School of the Future Emerging Today at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian, Atlanta

If you want to fill up 12 sheets on yellow pad with detailed notes and your head with great ideas for how to elevate student engagement, spend three hours at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian in Atlanta.  I was warned ahead of time that Head Dr. Brett Jacobsen would direct a fire hose at me, but I still was not prepared.  Thanks to Brett for walking me around on both campuses to ten separate rapid-fire meetings organized around the guideposts of MVP learning: solution seeking, creative thinking, innovation, communicating, and ethical decision-making, and collaboration. If you want to hear and see how a school completely aligns with habits of mind aimed at success in the future, read on!

MVP is an early childhood-12th grade school in North Atlanta with 800 students on their way to 1,000.  They have only had an Upper School for about five years, and they very intentionally took the expansion opportunity to re-think, re-envision, and re-brand the school.  The current board chair says that the previous strategic plan and mission statement were both fairly generic.  They surveyed, held focus groups, and met one-on-one with many stakeholders in the school to dig deeper into what they actually wanted to be.  Their current mission revolves around three pillars: inquiry, innovation, and impact, and those have driven a series of aligning vision and academic scaffolds.  Brett, who was hired four years ago to lead this transformation, says “we live our mission, good, bad, or indifferent.  At every discussion we invoke the mission statement or strategic plan, and even if something sounds like a good idea, if it does not align with those, we don’t pursue it.”

Brett has taken the school through internal structural change in a few short years. I asked him what the key to innovation is and he did not hesitate for a second. “Assembling the right team.”  The entire senior team is new to the school over the last five years.  They are retaining the highest performing teachers and attracting teachers from all over the country who like the direction of the school.  They did away with department chairs and grade level coordinators, creating a new position of “head of grade”, a coach and mentor responsible for helping teachers “execute deeper”.  Brett: “Our vision is to be the best school in the world at delivering a 21st Century education, and that means the best at educating this generation, right now.  Our strategic plan allows us to evolve.  We are constantly re-evaluating the plan for efficiency and effectiveness.”

I asked the principals how the mission and vision are being translated “on the ground”.  Lower School principal Shelley Clifford: “We are doing things quickly.  There is a passion among the faculty that lies behind our key messages.  We know we may fail sometimes, and if we do we will fix it quickly as well.  We want the highest standards of teaching, so we have a really high standard of expectation for professional development.  We re-built the teacher assessment protocol, and there is no reference to ‘minimum standards’; it is about how well a teacher is working compared to the highest standard.  Everybody is part of the mission statement; everyone knows what we are doing and can speak to it.  It shows; I am blown away by the support of parents for what we are doing.”  Upper School principal Tyler Thigpen: “We are aligning our teaching strategies directly with the six habits of mind that we have adopted”.  Middle School Principal Chip Houston: “We are actually executing our plan through both the heads of grade and the admin team. We meet every week and discuss specific goals for the week that align with the mission.”

The senior admin team and board chair point to Brett’s arrival as the key to this laser focus on mission, and say that it did not come without some discomfort.  They assessed the community’s tolerance for rate of change, and “push that tolerance as far and as fast as we can.”  They have leveraged every available PD day for aligning teaching with the key habits of mind, extended the school year by a week to increase PD, engage in frequent learning walks, and urge their faculty and staff to engage with colleagues outside the school on Twitter. They say it has taken fortitude, courage, and confidence, all of which are clearly in ready supply in Brett and his team.  Brett: “Identifying tension between where we are and where we want to be is a good thing.  Steady state will be when we are more comfortable in our ability to change.”

Student-deisgned rain coat made from candy wrapper trash as part of design contest for low-cost solutions to human problems.

We quickly drove over to the Lower Campus where a mixed group of faculty reminded me that they build program around those habits of what they call Mt. Vernon Mind.  One teacher told me that when her students read “Charlotte’s Web” they discuss how Charlotte is a solution seeker. “We are overtly teaching students how what they are learning is relevant to them now and in their future.  We build real-world projects that always incorporate calls to action.”  The art teachers told me how they use the process of “see, think, wonder” to link art to other classes, to get students to make their thinking visible.  “We find students can articulate an idea or concept from, for example, a social studies class, and then reflect on why they used certain colors or textures to express that idea.  Children’s pictures are their rich stories for us to see.”

At the heart of MVP creativity is Mary Cantwell and the Center for Design Thinking. Teachers bring groups of students in to this student-designed space for random projects where students and teachers can co-learn d-thinking. The major goal of the Center is increasing student engagement.  Rather than trying to summarize in words, I grabbed this video of the Design Lab off of YouTube and you can hear from Mary and the students describe what they do in their own words:

Don’t think this video is just a marketing piece; I interviewed a Lower School and Upper School student in the lab on my visit, and they both could clearly explain the d-thinking process and how it is percolating out to other classes and courses in the school.  MVP is in the process of expanding the d-lab concept and physical space in their next building project.  Students and teachers are helping to design that expansion by participating in a design challenge.  Having partnered and learned from the Stanford D-School, they now have the expertise in-house to train their own faculty in the process of design thinking.  Mary: “Our expectation is not ‘what are we going to do today.  It is what are we going to build or create today’”.  I was also happy to hear her confidently state that what they are doing is exportable to larger class sizes. This is absolutely something that can be done by both public and private schools with fewer resources (see my posts on Science Leadership Academy and Mapplewood Richmond Heights, both public schools with larger class sizes).

Some shorter bursts from the rest of the morning that you can pursue with MVP if they sound as interesting to you as they did to me:

  • Every Monday every student at MVP writes for about 35 minutes on a prompt generated by small faculty teams, so the students are writing across all subject areas.  The teachers who developed the prompts give feedback on the writing, based on a universal rubric that MVP developed.  The writing is 5% of ever student’s grade in every class.
  • Grades K-3 now have a standards-based reporting process that MVP developed that combines elements of the Common Core and other standards.  MVP also uses 6-week progress reports that, according to the teachers “force us to check how each student is aligning with the habits of mind.”
  • The 11th grade head described how they have pulled faculty together to “think in themes, not in subject departments, to move past interdisciplinary thinking to trans-disciplinary thinking.”  They took advantage of the 2012 elections to engage students to think as civic leaders: science classes held energy debates; language classes debated immigration issues; English classes reported on the debates; art students developed election posters; math classes managed the in-house elections.  Ultimately they plan to organize their entire grade level curriculum around with this kind of thematic approach.

I had a hundred takeaways from this visit, from a school that is modeling some of the best innovation practices I have seen on my journey.  In trying to abstract a single big lesson it is this: MVP are utterly and completely on the same page, from board to head to admin to faculty to students.  They know their value proposition as well as any school I have ever visited.  The habits of mind they have selected to focus on are posted and discussed everywhere, and everyone takes them seriously.  This does not bring a lock-step mindset of rigid attention to a narrow set of goals; it ensures that our most precious resources, time and brain power, are working together, not at odds.  The habits they are building are those that breed creativity and flexibility and the self-evolving learner that will set these students safely on their way to an unknowable future.  When I first outlined what I thought great education looked like 35 years ago, taught it, and wrote about it in The Falconer, I had in mind a school that MVP is becoming.  They are not there yet, but it won’t be long.

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