December 19, 2013

Do You See What I See?

Math teacher Erika Norman took this picture of the moon over
Boulder during her commute from Longmont.
Did you see the full moon this week?  Each morning, the moon shone spectacularly in the west, before settling down for its daytime nap. At sunrise, on my drive over the hill into Boulder, the moon appeared nestled right above the mountains.  At one point, on Tuesday morning, as I began my commute heading west in Denver, it seemed that the glowing moon was perched right atop of Mt. Evans, like a star on top of my Christmas tree.

It was a beautiful, sensational sight and, for me, I am reminded daily why I live in such a beautiful place.  I can honestly say that I’ve never seen the light be exactly the same on any two mornings as I approach Boulder. I feel at peace when I see the changing radiance each morning, as I head towards this special community we call Friends’.

Our Winter Celebrations are centered around peace, light, and community. We come together and each class shares songs they have learned. We sing together. We light candles and celebrate the light in the winter darkness. Each child is acknowledged in class for his or her particular gifts to the world and given a necklace with a bead to symbolize his or her uniqueness.

No matter our religious beliefs or our traditions, it is a joy to listen to our teachers speak words of kindness and recognition to their students. It is a delight to feel our community come together as parents, students, and teachers join together in music and honor.

Yesterday, I had the very great pleasure of attending five winter celebrations – one each in our four preschool classrooms, and our big elementary winter celebration in the auditorium of Platt Middle School.  Each one was very different, reflecting the traditions of the past, and the individuality of the teachers involved. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to put these celebrations together.

Each winter celebration is a wonderful way to end our semester, to come together before the cold winter break, and to enjoy one another in our community.  I’m glad you were there too.

Wishing your family a fabulous winter break. Enjoy these two weeks away from school.  I plan on snuggling up and playing games with my children and other family members.  I’m likely to do something silly or outrageous, and I know I’ll be participating in activities that help me give back to my community.  I hope you will be doing something restful and rewarding, whether it’s here or on your travels.  And let’s all go for a moonlit walk, and be thankful for the peace and light in our amazing community. 

December 12, 2013

Are Independent Schools Worth the Investment?

Teacher Tyler Voorhees with his 2nd graders
Last month a new book was published that poses a very valid question, “Are private schools worth it?”
Independent school leaders, myself included, constantly reflect on this question, and are passionate in our responses. We often engage both current and prospective parents in discussion around it. I talk frequently about the value proposition of a Friends’ School education – strong academics and character development that are directed toward the development of independent, creative, and collaborative leaders. 
The book is The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Its authors, Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, represent their research by asking this fundamental question: “Do private school students score better on standardized tests than public school students because they are from more affluent families, or because the schools are actually providing a better academic product?
It is well documented that students at private schools perform better than students in public education. Friends’ School’s 4th and 5th graders routinely outperform their BVSD counterparts. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance is more than explained by demographics. They speculate that private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions, but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis contend that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.
At this point, I am reminded of the quote popularized by Mark Twain about the three kinds of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” As a math teacher, I have come to appreciate the beauty and the limitations of numerical analysis.
The Lubienskis’ study is flawed in that most of the schools in the study are religious schools. What about private schools like Friends’, who are accredited members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which requires us to meet rigorous standards? Are they also underperforming? The authors respond that, “actually, that was not a category in any of the data that we worked with. There’s this category of ‘other private’ that doesn’t fit into Lutheran, Catholic, conservative Christian, etc., but that’s really a catch all-category. A very small sample. So we weren’t able to study that.”
5th grade Teacher Candidate Trevor McGill with Brooks
As a part of that “very small sample,” we independent schools are constantly surprising critics such as these by disproving their statistics. I can think of several important arguments that set a Friends’ School education apart and make us worth the investment.
Firstly, no school – private or public – should minimalize the outcome of their educational program to student performance on a standardized test.
While independent schools do seek such data, it is far from the sole factor that we base our students’ success on. In fact, the standardized test of choice among independent schools is the ERB, which is geared for “college-bound high achievers”. At Friends’, our 3rd, 4th and 5th graders take the ERB test in February. We go on to contextualize these snapshot exams with even richer narrative descriptions from classroom teachers, portfolio assessment, student self-assessments, and outcomes-oriented evaluations. This type of data collection requires time and expertise, and can only be done well in a smaller and more personalized school community.
Secondly, independent schools understand and deliver the value proposition of what are known as “21st century skills”: creativity, collaboration, resilience, critical thinking, communication, social responsibility, and adaptability. These skills are considered vital to working and living in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing global society.  Independent schools like Friends’ believe these are just as important as academics and data, and teach these skills actively and intentionally.
 Teacher Diane Bramble hard at work in 3rd grade with Quinn
Thirdly, small class-size and dedicated, caring teachers have been proven, time and time again, to be a huge factor in student success.  Kids do well when they feel heard, when they know they are known, and when they have at least one adult in their lives who believes in them and helps them to understand truly the kind of learner they are. Our student:teacher ratio of 9:1 or less cannot be matched in public education.
Fourthly, the book’s authors contend that there is “danger in private school autonomy.”  They equate professional certification and accountability through state standards, found in the public system, with excellence in education.  In over 23 years in education, that has not been my sole experience. I have found that excellence is just as likely to result from hiring teachers who are passionate, who are dedicated to seeing the best in their students, and who go the extra mile. Our Friends’ School teachers are all of that and they are licensed and held accountable. They are supported each year by our endowment fund to pursue excellent professional development.
At Friends’ School, we tell prospective families that we are informed by state standards, but not driven by them. We retain the right to use professional judgment, content expertise, and the very latest research – some of which is actually happening in our school and at peer schools – to inform teaching and learning.
Finally, our independent schools rely on one of the most significant and growth-oriented forms of accountability – the accreditation process. Friends’ is one of only four schools in Boulder County who are accredited by the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS).
Accreditation assures parents that the school is focused on providing a safe and enriching learning environment while maintaining an efficient and effective operation. Accreditation provides school leadership with an independent, non-governmental validation that the school they oversee is effectively delivering a quality educational experience to its students. Accreditation provides education leaders at all levels with deserved recognition for going above and beyond the minimum to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to quality. Accreditation provides educators with valuable information about effective practices in other
5th grader Zoe
schools through participation on peer review teams.
Independent schools describe themselves as “private schools with a public purpose” (NAIS annual conference 2011). At Friends’ we live that mission every day, by training teachers, with our public school partners. To date, we have graduated over 200 teachers, through our licensure Teacher Preparation Program, who are making a difference for thousands of students, in both the public and private sectors.
I hope that all educational stakeholders take a good look at the more than 1,700 independent schools of NAIS who serve over half a million students. We have learned a great deal over our collective histories, and we have much to share with both public and other private schools.
We are well worth the investment.

