Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time: An Idea Revisited Through a New Example

           #TBT: Several things I have written for the blog have remained timely in my work as a leader in an independent school. Perhaps none remains as useful as the what I have reposted here for #TBT this week. My thinking about pilot programs remains central to how I believe we can move a large complex institutions forward, while minimizing risk and maximizing potential benefit. The post came back to mind for me this week, as I have been in a couple of conversations with very thoughtful students about the role of service-learning in our school. Without going into the detail, I have been left feeling strongly that schools have largely attempted the impossible by placing service near the center of our claims for the value of the education we provide, while we have not committed either the time or the space to support those claims.
           In short, what is important in a school is what you can find in the actual program, not in what we simply tell students is important. While St. George’s has been doing many things right, it is time to do better. This is where piloting ideas will serve us well. Next school year we will pilot an idea in our schedule that will more fully reflect the priority on service and character education we hold dear in our school. Interestingly, because of our daily schedule, put in place for the 2016-2017 school year, we now have flexibility we didn’t dream of before. The schedule itself has been a remarkable success. Among other things, it allows for a later/healthier start time and for far deeper engagement in the classroom. What we have not yet explored is how it can be a vehicle for the kind of flexibility that will allow us to pursue opportunities beyond traditional academic courses without compromising class contact time. We can do that, and it is time too pilot ideas in order to learn how best to make it happen.
          Because I have not announced the idea to the entire community yet, I will hold off in describing the details, but I will point out that without the focus on the role of pilot programs, we artificially limit our chance to move a school farther, more thoughtfully, and more quickly forward. While reading what I wrote way back in 2012, please use the links to navigate to a more through discussion of each of the bullets. I hope you find my reflection helpful.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg 
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

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 in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:

Mutuality and Ascendent Partnerships

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“We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality.”

[Several years ago, I wrote about the role of partnerships in schools. Below the brackets is part of what I wrote. I am struck with the ongoing relevance of this kind of thinking and of the strategic necessity of creating and maintaining partnerships. On Saturday, St. George’s partnered with the Wolf River Conservancy and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to provide a family day on the Wolf River hosted at St. George’s. It was great to see so many people experience for the first time our outstanding setting along the Wolf and our unique access to Mid South wetlands. We have also developed an unprecedented relationship with City Leadership and Serve9o1 in a space we are calling the St. George’s Bunkhouse in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood–you can read about that partnership HERE

What is happening through such partnerships pulls our school into the community from which it draws families, and it pulls the community to us. Through partnership we become a good neighbor, and we become aligned with the best ambitions of our city, county, and area. We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality. For too long independent schools risked becoming artifacts of separation, virtually stiff arming the outside world–in so doing they risked underserving both students and the community. That coin can and should flip.

There are many institutions and non-profits thinking in similar ways about the importance of partnerships in the Memphis area. A couple come to mind first for me though there are, of course, many more. Rhodes College has made a priority of being a valuable neighbor through the Bonner Center for Faith and Service. In this work Rhodes has become a national leader. In a different context the amazing redevelopment of the old Sears building into the Crosstown Concourse, is at the forefront of creating connections between everything from housing, healthcare, wellness, retail, education, and office space. The most exciting forces–in education, in the non-profit, and in the for-profit world–are thinking big about how partnerships can weave the fabric of the city into something stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Notably, the areas largest banks, First Tennessee and Regions, are focused on this work as well as expressed through their thoughtful deployment of Community Reinvestment Funds. In short, they recognize the power of betting on Memphis and Shelby County. They too realize that we are in a web of mutuality and that the generations to come will be at risk if we allow the constituents parts of the community drift too far apart now.]   

Design Rendering of the C
Design Rendering of the Crosstown Concourse from http://crosstownconcourse.com/design

From 2012…”Partnerships. Local ones, international ones, public-private ones, online ones.  Partnerships between schools, between teachers, between academic departments, between students, between teachers and students, between the school and students, between the school and parents, between the school and the community in which it exists.  More and more the value of partnerships is finding its way into the identities and the realities of schools. Some partnerships are making their way from the co-curriculum into the curriculum, while others are pulling our schools and some of our students’ learning out of the classroom and into the world.

I have written often in “Ross All Over the Map” about the importance of creating a Progress Culture in schools, and of late I have been constantly reminded that partnerships will be a cornerstone of establishing, maintaining, and expanding such a culture. I am struck with the realization that the schools best able to nurture these partnerships (rather than just accumulate them) will be positioned to give their students the most meaningful and sustainable experiences.”

Luncheon Speech to The Germantown Chamber, August 20, 2015

Brian White and Janie Day of the Germantown Chamber of Commerce and the author
Brian White and Janie Day of the Germantown Chamber of Commerce join the author after the speech.

(The text here is edited in minor ways from the speech I gave last Thursday to the Germantown Chamber of Commerce.)

