May 30, 2012

Looking Back, Taking Stock, Saying Thanks

Here we are at the end of another school year.  We made it! When I think back to all the students whom I first met back in August and I see them now, the changes are remarkable. 

From our youngest preschoolers to our oldest and wisest fifth graders, what a year it has been.  A year of growing, of learning, of making new friends, of challenging ourselves, of trying new things, of getting out of our comfort zone and surprising ourselves. 

Of course the learning has not just been limited to the children.  The adults in our Friends’ School community have all stretched themselves too.  Our Teacher Candidates have grown from novices to confident teachers.  All of our faculty and staff have set and met goals.  Our parents have contributed in countless ways. Our Community Board has been hugely instrumental in leading the charge as the school continues to evolve. As a first-year Head of School, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way as well.

Please join me as I share some of the accomplishments achieved at our school this year.  Some of them you likely know about.  Others may surprise you.  In one way or another we were all involved, as we like to say at Friends’ School, in “growing our brains”.

• we installed solar panels on our roof which, on these sunny days, are now providing 93% of the power we need to our elementary building

• we introduced an iPad program with outstanding results for students and teachers in both the preschool and elementary school

• taking the first ever draw from our endowment fund, we significantly increased the professional development dollars available to our faculty and staff, resulting in first-time attendance at several national conferences and other training opportunities

• in support of the arts, we also used endowment money to purchase risers for the music room and we will be installing a first-rate sound system in the Great Room over the summer

• most of our students participated in community service projects, including many visits to a senior center, working in local food banks, raising money for charitable causes, and being good neighbors

• the preschool hatched baby chicks, planted a garden, and released a homing pigeon

• our students went on day field trips and overnight trips around Boulder, to Denver, above Jamestown, and beyond

• we successfully implemented the Investigations math curriculum and conducted research into moving our 2nd-5th grade classes into a new math block schedule, details of which will be coming to parents in June

• our 4th graders made the news by running a hugely successful restaurant for two nights, learning small business management, and raising $3,000 for a local food bank along the way

• our preschoolers played and dug and ran and explored and wrote and built and painted and discovered their way through new experiences, all while learning how to be good friends

• we produced new videos for our website on the preschool, the elementary school, and the Teacher Preparation Program

• we had a record-breaking Annual Fund and an extremely strong Auction which directly benefits our students’ classroom experiences and our financial aid program; many parents,  teachers and staff wore crazy wigs which showed a new side of them we didn’t know before

• we increased our admissions picture in the preschool – from starting school with spaces in September to having waiting lists this May

• we increased enrollment in our Teacher Preparation Program by 20% and partnered with new schools including Alexander Dawson School and Bear Creek Elementary

• we have launched plans to celebrate our 25th Anniversary next year and to begin a formal Alumni Association

• by moving the Teacher Preparation Program off campus for next year, we have created new space and programming for preschoolers on Friday which will start in the fall

• we are investing in cooling solutions for the school for summertime and into next fall

• a number of our teachers had articles published in educational publications

• we enjoyed record attendance at several informative parent education speaker events

• we awarded the first annual Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund grants to two much deserving staff members

• we began this new Among Friends’ column in the Happenings which surprised us by reaching more than 7,000 visitors to this website

Throughout it all, we continued to work and play together to create a school that is like no other - one where children are challenged to know themselves, where subjects are taught in experiential, fully-integrated ways, where creative and critical thinking and children’s natural curiosity are celebrated, where we all become an integral part of a caring community, where everyone is challenged and honored in a lifelong journey of learning.

We are very grateful to those who have been part of the journey and who are leaving us.  A huge thank you to our Teacher Candidates (whom I named in this space two weeks ago) and to Rachelle Price who has taught Spanish for the last two years and who is beginning a Ph.D. program in Linguistics at my alma mater at the University of York in the England. 

We are exceedingly appreciative of our Trustees who are leaving the Board after giving so much of their valuable time, their incredible expertise, and their boundless energy: Robin Catlin, Tom Cohen, Ryan McIntyre, Chad Peters, Mandy Stepanovsky, and Ana Tenzer.  They have all contributed in so many important ways to the growth and well-being of our school.

