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:

The Annual Fund–A Vital Expression of School Affiliation

Annual Fund words provided by the faculty at St. George’s Independent School

In the photographs I have included here, I have written the words our faculty wrote when asked to pick a single word they associate most closely with St. George’s Independent School. They picked their words at the same time they made their pledges to the Annual Fund. They are a powerful collection of words, and together they describe the place I want my child to go to school.

Giving to an Annual Fund challenges families and friends of independent schools because they have already sacrificed so much to send children to our schools. That sacrifice is real in every case for every family no matter their relative wealth. The “sticker price” of a great independent school is already high, and it is getting higher, so to give more in addition to that is hard to say the least. But we do ask. We must. And we should.

To provide some context, I have gone to and worked in independent schools since I was four.  I make a gift each year to each school where I have either attended or taught. While my gifts are modest when taken in isolation, they represent a significant portion of my family’s giving. For me, this giving is both sacred obligation, as well as expression of appreciation for the ongoing work of these rare places that challenge, care for and support the young people in its classrooms, hallways, stages, and athletic fields. The best of our institutions do valuable work in outstanding environments that provide unmatched value to young people. The value of a great school is lifelong and serves our graduates every day as they step into lives of challenge, impact, and contribution. I am fortunate to have gone to and taught within exactly such places. I work in one now–St. George’s Independent School.

Annual Funds play a vital role for independent schools. Essentially, they help schools to cover the gap between what we call Net Tuition Revenue and the overall cost of educating our students. While this gap varies in independent schools (usually between ten and twenty-five percent of the operating budget), it is essential in every school.

Some of the doubt about the role of the Annual Fund traces to a lack of understanding regarding its purpose related to the funding model of our schools. Some facts:

  • The tuition a family pays does not cover the full cost of educating an individual student (hence the gap to which I refer above). To repeat, no family that pays tuition is paying a price that covers the actual cost of the child for whom they pay tuition.
  • There are a couple primary resources that provide the funding that fills the gap: Endowment draw and Annual Fund.
  • There are other resources that fund a smaller portion of the gap between Net Tuition Revenue and the actual needs of the Operating Budget of the school. These resources include things such as: Auctions, and individual fundraisers for specific purposes (i.e., baseball parents raising funds for a Spring Break trip).
  • Tuition does not cover the capitol needs of the school. Tuition Revenue does not build buildings–it covers the yearly cost of educating young people. Capital gifts build buildings and facilities.
  • Capital gifts, the gifts that increase an endowment, and payment of tuition are separate types of funding. They are each essential to the overall funding of an independent school.
  • Gifts to an Annual Fund send a message more significant than the total fund alone. Percentage of giving sends a message to potential Capital and Endowment donors. Foundations that are likely to consider giving to an independent school look to percentage of Annual Fund participation as a barometer of school community engagement.
  • Percentage of alumni donors, parent donors, past parent donors, grandparent donors, and faculty donors each send discrete messages to the philanthropic sources independent  schools court for Capital and Endowment gifts. Each dollar and each donation given to an independent school’s Annual Fund has a value significantly greater than the number on its face.
  • Giving to an Annual Fund at whatever scale is a vital way to demonstrate affiliation with the school. I believe it is an obligation as it clearly facilitates the school’s effort to provide the best possible education to its students.

One of the first questions I ask whenever I have taken a close look at an independent school is, “what percentage of the faculty gives to the Annual Fund?” As barometers of school health go, this is an unusually accurate one. When the people who know the most about a school, the ones who know best how the sausage is made, give to the Annual Fund, it is a strong indicator of school health.

So, when the institutions that serve your kids, or that you attended, call between now and June 30th, say, “yes.” Take action. These invaluable places and their current student bodies need you.

Detail of Faculty Annual Fund words

Three Refrains for the Class of 2017: A Commencement Address

Good afternoon! Welcome to all gathered here in support of the St. George’s Independent School’s Class of 2017. This class has on a regular basis made me proud to be a part of this community.

