“Great” and “Leading” Schools: Reflections From Visit to Palo Alto High School

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“Great” and “Leading” Schools: Reflections From Visit to Palo Alto High School

What is the difference between a “great” school and a “leading” school?  Which would you like to be? Where would you choose to send your own child? How might a school be both?

photo 1I spent several hours with Kim Diorio, second year principal at Palo Alto High School yesterday. Paly High is as close to being a private school as a public school can get. Founded more than a century ago across the street from a little place called Leland Stanford Junior University, Paly is one of two high schools in what has become a wealthy, exclusive Silicon Valley village. Nearly 75% of Paly graduates go on to four-year colleges, and many, if not most, parents want or expect those colleges to be highly ranked.  Palo Alto Unified School District can pass capital improvement bonds even in tough economic times, and donors for special projects or added personnel are not hard to find. Paly High has been a great school for many years, and one might argue, will be great in the future, almost regardless of whether they evolve or innovate their learning practices.

photo 1-1Kim gave me a tour of some of the new buildings they have just opened, and showed me the plans for those coming out of the ground and scheduled to begin in the next few years.  The new media arts center houses the school’s five print publications and new visual media labs, as well as big new classroom/labs for freshmen English.  The central community area is packed with visual technology, comfortable seating, and a kitchen for those late-night student paper deadline pushes.  Not many students had gravitated to the new building yet, but as Kim said, “They will find it and find how to use it over time”, for club meetings, movie nights, guerrilla theater, or just hanging out.

The current library is scheduled to be gutted and turned into what might pass at a small college for the student union.  There are just a smattering of bookshelves; Paly has largely gone to e-readers.  The renovated library, which is a key hangout for students with a free period, will be a combination of genius bar, maker space, idea lab, college guidance space, and student activities center. Paly has a cooperative program with the local junior college in nanotechnology and other classes that most K-12 schools only dream about offering. And coming out of the ground is the new performing arts center; on the books are the new athletic complex and a STEAM building.

There is no doubt that Paly is a great school.

photo 2Yet as we walked around, I noted many students sitting in rows of desks, dutifully facing front, listening to a teacher talking to them in what can only be described as a teacher-centric learning style. Does that mean Paly students never collaborate amongst themselves, create original products, or move around in a more active learning style? Of course not!  But in my discussions with Kim after our walk-about, it is clear that she has a forward leaning vision of learning that combines the acquisition of knowledge (at which the school has been effective for a long time) with a more dynamic, evolving, “messy” learning ecosystem in which students and teachers are more growth focused, collaborative, and eager to take academic risks.  It is tough in any school to take the exit ramp from the industrial age model of learning; it is doubly so when you have been extremely successful in the past and you are unsure that the colleges, the gatekeepers of our students’ futures, are still giving huge weight in the admissions process to standard test results.  Inertia, the enemy of innovation, is a real problem at a place like Palo Alto High.
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As Kim and I talked, I reflected that 90% of the challenges she feels that lie athwart her visionary path were identical to those raised by Steve Baca, principal at Ortiz Middle School in Santa Fe, NM, a school at the exact opposite end of the demographic and performance spectrum from Paly High.  Ortiz, an historically low-performing school with a radically underserved demographic has nearly the same set of challenges in terms of convincing a community of the importance of change, teacher professional growth, and the transition away from one-size-fits-all education. Ortiz, by tackling these issues head-on, by piloting some uncomfortable innovations and brining them to scale is, in my opinion, a leading school, although no one would, at this point term it a great school. Paly, by meeting its historic mission of graduating students prepared to matriculate to a wide range of top universities, is a great school. But at this point, at least relative to the future-focused vision outlined by Kim, they are not leading relative to many other schools.

How might Ortiz become both leading and great? It will take resources, mostly time, continued outstanding leadership, sustained professional development, and a community outreach plan focused on the critical nature of education.  How might Paly High become both leading and great? It will take a process of building a widely supported, forward-leaning vision; continued outstanding leadership; a community communication plan focused on overcoming the fear of change; and sustained professional development. It is remarkable how parallel, perhaps even congruent, these paths will be!

I am pretty darn sure that both Paly High and Ortiz are headed toward the upper right quadrant, though there are no guarantees.  Where is your school? Where do you want it to be? How are you going to get there?

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