Re-Focus on Mission Heats the Innovation Cauldron at Porter Gaud, Charleston

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Re-Focus on Mission Heats the Innovation Cauldron at Porter Gaud, Charleston

History drips from Porter Gaud School like Spanish moss from the trees.  Fort Sumter lies just across the salt marsh and a short stretch of the harbor.  An old cannon from the Civil War era Federal armory sits on a pedestal. A visitor hears the story of how Dr. Porter, a Confederate, saved the life of a Union aide of General Sherman; of how Porter and Sherman became friends; and how Sherman worked a deal in Washington to grant Porter that Federal armory after the war to start his school, primarily for orphans of veterans.  And my guides made sure to show me the portrait of the Washington family for whom the cafeteria is proudly named, not large donors who wrote the check for the building, but members of a family of African American employees who have worked at the school since their forefathers worked as freed slaves for the founder.  If there were a school that could hide behind tradition as an inhibitor of change, it would be here, but it is not. Things are percolating at Porter Gaud, and in this post you will read about exciting innovation in Lower and Middle school programs, computer science, and a faculty that is perched and ready to significantly change the face of learning.

Porter Gaud is “sort of” a 1st-12th grade Episcopal School with 900 students in Charleston (in case you did not get the hint from Fort Sumter).  I say “sort of” because about five years ago they did something that was as out-of-the-box as I have heard in my 15 years with independent schools.  Looking ahead to potential challenges with admissions demand at the lower grade levels, they bought an early childhood organization that has some 400+ students.  Not all of the students in the early grades want to go on to independent schools, but it is an admissions reservoir that I think most schools would love to have.  When Head DuBose Egleston told me about this a number of years ago, I thought it was as prescient a move as I had seen.

I intentionally failed to bring my notepad to the wonderful dinner they hosted for me on Wednesday night, so we started the official visit with a round table of the entire senior administrative team on Thursday.  I am going to have to bullet point the fire hose of ideas and insight that rushed at me from the prompt, “What does innovation look like here? How have things changed in the last 5+ years?”

  • “In the hiring process, the number of degrees or years of experience as a teacher is less important.  We place more emphasis on the skills that a candidate has, their ability to work with others, and their entrepreneurial spirit.  If we hire teachers who are adaptable they will teach adaptability to their students.”
  • “In 2000 just about every class was lecture style, desks in rows.  Those are fewer now.  Students are much more engaged and the focus of the classroom.  Having said that, I am constantly surprised how hard this change is; it should be easier.  “Even younger faculty are not used to this post-industrial age model and some of the technology.  The education schools at colleges and universities are not doing a good job of preparing them.”
  • “We realize that business as usual is just not OK.  The silos of classrooms and departments are still strong, but we have really been trying in the last couple of years to break them down.  People feel much more empowered now to try to cross those boundaries.  It has taken time, but there has been real change in the last 10 years.  We have refocused on our core mission and how that differentiates us.”
  • “A lot of teachers default to their own personal history; they remember the teachers who made a difference in their own life and want to reprise that experience.  We have to shift away from that ideal of the past.”
  • “It is hard for parents to accept change, to wean them off of seeing those worksheets and graded tests.  We are re-tooling their expectations of what is important in learning as we revise our teaching and assessment practices.”

We talked for a long time about how the new focus on the core mission impacts what goes on in the classroom.  As with so many schools I have visited, the link is a definition of “Goals of a Graduate” which for PG includes four major categories, each broken down into a number of standards which can be used to align curriculum and program:

  • Develop and use disciplinary understanding
  • Become a life-long learner
  • Become an effective problem-solver
  • Become a responsible contributing member of the community

These goals were embedded in their last accreditation self-assessment, and so now have become codified as the guiding document for ongoing curriculum development.

They feel that this articulation makes their curriculum accessible to students with a wider range of skills and ability.  Academic excellence is in these goals and the school mission and that is relatively easy to achieve for the “top half” of the students.  But they are focusing on how these goals engage all of their students and create opportunities for wider success.  “We are openly and honestly talking about the differences of students.  We know we can still do more, but there is so much more conversation about this now than there used to be when we had a real one-size-fits-all program. This is what supporting the whole child really means”

As with many other schools, they say the key to actually making this happen, this shift to a more transparent program based on their Goals of a Graduate, is professional development.  Teachers try to evolve and those attempts are supported by the administration with focused PD funds and by the division leaders who yield more authority and try to empower risk-taking.  Faculty share what they are learning with each other, including a new mentoring program between new and veteran faculty.  “You have to create pressure to change or you will never overcome the inertia of our traditions.  We are seeing that build up of pressure.”

What does the future look like?

  • “If we create a culture of self-actualization and risk, we are preparing our students for an uncertain future.”
  • “We are beginning to teach in a different way: hands-on, use of primary materials, highly contextual, designed more by the students.  We need to provide students the courage to ‘get in the game’, to enter discussions, to do something hard, create alliances; go to a boss or a professor with an idea or a proposal.  This kind of courage is transcendental.  We are sending kids off with a different level of courage.”

Now for some exciting programs in the classroom:

Doug Bergman is a nationally recognized teacher and he has let go the AP Comp Sci class and created instead a four-year computer science course of study that is attracting growing attention.  It is a blend of open-ended projects on student-created ideas that he describes as “structured but chaotic”.  Other teachers describe students chasing robots around the halls and Doug bouncing from group to group to do quick update assessments and give feedback on how they are making progress. Doug focuses on students helping students, and there is a special set of badges he gives out (they don’t carry grade weight but they carry enormous social weight) based on how often a student helps a classmate. His course sequence is the most rapidly growing program in the school.  Rubrics are progress-based and are given to the students in advance to help them in their own frequent self-assessment that parallels the teacher assessment.

Doug has partnered with the PG Lower School.  His 11th graders are programming their own X-Box games rooted in the school’s educational objectives. He groups two juniors with eight 5th graders who are market beta testers, coming in once a week to give feedback on the games.  The combined 5th/11th grade groups will present their projects to professors and students at the College of Charleston, and the winners will get to choose a school anywhere in the world to ship a new set of Xbox controllers and a full suite of all the games that have been created this year.  Doug: “You have to be willing to let go; it is not about you and your teacher ego.  The question for many teachers is how to do that.” (This just in: team from PG just took first place in a programming competition, beating out teams of college undergrads and grad students!)

The 4th and 6th grades have gone to iPads this year and the teachers are taking a blended learning approach, using both e-text and standard textbooks.  The math department has asked the fundamental question of why they use textbooks at all and are writing their own workbooks; discussions are under way to do away with math texts in the entire department.  The department is asking two other foundational questions as the prod themselves:

  • “What is a skill; what is an application; what is a thought process?”
  • “Why would a student need to know this?”

The 7th grade teachers are completely revising their assessment process.  They break students into groups and have them pursue theme-based projects.  For example, with the winter holidays coming up, each group will pick a different holiday, and the subject teachers will work something about those holidays into the curriculum units. At presentation time, the 6th grade will join in so they see what is in store for next year.  The assessment of the presentations replaces what would have been an exam grade.

I think PG has exciting times ahead.  They are going to tackle a new schedule in the next year or so, they are increasing enrollment, and they have a capital campaign in the offing.  I got the sense that many of the faculty are really ready to leap forward into this new era of interdisciplinary, highly engaged, student-led learning.

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