These seniors have earned this day in this place surrounded by this group—surrounded by families, by faculty, by staff, and by friends. They are an accomplished group—it is beyond my ability to delineate every contribution here though suffice to say, the members of this class have impacted our school in positive and lasting ways. They have been scholars, artists, athletes, actors, friends, mistake-makers, victory-winners, supporters, leaders, Saturday-schoolers; they have been members of teams, makers of grades, givers of service, and they have sometimes stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. They have been part of us, vital parts of the body of this school, their school. Perhaps representative of this, next week many of them will continue to represent St. George’s in state athletic competition in Track, Tennis, Baseball and Soccer. LET ME ASK ANY SENIOR COMPETING NEXT WEEK TO STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED. Clearly, we aren’t quite ready to let go of you yet!

 I too often live in my head—there are always things churning around up here between my ears. And indeed, such was the case as I started to work through what I might tell this class, this memorable class of 2017, before they cross this stage and move ahead to what comes next. I started and restarted and stopped and pondered. I was taking too long, and I was risking falling short of my duty, my last duty, to this group before they join the impressive alumni group of this school.

And then I had a three-campus experience Friday morning that resolved my dilemma. In the first three hours of the day, I shook hands with Memphis campus students and families heading into their awards ceremony, and later I witnessed as teachers on the Germantown campus recognized students for citizenship, and finally, I hurried over to Agape Chapel where I met up with you and read you a story and rehearsed this very ceremony. After all that, I realized that I don’t have something new to say, but I do have a couple of refrains to share—I need a last determined calling out to you, imploring you to stay focused on what is most important. Here is my list: number one, honor others; number two, celebrate other’s accomplishments; number three, remember the simple good.

The Memphis campus students are becoming excellent at shaking hands and making eye contact with me. I think I may have scared some of them earlier in the year when I mentioned in my teacher voice that I would like them to work on this skill, so on Friday as I was greeting them, a number held their eyes particularly wide open to make sure I would note their quality eye-contact, as they stopped long enough to say: “Good morning, Mr. Peters” or as a few say, “Good morning, Mr. Ross Peters.” They are learning that that it is important to greet others well in order to recognize and value, even in that fleeting moment of a hand-shake, the lives of others. This ritual of shaking hands is a way that we honor each other, a way that we name each other, and a way that we humanize each other. A warm greeting, long enough to make eye contact, short enough not to hold up the line, stands for all the ways we honor others.

I missed a good bit of the Germantown Award ceremony in route from the Memphis campus. Hurrying from my car I made it to the Chapel just in time to see the Citizenship Awards. I edged along the outside aisle to find a seat behind Ms. Colgate, who along with Carolyn Wilder Morton, Jane Finney and Pat McGraw is retiring at the end of this school year. LET ME ASK THAT EACH OF THEM STAND TO BE RECOGNIZED. So after taking my seat, I had a perfect view of each teacher greeting and celebrating with the students being recognized. There was a lovely intimacy in this exchange—the teacher handing a certificate to an excited child, the two of them turning together toward the camera to get their picture taken. Beyond the stage there was a joyously full chapel with kids and families, teachers, and staff not simply clapping for those recognized but living within a connection to each other—a kind of communion. It is a beautiful convergence for me that just moments ago we celebrated the accomplishments of four members of our community whose lives within St. George’s were defined by supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of others. So, to the Class of 2017 in whatever life you build, do that, please, do what they and many others have done for you…celebrate and support others.

After ghosting away immediately after the Germantown campus Awards Ceremony, I drove to the Agape Chapel and met you there. I did on the last weekday of your Senior year what I did on one of the very first days of Pre-K for another group when I arrived in 2015—I read you a children’s story. There is so much that is intricate and complex in our world—it is not going to get simpler. That said, it is often the simple things, the things we first heard from the lips of our parents or learned from gentle nudges from our first teachers or even heard in a story read to us as we drifted to sleep at bedtime that offer us the guidance to navigate the world. Those stories tell us to: listen, cooperate, share, forgive, be kind, and love.

We live within a culture defined to a large degree by the priority of “getting what’s mine”, as in “I am determined to get what’s mine.” The class of 2017 does not need to learn but rather they need to remember Dr. King’s counter-point to that potentially corrosive cultural characteristic. I discussed this topic in our MLK Chapel early this year. He said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” I said in January and echo today that, “this question should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.” Seniors, you felt this push shaking hands, you felt it as you developed your sense of community. It is in the end a push toward something really simple, but not at all easy. It is the challenge of our lives.

