From opening day remarks, August 30, 2011
Posted September 29
I feel the excitement in the air today and like most of you, I love this time of the year. And in exactly a week, we will be greeting our students on their Day One, and, as we all know, the excitement will increase exponentially.
For most of my career, I have tried to understand why I continue to experience a natural high at the beginning of a new school year and have concluded that it goes back to that first day when I started kindergarten. Now, I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, but, for some reason, I continue to recall the emotions and visual images of my first year in school.
I remember thinking that the classroom to which I was assigned was huge—much bigger than the house in which I attended pre-school and the church classrooms in which I spent my Sunday mornings.
I remember thinking that my teacher was really old. She even had some gray hair. My guess is that she was in her mid-forties.
I remember finding out that there was a kid in my class, Jacob Boardman, who could read! I thought that was really amazing, but how come he could do that and he wasn’t even in first grade? Jacob spent only a few days in kindergarten and was skipped to first grade, and I never saw him again. The real question is: Why do I remember his name?
I remember thinking it was really cool to have my own desk, and the teacher had put my name on it.
I remember walking in a single line to recess, being told not to touch any one else, and then running as fast as I could when I reached the door. Freedom!
As the years passed, I added other images and sensations to that first day, including the smell of freshly waxed floors, washroom sanitizers, the annual August shopping trip to Woolworth’s to purchase school supplies, new shoes, and seeing colleagues and friends for the first time in a couple of months. But, most importantly, it is the excitement of a new beginning that makes this time so special for me.
So, I am very happy to welcome you back, and may this be your best beginning ever.
Indeed, this is the beginning of a very important year—perhaps one of the most defining years in the history of our Schools. OK, maybe that is a bit exaggerated, but I do believe that there are some things happening and some decisions to be made during the 2011-2012 school year that will have a significant impact upon our long-term future. Some of them are related to improvements to our physical facilities and some are related to improvements in how we deliver our program. But all of them are intended to improve the quality of our work and the quality of the learning experiences of those attending our Schools
Here are five major institutional initiatives that are on our plate:
Implementing a New High School Schedule-For the first time in over 40 years, the high school will have a new schedule. Deliberations about the high school schedule lasted nearly three years and were filled with concern and debate, even though there seemed to be a consensus that class time needed to be increased while student stress level needed to be decreased. The optimist in me believes that this new schedule will fulfill the original objectives and that within a reasonable period of time it will be appreciated by most members of the faculty and by most students. The pragmatist in me knows that there will be some issues, and so we will gather appropriate data and determine at a future date whether further modifications to the schedule need to be made.
I compare this change to the mating of two elephants, and if you have never heard this analogy before, it goes like this: 1. Conception occurs infrequently and is initiated at a high level 2. It is accompanied by a lot of noise, and 3. The gestation period is around 22 months. Let’s be sure we give this “elephant” enough time to be fully developed!
- Planning for Reconfigured Divisions-The Doctors’ Hospital has been razed, groundbreaking for Earl Shapiro Hall is about to take place in less than three weeks, and we are two years away from moving all of our nursery and primary programs into a state of the art facility located on its own early childhood campus. There is much to be planned, decisions to be made, and work to be done to make this move as seamless as possible. To help make this happen while we create a fifth division for first and second grade, a new leader will be hired this fall with the person beginning employment expected next July. Not to be forgotten and equally important is the successful return of fifth grade to the Lower School, how to make the 2013-2014 school year feel as normal as possible while construction is taking place on this campus, and how best to capitalize on the developmental needs of children aged 8, 9, and 10.
Rolling Out an Alumni Engagement Plan-It is not something that we like to advertise, but for an independent school with over a century of high school graduating classes, we have not been very successful in keeping our alumni engaged with their alma mater. And yet, if you speak with alumni from different decades and from around the world, many would say that most of their greatest childhood memories were created right here at the Laboratory Schools. They would tell you that their careers were guided by the ideas to which they were exposed in an educational environment that fostered thinking, debate, and self-determinism. They would talk about close friendships that have endured the test of time, and they would recall inspirational teachers who held them accountable. These are the stories I hear over and over when I attend alumni events around the country.
Over the past decade or so, the Schools have made some efforts to reconnect our alums and to make up for years of unintentional neglect. Today, we have a full time Director of Alumni Relations, an active alumni leadership group, and our last five graduating classes have contributed over $250,000 to endowed class scholarships to benefit future students with financial aid. And much more is planned. Alumni are extremely important and visible members of successful independent schools, and finally, we have a workable plan to make up for lost time.
Establishing a Reliable Data Base to Help Us Improve-A long-standing and on-going debate in American education is how success is measured and how that measure can be used to improve quality. Should we try to make comparisons with schools in other countries? Should high schools be rated based on the number of students who attend college or how many AP courses are offered? Should US News and World Report be the authoritative source to determine the ranking of all post-secondary institutions? My simple answer to all of these questions is “no.” For me, these questions and this seemingly endless debate beg a more fundamental questionwhat data can and should be used to help guide our efforts?
It is terribly wrong to reduce teaching and learning to simplistic measures; but, if schools want to improve, they must be willing to listen carefully to the perceptions of those who choose to attend them.
Three years ago and with the assistance of Independent School Management, we created a survey instrument that was sent to all parents with children in Kindergarten, Grades 4, 8, and 12. Those grades were chosen because they represented the culminating years of the four divisions. Because anonymity was assured and the completed surveys were returned electronically to ISM, the response rates were excellent at all four grade levels.
Yes, we have learned from those survey results but believe that there is much greater potential for valueparticularly to those of you who are delivering the programif we expand our base of responses. All of us can use feedback from our customer base (students and parents) to know that we are making a differencefeedback to validate the best of our practices and feedback that may give us pause so that we can consider ways to become even better.
