Courage, Commitment Pay Off With New Engine For Innovation at St. Luke’s, New Canaan

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Courage, Commitment Pay Off With New Engine For Innovation at St. Luke’s, New Canaan

(Aside: there are not many places more beautiful on a sunny fall day than the Hudson River Valley with the trees starting to turn and leaves fluttering onto the winding two-lane from New Canaan to Poughkeepsie.  I have to remind myself what it looks and feels like in January, when I will have my walks on Torrey Pines Beach, barefoot and in shorts.)


Two recurring threads of my journey so far have been the courage to take a risk when the picture of the future is not wholly formed, and commitment to a core vision that binds the organization.  This is the story of a school that has both of those in full flower, and the results are evident and powerful, even after a short visit.  If you are following my EdJourney, you are interested in innovation with tangible results and will certainly want to read on.

St. Luke’s School in New Canaan is a grade 5-12 coed day school with 535 students.  It started out in the 1920’s as a boarding school, had a rough patch of financial troubles a few decades ago, but now is a competitive independent.  The reason I visited St. Luke’s is that I had heard about their Center for Leadership, and I wanted to see if and how this effort permeated or impacted the school as an organization.  As you will see, I got vastly more than I expected.  This is a story of an organization that, after a great deal of community soul searching, took a bet on that soul, kept the honest skeptics at bay long enough to play the hand, and are now reaping big rewards.  Here is their story:

St. Luke’s went through a fairly typical strategic planning process three years ago: focus groups, surveys, meetings and broadly representative inputs.  After all of that was in, Head Mark Davis and his board chair did something that lies at the heart of any effective systems analysis: they went back, re-read all of the inputs, and dug deeply for connecting threads.  They asked, “What are people really trying to say?”  Through it all they found a single, unmistakable thread: the community wanted to focus on teaching the traits and character of leadership.  The community had the sense that good things were happening, but it just did not have that sharp, coherency that marks great organizations that share a common vision.  Mark and his chair brought their interpretation back to the strategic planning steering committee, and of course the committee asked what we expect them to ask: “What is it?”

A bit in hindsight now, Mark and his team lay out the specifics of what leadership means to them:

  • An obligation to do more.
  • An aspiration of the community for leadership skills and mindsets.
  • A centerpiece of the educational experience for future students.
  • Space, resources, and staff to make it come together.

The steering committee began to see the vision, and they gathered around the idea of creating a Center for Leadership (CFL), something that would be available to, and impact, every student at the school.  Mark pushed ahead and started looking for a Director of the CFL; without a leader, the picture would not come clear; “it” would not come into focus. Immediately, the faculty pushed back.  Adding more to the plate?  Shifting resources?  Where to find time? All of the expected concerns when change is in the wind, and particularly when “it” is not fully clear. Mark and the senior team took a very wise time-out, and he sent two of his senior administrators on a “listening tour” of the faculty, to meet, listen, and share ideas.  Remember, the ideas that coalesced into the CFL had come from faculty and other community input; they wanted to focus on these learning outcomes.  What Mark and team had to do was connect the dots for and with his teachers.

At the same time, they needed to raise money to support the CFL and give it a home.  As we have seen time and again, good ideas do not capture an organization’s attention unless they have a physical presence, and someone dedicated to do the heavy lifting.  Mark and the steering committee still could not fully describe what “it” was going to be, but they needed donors to buy in anyway. (At this point, readers may remember my blog earlier in the week about Marymount and Head Concepcion Alvar who had the same “I don’t have all the pieces yet but we are going to push ahead anyway” moment.)

Center For Leadership conference room

St. Luke’s pushed ahead, and I spent two hours in their stunning CFL conference room wishing that I had a group of seniors to teach The Falconer seminar to in that unique setting.  (It is not enormous, just three offices and a large conference room with a videoconference facility.  But it is walled with floor to ceiling windows that look out over a lower floor, making it visible, prominent, and central.) Here are some bullet points of what “it” is, as articulated by the Center director, Jim Foley:

  • An engine for school-wide innovation
  • A window onto a changing world and evolving leadership challenges
  • Support for ideas that grow out of faculty creativity that align with the core vision of leadership training
  • An engagement point for every student
  • A pathway for students and teachers to acquire a global perspective
  • An exposure and orientation towards service to one’s community

I met with about a dozen faculty today.  Boy, do they get “it” now. I don’t fault them a bit for skepticism at the outset; that is what critical thinkers do.  Now that the CFL has had time, even just a year, to paint its own picture, it is embraced by the teachers and is “part of every discussion we have about how to improve our program”.  The faculty sees it as a huge resource, people and a place to help them get where THEY want to go as teachers and learners.  It is a huge win-win.

