Sunday, December 15, 2013

PS-8 vs. PS-12, Part One

The following post is the first of at least two parts about the pros and cons of being a PS-8 school versus a PS-12 school. This post focuses first on the question "Why a high school?" My next post will discuss the distinct merits of being PS-8. I would LOVE for you to comment. Please share your perspectives with me and everyone else who reads this blog!

Why doesn't High Meadows have a high school? I've been asked this many times since becoming head of school in 2010.

It's a fair question. Our PS-8 program is so effective; what's keeping us from extending our model into 9-12? It certainly would reduce some of the worry we as parents feel about the scary transition from HMS to high school. And there is no school quite like High Meadows in this region. For students who have thrived at High Meadows, many parents feel they need to travel well inside the perimeter to find a complementary high school program. Assuming there is an adequate market, it is very tempting to create a bold new high school in North Fulton/East Cobb that is steeped in the guiding principles that make High Meadows so unique.

Over the course of our 40-year history, the board of trustees has considered the idea of an HMS high school many times. At the last extensive study in 2000, the task force concluded that our 40-acre campus should focus on the PS-8 experience that has made us so special. If we were to add a high school, it should be on another campus. Of course, that means money--and lots of it. A new campus with even the most austere facilities would cost us tens of millions. And that is before the start-up costs of hiring administrators, teachers, materials, etc. The conclusion of the study was that we should continue placing resources into being the best PS-8 school we could be. If in the future we were able to secure adequate funding, we should revisit the idea seriously.

Thirteen years later, the question still lingers (as questions tend to do until they are answered definitively). So I have done some thinking about it and have engaged others in the conversation. Based on my research about other schools who have successfully grown beyond eighth grade, sustainable, mission-appropriate enrollment is the key issue beyond start up costs. The first several years are tough. The school's devout families may be willing to take the risk of going into an untested program. But not all do, and those who are not yet familiar with the school are hard to convince. For most independent school families at the high school level, the ultimate goal is getting into a good college. Enrolling a high-achieving student in a school without an impressive, long-standing track record is too much of a risk for many to bear.

So let's imagine that an angelic philanthropist were to give us, say, $50 million for the purpose of starting a high school. That should be enough to purchase a multi-acre campus, build adequate facilities, and hire a crop of outstanding teachers and administrators. Let's imagine that enrollment booms right out of the gate, and the prospect of sustaining that trend is outstanding. What else would we need to consider before taking the plunge? Would there be a "resource" drain on the PS-8 program? Would board and administrative attention be trained so heavily on the high school to the detriment of the elementary program? Would funding be redirected from the elementary program to bolster the high school program? Would the culture of the school make a fundamental shift as a result of all of the above? The likely answers to these questions, based on my conversations with heads who have been through it, are yes.

I suppose it sounds as if I am an opponent of adding a high school to High Meadows. Actually, the prospect excites me from many angles. It would be incredibly inspiring to create a high school that does what we do so well at the PS-8 level: inquire deeply, challenge assumptions, favor the experiential over the traditional, engage meaningfully with the environment and the world. No other place in the region--or the nation, for that matter--would be anything like it. If we had the opportunity to create a high school without mortgaging the future of our precious PS-8 program, I would be a loud advocate for us to at least explore the possibilities with visionary and critical eyes.

So let's keep asking the question. And if you know someone with $50 million to spare, please direct them to me ASAP.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Guest Blogger Grace Shickler on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

Below is a letter written to our faculty and staff by Early Years Director Grace Shickler. It’s a powerful personal meditation on Nelson Mandela’s legacy and South Africa’s ongoing struggles.

Dear Friends,

I can’t put into the words the way I felt when I heard the radio announcer gently say that Nelson Mandela had passed away yesterday. I was on my way here to our High Meadows “Evening to Inform” event and yet I was sobbing all my makeup off in the car! My heart broke in two knowing that the South African people truly feel that Mandela is their father and grandfather and the savior of all that is right in the universe they live in. Although Apartheid has ended, the disparity between whites and blacks, the poverty and conditions that thousands still live with and the fighting with governmental policies still exists.

On our family’s trip to South Africa this past summer, Scott, Jaxson, Hayden and I ventured into one of the “districts” to pick up a student we knew. Beauty was a child to whom we were able to offer a scholarship a few years ago for the experience Scott offers every summer (The Ultimate Life Summit). When I met Beauty that year in Orlando, I heard people say that she lived in a place with no electricity. She was somewhat overwhelmed by just the hotel where the conference was--let alone Disney World! Little did I really realize what that really meant.

