Response to Questions from the MEMPHIS BUSINESS JOURNAL

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“THE SPEED AT WHICH THE WORLD IS CHANGING SHOULD CALL US TO GRADUATE STUDENTS WHO KNOW THINGS, YES, ABSOLUTELY, BUT THEY SHOULD ALSO KNOW HOW TO MAKE MEANING FROM KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTAND HOW TO WORK WITH OTHERS TO MAKE SOMETHING VALUABLE OUT OF THAT KNOWLEDGE.”

[Last week the Memphis Business Journal published an article about Memphis Independent Schools. In advance of that article, they sent me a fairly long list of questions. As is the case with most pieces of journalism, the final piece only reflects a very small percentage of the information they collected, so I am posting here the entirety of my responses (minus some basic questions abut my professional life before I came to St. George’s Independent School.]

What has been to this point your most influential year of your educational career and why?

My second year as Upper School Director at Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. Having arrived at the school early in the tenure of a new school head, I saw the benefit of what a strong partnership between school leadership and board leadership could do. As a result of a deeply ambitious strategic plan, as well as extraordinarily bold leadership of the Head of School and Board Chair, Hawken was able to take giant steps forward. During that year and the couple to follow, Hawken founded an urban extension campus, reinvented the use of time in the school, and moved toward curriculum far better suited to what we now know about the environments within which students learn best. It was an exciting time and not only did it change the game for independent schools in the Cleveland area, but it also had an impact on the national conversation about how independent schools could not simply sit still as the world changed around us. That year in particular led me to seek out the opportunity within each challenge.

Why did you accept your current position? What attracted you to Memphis and to this particular school?

The three-campus model of St. George’s Independent School is unique in the country, and fascinatingly, it is in many ways more well-known nationally than locally for the remarkable work it has done to knit itself into the full richness of the Memphis community.  Drawing students and families from over fifty zip codes, I was drawn to the current ambitiousness of the school, as well as its history of boldness to do what is best for students. At times schools can—even with the best of intentions–lose sight of what is most important (student learning and experience) and drift toward a conversation that is centered in what best serves adults—not so at St. George’s. While fiercely protective of what is most important in the school and thus should never change, it was also a place with its eyes firmly focused forward. When I first visited, I was impressed with its strong sense of its Episcopal mission and most critically, I was impressed with how that sense of itself was intertwined with everything from long term strategic discussions in Board Committees to daily interactions with students in the hallways. St. George’s became a compelling choice for me and for my family even though we would be making the move from Atlanta and from a school that we loved [The Westminster Schools]. Interestingly, what cemented the choice for me was seeing how students were so intimately involved in the search process. I have found that only in the very best schools—the ones most comfortable in their own skin—are students brought so close to the critical decisions of the institution.

What are the challenges your school faces today and what do you see as the challenges for your school in 5 years and even 20 years from now?

Our critical challenge is to make sure the story of our school finds the ears of all the students and families for whom we would be the best fit. Having years of success under our belts as a strong college preparatory school and having sent graduates to the very best colleges and universities, we need to be very good at telling our story, so that all those kids who would be best served here find us and choose us.

Another challenge is to continue to refine and deepen our work to create the engaging learning experiences for our students. Without student engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic. Without engagement, classroom experiences are empty calories, a virtual skimming across the surface of learning. Most dangerously, such experiences can become cynical exercises in jumping through hoops for academic rewards. At St. George’s we seek something more meaningful and relevant for all the students who populate our classrooms, hallways, athletic fields, and stages.

As for challenges five and twenty years down the road, I believe schools must demonstrate far more flexibility and finesse to be prepared to move toward what we continue to learn about how students learn best both in the context of traditional academic learning and in the context of character education. Schools can become simply repositories for the way things used to be done, and while we should be careful not to throw out the “tried and true”, we must also be willing to clear new paths. The speed at which the world is changing should call us to graduate students who know things, yes, absolutely, but they should also know how to make meaning from knowledge and understand how to work with others to make something valuable out of that knowledge. At St. George’s we want our students not simply to know how to live in the world as adults, but we want them to strive to make the world better. This will be the long-term challenge of our work.

Another five and twenty-year challenge is sustainability. In order to find equilibrium in this area, we focus on changing the question from “how will we be sustainable?” to “WHY should we be sustainable?” If we make it our long-term goal to be forever ready with great answers to that question, I believe the HOW will largely take care of itself.

Give us a window into the typical day as of the head of your school. What does that look like as far as responsibilities, interaction with staff, etc.?

