correct–pilot programs are not a silver bullet; however, I believe they can be a key part of a school’s approach. I have seen that be the case enough places now, including three schools where I have worked create clear momentum from such efforts.

      I look forward to taking a look at the work at Tilton. Best–

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