Thank you for the invitation to be here today. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group because a good school and a successful Chamber have important characteristics in common. A good chamber of commerce and a school worth its salt are forever looking to the future and not simply wishing for it to be better but working to make it better. Additionally, a chamber, like a great school, is forever looking to make connections, to tie things together, to bring together disparate visions of what is next for a community under one wide umbrella. Our shared work, the work of a school and the work of a chamber of commerce is to help imagine, design, and build the world to come. Both a chamber and a school are invested in their communities—their futures are comingled with the future of the communities they serve. The tag line of this Chamber—“Community, Partnership, and Growth”—is one that our school aspires to. St. George’s Independent School’s tag-line also hits powerful notes for me: “active learning/agile teaching to build disciplined minds, adventurous spirits and brave hearts.”

St. George’s, now a vibrant day school of well-over 1100 students on three campuses, has its axis, and original campus here in Germantown on Poplar Road. Its history begins here, and it continues after almost sixty-years to have a deep taproot on the Germantown campus. I was on the Germantown Campus Monday for our Opening Day. Teachers, Administrators, and a Jazz trio greeted parents and students back before gathering in the Chapel for our Opening Convocation where we not only sang and prayed together, but we also heard two fifth graders give their fifth grade speeches—a rite of passage for all of the oldest students there. They were remarkable speeches made more impressive because this young man and woman standing behind the podium were speaking on the first day of school to a full congregation. They were funny and confident; they were prepared and poised. They expressed gratitude; they were optimistic. It became easy, while listening to them speak, to imagine them becoming the sorts of adults we want serving and leading in their community someday. When they finished, the applause was warm and celebratory.

I chose to leave a school I continue to believe in deeply because I found the distinctive mission of St. George’s wonderfully compelling, and I was attracted to this school in large part because its ambition is uniquely tied to the best ambition of its city and surrounding area. At my core, I believe that a key, perhaps THE key, to the sustainability of our schools is the extent to which we are aligned with the best ambition of the communities in which we exist. In short, we have a responsibility to be focused on something greater than ourselves, and in living out this responsibility we also ensure our own relevance and legacy. Much of my career as a teacher and an administrator represents this belief, particularly the last two schools where I have worked—Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Both institutions strive to be good neighbors—institutions that strive to act in a way that parallels the highest expectations we have for our students. At Hawken, this meant creating an urban campus designed to be a center for experiential and service learning. At Westminster, it meant educating young people about the principles and practice of philanthropy, while promoting the value of service learning throughout the school’s curriculum.

While the work of these two schools is remarkable and I am proud to have been a leader within each, St. George’s offers a uniquely powerful vision for what the future of partnership can look like. Founded in 1959, St. George’s is both an old and a new school, and its model represents a powerful manifestation of its Episcopal roots and its vision for the contribution the school can make to each community where it has a campus—Germantown, Memphis, and Collierville—and beyond. The school’s three campuses: the original campus here in Germantown, another lower school in Memphis, and a middle/upper school just over the line from Germantown in Collierville are bound together by a shared mission and philosophy. The Germantown arm of the school is old—it served elementary students in grades PK-6 for nearly forty years before the other two campuses existed. St. George’s is also new—in the mid-1990s the school launched a capital campaign to expand to the middle/high school grades by building on donated land in Collierville.

Here is where the story gets really interesting: as fundraising began for the Collierville Campus, a group of anonymous donors approached the school about funding a second elementary campus in the city of Memphis to serve families who valued education but didn’t have the means to afford or access a high quality independent school education. The anonymous donor group gave an initial $6 million gift, and the development of a positive partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church allowed the school to open the Memphis campus in 2001. Importantly, this year marks an exciting and historic moment for the school because this year our Senior Class, the Class of 2016, includes the first group of students who started on the Memphis Campus. Their graduation reminds us that this school is just now coming fully into its skin.

Each campus represents a necessary strand of our DNA with the Germantown Campus representing the original strand. Long before I arrived at the beginning of July this year, the school created concise language for the value of the model: “We believe the St. George’s model gives all students meaningful experiences in diversity, enriches the learning experience for all students, and prepares students to be successful adults. We also believe that this model sows the seeds for a better Memphis.”

Underpinning all this is the belief that our students will be better equipped to navigate a complex world if they learn to navigate complexity now. Our belief is that standing shoulder to shoulder with others with a wide range of backgrounds helps young people grow into become adults better prepared to engage an increasingly dynamic and quickly changing world. Learning to live into this complexity helps young people develop the requisite skills. I am certain that the world needs the people St. George’s strives to graduate.

