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.
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.
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.
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.
The SGIS Board of Trustees met in the well-designed and appointed break-out room for their meeting late yesterday afternoon before joining well-over 125 guests who were there to celebrate the ribbon-cutting, eat some fantastic Gus’s Fried Chicken and tour the space. As that gathering ended around 8:00 p.m., members of SGIS’s Class of 2017 began arriving to enjoy a sleepover in the Bunkhouse. The event was fantastic–it is great to reach this point and turn to the exciting work to begin to make great use of the space. Below I have included the introductory video, my remarks, as well as Alton Stovall’s remarks from the ceremony. Alton is a member of the Class of 2017 who has played a vital role in helping us get to this point. Alton’s words brought the house down.
Good evening and welcome! The ending of the video is where I will begin—with a thanks to David and Beth Skudder for starting the ball rolling that made this all happen. Not only did David bring Justin Miller from City Leadership and me together in September 2015 to begin to dream about what we might make happen together, but the Skudder’s also created the substantial funding that underpinned the recreation of the Bunkhouse space. The St. George’s Bunkhouse represents both their love for St. George’s and their earnest commitment to Memphis and Shelby County. PLEASE JOIN ME IN A ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR DAVID AND BETH…
Just yesterday afternoon David, Justin and I met to reflect on the remarkable year that has led to this moment. What David had to say was wonderfully helpful and offers clear perspective on what we are trying to accomplish here. Here are a few of the things he said to us:
“If you want to be part of the community you have to step in, you have to be a presence.”
“Through St. George’s I’ve seen all the good that comes from kids learning to be helpful, learning to leave it better than you found it.”
“In order to make things better you have to get involved—one brick at a time, one good deed at a time.”
The St. George’s Bunkhouse gives our school largely unprecedented way to live toward the ideals David described. Imagine just a sliver of some of the possibilities for our students on each of our three other campuses:
Class gatherings like the one the Class of ’17 will have tonight and tomorrow morning here.
“Amplify Memphis”, a summer course studying the cultural richness and key issues of Memphis residing here during all or part of its three-week session next June.
Groups of students and faculty members using the space as a hub for service learning opportunities and for cultural experiences.
The number of great ideas for how to use the Bunkhouse will outpace our ability to follow-through on all of them. The conversation we have as a community about how to best use the space will be generative and rich.
Education is a gift that is not simply for the recipient alone. Our education as individuals exists only as we make meaning from it and as we are moved to action in the world as a result of it. With that in mind, the questions I have for all of us who have had the privilege of an education such as the one at St. George’s Independent School—the questions I believe are particularly apt on this day when we open the St. George’s Bunkhouse are these–
What will we make happen as a result of our access to the St. George’s Bunkhouse?
How can we use our footprint here to impact the world around us?
How can we continue to learn from people who have different backgrounds, different opinions?
How can what we already know lead us to want to learn more, understand more, impact more?
How can we make our education not simply about us? How can we use the St. George’s Bunkhouse in ways that help us better understand what it means to be a good neighbor?
And, importantly as well…how can the St. George’s Community use the Bunkhouse in ways that bring our own community closer together.
It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. However, the bold vision of St. George’s Independent School, and the St. George’s Bunkhouse, calls us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. As an independent school drawing from well-over fifty zip codes, we include people who might live far away from us as neighbors, and we include people with whom we might often disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor. At St. George’s, we name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor, SG901. And the physical representation of that effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which will serve as a hub for our community engagement.
Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The St. George’s Bunkhouse, created in partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 is a powerful manifestation of that belief within our school.
I am particularly grateful for the roles each of the next speakers has played. Alton Stovall, member of the Class of 2017, who you will hear from next has been the key student leader in the process that has led us to today. Following Alton, John Carroll and Jeff Riddle will speak. Our school could not be more fortunate in its partners in this endeavor. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.
Alton Stovall’s remarks:
Before a handsome butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it must first spend its days as a not-so appealing caterpillar. When I first stepped foot on this site, what I saw was a basement. A basement cluttered with boxes, worn-out equipment, and objects that made you question how they were useful before they were put into storage. Indeed it was a rough space, but it was a space with potential. And what was done with that potential and how that potential was maximized to the fullest extent is something I find truly amazing. This is not to say that getting there was not a long journey, because it certainly was. Nevertheless, I personally had my fair share of fun along the way. From choosing a perfect name, to timidly speaking to reporters about my experiences, to even picking a paint color for the walls…(by the way I will truly never understand how there can be so many options for one single color. I mean there’s white, but then there’s eggshell white and satin white and high gloss pearly porcelain white and anyway)… All of that is to say this- what we have the privilege of experiencing here tonight is a butterfly getting ready to spread its wings and fly away. Where it goes is up to us… and that’s the beauty of it all.
The possibilities of what we can accomplish with this space are endless from class retreats, to service projects, to simply a fun night in Memphis. God only knows the full extent of what we can do here, but I thank Him for what was already done here. I am thankful for having been involved in this project from the start, I am thankful for all of the amazing people I met along this journey, and, most importantly, I am thankful that this is not the end of the road. In fact it is just the beginning… the beginning of a movement against the grain of society. Where the world seems to be moving apart, tonight we are moving one step closer together. And just as this space now joins many other campuses to form one campus. We are on the road to joining many communities to make one community. The full extent to which we do that is up to not one of us, not some of us, but all us. In order to do that to the best of our abilities, we must too undergo our own transformations. So as we move forward, I ask of you, I plead of you, I charge you to get ready, spread your wings, and let’s fly.
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.
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:
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.