Driving into Beauty’s district this past June, the first thing I noticed was that something was missing: The electric wires that hang over other districts where people do have a bit of electricity. I then noticed that there was a three-sided concrete shelter for a toilet: One for the whole street to share. The “homes” were created from corrugated tin sheets, cardboard, plywood and other dirt-cheap materials. Around each little abode was a “yard,” many fenced in and guarded by a hungry dog to protect what little each family has. Yet Beauty and her family, living in a space smaller than one of our classrooms, are able to sustain a family where the kids go to school, take their meals together and keep everything clean and tidy. Without washing machines, running water or an indoor cooking apparatus. We brought Beauty’s mom a month’s worth of groceries, yet the shopping trip was similar to my weekly stop at Publix. I think you get the picture.

I am saddened that my own college and young adult years were devoid of connection to Mandela’s struggles and the end of Apartheid. They were news items I did not investigate more deeply. But I am trying to make up for that now. I urge you to absorb and learn about this amazing country and world leader. I hope our older children will have the opportunity to discuss Mandela’s gift to this world, to the people of South Africa and to human rights everywhere. His peaceful suffering (don’t get me started on our tour visit to Robben Island Prison!) will blow you away if you read Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom. He somehow managed to survive and become the light of their world. Of the whole world.

It is a very sad time in South Africa. Send your compassion and prayers if you can.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Guest Blogger Meddie Finnegan on Writing in 6/7

smell like a horse named Sonny. I was teaching a lesson on sensory imagery and was with Matt-the-athlete and quiet Jayne who speaks two languages, petting a horse. Picture an athlete, quiet girl and a teacher, burying our faces into Sonny's mane trying to capture the smell. Dusky? Musty? Sweet? He licked our hands and we touched the soft part of his muzzle.

Sami and I sat in the bunny hutch and held two small bunnies, letting them breathe into our ears as if they were telling us their little bunny secrets. Their tiny bunny hearts beat under our hands. Sami giggled as fur flew up into the fall air, illuminated by the sun.

Tori and I sat in a land-locked canoe listening to crows caw and call and feeling the sun warm our faces, while Lily watched little children try to walk in a straight line. They didn't; they wobbled and weaved bouncing off of each other like bumper cars.

Emma perched in the Chicken Tree, hidden from the world, all but her long legs dangling from the branches. She picked pine needles and listened to the laughter of the preschoolers nearby. Olivia sat in the 4/5 commons, feeling awkward sitting in a space she's just left, barely fitting her long legs under shorter tables.

Eli sat on the tire swing capturing the warmth of rubber from the sun; he noticed the sound of leaves as they spiraled in the wind. Should he turn back to the laptop on the picnic table and get writing? Or should he linger on the swing for just one more moment...

Sixth and 7th graders were wrapped up with the ghosts of childhood past, knowing that the sweet spot of being a child is soon gone, replaced with the freedom and responsibility of adolescence. This makes them melancholy. This makes them loud. This makes them wise. And they wrote about it.

Some kids cried as they wrote. Others just noticed nature. Others just sat with themselves; 15 minutes of being still is good for any soul. Writers write as they live their lives. Only a fraction of what they compose in their heads actually finds its way to print. This was part of the day's lesson.

I wonder if I teach the right way. "Will they be prepared?" I ask myself.  Will horses, canoes, chicken trees and bunnies develop these children into the writers and thinkers we hope to cultivate? This is what I ask myself every single day.

And my answer is always yes. They will. For to write, to write anything, you must know yourself, where you came from and where you are going.

Notice. Think. Breathe. Write.
By Meddie Finnegan, Middle Years English Teacher

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Diary of an Angst-Ridden Kid, Part 2

I promise you there will not be a part three; I'm a little too free with the expletives in the other entries, unlike kids today.

Just to show you I wasn't a puddle EVERY day, I give you this. I had just moved from New Jersey to Maryland, and there was some new optimism brewing. At least a little bit. 

The time of day was really important to me for some reason.  

One would not have guessed that being an English major was in my future, judging from how poorly I did in eighth grade Reading. As you can see, I cared more about that old popularity thing than I did about my schoolwork. Again, this is atypical of today's eighth graders.