Chair of the Community Board, Fred Marienthal
And even though he is not leaving the Board, we are all extremely indebted to Fred Marienthal who is stepping down after three years as Board Chair.  His vision, leadership, and wisdom have guided the school through a period of great transition – from Polly Donald’s retirement, through a national search for a new Head of School, to this first year with me at the helm.  Fred loves this school and has kept us all rooted in its founding values and mission.  He is tireless in the work he does behind the scenes and I am honored to call him a mentor and friend.

This Among Friends’ column is taking a break for the summer. I wish you and your family a wonderful, relaxing, engaging, safe, and enjoyable time away from school.  Keep reading, enjoy each other, and I’ll see you at one of our summer programs or back at school in August.

May 24, 2012

Honoring Transitions

Fifth graders on their Graduate Hike
As we get ready to celebrate the end of another school year, the students and staff are gearing up for the Silver and Gold graduation ceremonies that will be taking place next week.  Pre-Kindergartners and 5th graders are getting ready to say goodbye to old friends and prepare for the journey ahead where they will make new friends.

Here at Friends’ School we believe in the importance of ritual in marking the passing of time. We believe in honoring transitions in meaningful and authentic ways. Many of those ways are well-known, such as Silver and Gold. On Wednesday of this week, I was invited to accompany our 5th graders on an important tradition of which I knew very little.  I was asked to join the students, their parents, and their teachers on the 5th grade Graduate Hike.

Each year our Kindergarten and 5th grade classes participate in an important curriculum called PassageWorks which integrates social, emotional and academic learning and helps us to create meaningful relationship-based classrooms.

As part of the PassageWorks curriculum for 5th grade, instructors Laurie Nakauchi and Harwood Ferguson support our students in developing compassion, character, academic excellence, and a sense of deep connection to themselves and the world around them. The practices and principles of PassageWorks support the inner lives of teachers and students.  Inner life is defined as that essential aspect of human nature that yearns for deep connection, grapples with difficult questions about meaning, and seeks a sense of purpose and genuine self-expression. 

The Graduate Hike on Wednesday was the culmination of the PassageWorks curriculum. Harwood and Laurie led us all on a gorgeous hike atop Flagstaff Mountain.  At the furthest point on the hike, we all sat in a circle and the fifth graders talked about what and who they would miss at Friends’ and how they felt about entering middle school. Our seventeen graduates are entering one private and nine public middle schools in the fall.  The kids talked fondly about the people here at Friends’ – their classmates and their teachers.  And they expressed excitement and a certain amount of nervousness about the road ahead.

The parents also had an opportunity to speak. I asked Meg Hansen, our Director of Communications, who is the parent of a fifth grader, to write in her own words of her experience.  Here’s Meg:

"My son’s 8 years at Friends’ culminated yesterday with the hike up Flagstaff Mountain. This is my very favorite Friends’ School event; it’s my chance to acknowledge his transition from Friends’ School to middle school and to express my pride in the child he has become. I’ve been lucky to attend this ceremony for two children now, and both times it has affirmed my decision long ago to send my children to this school.

Friends' parents hiking Flagstaff Mountain
As parents, Harwood led us through a visualization exercise, remembering our child’s face as babies. It came to me quickly – the baby, the toddler, his first day at Friends’ preschool. It was so long ago and suddenly he was here in fifth grade at the end of his elementary experience. Time had sped up too quickly during that exercise.  As I stood and looked in his eyes and told him in front of his/my community of friends how proud I am of him, I realized how rarely we as parents are given the chance to honor our children in such a public forum. I’m not crazy about public speaking and yet it was the most natural, safest thing to do. These children and their parents and teachers, had watched my child grow, celebrated his triumphs, hugged us both during tough times. Each one of them, and each experience at Friends’, had shaped my child’s life. This community is our village.

I knew in that moment that all that he has become is in part due to the heart of Friends’ School. Friends’ has honored his heart and allowed it to flourish, his kindness to grow, his spirit to soar. After yesterday’s event, I wanted one more year at Friends’ for him, or perhaps to start it all over and really savor it this time. If only I knew then what I know now. But I do know that he is ready to move on to the next phase of his life, filled with all the greatness this special school has imparted on him, another Friends’ School ambassador."

See you at Silver and Gold.