This essay was written in association with my friend and colleague Rafael del Castillo, Head of School at Seattle Girls’ School in Seattle, WA. 

December 5, 2013

Revitalization Among the Roses and Aspen

Christie and Paul Stanford biking in Portland
Each year, Friends’ School gives two awards from the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund. 

My predecessor, Polly Donald, Friends’ Head of School for seventeen years, believes
that an individual’s personal growth inevitably enriches those with whom he or she comes into contact. In her name, the school created the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund, which aims to revitalize, inspire and support the personal growth of Friends’ faculty and staff. 

Polly’s thinking is that, by being revitalized and inspired, the teacher or staff member will, in turn, enrich the Friends’ School community at large. Among other qualifications, award recipients must demonstrate a commitment to the children, families and mission of the school.

This year the award winners were elementary math specialist Erika Norman and preschool teacher Christie Stanford.  Each received a cash award so they could pursue a passion and feel inspired.

Each year, we ask our award winners to share their experiences with our community.  Here are Erika’s and Christie’s own words:

Math teacher Erika Norman
When I applied for the PTD enrichment fund last spring, my hope was to go to Anderson Ranch in Aspen and spend a week learning how to turn wood into bowls. In the process, I hoped to connect with my father and grandfather who are and were incredible wood craftsmen.

I wanted to spend some real time creating something solid, something besides ideas or words, something that my kids could touch and hold, like the dining room table and bed that my father made for my husband and me.

I also wanted to do something that would help my mind slow down in the process of creation. What I got was so much more than that. For a solid week I worked with five other novice wood turners picking up pieces of logs, choosing ones that seemed “special” to us for some reason, but mostly just taking a piece of a fallen tree, maple, cottonwood, aspen and cutting it down to fit on our lathe.

Then, out of an ordinary log, beauty was formed. A chunk of wood is put on the lathe and starts to spin. Sharp tools and scrapers remove the bark, and a form begins to emerge. Ribbons of wood fly and cover the floor, your hair, and all the parts of the lathe. If the wood is wet, there is a rich, earthly smell that mixes with the hum of the lathe to create an overwhelming sensory experience.