The CFL has its own program, and they support what is evolving in the classroom.  Here is some of what has coalesced in just over a year:

  • Visiting scholars program
  • Overseas faculty exchanges
  • Skype conference with students from around the world in foreign language classes and for many special events.
  • Partnering with a major community organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness.
  • An all-school curriculum map of public speaking opportunities and outcomes.
  • Workshops for athletic team captains in team leadership.
  • A wildly successful (and very inexpensive) series of lunchtime meetings with outside experts on a range of topics.
  • Support from the CFL in enhancing presentation and public speaking skills in an engineering course.
  • Video conferencing, global immersion trips, and a World Language Week hosted by the World Languages Department
  • A solid uptick in the number of student clubs, many of which book the CFL conference center for their weekly meetings
  • Support in building a Middle School design competition
  • Development of online course offerings and discussion with other schools for online collaboration
  • Development of a Global Scholars diploma program through the Social Studies Department.

Enough?  This is in the first year. This group has a passionate (I would say rabid if you accept that no foaming at mouths was seen) commitment to the idea of leadership education within the context that they created. Theydid not grab something canned off the shelf; they struggled, argued, risked, and built.  Now they are going to tweak and build some more.  They did it the right way, which is the hard way: they worked the problem.  Most of the activities listed above take place in a “regular” class. The CFL has not added to the faculty plates; it has in fact provided a resource to help faculty get where they wanted to go.  It is an incubator, a Skunk Works, and an “inter-silo organization”.  Several of the teachers say it is a “game changer”, “so supportive”, “emotionally empowering”.  (If you are a school leader, how happy are you with those reactions?)

I dug deeper, to the questions that I would ask if I were on their board and deciding to allocate resources to a new program, the questions every board member always asks: “How are you going to measure success?  How will you know you are succeeding at teaching the leadership skills you want to teach?” The team had an answer, because they have already struggled through this issue, and it is a good one.  You don’t measure success in leadership instruction by trying to give it a letter grade based on student performance.  Here are some of what they are going to measure:

  • Level of interest in using the CFL as a resource
  • Number of students participating in events
  • Quantity and quality of interaction between faculty and students related to CFL goals
  • Number of classes connecting curriculum to CFL goals
  • Bringing new initiatives online (a Fab Lab is in design stages)

Can every school replicate the St. Luke’s CFL as an engine for creativity, innovation, and 21C programs?  No.  It took money and some schools don’t have the money and can’t get it. I am excited about the outcome but I am MORE excited about the process, because EVERY school can learn from this process.  Another school might focus on diversity, or STEM, or the arts, or sustainability, or expeditionary learning.  It doesn’t matter. I think the key process points are:

  • Hold big discussions and gather wide input
  • Dig deep and ask questions about what is truly important
  • Don’t default to the first answers
  • Find out the true passion of your organization
  • Commit deeply to that passion and pursue it, even though you don’t have all the pieces in place
  • Work the problem
  • Resist the urge to give up when the obstacles get large
  • Repeatedly connect the dots for your team
  • Align resources with your core values, even if you have to steal from existing programs that are further away from the core value

St. Luke’s did not start out to engage in a discussion of value proposition, but they did anyway.  They have innovated because innovation requires an enhancement of value as seen through the eyes of your customers, and every indication is that St. Luke’s customers see the value. I asked some of the teachers what they thought the CFL would look like 5-10 years down the road.  “Students directing their own learning”.  “Comfort with design thinking and innovation best practices”.  “Laughing that we had a tough discussion over getting rid of the AP’s.”  I am 100% certain that a visitor five years from now will walk into St. Luke’s and will immediately recognize that this is a school with focus, passion, and commitment to an impressive articulation of core ideals. To me, that is success for any educational organization.

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  1. Jamie Feild Baker October 7, 2012 at 10:32 pm - Reply

    WOW! what an extensive look into this school. I appreciate the connections and directions that a strong, committed, courageous leader can bring forth with and in everyone. Glad that you had a chance to sit and talk with Mark Davis and get a sense of how he is shaping his school forward.

  2. […] stopped by St. Luke’s to visit the Center for Leadership on his journey, and I can’t tell you how valuable an experience it was to be on the hosting […]

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