Given the nature of leading a three-campus school (not including the St. George’s Bunkhouse), there are very few typical days. However, my days include the likelihood of spending some time on at least two of the three campuses, as well as a great deal of interaction with both students and faculty. My overall job is to oversee the day to day operation of a complex school, thus many of my meetings are with members of my leadership team to ensure I am able to give them the support they need to do their work. Another aspect of my work is Board stewardship, meaning that I spend a substantial amount of time in conversation with my Board Chair and with Board members and committees who are charged with providing strategic guidance. On my very best days, I get to see our prefects. I serve as the advisor to this exceptional group of Class of ’17 leaders. The prefects and I spend our time discussing the same strategic topics I discuss with the Board and with the faculty, and I have often relied on their counsel.

The American educational system is often criticized for falling behind other first-world countries in education, how are you working to improve education at your school in that context?

For us there are two central ways we are working to improve the education we provide: 1) As mentioned before, deepening student engagement, 2) connecting in more and more dynamic ways with the community and with the natural world.

For our students to compete advantageously in a globally competitive workplace, they must be deeply engaged in the work and in the challenges that face them. However, it is not simply the ability to engage a challenge on one’s own that will determine success—it is one’s ability to work with people from different backgrounds to reach common ground and to take thoughtful action informed by a wide range of perspectives. So much of our students’ collaborative work has this end in mind. Engagement in this sense combines the ability to engage material/content and also to engage others in seeking solutions to the problems they will face.

We believe that the best education is not confined to the four walls of the traditional classroom. To improve education in our country, we must help students see the relevance of their learning. Whether it be taking advantage of the St. George’s Bunkhouse to engage the vibrant Memphis community or it be exploring our 200 plus acre Collierville campus wetlands as part of an Environmental Biology course, our students can see the relevance of their learning. For too long in schools we have taught students facts or concepts without the requisite context into which to place that knowledge. At St. George’s we are working diligently to make the relevance of what students do clear to them at each step along the way.


“For too long in schools we have taught students facts or concepts without the requisite context into which to place that knowledge.”

What key things will you carry forward from the previous head of school’s tenure and what key things will you do to put your stamp on the school and the head of school position?

My predecessor, Bill Taylor, shepherded the school through remarkable growth. He had to combine two skills that are rare to find in one person—he had the vision of a great school leader and he had the tenacity and day-to-day finesse to ensure the legacy of the school through a stunning era of change. I believe his greatest gift to the school was his devotion, evident in all he said and did, to the school’s Episcopal identity. I hope I can mirror some similar gifts during my tenure.

I am excited to play a part in helping to guide this school as it matures in its established role as a premier independent school in Memphis and Shelby County. This school has an important role to play. In a city that has at times pulled itself apart on both economic and on racial lines, St. George’s is, and should continue to be, part of the glue that pulls people together.

What is your most innovative idea for your school for the 2016-2017 school year?

 This Fall we moved to a significantly reimagined schedule for grades 6 – 12. Without describing the new schedule in full, its key components include: longer classes (70 minutes) that meet less often and a significantly later start to the school day (8:30 a.m. start Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and 9:00 a.m. start on Wednesday). Our goals were to unify our Middle and Upper School schedules, to provide opportunities for deeper, more engaged learning, and to improve student life and balance. In order to assess our progress at this stage of implementation, we surveyed students, families, and faculty. When over 90% of each of these constituencies reports that the schedule is an improvement over last year, it becomes resoundingly clear we are on the right track. The data provides tremendous support for the schedule and should provide us with additional momentum.

How the retirement of long-time leadership in private school throughout the city could affect the overall private school landscape?

There is always loss when a long-tenured school leader departs, and my sense is that to the specific school communities most directly affected that sense of loss can be poignant. The stamp of the departing leader—in terms of personnel, facilities, and curriculum—is doubtlessly deep. That said, I believe that such change gives members of the community a change to kick the tire anew, to assess where the particular institution is and perhaps should be. Notwithstanding the loss inherent in change, schools shouldn’t blow past the tremendous opportunity to determine what should never change, as well as what we might reassess. Leadership change is not easy, and the success or failure of this moment will be largely determined in the degree to which the school community is willing to take all the steps necessary to support the new head as he or she settles into the difficulty work ahead. I have been fortunate beyond any expectation I might have had in the support I have been given at St. George’s, and I wish nothing less for my colleagues in similar posts at other schools.


“Notwithstanding the loss inherent in change, schools shouldn’t blow past the tremendous opportunity to determine what should never change, as well as what we might reassess.”

In 20 years, what is your legacy at your school?

I hope that my legacy includes that St. George’s continues to graduate students prepared to take on positions of leadership in Memphis and beyond and that they play critical roles in making their workplaces and communities better for their presence.

In support of this goal, I am immensely gratified to be involved in the launch of a new facility in Midtown. In partnership with Serve901 and Living Hope Church, St. George’s Independent School opened the St. George’s Bunkhouse on Mclean Boulevard in Memphis, TN in October. The beautifully renovated space can sleep up to over 110 people provides access to the church’s sanctuary spaces. Located between Rhodes College and the Crosstown Concourse, the school will use it for many purposes, largely focused on community engagement. My blog post on this topic provides more detail.

