St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments

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Experimentation exists at the center of great learning experiences–it is inextricable from them. Students must learn to experiment—to try various approaches in order to discover what will work best. Importantly, an experiment is something a person or group DOES, not something a person or group IS. So while at St. George’s our students do many experiments, and as a school we pilot a number of ideas designed to discern the best way to serve our students and community, the school, including all its essential parts, is not an experiment.

In the headline of an article printed on-line on Friday and in a special report section on Sunday, The Commercial Appeal calls St. George’s three campus model an “experiment.” (The story was also picked up by USAToday.) The use of this word is, I am certain, well-intended, but it is inaccurate in describing our community in that it potentially makes what happens on the Kimball Avenue Memphis Campus (PK-5) and continues on our Collierville Campus (6-12) seem like something we do at St. George’s rather than something we are. To be clear, each of our three campuses–Germantown (PK-5), Memphis, and Collierville–is essential to St. George’s. Each is a part of a larger body. There is mutuality in the relationship of each campus, and all members of our community benefit from relationships with those from backgrounds different from their own.

Several years ago I started writing about an idea regarding how we should conceptualize the work of great schools operating in a quickly and dramatically changing world. I call this idea “Progress Culture.” A Progress Culture is able to name what should never change within it—what are its non-negotiable parts. Additionally, a Progress Culture is bold enough to ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school, and it is resolute in building the answers to those questions into the fabric of the school even when they require arduous paths forward.

I believe our non-negotiables are:

  • St. George’s mission statement: St. George’s Independent School is a college preparatory school in the Episcopal tradition of education that is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership, and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values.
  • Our devotion to our three campus model. Inherent within this model is the belief in the mutual benefit of bringing together students from all over the Memphis area—from over fifty zip codes and from the same wide economic and racial diversity that reflects our larger community.
  • Our commitment to the tenets of an Episcopal education:  centered in a belief that every child is a child of God and that a balance between faith and reason should be critical in the education we seek for our students. This belief is at the core of our work and makes serving students in the best way possible the alpha and omega of any conversation.
  • High standards for academic achievement, as well as school community engagement. Our collaborative learning environment is built around a belief that 2016 Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon captured in her commencement address by quoting this African proverb: “If you want to go quickly go alone; if you want to go far go together.”
  • Learning about and serving our city and area. At St. George’s we believe that the education we provide is not just for the person receiving it but for the communities and professions in which he or she will serve and lead. Their path toward playing such a role as adults begins when they are with us. In a blog entry I entitled, “Ready to be Part of What’s Next in Memphis”, I wrote, “if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.”

What is negotiable are the means by which we strive to live toward fulfillment of the non-negotiables. I am particularly interested in how piloting ideas can drive us toward better fulfillment of the non-negotiables. (I have written extensively on this blog about this topic HERE). Pilots are institutional experiments. A pilot program’s success is less defined by whether or not it is something we would replicate exactly in the future than it is by the extent to which we learn ways to improve our work in one of the non-negotiable buckets from it. For example, this summer beginning today actually is a three-week summer pilot course called, “Amplify Memphis.” Taught by Associate Head of School Will Bladt, Director of the Institute for Citizenship Jason Hills, and Giving Strategist for City Leadership Justin Miller, the course will immerse students in their city. (You will be able to follow the course blog HERE). It is a result of our desire to “learn about and serve our city and area.” Please see the course description and essential questions below:

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I am certain students will have a great experience in this unique course this summer, but I am equally certain that the course will not be exactly the same next year. The teachers who lead and the students who participate in the course are pioneers and experimenters. We will learn a great deal from their experience that will help us refine the idea, reinvent it, or even perhaps abandon it for something stronger next time. This is how we learn. This pilot is a form of experimentation. Please note, however, nothing that happens in the course will change the fact that “learning about and serving our city and area” is a non-negotiable aspect of our identity as a school.

The example of the Amplify Memphis experimental/pilot course paired with the non-negotiable “learning about and serving our city and area” illustrates the difference between an experiment and identity. Because what The Commercial Appeal‘s headline indicates is an experiment is as essential to St. George’s DNA as any other non-negotiable component of our identity, a different headline would have better captured the full significance of St. George’s bold three campus story.

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To hear about the St. George’s experience from members of the Class of 2016, follow these links:

To learn about our unprecedented partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, follow this link:

To keep track of the good work taking pace at St. George’s, follow these links:

2 thoughts on “St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments

  1. admiral17(RB) June 7, 2016 / 6:27 am

    You do a nice job of countering well-intended, but misapplied language. U.S. historians have, over the years, covered the same ground when observers wished to label the Republic as an “experiment” in government. It has not been so for a long long time. Hope you get to the mountains soon.
    RB

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