Some schools with long histories find it hard to change due to a legacy of success and the inevitably of inertia. Some schools with short histories find it easy to change but hard to build a legacy of success. Then there are the “tweeners”, small schools with a long history that make a sudden growth decision, and now they are a young school again, in need of branding and establishing themselves to a new market while still preserving their traditions. Parish Episcopal is just such a school, and they are doing what I can only describe as a ferociously good job of brand identification and value definition through a clear articulation of their essential outcomes, STEM, global engagement, blended online learning, and leadership training. Oh yes, and then there is the building!
Parish was an elementary-only program until the late 1990’s when they decided the market could support another strong preK-12 program in north Dallas. Whoever had the idea to buy a 300,000 sq ft I.M. Pei-designed Mobil research building left standing empty after the Mobil-Exxon merger and convert it into a grade 3-12 school deserves an NAIS Lifetime Achievement Award for outside the box thinking. They got it for a song compared to what it would have cost to create something like this from the ground up, or even to build a far more conventional school building. They added a gym and sports fields and now have one of the more unique and truly exceptional campuses I have been on. It has wide halls, tall ceilings, and light and airy feel of a Google center. Yes, there are one or two long, strange hallways, but the space is endless. Every faculty member has his or her own spacious office, classes and labs are big, with Pei’s use of massive windows and light. They really do seem to have room to do whatever they want as I found when we visited the Upper School robotics lab that looks like it can expand pretty much whenever and wherever they want. With the purchase of this building, Parish went from 400 to 1,100 students in five years.
Head Dave Monaco is intensely focused on aligning program and message; he seems as comfortable giving the elevator speech about the core values of the school as he is in a deep discussion about pedagogy and student-centered learning. As we walked around the main campus, he said that the differentiated value of the school comes from the time and energy they spend on the “identity of each student. Traditional schools are built around outcomes. We are process-based.” They have settled on three guiding principles that they want every student exposed to throughout their preK-12 career: the Parish Profile of skills and preparation; STEM; and creating Students of Impact through global and leadership opportunities. They allow and encourage pockets of innovation outside of these core areas, but every student gets these core emersions at all grade levels. In order to ensure this alignment and integration, they have created new positions and areas of responsibility, and hired teachers who embrace their mission. They hire “people who are able to work with both middle and top performing students, who are able to create and manage tailored learning experiences.”
The senior leadership team has been crafted to both create and integrate this embedded alignment. Dave says that they are “pruning the bush” of the entire school program to make sure that program aligns with mission. Upper School principal and Provost Michelle Lyon is responsible for taking all the pieces and making sense of them for the faculty. She makes sure that new faculty understand “they are on the bus. Dave leads on this; he is frenetic about messaging, in division meetings, on PD days, in grade-level discussions, and in quarterly letters.” They gave me examples of the extensive messaging they have developed for both internal and external audiences, from the laminated placemat with the ParishProfile on one side and ParishLeads articulation on the other, to the “subway map” that clearly shows how and when students will progress through their STEM exposures from preK-12th grade. And it is not just show. This year every faculty member over the summer developed examples of how these core practices were applied in their classroom, and they held a massive poster session for sharing and collaborative learning at the beginning of school.
In order to ensure that the mission practices actually impact at the learning level, Parish has developed an e-portfolio that will follow every student, starting in 1st grade. In early years, teachers embed artifacts in the portfolio; by 5th grade the students take ownership. The portfolio is organized in alignment with the key mission drivers, so teachers, students, and parents can all see how they are progressing along this map of shared school mission. The senior admin team also created “individual plans for professional learning” that helps each teacher align his or her own goals for growth with the mission. These are public, transparent, and part of the annual evaluation. All faculty are encouraged to review and comment on each others’ annual plans. Last year they held an all-school internal mini-conference for teachers to share their learning outcomes; each session had facilitators with a goal of helping teachers recognize opportunities to form partnerships where they had shared objectives.
With this overview, I will skip back to earlier in the day, and (try to) cover the specific innovations in classrooms, labs, and student experiences I was able to see on both campuses:
This historic Lower School campus has a newly renovated STEM Center with novel room labels like Exploratorium, Learning Lounge, Digital Den, Innovation Station, IQ (Inquiry and Questioning) Lab, and what will become a learning kitchen and garden. It just opened this year and they are still figuring out how each can be used. Each has specific opportunities for experiential, inquiry, and discovery learning for students from preK-2nd grade. The halls are full of felt boards and white magnetic/writable walls. There is lots of open floor space, soft, flexible furniture, and racks to hold supplies for building and creating. Several groups of students came through: it is a bit messy, noisy, and chaotic, “just the way we like it”, according to Katy Henderson, who is responsible for coordinating preK-2 STEM. “We are teaching teachers how to use the space. It came quickly. We did some ‘what if’ thinking last winter, went to a STEM conference last spring, and Dave said ‘we are going to do this’, and we did, over the summer.” Teachers can sign up to use the centers, but are expected to spend a minimum amount of time there each week. The content is a blend of inquiring skills, discovery, and process that will change with curricular units over time. Katy: “It is not just organic; teachers are adjusting their curriculum and coordinating those changes across grade levels. They have to have the flexibility to make jumps and changes. If kids get interested in something, we have to go in that direction.”