I hope that my legacy includes a school community that continues to be both humane and demanding, one that finds the perfect balance in the education that it provides between a) very high expectations for student achievement and character and b) the nurture necessary to support students reaching those elevated bars.

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The Head’s Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Carson's Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2014. "FIGHT LIKE A KID"
Carson’s Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2024. “FIGHT LIKE A KID”

The Head’s Letter is a monthly newsletter largely for heads of independent schools. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated, it focuses on topics of particular importance to school leaders. They were nice enough to ask me to write the piece I copied below as the cover of their December edition.

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The topic I discuss in The Head’s Letter should be no surprise to people with whom I have worked or who regularly read the blog: I have been writing about Progress Culture for years now, and I have been highlighting the need to learn from and create partnerships with entities beyond our schools for almost as long. As we look to move our schools’ ability to deepen learning for our students forward, it is imperative that we lean into the learning we can do beyond the confines of our respective campuses and curriculum.

At St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) we are energized by this aspect of our work–we call it SG901. So far the most visible artifact of this effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which represents an unprecedented partnership with Memphis’s City Leadership and Serve901. You can read about the October 2016 opening and ribbon-cutting of the St. George’s Bunkhouse HEREIt is worth reading particularly for the remarks of one of the members of the Class of 2017, Alton Stovall, who spoke at the ceremony.

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Over the weekend the SGBunkhouse, located in the Historic Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood, served as a great location from which to go cheer on runners in the St. Jude Marathon. SGIS’s relationship with the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is profoundly close due to two SGIS students–Carson Head, Class of 2024, who passed away in the summer of 2015 as a result of childhood cancer and Adam Cruthirds, Class of 2016 who continues his cancer fight now as a freshman at Rhodes College. (You can read a talk Adam gave exactly one year ago in an Upper School Chapel Service HERE). Supported by faculty and Upper School student volunteers, around sixty members of the SGIS Lower School community, families and students from both our Memphis and Germantown campuses, spent the night in the newly renovated SGBunkhouse space. On Friday night they made posters to cheer on the runners, and they played games, ate pizza, and watched movies. On Saturday morning they ate pancakes before heading out to cheer the runners. Many more members of our school community–students from each campus and division, alumni, parents, and faculty–participated on Saturday as runners, walkers, and cheerers.  It is an example of a kind of community engagement we would like to see growing through the SGBunkhouse: an opportunity to connect with each other AND with the community where we live. 

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The SGIS Three Campus Model: Sustainable Approach to Critical Work

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The  St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) organizational model is unique, and often in my short tenure as Head of School, I have been asked by colleagues around the country about how all the moving parts work together. With that in mind, I think writing the clearest description of the model I can might be helpful to those who seek to challenge the status quo of how independent schools align (or don’t) with the best ambitions of their cities/areas, as well as with like-minded philanthropic resources and community partners.

Almost six years ago when NAIS held its 2011 annual conference in Washington D.C., the theme was “Private Schools with Public Purpose.” Before, and even more after, the conference the theme fascinated me because I had difficulty seeing how our schools would do more than make baby steps in this direction. I sought to find examples of “private schools with public purpose” that were doing more than simply giving a sort of well-meaning lip-service to this idea. At the time I was working at Hawken School in Cleveland, which perhaps as much as any school I could name at the time was leaping in to this space through its commitment to the Gries Center for Service and Experiential Learning, an extension campus in the University Circle Area of Cleveland. Later during my time at The Westminster Schools, I joined a community that had a multi-faceted approach to “public purpose” though the Glenn Institute, as well as the Center for Teaching. Additionally, in reimagining the priorities expressed through our use of time in the school, we not only reinvented how we would use time going forward at Westminster, but we opened the door to stunningly expanded opportunities to partner with the community of which we were a part and to which we strove to contribute.

Grounding all of this work is the idea that our schools have a responsibility to graduate students who are on a trajectory to contribute to the health and ongoing improvement of the communities in which they will work and live. In order to do this best, the characteristics and actions of the school must mirror the characteristics and actions of our ideal graduates. [Please take a look at our “Portrait of a Graduate.”]

The SGIS model: Founded in Germantown in 1959, St. George’s Independent School operated as an elementary school until the late 1990s when the school undertook a capital campaign to develop a beautiful 250 acre campus on the Wolf River in Collierville designed for students in grades 6 – 12. At the same time an anonymous donor group challenged the school to create another pre-K–5th campus in the City of Memphis to serve families who would not otherwise be able to access or afford an independent school education. Today SGIS serves about 1100 students on three campuses–two elementary campuses, one in Germantown and another in Memphis, and a third campus for grades 6 – 12 in Collierville.