One of Erika's beautiful creations
I began to see what was hiding inside this chunk of tree. There are designs and patterns, colors you never see from the outside, and a form that was hiding and waiting to be discovered. Whether my bowls got to a final stage, or cracked along the way, every time I was amazed by the beauty that was hiding in what looked like an ordinary log. For the first time I think I really understood my father’s love for his craft, and the power of creating something tangible with our hands.

This gift gave me time to connect, think, create, marvel, and explore. It was an experience that I will forever be grateful to Friends’ for providing.
                                                                                                - Erika Norman

And Christie:

This past summer I was awarded a PTD grant and decided to take a trip to Portland, Oregon to do some biking.  I was super excited about this opportunity to explore another biking community with my husband, Paul. 

How I came to love biking was a bit of a lemons to lemonade moment.  As many of you know, I had a mastectomy in November, 2012.  This treatment was my only option as I had gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the same site eleven years earlier.  In any event, all went well with the treatment over Thanksgiving week but then I was stuck recovering without the opportunity to go on my usual early morning run.  I have a running group of neighborhood “mom friends” with whom I have spent the last 15 years running in the early morning hours.  We have supported each other and solved many of the world’s problems even before the sun rises. My surgery left me unable to run for one month!  What was I going to do? Fortunately, I convinced my surgeon to allow me to try spinning and that was the beginning of my love of biking!

Christie and Paul in the Rose Test Gardens
Paul and I decided to try biking in Portland, Oregon because we knew it was a bike friendly city.  We rented bikes and decided to bike the Columbia River Gorge.  We hired a touring company and spent the first day of our biking adventure exploring Portland. It was amazing as there are bike lanes and the cars don’t seem to care if you are in front of them at a stop sign…they wait patiently for you to go!  We biked all around town and over the many bridges in the city. 

The second day it was raining and we were scheduled to bike the Gorge.  Our Bed and Breakfast hosts said we should go as the weather is often completely different by the Gorge.  I wasn’t so sure as it was raining hard in Portland! We ventured off and had a spectacular day of riding.  We biked to eleven waterfalls including Bridal Veil Falls.  It was easy riding and an absolutely beautiful day.  Our final biking day we rode to the Rose Test Gardens. The bike shop suggested we hop on the train with our bikes and ride to the garden parking lot.  We were determined to show how tough we were so we rode the whole way.  It was a steep uphill ride but we did it!  And look how gorgeous the roses were in the garden.  This was where we got our only view of Mt. Hood-beautiful!

Former Friends' Head,
Polly T. Donald
One marvelous part of our trip was our Bed and Breakfast stay in the Portland White House.  We picked this accommodation because when we got married we stayed in the “White House” in London for one night on our honeymoon 25 years earlier!  The Portland B & B was hands down more magnificent.  It was built in 1911 and had antiques throughout.  We ate breakfast at a white linen table that was probably 20 feet long! Plus, they gave us fresh baked “house special” cookies every night! Paul and I ate these scrumptious cookies and didn’t bother asking if they were vegan or not!

Our time in Portland reflects the supportive, loving, generous, fabulous, and family of community I have here at Friends’ School.  I feel so fortunate to have taught here for so many years and to have made many lifelong friends.  Thank you for supporting Friends’ School in so many ways including the Polly T. Donald Fund.
                                                                                                            - Christie Stanford

Thank you to everyone who supported the PTD Fund from 2010-2011 where your legacy lives on in the experiences of our staff, and all that they bring to our children.

If you are interested in donating to the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund, please follow this link or contact our Director of Development, Caroline Landry. 

November 21, 2013

Taking a Moment at Thanksgiving

It’s about to be Thanksgiving – again. It’s not a holiday I grew up with. Yet hands-down it’s my favorite holiday of the year. It makes me very happy that, in this country, we have a whole built-in day devoted to saying thank you.

At Thanksgiving we don’t focus on material goods or extend the holiday unnaturally by months.  It’s about family and being together and expressing thanks. Simple. Lovely. Connected.

At Friends’, in our elementary school this morning, we’re celebrating Grandparents' and Special Friends’ Day, a time for our students to invite into school their grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, anyone who’s a special person in their lives.  We’ve got singing performances and classroom activities, fresh-brewed coffee and Dacia’s famous snacks.  We’re in for a grand time.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded that leading researchers in social sciences have shown us that practicing gratitude makes a huge difference in children’s development. At Friends’, we know a thing or two about this. 