Godspeed Class of 2017! Thank you.

Above: the 2016-2017 St. George’s Independent School Prefects

Above: new graduates celebrating in front of the SGIS Agape Chapel

Soft Skills: The Wrong Name for Things So Vital

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The Soft Skills are, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Calling them “soft” makes them sound so wimpy though, doesn’t it? And yet without them our ability to interview successfully for a job, greet a stranger to ask for directions, make someone just arriving feel comfortable, work well with others, choose the hard right over the easy wrong, and contribute to a group that is greater than the sum of its parts disappears. Think of the potential squandered in our nation and in the world because we fail to pass along these essential skills to young people. The risks of our neglect in this area has a price for which the addition of one more battery of standardized tests or one more piece of educational legislation can never make up. To be clear, without a determined, humane, and systemic approach to teaching these “soft skills,” not only do the children who come through our schools suffer but our economy and our overall cultural cohesiveness suffer as well. It is not OK.

Recently, a principal of a nearby high school of several thousand students announced, after regaling the audience with the school’s programs, that the greatest deficit of the students in the school related to the significant lack of “soft skills.” He suggested that they might add a course for seniors to mitigate the gap in this area. In my mind this is far too late.

Last Thursday we had a guest on campus representing a prominent foundation to which St. George’s has applied for a grant. As part of his schedule he met with a number of students. Here is the point: not for one moment was I worried that these kids would do anything but impress him with their engagement, passion, kindness, honesty, courtesy, civility, and clarity of thought. I couldn’t wait for him to meet them. There were no other adults in the room when he met with them–they only could have gotten in the way. I had no doubt that his time with them would likely be the highlight of his visit. They did not learn these skills in a course–in addition to what they learned at home, they learned them by going to school for years within a community, the SGIS community, that prioritizes “soft skills”, names them, celebrates them. They are a vital part of each student’s learning, and our sacred hope is that its value lasts for their lifetime and even beyond it in the lives they will touch.

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Recently, Lori Williamson, our Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, wrote a letter to our community addressing “soft skills.” I have included it below.

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February 16, 2017

Dear St. George’s Families:

One of the things I love about St. George’s is our dedication to the whole child. In my role as Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, I am privileged to see firsthand the active learning that happens across all grade levels and campuses. I see St. George’s students sharing their insightful thinking whether they’re reading Hamlet or preparing for their rain forest presentation. I see them assuming the responsibilities of citizenship as they plan service projects. I see them advancing as problem-solving scholars as they collaborate with peers on multi-disciplinary projects. I see the expertise of our teachers as they create academic experiences which teach skills and promote awareness, collaboration, and relationships.

Of course, student performance data is an important measurement tool and is a critical aspect of my role at St. George’s. This is one reason I recently attended the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) conference in Chicago, Illinois. However, while there were plenty of expected sessions on data analysis, what stood out to me at this conference, was the counter-balance of sessions dedicated to the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). Interestingly, researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have identified five core SEL skills that enhance one’s ability to tackle daily tasks and challenges: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

What you should know as a St. George’s parent is that these types of so-called “soft skills” are directly linked to academic achievement. In fact, an article in the Journal of Child Development noted a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving over 270,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade students that found students who participated in explicit SEL programs increased their academic achievement by 11 percentile-points.

Not surprisingly, some employers have identified workforce gaps related to these same skills. For example, some of the competencies often ranked as “very important” by employers include: the ability to analyze and problem solve with people from different backgrounds; the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources; oral and written communication skills; and ethical judgement and decision-making.

I was pleased to reflect upon the caliber of our practice at St. George’s while at the ERB conference. My conference experience underscored the benefit we see in pairing high academic achievement with the all-important “soft skills” required by future employers. I am thankful to see positive relationship, empathy, and ethics working together in our school and serving as a basis for social/emotional learning alongside academic growth. I am thankful to be part of a community that supports the whole child in gaining skills that directly link not only to current achievement but also future success.

Your division director and I welcome your thoughts and comments about the social/emotional learning and academic achievement and assessment of your child. I am always available to join in conversation, along with your division director, regarding your child’s growth.

Sincerely,

Lori Williamson
Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment

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