May 17, 2012

From a Job as a Server to a Career in Service

Friends' Teacher Candidate Tyler Voorhees
A little over a year ago, Friends' School parent Aarin Holmes was at Turley’s Restaurant in Boulder treating her family to dinner.  She was impressed by the waiter, a charming young man who interacted so easily and naturally with her five year old daughters.  This guy was great with kids and Aarin, a former teacher, knew she had to encourage him to get into teaching.  She gave the waiter information about the Friends' School Teacher Preparation Program (TPP).  
For the waiter, Tyler Voorhees, it has been quite a year.  In the fall he got married to his beautiful bride Ashley, he has had his remarkable paintings accepted into judged art shows, he has moved to a new house in Lyons, he is about to graduate from the TPP with a Colorado Teaching License, he is half way through a Masters degree via Friends’ partnership with the University of Colorado Denver, he has just accepted his first permanent teaching job at Bixby School teaching science starting in the fall, and he has spent a year co-teaching and building great relationships with our 2nd graders here at Friends’.

As Tyler and I were standing together last week watching our elementary school’s amazing Talent Show, he asked me if he could have a few inches of space in this column in which to share with you some of his reflections on his year as a Teacher Candidate.  What follows are Tyler’s own words….

Every Friday, our very own Friends’ Preschool is transformed into an institution of higher learning.  Twenty nine Teacher Candidates (TCs), who have been co-teaching all week in schools that range from Lafayette Elementary to Boulder Country Day, gather cozily into the preschool building to reflect on their week and to broaden their abilities as educators and to refocus their philosophy on what education should be for our children.
I have been fortunate enough to be a part of this amazing professional learning community and have experienced firsthand how powerful and inspiring it can be.  We laugh a lot, we vent to each other, and we grow together as budding educators enrolled in one of the most forward-thinking teacher preparation programs out there.  Each week brings a new focus and a new round of presenters.  Topics range from child development to classroom management and student engagement.  The speakers all bring their own unique experiences and wealth of knowledge, which spark deep conversations and give us new methods to try on for size the following week.  It’s an incredibly efficient way to learn how to be an effective teacher. 
I am fortunate in that I was given the opportunity to hone my craft at Friends’ School with a marvelous mentor teacher, Jenn Shouse.  Her plethora of experience and willingness to adapt our curriculum to the students’ individual needs has taught me more than I can convey in this space.  She has inspired me to never stop learning and has shown me what it takes to be a champion teacher.

As I look back at my year at Friends’, I am filled with gratitude for the incredible community of parents, who, without hesitation, welcomed the TCs into the lives of their children, and for the astoundingly supportive Friends’ staff who helped us feel like an integral part of the teaching team. The TCs at Friends’ are gradually given the responsibility of holding the reins of learning alongside their mentor, dually guiding the students to grow their hearts and brains. There is an incredibly gifted group of lead teachers at Friends’ and it is because of this all-star cast of educators that the TCs at this school are able to grow as teachers by leaps and bounds.

This wonderful school should be proud of the progress that is being cultivated every week in the classroom.  It is a truly blessed experience not only for the gifted students who we are lucky enough to teach, but also for the Teacher Candidates who get the rare opportunity to learn the craft from the best in the profession.  For that, I will always be grateful and will never forget my year at Friends’.
                                                                                      -Tyler Voorhees

And Friends’ School is thankful for the seven remarkable Teacher Candidates who have taught our children and touched our hearts this year at Friends’. If we had job openings for all of them, we would have hired them all!  Thank you to Megan Todd-Thompson (PS & PK), Caroline Long (K), Yasamin Holland (1st), Tyler Voorhees (2nd), Wayne Daniels (3rd), Allie Graft (4th), and Rachel Leber (5th). The teaching profession is lucky to have you.  You are going to change lives.

And next time you’re out to dinner, pay attention to who is bringing your bread rolls.  You never know who you will find.

May 10, 2012

The Big Picture

As a first year Head of School, I have been very blessed this year to work alongside a wonderful, smart, hard-working, and highly supportive Board of Trustees. As you drop off or pick up your child, as you visit for an AOE (Area of Expertise) presentation or a school celebration, it can be easy to forget how much great work goes on behind the scenes at an independent school.

Among other things, our Community Board oversees and maintains the financial stability and sustainability of the school, develops major school policies, creates processes for long-range planning, reviews the school’s organization and governance, oversees the implementation and maintenance of the school’s values, and supports me in my work as Head. Individual trustees are extremely helpful to me when a tough question arises.