Following last year’s 25th Anniversary Gratitude Project and as we continue to partner with academics on both coasts who are studying this field, we have learned that the practice of gratitude increases students’ positive emotions and optimism. It decreases their negative emotions and physical symptoms, and it makes them feel more connected and satisfied with school and with life in general.

Our school is very pleased to be featured and honored a recent article by the Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. This is the organization run by Dr. Christine Carter who came to speak to our community just over a year ago. Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski interviewed our lead teachers, in both the elementary and the preschool, to learn from them many of the activities they had designed to support our Friends’ students in their practice of gratitude.

We hope the ideas in this article will be read widely and used by teachers across the country who are beginning to embrace what we’ve known at Friends’ since our founding: the importance of social emotional learning, the value of being grateful, and the deep significance of character education. It’s something we work hard at every day and have done for over 25 years.

Congratulations to our teachers for continuing to be at the forefront of research-based education and for being open to sharing their fantastic ideas with the world.

As we spend this Thanksgiving holiday with family and loved ones, I hope we all take a moment to appreciate and be grateful.  There is no doubt in my mind that the world, and our children, will be better for it. 

A very happy Thanksgiving to you all. 

November 14, 2013

Robotics Program Coming to Friends’

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates demonstrate their work
to our elementary school students.
We had a scheduling snafu at Friends’ last week. No one’s fault, but it caused me to create a track in the elementary hallway as I paced back and forth, catching the technological marvels happening in both the Great Room and Mary Pearsall’s 4th grade classroom.

On one side of our building, Mary’s 4th graders were presenting wonderful films that they had made, telling stories of their experiences of the recent flooding in Boulder and explaining their scientific understanding of the erosion that had happened in our area.

In the Great Room, a group calling themselves The Rocky Mountain ∏rates (PIrates) were demonstrating to our other students an invention that was inspired by the same flooding. They were also running a robot of their own design through its paces.

Do you remember those days, not so long ago, when we were in school, when we demonstrated our learning by giving a speech, or perhaps creating a poster with our information? No longer.

Our Friends’ students today are using the latest technological tools to learn and connect and problem solve.

Director of Technology
Stephen Butler
Our school is investing in brand new robotics kits and piloting new robotics and programming classes in our 2nd and 4th grades with Director of Technology, Stephen Butler. Our students will learn how to build robots and program them to accomplish set tasks.

A quick wander through the elementary school this week and it’s not hard to find the social studies books that were created by the 5th grade class in the school’s up-to-date computer lab. I came across 2nd graders using our mobile iPad cart to conduct research.  I had a conversation with Tricia Callahan who is thrilled to be taking a multi-week professional development course on iPads with a number of her colleagues and is incorporating what she has learned into her literacy and spelling lessons.

In 4th and 5thgrades, teachers Mary Pearsall and Liz Richards have started a new unit on Antarctica and are working with a researcher who is currently conducting research in Antarctica.  In class, students watched a video on the computers and iPads that Mary had created using the Educreations App.  She made a read-aloud story
4th grade teacher Mary Pearsall
about the book The Lost Seal using this program.  That allowed the lesson to be child-centered and differentiated for those students who might have had some trouble reading some of the words.  Students collaborated and worked in small groups to take notes based on this book-video.  

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates, composed of Friends’ 3rd grader Quinn Kiefer, as well as Friends’ alumni Lucas and Jack Kiefer, Cameron Hoeffler and their friend Zach Olkin, are participating in both the First Lego League (FLL) and Vex IQ robotics competition programs this year. They won significant awards at Vex IQ in the spring.  The First Lego League challenges teams of elementary and middle-schoolers to complete a series of missions on a 4’x8’ field using a robot of their design. In addition, they were challenged to develop an innovative solution to help people cope with natural disasters.  In last Friday's gathering the ∏rates presented what they have been up to with FLL.  

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates with their trophies!
They started off with a 5 minute presentation where they outlined their innovative solution to the problem of basement flooding caused by broken window wells.  The "Window Watcher" is a retractable water shield that covers the window with impenetrable Rhino Canvas if a flash flood alert is issued over a cellular network. The team researched the problem, developed the solution, prototyped the product and ultimately filed a patent to protect their invention.

Friends’ School students were most interested in the intricately designed robots that the team designed to run missions and earn points on this year's "FLL Nature's Fury" robot game. The kids got a close up look into how each robot was designed to complete each mission.  For example the team created a 4 wheel drive "crawler" bot to bring a load of Lego people and supplies 8 feet over a series of ever more challenging Lego barriers.  