We know that St. George’s fits into a much larger tapestry of educational opportunities in Germantown. Two examples of institutions doing vitally important work are Bodine School and The Madonna Learning Center. With its 43rd anniversary approaching next month, Bodine School provides an invaluable service to students with dyslexia and reading differences. The Madonna Learning Center, with its recently completed new facility, meets the needs, both educational and social, of young and adult students with special needs. And there are, of course, more…from the Bowie Reading and Learning Center to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and from the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf to the Municipal School District, which on its own serves over 5400 students, Germantown has a wide-range of educational options.

I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate our desire to be a good partner and neighbor. Our Campuses are constantly in use by camps, churches, and athletic teams. I am looking forward to our widely known annual Arts Alliance Show in particular. Always a community favorite, it will be happening at the Collierville Campus from November 5th through the 7th, and it will showcase a wide range of the best artists in the Memphis area. I hope you will join us.

A colleague of mine recently described a cartoon she had seen that may have some relevance to the issues a school and a chamber of commerce try to overcome. In the cartoon there is a small boat on the water and four people in it. Two of the people are on the low end of the boat, bailing as fast as they can because the gunnel is slipping below the waterline. The two other folks on the boat are on the high side, and dry. One of those two looks at the other and says, “thank goodness that is not us.” Of course, they fail to recognize we are all in the boat together. We are connected, and thus we owe it to our students to teach them to make meaning from that connection, to value it and to deepen it, for in doing so they can become the generation best suited to face the opportunities and challenges that inevitably lie ahead.

Thank you so much for this chance to join you today. It my hope that we can use today as a catalyst for becoming even more connected and even better neighbors. I also hope you take the chance to learn more about our school.

Doers Not Hearers Only–Opening of School Year Student Convocation Talk

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(The author with the Senior Prefects from St. George’s Independent School August 17, 2015)

(Below is my welcome back to school Chapel Talk from St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, Tennessee on August 17, 2015. The school has over over 1100 students JK-12 on three campuses. I delivered the talk that follows to students, families, faculty, and staff on the Collierville Campus, which serves students in grades 6 – 12. The remarks I gave varied a bit from this text in relatively minor ways though my welcome was a bit longer than what appears here.)

Welcome—welcome in particular to the Class of 2016…

When I was about six, my family switched churches from a tiny Episcopal Church far out in the west-end of Richmond, Virginia to a much larger urban Episcopal Church, St. James’s, which was much further in town. To my second grade eyes, this new church seemed huge…not just huge but the hugest—perhaps the biggest room I had ever been in except for the Richmond Coliseum where I had seen the Harlem Globetrotters play. My guess is that to a number of our sixth graders this campus might seem a little overwhelming too compared to the campuses where you all went to fifth grade.

Anyway back to St. James’s and the biggest room I had ever been in…in the chancel of this church written in the large gold letters was the motto of the Church, words from the 22nd verse of the first chapter of the book of James—saying… “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.”

“Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” For me, the words that surround it in the Book of James are confusing, but that line, that line is clear. When we think about the meaning of those words—“Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only”, they might be better described as frighteningly clear. Because they call us not just to listen but to take action. They call us to choose the hard right over the easy wrong, they call us to care for strangers, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Not easy stuff. Not easy stuff in a school and not easy stuff in the world you will find after school.

It is, however, the stuff that can make a school great, and it is up to you. It is up to you to make the school, to invent it for this year into a place of doers and hearers. Your passivity is unhelpful, your action is required, your commitment is necessary. If this is a new beginning for all of us, then what are we, and what are you, going to make of it?

I believe that becoming educated is a righteous act. It is the lifelong task of taking the gifts you have been given and making them meaningful, making them have an impact. Making the world a better place for your presence in it is not simply something to try to do in your spare time, it is a sacred responsibility. It is the space in your life to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” This work is important—the world needs you.

I will mention several ways we might get started on this work as a school.

  • First, know that we have jobs to do. For example, a job of those who have been here before is to help those of us who are new—people like sixth graders and first year heads of school. By your actions it is possible to make the campus a bit smaller less overwhelming for others. You can do this with ample doses of kindness and patience.
  • Support each other. Show up for each other. We are stronger when we are connected, when we go to the game, when we deliver a well-deserved standing “O” at the play. For those of you on teams know that you win games on the field, court, or pool, but you win fans in the ways you treat others in the hallway and in the classrooms and beyond. Deserve the support you seek.
  • Show gratitude: Over the summer there has been a lot of doing going on by a lot of doers, and it has all been for you. Teachers prepare for classes, and they say their own quiet farewells to summer vacation, the facilities staff has been hard at work the entire summer making this place a beautiful place of learning. Men worked in outrageous heat all summer to make sure we have places to park. They deserve our thanks and appreciation. Please show your thanks and gratitude through your words, yes, but more importantly through your actions—take care of this place and honor your opportunity to be here.

This can be an amazing year, and I think it will be, but we all have some doing, and, yes, some hearing to do in order to make it that way. Thank you and…Happy new school year.

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