Oh my, one of the most humiliating moments of my life. I'll elaborate in a moment.

So I was running props for a performance of "The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." My latest crush, Erin, was in the front row. The lights dimmed to near-black. My task was to remove the tray of marigolds from a table and get off the stage in a matter of seconds. Simple. I was keenly aware of where Erin was sitting, and my thoughts--and eyes--were anywhere but on the box of dirt in my hands. Having retrieved the box successfully, I then turned and somehow high-stepped onto the chenille swivel-chair behind me. The world, and the chair, spun perilously. The next thing I knew, I was lying prone, having achieved a full-on faceplant, the flavor of topsoil on my tongue, fertilizer fresh on my face. And Erin four feet away. I could hear her cackle above the gasps and concerned chatter. I don't remember how I got off-stage.

And then came high school. I remember feeling absurdly out of place, a child of a teacher and a preacher among Baltimore's Quaker elite. My mom got a job teaching English at Friends School, I attended practically for free, and thus began my long career in independent schools.

As you will see below, I eventually recovered fully from my former affliction of abject insecurity. And if you believe that, I have a bridge over the Chattahoochee I can sell you.

So my stroll down middle school memory lane ends here. Thanks for coming with me.

Here's to all the young adolescents, past, present, and future, who somehow endure the heartaches of growing up. And here's to the adults in their lives, parents, friends, and teachers, whose love brings them through.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Youthful Tendency Disorder

I certainly was afflicted with this condition when I was a kid. In fact, I think all kids at High Meadows are. What a pity...

[My wife tells me that people don't always get my humor. Just to be clear, this is satire : ).]

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Diversity is About People, Not Politics

One of my least favorite terms in our vernacular is "politically correct." I wince when people say that environmental sustainability and diversity are "so PC." (I haven't heard such a statement at High Meadows, by the way.) Such a perspective reduces these important themes to things that we HAVE to discuss because not doing so would create displeasure among people we do not want to offend. It implies that there is a political agenda behind the promotion of environmental stewardship and diversity.

Over the past decade, environmental sustainability has, for the most part, earned greater mainstream respect as an issue that goes well beyond politics. Unfortunately, I don't think diversity has. Large-scale efforts to understand and support diversity often fall short of their goals. Corporate (and sometimes school) diversity "trainings" often only scratch the surface and leave many participants feeling half-empty and resentful that time has been stolen from productivity. The focus on learning "sensitivity" has been widely lampooned--I recall an episode of "The Office" in which the manager takes it upon his ignorant self to train people in diversity, to predictably disastrous (and, I must admit, hilarious) results. It's so misguided that it's funny.

It's not that I don't respect the heart behind such approaches, it's just that they're not authentic. They do not resonate because they are artificial, forced, and feel imposed from the top down. Such approaches inadvertently create the feeling that diversity is about politics. About being "PC." About walking on eggshells around people so as not to offend.

The active support of diversity is not a political issue; it is a human issue. Put simply, diversity creates strength in any community. In his book Diversity and Complexity, Scott E. Page writes, "In complex adaptive systems, such as an economy or a tropical ecosystem, diversity makes fundamental contributions to system performance." To translate from Princetonese, diversity is critical to making any complex system--a corporation, a school or a society--strong and enduring. Human diversity is no different. The Co-Intelligence Institute has this to say about human diversity: "To the extent that people's differences ARE recognized and truly heard or seen, they become contributions to the co-evolution of new insights, solutions, activities, experiences, possibilities and relationships that enrich a group or community and move it ahead to a fuller realization of the best that it could be."

That's why we embrace diversity at High Meadows, and why we expanded our guiding principles to define the importance of doing so. Our Statement on Diversity underscores the importance of "moving beyond simple tolerance." "Tolerance" implies that if we can just deal with each other, things will be fine. That's not enough. Our students need to know that understanding, embracing, supporting, and promoting diversity makes all of us stronger. And that strength profoundly impacts their interaction with--and enrichment of--any system, be it the cross country team or a Fortune 500 company. And who among us, regardless of our political beliefs, does not want that for our children?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Very Special Fall Festival

Fall Festival was one of the best in recent memory--having over 60 alums return to share their memories was particularly special. But the alums weren't the only ones who enjoyed themselves. Yesterday, I received the following email from the Griffin Family.

