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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Election Day and Civility Stress

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with permission. This cartoon first appeared earlier this Fall in a post entitled Bombasticball: Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home” )

At the end of this post I have included an excerpt from my email to faculty and staff today, as well as a “Prayer for Civil Debate”, which I wrote for an assembly in which students debated key issues during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. While relevant then, the prayer almost seems quaint now given the extreme vitriol of this election season. The topic of civility has been on my mind for many months and indeed it was the topic of my letter (“An Ask for Civility”) to the St. George’s Independent School community in advance of this school year.

As Head of an independent school, an Episcopal school, I am not called to or inclined to support one party over another or one candidate over another publicly. However, I do believe I am called and educators everywhere are called to announce that we can and must seek a higher bar for discourse in our country. This Presidential campaign has created appalling moments, many of them. It is not business as usual and it is not OK. If we enter into debates (not simply the debates we see on television and social media, but any place where people debate charged topics) with only intent to speak, we will never hear and we will find ourselves shouting. At some point in such an environment, the desire to win at any cost comes to dwarf the desire to tell the truth and to find the best answers to the challenges that face us.

We speak often of character education in our schools. We have appropriately high expectations regarding how to engage other people and how to be a part of a community together. I love the character education aspect of our work because fundamentally I believe that civility, humility, and kindness must be present to balance our passions, beliefs, and opinions. Our emphasis on this balance is vital and relevant in part because history teaches over and over again that it is never an easy thing to achieve AND very little can be accomplished without it.

Our nation has a long and mixed history of success in challenging debates. In the end, however, we have survived because our debates, at times after long enmity, have led to a recognition that we can and must be stronger as a result of each other rather than corroded by presence of each other. In the end we have been our best as a nation when we have been as willing to learn as we are to speak, teach or preach. Too many voices, loud shouting voices, have been telling us recently that it is weakness to seek or try to engage in thoughtful dialogue. If it is a weakness, then the great statesmen and women of history, and specifically our national history, were weak. To assert this is as obscene as it is untrue.

An excerpt from my Friday email to Faculty and staff:
I found myself wincing, not for the first time, last night reviewing the headlines. If you are like me, you are feeling election stress. While the existence of this stress is not unprecedented in general, it is unprecedented in degree this year–it has been a deeply bruising campaign season.
Given all this, it is vital to remember our important role with the young people in our charge even when those around us are dropping their guard. All the simple things good teachers do, regardless of the age of the students in the room, make a difference at a time when we know adults are not the only ones feeling stress. Kids feel it in powerful, often unspoken and hidden ways. So..for our students, please remember… Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are naming them as God’s children, and we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.
Prayer for Civil Debate

Dear Lord, during this season of negative TV ad buys, sniping bumper stickers, relentless media cycles, righteous indignation, overly abundant and overly heated cheap shots, AND during this time of strong feelings, earnest conversations, party platforms, red, white, and blue yard signs, and intelligent debates…

Please help us to remember you and help us to keep an eye on the issues that transcend the political issues of the day. In these moments when we are pushed to delineate what separates us, to name where we disagree, help us to keep an eye on what connects us and what unites us, and let us honor you through the way we honor each other—particularly in those moments when we disagree with each other. Help us to keep an eye on what is bigger than the moment, and give us ears to hear even when we are perhaps looking far more to use our lips to speak.

As we barrel toward the November election, let us, in the words of the psalmist, seek to make the “words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” AMEN

TWO, FIVE, TEN Revisited: A Change Management Framework

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Hawken’s University Circle Extension Campus: The Sally and Bob Gries Center for Experiential and Service Learning

Last week I participated in a meeting hosted by Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. I worked at Hawken for four years as Upper School Director, and much of what I have learned about change management comes directly from that experience. The TWO, FIVE, TEN approach I describe below is something I developed later though it is derived from my experiences at Hawken, which was bold and smart in its work to move the school forward both in improving the quality of what it delivered to its students and in positively impacting its place in Cleveland’s crowded school market.