In mid-April, our Board met on a Saturday for our annual retreat.  The Board asked me to reflect on some of my discoveries in my first year at the school. It was easy for me to talk about the amazing people here at Friends’: the quality of the faculty, the professionalism of the staff, the spirit of creativity, the welcoming and nurturing culture, the great learning that happens every day, the strength of our mission and how it is lived daily by everybody at school. I truly believe that Friends’ School provides an educational experience for preschool and elementary age children, and teachers in training, that is unmatched.

I also talked about some of the school’s challenges. Our two most salient issues are that we are restricted in how many students we are permitted to enroll and how we are unable to expand our buildings.

Yet, within these space limitations, I am truly in awe of the incredible things that happen in our school every day.  Rachel Relin’s art program brings out the creative best in our students. We find the space to put on plays and be active indoors. Our preschool parents have built a great community. Dacia Horn produces delicious and healthy lunches. Our students have learned to be flexible and amenable which serves them well.  Our Teacher Preparation Program is on the cutting edge of educational research in 21st Century skills. Our kids are engaged in scientific discovery all the time.  We have sensational outdoor learning environments.

As we are gearing up to celebrate the school’s 25th Anniversary next school year, our Community Board has been thinking about the future of the school, taking the opportunity to imagine what the school may look like in another 25 years.  What will be important to our students, parents, teachers, staff, and community at large?  How do we maintain the relevance for families in our communities who either send their children here, or are touched by our presence in some way, in a world that is constantly evolving and becoming inter-connected at an ever faster pace? How do we remain at the forefront, graduating a steady stream of dedicated, skilled new teachers who are ready to serve the children of Boulder Valley and beyond? We are blessed with a group of leaders who are dedicated to thinking about the big picture.

This is an exciting time in the life of our school community, our students, parents, and staff.  I am excited to begin this process of considering who and what we might become. And through it all, I am dedicated to remaining true to the values and philosophy on which our school was founded and for which we are known.

May 3, 2012

Trick Or Treat – In Reverse

A neighbor greets Friends' School students on May Day

On Tuesday of this week, our students celebrated May Day in the school’s time-honored tradition of creating and delivering May Day baskets. 

When I was a young’un back in England, we celebrated May Day on the village green with Morris dancing, a community-wide picnic, and dancing around the Maypole.  I have since learned of the American tradition, begun by early settlers, of filling small baskets with flowers and leaving them on someone’s doorstep.

At Friends' School we take our May Day tradition very seriously.  It is important to us to show our gratitude to our neighbors in the Eisenhower residential neighborhood.  Every year our students look forward to making beautiful baskets (we improvise a little with paper bags), filling them with flowers and bringing them to our neighborly friends. 

If you were out walking your dog on the streets around school on Tuesday, you would have come across our buddy classes holding hands, some skipping along the sidewalk, with baskets in hand.  Tuesday was another gorgeous sunny day in Boulder, with flowers blooming, bees buzzing, and the smell of freshly mowed grass in the air.  Pairs of children wandered up garden paths, bringing a basket to someone’s door, fervently hoping that the neighbor was home.  Our kids love to engage with other people and they couldn’t wait to bring a smile to our neighbors’ faces.

I talked to one of the residents who has lived near the school for almost 20 years.  She told me how much she looks forward to getting a May Day basket and how each year she plants the annuals in her front flowerbed.  All summer long she thinks of the children from Friends’ who brought it to her.

Preschool and 1st grade buddies getting ready to deliver
On May 2nd, Wednesday, Ann Reid, at our front desk, welcomed a visitor to our school, an elderly lady who walked over to school with her walker to deliver a hand-written thank you note to the children.  Another neighbor was so surprised to find children on her doorstep, she told 5th grade teacher Liz Richards, “I didn’t know people still did this.  I haven’t seen a May Day basket delivered since I was a kid!”

One thing I also discovered in my own personal mini-AOE research project on May Day is that traditionally the giver of a basket rings a doorbell, leaves the basket, and runs away.  The person receiving the basket tries to run after and catch the fleeing giver.  If the giver is caught, a kiss is exchanged.  While I believe none of our students perpetuated that tradition this year, it was fun to hear one of our preschoolers claim, “This is just like trick or treating, only in reverse.”

And it is.  We are very grateful for our neighbors for co-existing with us in our little corner of Boulder.  Thank you to Kathy Sherwood and Dacia Horn for bringing together everything we needed. We are also grateful that our students are learning to give without expecting anything in return, not even a kiss!