Back to the main campus: we visited a middle school classroom where students work with ex-NASA engineer-turned teacher Jennifer Makins on robotics and problem solving. 5th and 6th graders can take this in an enrichment block in lieu of a trimester of art. One-third of the middle school is now enrolled in the course. This is not a class in canned Lego projects. Students showed me their robot cars, ran them through their paces on a competition practice board, and brought up a programming sequence on the SmartBoard and tried to explain how students this young can program robots to do complex things. (I know they can; I just have a hard time wrapping my head around the sophistication of it.) Several groups of both 5th and 6th graders work on the same project, sharing ideas, successes, and failures, in order to maximize the overall group success when they go to an interscholastic competition. They keep student-organized binders of their research, reflection, after-action reports, and even email correspondence with external experts they find to help them (example here). It is not about proscribed problem solving; they also design and build things to solve problems that they come up with. The students showed me a design they are working on to help people with bad balance, like senior citizens, to walk. I asked the students what they were learning in this course that they might not learn in a more traditional setting: “programming, teamwork, lots of failure, awareness of other things going on, patience, positive attitude, compromise, and the importance of encouraging others.”
We visited a 3rd grade class where the teacher had combined some math and science units, and the students were wiring up batteries and small bulbs to learn about circuits and electricity. The adjacent 4th grade class had a discussion about the greatest invention of all time. The students had to develop a marketing pitch about their chosen invention, group up as researchers, statisticians, surveyors, and art directors to present and compete for votes from their classmates.
The Upper School robotics team is young, but already moving into the highest level of competitions in the Dallas and regional area. They have a big lab, concrete floor, lots of storage, power tools, and building space. They plan to give the next bay over to the growing middle school teams so the groups can work together with the older students mentoring the younger ones. Once again I asked the students what they are learning from their course that they might not get from a more traditional learning experience: “Self-discipline, focus through passion, solving real-life problems, teamwork, building alliances, and humility”. They said that the adults have learned they have to stay out of the way, not jump in to solve problems. The teacher/coach: “The administration does not tell us exactly what to do with the program and I try to do the same for the students.”
Next stop was with the team that directs the Parish Academy of Global Studies. The AGS is an 8th-12th grade sequence for which students apply or are selected by their teachers. It includes course work, community service, co-curricular experiences, and a capstone project, all of which are aligned with the school’s core principles. Projects can be combined with work in regular classes. We heard about two seniors who had created their own NGO, which has now been taken on by the school to be managed and passed down to rising students to ensure long-term sustainability of the program.
ParishVirtual, directed by Dave Ostroff, is a blended learning environment where teachers develop online course opportunities and work alongside the Parish students who choose them. Several courses are offered during the school year, but Parish has made a major move to offer virtual courses during the summer session. Students complete the majority of the course work on their own time, but they have regularly scheduled meetings, both on and off campus, with the teacher. Some of these courses are enrichment, but some meet graduation requirements, which frees up students’ schedules during the school year to either take other electives, or to participate in a focus area that allows them to pursue their individual passions. The summer courses have been effectively run with as few as 1-2 students, and as many as 30 or more. Parish also allows students to take university courses online with the oversight of a Parish faculty member. I met with a student who is taking online multivariate calculus from Stanford, and there is another taking Japanese online from the University of Alabama.
The final meeting of a long day was with the ParishLeads group, which essentially has created a roadmap to ensure that students, teachers, and parents understand what lessons, projects, and opportunities across all grade levels are contributing to the school’s mission value to create “students of impact”. The system allows and requires all teachers to document and align leadership-focused programs, and gives the school a branding opportunity with their families. Dave and Michelle said that they have not had to add much to the program; it is really a process of teachers understanding what they already to, and making it concrete and sustainable. This, of course, is the key to understanding and leveraging an organization’s value proposition, which the Parish team are honing as well as any I have seen.
A long and powerful day of learning. Parish is essentially a very young school, in a highly competitive independent school market. They have created a unique look and feel, and branded it in a short period of time. Newness has its strengths: they created what they want, hire for it, move quickly, and rarely say no to something that even smells of a good idea. Parish is a great example of excellent pedagogy for today and the future merged with the very real power of sharply tuned mission and messaging.