On Saturday the ∏rates competed in an FLL qualifying tournament at Monarch High School in which they came in 1st place over all and 2nd place in Robot Performance.  The judges said that they had the best project (the “Window Watcher”) and robot design of any of the teams.  They were especially impressed with how each of the team members showed "gracious professionalism" and seemed to be having so much fun!

4th & 5th graders Skyping with a researcher in Antartica
I got to do a little coaching for the team on their presentation and public-speaking skills before the competition.  I was amazed at their adaptability and their willingness to learn and take suggestions.

Our students watching on Friday were inspired by this dynamic team and can’t wait to get their own hands on designing robots of their own. 

We’re excited to bring this new element to our program and to witness all of our students innovate and apply critical and cooperative thinking skills in new ways.

November 7, 2013

Stars Abound (Second Star to the Right and Straight on Till Morning)

"Second Star to the Right and Straight on Till Morning"
Lucca (Wendy) and Liam (Peter Pan) in the 5th grade production 
One of the many reasons that I have chosen a career in independent schools, and why my own children attend independent schools, is because of the unique culture that can exist within an organization that has the ability to decide upon its own mission.  At Friends’, we take our mission very seriously.  It is our raison d’ĂȘtre, the lens through which we make all decisions. It’s what we aim for every day, our North Star

Stars abounded at our school this week.  All of them connected to unique cultural events, all of them making me proud to be part of this great independent school.

On Monday, many members of our graduating class of 2013 (now 6th graders) returned to share their early middle school experiences with our current 4th and 5th grade families. All but one of these graduates went on from Friends’ to attend public schools (one travels daily from Boulder to Kent Denver).  Kids and parents from that class discussed the open enrollment process, what they looked for in a middle school, and how their transition had been. I was struck by their confidence and eloquence – and, no matter which middle school they attend, how well prepared they were leaving Friends’.  They are stars shining in their new journeys.

The very next day, our 5th graders were back in the Great Room starring in their production of Peter Pan.  Each year, it is one of my great joys to direct our 5th graders in a full-scale theatrical production.  We had a packed house for the afternoon show and a healthy crowd in the evening. (The title of this week’s column includes the address where Peter says he lives.) Our 5th graders, including their teachers, rose to the occasion spectacularly. For more photos, please visit our Facebook page.  In a time when so many schools have reduced drama programs, at Friends’ we strive daily to keep arts in the forefront. 

While the final production of Peter Pan was a smash hit, I was most touched by a comment one of the fifth graders made after the show: “I’ll miss our rehearsals.”  For this young thespian, who had caught the acting bug in a big way, the process of working together as a team to create something that was bigger than the sum of its parts was just as important as the final product. As her director, I should add that this fledgling actor, just like all of her classmates, was a total star.  I’m going to miss the rehearsals too.

On Wednesday, members of our Community Board came to Friends’ for two important events that we hold every couple of years.
The cast of Peter Pan, including Teacher Candidate Trevor McGill and 5th grade teacher Liz Richards

At our biennial Trustee Classroom Visit Day, I shared with our Trustees the kinds of things I look for when I stop into classrooms (suggesting they use this interesting chart as a guide). We invite our Trustees to see our mission at work because it helps them to guide our school to new heights.  After their time in classrooms, Trustees shared with each other how impressed they were at the diverse ways the students were learning, how engaged our kids are with their work and with each other, how many levels of learning were happening in classrooms – with our Teacher Candidates learning and practicing their craft alongside the kids, how welcoming and warm our classrooms are, and how much kindness and respect they observed between adults and children.

Later in the day, our entire staff and Board met together for two hours to discuss our school mission.  Every seven years, as part of our school’s re-accreditation process with the Association of Colorado Independent Schools, we are required to review our mission statement.  More importantly, it is a wonderfully helpful exercise for all of us to re-familiarize ourselves with our mission, and to reflect on our practice as educators and school leaders.

Throughout the discussion, which was too long and detailed to capture in this space, almost fifty dedicated souls, who are committed to the vision and future of this school, reflected and shared on what makes our school unique, what questions we had, and what might be missing from our mission.  It was an empowering and extremely thoughtful event.  That evening, I received an email from one of our long time staff members. It said: “One of the things I appreciated was how there was very little question of what we are good at and what we value; such clarity of purpose and dedication to that purpose. It made me wonder if all mission review conversations at independent schools look the same.”

I’m not sure about that. But I know that it’s been a week where our stars have shone.  Our Community Board will continue to reflect on our school’s mission over the year and will be in further communication with our greater school community.  Here at Friends’ we’re thanking our lucky stars!