It was the best one I’ve been to in 7 years.


1.       Because every booth I saw had meaning.

2.       Because my family ran out of energy before we could visit every booth we wanted to visit. (we still want to make a stepping stone for ME-Maw’s garden!)

3.       Because everyone in my family visited the haunted house and LOVED it (because we all love a “little” scary, but not too much!)

4.       Because the people you hired to do the tree climbing were just as excited as the kids climbing the ropes.

5.       Because my family was able to eat a healthy lunch so those two cakes we won and the baked goods we bought were eaten with confidence that all things are good in moderation.

6.       Because my 10-year-old daughter was able to flex her independence safely by “hanging out” with her friends and checking in with us every now and then.

7.       Because I went home exhausted from being both a teacher and a parent – blissfully, happily exhausted.

With immense gratitude,

The Griffin Family

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Diary of an Angst-Ridden Kid

OK, so I'm taking a risk here. I assure you I have successfully worked through the issues herein that I wrote about 30 years ago. Mostly.

What follows are excerpts from my diary--I mean journal--from my early adolescence. My kids especially enjoy reading this when they need a lift. I thought of typing out some of the choice quotes and leaving it at that, but I decided that you should see my flawless penmanship and nascent talent as an artist in its purist form. I don't know if there is a higher purpose to this, but you can judge if it has any value beyond peeking behind the dark veil that separates adolescents from the rest of us. Here it is:

Yes, I went by my full name back then. Getting a girlfriend was obviously a high priority for me. And, hey, a four-year age difference is nothing when you're in your forties. 

I clearly had an above-average self image.

Of course, my "competitors" apparently looked like a cross between Han Solo and David Hasselhoff.

It's baffling to me that a girl would react adversely to a greasy-haired stalker wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt. But maybe, just maybe...

Needless to say the old "Do-you-have-a-sister-named-Denise" trick has never worked for me.

So I guess I peaked at 13, and it's all been downhill ever since. Isn't that the way it is for most of us? 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Hard Realities and Hopeful Possibilities of Parenting

On my way to school this morning, a song came on the radio that hit me hard—very suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s a song that I have heard many times, been performed by several different artists, and it's beautiful. But I’ve never reacted to it the way I did as I drove with my girls to High Meadows. I found myself with a lump in my throat as the soulful lyrics and haunting melody overtook the moment. Before I share the song, let me give you the context behind why I was moved by it so profoundly.

Michael Thompson’s presentation last night really got my mind spinning (and my heart thumping). There were too many takeaways to list here, but the one that rang in me resoundingly was this: We can’t construct a life of smooth social sailing for our kids. What a dis-empowering, dismaying, gut-wrenching notion!

·         We can’t choose their friends.
·         We can’t solve all of their problems.
·         We can’t inflame their already tender emotions (“interviewing for pain”).
·         We can’t shelter them from the inevitable pain that life presents, especially in the realm of      friendships and the search for belonging and significance.

As parents of two teenage girls who experience their share of social upset, my wife and I don’t want to take those “can’ts” lying down. So what CAN parents, according to Dr. Thompson, do?

·        We can model for them what healthy relationships look like.
·         We can get to know their friends and their friends’ parents.
·         We can create a safe place for children to play and relate to each other.
·         We can be inclusive of other children and be mindful of practices that exclude (inviting 75% of a class to a birthday party).

Along with wearing my parent hat last night, I also put on my educator’s fedora. So what can High Meadows, as a school, do?

·         We can be clear about our values of “respect, responsibility, honesty, and compassion”—values explicitly championed by No Place for Hate and Positive Discipline.
·         We can educate teachers about how to handle bad class dynamics and bullying. Our Positive Discipline program does that well, but we need to be watchful for other practices that may help with this.
·         We can serve as coaches for kids experiencing difficulty, offering the sympathetic ears of another trusted adult.
·         We can partner with parents to prevent and react to social difficulties.

We CAN do things that are positive and constructive. We can lean on each other and the experts who are around us. And, above all, we can love our children without condition. Ultimately, we face the facts that they are growing, changing, walking their own path. Those are hard facts to face.