Serving 147 students in pre-K–5th grade, the Memphis campus, founded in 2001 is unique in that virtually all of its students receive financial aid based on need, and approximately 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. To create a sense of community and camaraderie, each year students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses participate in numerous events together, and they follow the same curriculum. Students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses benefit from interacting with each other and developing friendships. These relationships promote unity in an area that historically is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. This is a city that at various times has pulled itself apart, and through our school we are ambitiously trying to be part of the glue that pulls it together. The Memphis campus attracts families from more than 30 ZIP codes. SGIS as a whole draws from over 50 ZIP codes. The first class of students who began their educations on the Memphis campus graduated in May 2016.

Financial Model: To launch the Memphis campus, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church donated the facilities. A group of private donors provided $6 million in seed funds, and they continue to provide ongoing financial support. About 80 percent of SGIS’s operating budget comes from tuition and fees. The second-largest source, at 15 percent, is private gifts. Students at the Memphis campus pay tuition on a sliding scale based on income. The school’s full pay tuition appropriately aligns with, if it is not slightly lower than, the other top independent schools in Memphis.

Sustainability: The campus relies heavily on donations, drawing on an investment from the donor group to fund operations. We are working to increase the corpus of the investment to ensure sustainability in perpetuity. [If you would like to participate in supporting the Memphis campus, please contact our Advancement Office at 901-261-2340 or visit us on-line HERE ]

Staying true to the mission: Opening the Memphis campus was a unique and complicated idea both because of challenging logistics and because of the racial and socioeconomic divides in  the Memphis/Shelby County area. It operates on a different business model than the other two campuses, and it requires different staff and strategy. Members of the school community work diligently to build relationships across these socioeconomic and racial differences so that all SGIS students may benefit. Communication, planning, and collaboration are essential components of success.

Frequently Asked Questions:

“Does the tuition from the Germantown and the Collierville campuses support the Memphis campus?”  No. Tuition from the Germantown and Collierville campuses does not support the Memphis campus.  Germantown and Collierville tuition is used solely at Germantown and Collierville. Gifts from donors, as well as the tuition paid by Memphis campus families, support the Memphis campus. All Memphis campus families pay some portion of tuition, depending upon financial need.

“Did the creation of the Memphis campus divert funds needed at other campuses?” No. Actually, the opposite is true. The Memphis campus has been a fundraising catalyst for the other two campuses because of a system of challenge matches and releases. We have been able to expand our fundraising net to a larger group, resulting in dollars being released from the anonymous donors’ gift to go to the suburban campuses.

“How is the education of the Memphis campus students paid for and how does the scholarship funding work once the Memphis campus students get to the middle and upper school.” Tuition paid by their families and gifts from donors fund the education of the Memphis Campus students. Scholarship assistance for Memphis campus students follows them as they matriculate to middle and upper school.

[Reading another post, “St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments may provide additional, useful background and context]

[To learn more about what is next for SGIS, please read exciting news about our unique partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the St. George’s Bunkhouse, a satellite campus in Memphis’s Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood, READ THIS. With 115 bunks in a beautifully renovated space, the SG Bunkhouse gives SGIS a new opportunity for community engagement.]

[To read an excellent telling of “The Story of St. George’s”please follow the link HERE.]

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Justice Thurgood Marshall and The Bridges for Us to Build

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Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia

My father, daughter, Eleanor, and I took a walk this morning around Virginia’s Capitol Square in Richmond this morning. Having grown up in Richmond, I haven’t been back for a while–it was good to be back on the grounds surrounding the Thomas Jefferson designed building. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful as we walked by the impressive 1858 Washington Memorial, as well as memorials to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Dr. Hunter McQuire. There are a number of other memorials there as well–you should go visit. To me, the most impactful memorial was the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Dedicated in 2008, it presents a clear and definitive counter-point to the older memorial to Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the creator of and leader of “massive resistance” to Civil Rights.  Byrd’s Memorial, already seeming rather mundane due to its proximity to the epic Washington Memorial, is also dwarfed by the Civil Rights Memorial.

The quotation from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall above one of the four sides to the memorial creates an essential challenge for us–particularly in a moment when so much is happening that seems to pull us apart:

“The Justice System can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot Build Bridges. That Job belongs to you and me.” 

We will be in Richmond until Saturday enjoying Thanksgiving with family, but I know I will take Marshall’s challenge with me back to Memphis. When reflect on Marshall’s words, I think of the places in Memphis where I see the work of building bridges taking place. A number come to mind for me–the Church Health Center, Bridge Builders, Serve901, City Leadership, City Current, and the Crosstown Concourse come immediately to mind. There are so many more. This work remains and will remain important and essential. We all need to put ourselves in this picture.

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Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia, plus Eleanor

 

Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial
Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial

 

The State Capitol of Virginia
The State Capitol of Virginia