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.