Steady Innovation “Broadens the Purpose of Education” at Randolph School, Huntsville

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Steady Innovation “Broadens the Purpose of Education” at Randolph School, Huntsville

I made an “unofficial” stop in Huntsville to see colleagues at the Randolph School.  We only had a couple of hours, but I have been talking about education innovation with Head Byron Hulsey and Assistant Head for Academic Affairs Jerry Beckman for several years, so we hit the ground running.  We were also joined by Jane Daniel, Assistant to the Head for Strategic Affairs (another in my journey list of job titles that I bet most larger schools don’t have, but should).    I have always found the leadership at Randolph to be some of the most thoughtful, intentional, and pragmatic of the many schools with whom I have associated, and they have made real changes in a short period of time. They are making real progress in faculty collaborative learning, addition of some rich program, and a unique tactic in board training and alignment.

Byron is in his 7th year and I asked him how the school’s educational landscape has changed in that time period. “We are thinking more broadly about the purpose of education.  We completely revised the mission statement”, as they developed a detailed educational philosophy founded on the six C’s of 21s Century education put forward by NAIS several years ago.  They have articulated their own view of those six elements, and they “expect the faculty and staff to think of those as the DNA of the school”.  “We see learning taking place all the time, not just in a traditional classroom setting, but in the arts studios, on the ball fields, and in everything our students do outside the classroom.”  They created a new position, Director of Community Learning, and have dramatically increased their partnerships in the growing and vibrant Huntsville community, as well as further afield:

  • Developing a sister school relationship overseas.
  • Partners with Village of Promise, a school for underserved students in Huntsville.
  • Hosting community arts and music events on campus.
  • Re-imagining their summer offerings to include more non-Randolph students.

“We really have embraced a spirit of openness and inclusiveness that was not as clear a decade ago.  We want to learn all the time.”  Byron says that this is aligned with the spirit of Huntsville, a city with a large population of people who have moved there from other places and see growth and openness as a real positive.

The school has grown 20% in the last seven years and this has allowed the senior team to hire faculty who fit a growth mindset mold, and to institute structural modifications that enhance that growth.  Every faculty member is now required to be part of a PLC, and they have put extensive PD resources into training the leaders of these teams in effective collaboration strategies.  They see real change taking place amongst teachers who, a few years ago, might have been resistant to the suggestion of change.  Now, working closely with colleagues on issues of common interest, new ideas are quickly percolating and taking root.

In hiring, Jerry says they look for “innovative people who can wear more than one hat, have transferable skill sets.  “We want people who model those same six C’s that we want to teach our students.”  They get job applications from around the world and have an increasingly cosmopolitan faculty and staff.  Byron: “We are looking for people who love to learn.  It is about who they might become, not who they are”.

Randolph is going through the same issues of adjustment to a new learning model that all schools go through: they are in the process of restructuring the schedule; they are looking at new student assessment models; and of course they face the college admissions restrictions, highlighted by the fact that they are viewed as an AP-rich school for their geographic area.  Jerry: “We have mapped the main vision points into our curriculum. We are not there yet, but we are making real progress.”

A real highlight is their senior capstone project, a study of the Romantic Era, taught by a team of teachers covering literature, music, art, math, science, and history.  It is an elective, and somewhat of a pilot for this kind of massively multi-disciplinary approach.  The first semester is focused on investigation and writing via a blog, and in the second semester the students take on a self-directed topic for research and presentation.  Last year they had a marvelous range of work, including students who:

  • Built a telescope from scratch
  • Read War and Peace and then wrote and directed a student play
  • Original music compositions
  • Published a graphic novel

Byron: “This is the richest academic experience I have ever been part of, including anything I was associated with at university.”  Jane: “The students in the audience at the presentations are so engaged and ask incredible questions.  You can see that the younger students want to do this in their senior year.”  And, of course, despite the fact that it is a non-standard course, college admissions love it. This type of student-directed, context-rich experience, where students can pursue their own passions and impassion others, is what John Dewey taught us a century ago, and we have seen on this journey that it is effective at public and private schools, large and small. It shows all around what great education can look like, and becomes a brushfire for other innovators.

Another great lesson and one I have not heard of yet on my journey: Jane and the board are working together to make sure they capture the knowledge base of accomplishment as the school moves forward.  A common problem at schools is that both professional and board leadership are transient, and we often have the exact same discussions year after year, not because the problems still exist, but because new participants do not have the benefit of historic knowledge. Randolph is solving this by writing a series of white papers on such issues as admissions and financial aid, finance and debt, student assessment, and value proposition.  These will be circulated and updated as needed and will provide that important context for future decision makers.

They have also revised their use of strategic planning to be more inclusive and ongoing.  They repurposed their board Education Committee into a Strategic Initiatives Committee, and one staff member is responsible for supporting board level work on each of the main goals of the strategic plan.  Staff and a board member meet 5-6 times a year to ensure that the plan goals are being met and the board can be given accurate and timely updates.

Randolph may be physically isolated from other independent schools, but their intentional, steady commitment to the broader scope of education provides lessons that many others can leverage.

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