Establishing a Professional Growth Model-This initiative was purposely saved for last because it is, from my perspective, the most important one and is at the heart of what we do every day. For the first time since I became a teacher many years ago, I believe that Lab is on to something that could become a model for good schools everywhere. And to give credit where it is due, I begin with the Faculty Association who engaged in a very serious and thoughtful dialogue with the administration around this issue during last spring’s negotiations.
In this new four-year agreement, the importance of professional growth has been placed front and center, no matter where we are in our careers. The Laboratory Schools have recognized that quality control is everyone’s responsibility, and we have accepted the challenge to address performance and professional growth in ways that we have never attempted to do before. This is the year when the model will be put togethermoving from concept to prototypeand if any place of learning can make it happen with outstanding results, it is right here. This is an opportunity with enormous potential and all of us have a stake in its ultimate success.
These five initiatives signal that this place is moving toward goals that test our efficacy as an outstanding school, nursery through twelfth grade. We are increasing instructional time, planning for the future, re-engaging alumni, reflecting upon constructive feedback, and raising the bar for professional growth. It really is an ambitious agenda and one that is being driven by current conditions and needs.
But make no mistake, as important as current conditions and needs are, we will not permit them to obscure the values that are at our core. And they are:
- Knowing that learning is richer and deeper when children are actively engaged and can experiment with their ideas.
- Knowing that the skills of thinking, reasoning, and problem solving should be a natural extension of learning how to read, write, and compute.
- Knowing that a child can become self confident if given the freedom to explore, consider, and debate different points of view.
- Knowing that we can help shape relationships and foster kindness among children by how we lead and build community.
These were values espoused early on by those at the Dewey School, confirmed over the years by research, demonstrated by multiple generations of Lab students including those students who will be walking through our doorways next Tuesday, and, in case you have not noticed before, I try to slip these values into my remarks every time I speak. For without being clear on our values, our direction will be uncertain, our goals will not be aligned, and our decisions will have no parameters.
Giving rise to these values is our purpose for being; something that we refer to as our mission.
This summer, I took some time to re-read Experiencing Education, the history of the Laboratory Schools first compiled by Ida DePencier in 1967, updated in 1996 with the help of Bill Harms, and now with a third edition being prepared with new chapters authored by Catherine Braendel and Kay Kirkpatrick.
When Dewey began his experimental school in 1896 in a home on 57th Street, his stated purposes were to:
- Create new standards and ideals that would lead to a gradual change in conditions” and
- Create a cooperative society on a small scale so that children would be prepared to make future social relations worthy and fruitful
In other words, he intended for this school to become a leader in education and to prepare children to become meaningfully involved citizens in a democracy.
Now contrast Dewey’s purposes with this:
The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools provide an experience-centered, rigorous, and well-rounded education for a diverse community. Recognizing that students have a variety of needs at each developmental stage and learn in different ways, the Schools are committed to helping each student:
- Learn to think critically and creatively
- Cultivate a passion for excellence in academics, the arts, and athletics
- Master important subject matter
- Achieve a sense of emotional and physical well-being
- Celebrate both our cultural differences and our common humanity
- Gain a sense of personal and community responsibility
- Develop a life-long love of learning
In pursuit of this mission and in keeping with John Dewey’s legacy, the Schools strive to exemplify educational practice at its best.
This is our purpose or mission statement as it reads today. It was written over a decade ago and took almost two years to put together. Just out of curiosity, how many of you who are here this morning were involved in that exercise? Since it was written, it has been printed on many pieces of our literature and, for a few years, posted throughout our buildings. But in spite of its longevity and accessibility, I doubt there is a single person here who has it memorized and can recite it without notes.
Three years ago, the accreditation team from ISACS recommended that we rethink this statement to determine if it is still relevant and meaningful as we transition to an even larger and more complex organization. Even though the timing is not right to do it this year, it is important to begin asking ourselves these fundamental questions.
- What is the purpose of education in America today?
- Do the Laboratory Schools have a unique purpose and, if so, what is it?
- Is there a better and shorter way to state our Schools’ overriding purpose?
For what it is worth, I do hope that the future mission statement of the Laboratory Schools will be easy for all to remember and, at the very least, capture the intended purposes of our founder.
Sadly, I think that most secular schools have either forgotten or ignored the role they must take in feeding the soul of a democratic society. Instead, schools have focused on curricular outcomes, differentiated instruction, standardized measures of achievement . . . and the list goes on. All of these have a place, all have their merits, but none of them should divert a school’s attention away from developing personal and community responsibility. That’s the metaphorical ball upon which our eyes must remain.
It may be a sign of age, but I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the degree of dysfunction in so many areas of our society. Perhaps the most recent example was the congressional paralysis at the end of July while those in Washington were addressing our nation’s debt ceiling. And while it may not be the panacea that I believe it to be, I couldn’t help but wish that our elected leaders had the benefit of a Laboratory Schools education. Would they have spewed so much venom if they had internalized the meaning of “you can’t say you can’t play” in the backyard of Woodlawn or in the Blaine courtyard? Would they have been so intolerant of different viewpoints had they experienced multi-culturalism in their Lower School curriculum or celebrated it at Rites of May? Would they have found ways to reach consensus had they learned about social justice in their Middle School humanities program? And, would they have come to a conclusion sooner if they had used their problem solving and critical thinking skills so embedded in their courses at U-High?
While we are no longer an experiment and our program is not a field test for educational researchers, we have not forsaken our Deweyan roots. We still are creating “new standards and ideals” and still leading and building community for our children. And we have the privilege of doing this in one of the world’s greatest incubators of intellectualism, the University of Chicago. What an amazing combination!
It is why complacency will not survive here, it is why values drive our goals, and it is why today, excitement fills the air.
Have a great year!