A major pitfall I find amongst schools that want to shift their learning practices is a mis-alignment of resources to a new organizational vision. Where schools get this right, innovative change is systemic and sustainable; where they fail, change is isolated, episodic, and often ephemeral.
Sonoma Country Day School is a 35-year old K-8 independent school nestled in the wine country north of San Francisco. One of my key takeaways of my morning at SCDS came when I thumbed through the annual report on the welcome office coffee table. One image stuck out: a pinwheel diagram of the 6-7 main elements of their current strategic focus. While at most schools one would find highlights about “hiring and retaining excellent teachers”, “creating global citizens”, and “ensuring access to the best technology”, the strategic elements at SCDS all spoke directly to the process of learning. They are questioning how they might use time in the day better; differentiate learning for each individual child; build a strong component of social and emotional learning into the daily program. With these as truly guiding elements, they have built what I call a North Star towards which the can constantly direct discussion amongst faculty, administration, and trustees.
The other stand-out takeaway is that SCDS has partnered with the Sonoma County Office of Education in a powerful way to build a real locus of community thought and action around the idea of school innovation. They have started to host an annual professional development conference, and a TEDx event, supported in part by the local business community, that includes both educator and non-educator world-class thought leaders to bring the conversations about school innovation right to the doorstep of local educators and families. In our discussion one message rang out: “we are not just interested in doing what we have done in the past, but better. We are also interested in imagining learning in a very different way in the future.”
I poked my head into almost every classroom and found students at all grade levels engaged, willing, and able to really articulate what they were doing and why they were doing it. I found teachers interacting in a range of modalities, but never far from pushing the students to take ownership of their own activities. And as we finished our morning together, a half dozen 8th graders showed me the books they had each published the previous year, truly impressive, full-length, soft cover pieces of creative fiction. I wanted to sit down and start reading them!
Within the context of my post yesterday about “great” and “leading” schools, SCDS is pushing hard into that upper right quadrant of being both. No one would argue that this is a great school. But they are not resting on that reputation; they are not giving in to the inertia of past greatness and the fear of change. Head of School Brad Weaver is pushing the community to think much more broadly and dynamically about the role of education in the future; the changing challenges our students will face; the role of an independent school community within the larger community of learners. While I am not sure they would have used these words in the past, I think SCDS is a school where “great” is not good enough.
Before leaving I had about 20 minutes to address the faculty over lunch. I raced through a summary of some of my work, and then asked if it would be OK if I shared with them some feedback from my morning, framed as questions. Most of the questions started with “why” as seen through the eyes of an outside observer. Some school groups would get their backs up a bit; a stranger asking questions that dig into the traditions of their wonderful school can be uncomfortable. Instead, Patti Wick, Director of Innovation and Learning had scribed down my list of questions before the end of the day, ready to use them as prompts in their quest to “lead”.