Around my house, “old school” is one of the great compliments we can give. We are a volleyball family, and the best player in the history of the game (and new coach of the USA women’s team) is Karch Kiraly, who defines “old school” volleyball: good at every position, great at the basics, and willing to do whatever it takes to make the team better. When Karch called out our daughter, Cassidy, as “old school” on TV one time, well, that is as good as it gets. I only had a few hours to visit, but I get the sense that Tom Hoerr and New City School in St. Louis are “old school” in the same very good ways.
New City is a Prek-6th founded in 1969, and now with 350 students. They are racially, economically, and socially diverse with 36% students of color and about the same percentage (though not the same students) receiving financial aid. One more operating note: they have a strict performance pay structure for faculty. Employees are assessed annually on five areas of performance, and three annual sub-par evaluations in any area and contracts are not renewed. Seem tough? They also have a generous sabbatical program, many of the teachers are very long-serving, and the large faculty group I met with seems about as dedicated as can be to the mission and make-up of the school.
A lot of the success of this school has to do with intentionality, and what can be more intentional than a head who stays for more than 30 years? Tom is well known to many of you as a frequent speaker and a writer on the model of Multiple Intelligences for years. In fact, according to Tom, New City was the second school to adopt MI, and it forms the core of how and what they teach. In even the youngest grades, students self-reflect through the lens of MI, and teachers are confident that encouraging students to take risks is supported by their ability to express themselves along multiple pathways. What may be innovative for some schools has been in place a long time at New City.
I asked Tom to summarize what is, and has been, at the stable core of New City’s success for so long. He did not hesitate: “Who you are is more important than what you know. The key at our school is the partnership between the teacher and the student.” They focus on giving the students a set of simple rules to live by, and deliver the message in the many ways in which children learn. Clearly they have been successful.
When we talked with the faculty, I asked about new and innovative programs. At New City the pace of change is thoughtful, as they have established their MI core over many years and don’t plan major deviations. They update programs after research and discussion through faculty committees. They have a strong, shared value proposition that is present along every hallway and in every room. As Tom put it, he thinks about what the school looks like at midnight when no one is there; they want it still to reflect their core values. (As one teacher pointed out, often one of them is on campus at midnight!)
Innovation is needed when an organization’s value proposition is fragile or in jeopardy. I get the sense that New City’s is not. They charge less than other schools, are frugal, and work hard to articulate the value of their school through their parent body to new families. They will innovate at a pace commensurate with the challenges they face and with the value of preserving that key relationship between teacher and student. They are good at the basics of that relationship. They do what it takes to make the team better. New City is old school!