As the song goes,

I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
And I’m getting older too

Monday, September 30, 2013

Grand Friends Experience High Meadows Magic

Friday was one of those days you just want to wrap up and keep forever. 
Our morning with grandparents and special friends focused on engaging them meaningfully with High Meadows' vision and history, as shared by alumnae and former teachers Sarah Bobbitt, Annie Kimball, and alumna and current teacher Anne Lovatt. Classroom visits were described as "magical" and "truly remarkable." Grand friends finished the morning by sharing their reflections on their time at High Meadows. As a culminating activity, we asked grandparents and friends to write their thoughts on pennants which will be hung for display at our 40th anniversary gala in the spring.  
Kindergartner Davis Schmitz and his grandfather
I could wax on and on about how deeply meaningful the day was, but I think it's better to let grandparents speak for themselves. Here is what they had to say:

"I will never forget the smile on our grandson's face when we walked into his classroom this morning. He is so very happy here--what a wonderful school and we are so thankful he is a student at High Meadows! Thank you for inviting us--what a wonderful experience."

"I can only imagine how different the world would be if every child could experience this kind of schooling."
"Children learn through play and exploration...High Meadows exemplifies the world of a child, the world of their dreams."
"Freedom to learn in depth, freedom to learn at individual speeds, freedom to learn by experience.
"I have never seen our grandson HAPPIER than he was today."
Emmi McCoy with her grandmother
We are extremely grateful for our grandparents and special friends and all they do to strengthen the inter-generational bond our children enjoy. And we are so happy they enjoyed themselves and their grandkids as they visited High Meadows. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Wonder" lives up to its name

I usually don't read too many young adult novels, but I heard so many good things about R.J. Palacio's Wonder, I decided to pick it up and give it a try. Wow, am I glad I did.

Wonder is about a ten-year-old boy, Auggie, who was born with a severe facial deformity. The story begins as Auggie and his parents are contemplating sending him to school for the first time in his life (he had been home schooled up to that point). They are conflicted about the decision, as Auggie is uncertain about how he will be received in his new (independent) school. Somewhat predictably, school life isn't exactly easy for Auggie. But it's not exactly terrible either; he experiences some profound moments and empathetic people that have a lasting, positive effect on him.

What keeps this story from being a hokey cliche is the strength--and imperfection--of its main characters. Auggie's story is told by several people, including his sister, her boyfriend, a classmate, and Auggie himself. These perspectives honor the true complexity of life and the difficult realities it presents.

The pacing is fast, the chapters are short. I would recommend it to fourth graders and above--though there is nothing objectionable for younger readers, the book's themes are pretty sophisticated. And it is very emotional--laughter and tears alternate from paragraph to paragraph. And for you grown-ups, you are missing out if you don't read this book.

Wonder is ultimately about acceptance, empathy, compassion, and courage--the same values we teach explicitly at High Meadows. Our Positive Discipline program focuses on children finding belonging and significance, which is really what Auggie's journey is about. In fact, we are all on that same path.

Monday, September 23, 2013

More Than the Eye Can See

"What does Mr. Underwood do at High Meadows?" preschooler Ryder Karaba asked his mom, Christina. "He runs the school," she replied. "Seriously?" he exclaimed. "I mean, SERIOUSLY???" 

Yes, Ryder, mystifying as it may seem, I'm more than the guy who waves at cars in the morning. 
Ryder's incredulity got me thinking. From a preschooler's perspective, reality is right in front of the eyes, in the moment. And that's not too different from the way the rest of us think, at least some of the time. We are more than the eye can see. We may immediately appear to each other as students, teachers, administrators, parents. But we are also dancers, athletes, philosophers, jokesters. Behind the artifice of our "school" selves, we are people who feel joy and pain, experience love and fear.

Sue Amacker and I took on this topic at this morning's Community Gathering. At High Meadows, we teach our students to look beyond the surface of a person and understand that we are complex beings. Instead of jumping to conclusions or judging someone based on what that person presents publicly, pause, breathe and think instead. Remember that when we see his anger, we are not seeing his fear. When we see her "misbehaving" in class, we are not seeing her desire for belonging and significance.

We are all connected by our humanness. As hard it is to believe sometimes, we all feel the same emotions and desire the same things. So let's take a page from our own book. Let's pause and look beyond when we are affronted or irritated by another. Let's teach our children that building community is about believing, as they sing in High School Musical, that "we are all in this together." Thank you, Ryder, for giving me this opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a good citizen in the High Meadows Community and beyond. Seriously!