I am pretty good at both thinking and seeing outside of boxes, but there was a time yesterday during my meeting at Flint Hill School outside of Washington, D.C. that I just wasn’t getting it. We are all burdened with perceptions based on experience, and I am not an exception. I got stuck on a duality of ambiguity. On the one hand, innovation at Flint Hill has taken an amorphous track; on the other hand they are fiercely intentional. But I rarely stay stumped for long, and such is the case after a night to reflect on the sheer energy, drive, and willingness to do exuded by Head John Thomas, Dean of Faculty Shannan Schuster, and Business Manager Anne Peterson. I guess I should have taken the hint from their web page which has “We’re Driven” in about 80 point font on the home page.
Flint Hill is K-12 on two campuses separated by a half-mile or so. I only visited the Upper School campus, which is just 10 years old, and, in my humble opinion, having essentially built two campuses, a gem. I entered into something like a boutique shopping mall, glass-enclosed offices and flag-draped walls drenched in sunlight from the high ceiling and long skylight. We took a tour later of the impressive facility, and the photos are included here. But this post is about strategic planning and implementation in some ways I had not heard yet on this trip.
In 1990 Flint Hill went through a major reorganization that resulted in the new Upper School building, but many other changes as well. The school has grown substantially in the last decade to a population of 1,100 but has remained committed to a goal of enrolling about 20% of students with learning differences. Their mascot, the Huskies, is an intentional manifestation of “all pulling the sled together”, despite differences of learning style. Serving this population has forced Flint Hill to truly commit to students as individuals who learn differently. The team said that the are “driven to get the very best out of and for the students who come here.”
Our discussion may have been the most open and frank I have had with any leadership team on this trip. Importantly, it was clear they were not putting on a show for the visitor; this is how this group works all the time. They throw everything they know on the table and work to implement the “drive” that is so evident. They might ruffle more feathers and spend time outside the comfort zone of some; John and his team just default to that singular drive to always get better. It was also refreshing and impressive to sit with a leadership trio where the Head defaulted much of the discussion to two subordinates. This group works as a team, whether or not others are looking on. I felt like I was being welcomed into a design team meeting in Silicon Valley, except one run by dyed-in-the-wool believers in the essence or education. There is real management 2.0 going on at FHS.
The two lessons I synthesized from our talks: a different approach to high-level organizational planning, and a fascinating approach to getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.
Organizing around a set of core ideas has not taken a traditional route at Flint Hill. For the last decade the school and administration have encouraged people to go out, gather information, and nurture and share ideas. There have been no formal task forces to take on big questions and promote recommendations. They have essentially been in “rapid trial mindset” for almost 10 years, which is a really long time, and progress has been almost completely organic. Now, however, they feel they are ready, and the world demands, that they put all of the good ideas they have gathered into a unifying context, and the big question they are asking is something like “How are we going to do 21C naturally, not forced, but evolving as a natural function of our organization?” (BTW, they hate “21C” as much as I do.) John broke it down into a series of questions that he has charged the faculty to think about and address:
- What do you do?
- What do you want to do?
- Do we really assess what we do?
- Does it work for every student?
As the faculty is going through this process, the school is also framing the discussion for parents. They are connecting the dots by reminding parents about what resonated with them during their own school years, and it is rarely how well they did on an objective exam. They are building trust with the parent body through repeated and frequent communication so changes to come will be viewed as thoughtful responses to a rapidly changing world, and not the disruption of a here-to-fore successful program. One real positive: the top management team has been together for most of this decade of learning and growing.
During this process of learning, trying, and filtering, it seems that almost nothing has been off the table. Shannan says when she hears about an idea she never thinks about why it can’t happen; she always leaps straight to how she can help make it work. They have a “raw honesty at the leadership level, and we try to empower every person in the organization to be that way.” I have heard many schools talk about the honesty and deep sharing of leadership teams; I am not sure I have ever seen such evidence in one room.
The other big lesson is the importance they put on building a school-wide team of the right people. “If you have the right people, change is a whole lot easier.” There is some serendipity that natural turnover of faculty at a D.C. school is a bit higher than average due to a transient population. But they also are highly intentional when it comes to faculty assessment. They constantly push PD and John says they are constantly “raising the bar” in terms of what great teaching looks like. The vast majority of the faculty rise to the bar. Those who don’t are brought in, work out a plan for getting there, and a time frame to meet expectations. Most make it; some don’t. Perhaps more don’t than at many other schools. This leadership team is probably quicker than most to recognize when the fit is not right.
What is really interesting is how they view a hiring opportunity. Shannan: “When we have a hiring opportunity, we don’t think ‘let’s fill that position’. We think what opportunities it opens in the whole school.” They are constantly talking to faculty about evolving interests, and thinking about best fits. Last year, John said, they had more people moving to new positions than new hires joining the faculty. With this mindset, they get closer to that goal of putting the “right people in the right seats on the bus” much faster than most schools. It is a constantly moving chess board, but one in which they have more control of outcomes because of their flexible thinking and approach.
We spent almost three hours talking about process, and yes, they also have bright lights to share. They have done a lot of work with educational technology, have a robust 1:1 program, and put a great deal of effort into not only their support of students with special needs, but how those lessons port over to students in traditional learning settings. I have to mention one other pilot that is indicative of how this leadership team thinks. This year they have a valued faculty member living in Chicago. So they set up an online math coaching service, five nights a week, for students to get with the coach if they need additional support. The teacher is in another city and the offering is after hours. Their paradigm is “customize first, consider issues of faculty equity second. If it is a good idea, try to implement it.”
They are asking “why is the structure of school the same when everything else is changing”. It is not in everyone’s comfort zone, and the faculty gets plenty of chance to weigh in, try things, and influence the direction. But, says John, “At some point we say ‘here is where we are going’, and we move”. It seems to be working remarkably well for Flint Hill School.