During the meeting last week much of the conversation was less about what we envisioned for the future of our schools than HOW we might best move incrementally toward those strategic visions. We know more now about how students learn (and there is much discovery doubtlessly on the way); however, the HOW question looms before us and often paralyzes us. Because of the imposing presence of the HOW question, we risk continuing to operate in ways that fall short of what we might do to serve students better because we don’t know how to move from where we are to where we want to go. I offer the TWO, FIVE, TEN approach as an option for becoming assertive at the moment we might turn back from moving in a direction we believe has value.

Below I have copied a post I wrote in 2012. At St. George’s Independent School we used this approach to create our new 6 – 12 daily academic schedule. The new schedule has landed extraordinarily well (you can see the survey data HERE). In this post I have added some more detail to original in order to put a bit more flesh on the idea. I marked the new additions I made in bold.

TWO-FIVE-TEN: A Change Management Framework

TWO: “The Non-Negotiables”

I believe there is room for two priorities that are non-negotiable. These are the goals that, if not met, should result in abandoning or re-starting the process. For me, the TWO is an opportunity for leadership to create the all important frame for the process. I have used the TWO as synonymous with a CHARGE. Leadership should not in my opinion define more than the two, but the TWO allow leadership to provide the larger compass for the scope of the work

FIVE: “The Critical Ingredients”

There is room for five critical items. The hope is that all five will be largely intact at the end of the process; however, there has to be a recognition from the start that compromise and a kind of horse trading is likely. The FIVE create an opportunity for the larger community to impact the direction and purpose of the process without the possibility of high-jacking it to a role in conflict with the TWO. In this way there is clarity from the beginning that while the FIVE are hugely important, there is no doubt that they may have to undergo some compromise to get to the ends of the process described in the TWO.

TEN: “’The Wouldn’t it be Nice if’ Group”

These are the items that capture other hopes for the initiative. Getting all of them would be like hitting the lottery, getting six of ten would be good news. The TEN provide the community with the chance to dream about what would be ideal. A community conversation involving the TWO can also provide leadership with unique insight into what the school community values. Thus it is important to give this aspect of the conversation enough breathing room even though there is little chance the process will lead to a place that accomplishes everything on the TEN list.

Approaching a change initiative this way does several things:
  • Creates appropriate and manageable expectations for progress.
  • Prevents a business or school from overpromising and under-delivering.
  • Positions the people leading the conversation to maintain focus on what is most important. Nothing is more important than the TWO, nothing on the list of TEN should stand in the way of getting as much out of the FIVE as possible.
  • Provides a disciplined framework with some flexibility. While it is important to stick with TWO and FIVE, the TEN may indeed be a slightly shorter or longer list.  
  • Gives the community affected by change a vitally important voice in that change without giving them a veto.  

I set this down here knowing that the muddiness of an actual change process will confound this approach to some degree. Getting everything to fit neatly in this form will always be difficult; however, the exercise of pushing the conversation toward these guidelines will demand a kind of discipline that is lacking in many change processes. I believe schools have often confused an earnest approach with a disciplined one. An earnest approach is one in which we express our earnest desire to reach for a new and improved program or vision without providing any understandable system for getting there. In so doing we try to insert belief  in the correctness of a direction where the labor of change management should be. With a disciplined approach, a school has a far greater likelihood of building a kind of consensus of understanding that empowers the eventual proposal for change. Done well such consensus will also accelerate the adoption of the change. The lesson I have learned through being a part of both successful and unsuccessful change processes includes this: having the right (or more accurately a thoughtfully appropriate) proposal doesn’t matter unless enough people believe in its validity. In order to make something really work to the advantage of the students we serve, many, many people (students, teachers, families) need to be invested from the beginning in achieving success. 

I have written a great deal about aspects of change management in schools. I linked three examples that you may find relevant here:

“Approaching School Days as Architecture” …and

“School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture” …and

“Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs”