Regular readers recall my intent in this project to focus especially on new and young high schools; today I am writing about a high school still in gestation, but a very exciting one nonetheless. Redwood Day School, an outstanding K-8 in Oakland, will open its 9-12 program next year (rolling out one year at time, beginning next year with just a ninth grade). Despite my not having had the chance to shadow a student, I am designating my visits to RDS to count as my Good High School visit #15.

Young schools are especially “intentional,” and I enjoyed hearing that word used several times when I interviewed the RDS founding upper school head, Ray Wilson. Ray is collaborating closely with the RDS Head Mike Riera, a renowned developmental psychologist who has authored many books on teenagers. Together, they are putting together what looks like a very exciting school. Mike said something interesting during his presentation: “It is almost better not to have a site to talk about when introducing a new high school, so that our focus can be fully on what is more important, the program.” Mike also made reference to the slow food movement and its values, as artisanship, authenticity, ethics, tradition, creativity, and integrity, and said he seeks an analogue. Calling high schools slow doesn’t sound right, so he is working for now with the terminology of thoughtful as the analogue to slow.

In talking to Ray and Mike, listening to them speak at their Open House, and reviewing their (very nicely prepared) promotional pieces, the following observations emerge:

1. RDS promises to be preparatory for life just as much as, or more so, than for college. I think all of us who work in high schools recognize the enormity of the pressure to prepare students for college admission, but we must nonetheless maintain our values– students who are unhappy, or unmotivated, or overly pressured, all in the name of college preparation, are not being effectively prepared for the fullness of their future. Mike writes “RDS will not only be about getting into college or getting ahead but will also be about preparing them to live full and meaningful lives, wherever they go and whatever they choose to do.”

Ray explained to me that independent schools typically prepare students very well for college academic work, “but where we fall short is in preparing them for the conversations they have in the dorm lounge. We need, yes, to prep kids for academic discourse, but also to relate to the world around them, to be able to passionately talk about themselves and their world, get them out of their bubble and into real-world experiences.”
Mike explained at the open house that “high school can be a time for learning bad coping skills, so to truly prepare kids for life, we need to teach them good coping skills. By recognizing we are preparing kids for life, it opens up how we understand what kind of high school we are building.”

2. Going beyond the concept of preparation, RDS aspires to celebrate the high school years as entirely meaningful in their own right. High school students are so creative, so energetic, so passionate, that I think we can be so mistaken to insist that they relegate these years primarily to preparing for some distant future. Mike again: “We want to give ninth to twelfth grade students the same gift of this unfolding process that we offer in our K-8 enviroment. Adolescence, like childhood, should not be hurried any more than a rose should be rushed to bloom.”

Mike spoke of how the internet is a great source of competition with school, and education has to grab kids the same with, with engaging intensity. “Schooling needs to be developmentally appropriate meaningful education for today’s students.” “Our bottom line goal,” he said, “is for kids to enjoy being in high school.”

3. A key part of any intentional program is a careful attention to schedule, and the RDS schedule reflects this greatly. Unlike any other high school I am familiar with, RDS has deliberately set their daily schedule to be more in accordance with the sleep ryhthms of teenagers; school does not ever start before 9:00 am. Mike spoke about this at the open house: melantonin, he said, which induces sleep, begins kicking in for adults as early as 8:00 pm, but it just doesn’t go to work for adolescents until 10:00pm or later. Hence, kids in high school simply cannot go to sleep with any ease earlier than 10:30, often later. But they need their eight hours (plus) just as much as, or more than, we adults do. Asking them to start school at 8 (or 730) renders appropriate sleep amount for kids nearly impossible.

The schedule has other important elements as well– a longer lunch period, dedicated times other than lunch for club meetings, and a ten minute minimum passing period: all these choices represent a real respect for the social life of our students, of their need (and their human right, I almost want to say) to take a breather, to have time for a snack or a chat or a chance just to sit and reflect. These small schedule elements stand in contrast to the hurry, hurry quality of many high schools, where kids are required to rush, sometimes run, class to class to meet school schedules that treat kids as if they are robots.

Mike explained at the Open House that he intends for “thoughtful” schools to provide “time for teenagers to really sink into what they are doing” rather than just skimming the surface in their racing around.

Ray told me he took the commendable initiative to share the schedule with Denise Pope, author of Doing School and director of SOS, now ChallengeSuccess. Dr. Pope is certainly among the nation’s leaders in the work of how high schools must respond to the crisis of adolescent well-being, and Ray told me she endorsed the RDS schedule enthusiastically, making only a single minor tweak.

4. Another distinctive feature of the RDS High School, something Ray pointed to first when I asked him how RDS would differ itself, is its Life Planning Curriculum. Students take this full credit, equal weight course for all four years of their high school program, and it is intended to treat their personal development as seriously as their intellectual growth. A list of topics of study in the curriculum is as follows: Self-Awareness, Career Exploration, Effective Communication, Health and wellness, and Leadership (9); Your Brain and You: An interdisciplinary course, Diversity and Inclusion principles and their application to the real world (10); Financial Responsibility and philanthropy, College Counseling, Career Exploration, and Discovery Projects (11 &12).

5. RDS is seeking to balance educational values of integration and choice in the curriculum planning. In 9th and 10th grades, students study tightly integrated courses in World History and Literature, and in Integrated Math and Sciences. Then, in their upper years, they will be provided many curricular choices for History, Literature, Math and Science courses; Examples of Advanced History currcilar electives provided include History of Oakland, Sociology of Malcolm X, World History Revolutions, History of Mexico, The Middle East, Japanese American Experience in WWII, Life and Times of Gandhi, and African History.

6. Ray told me RDS has chosen to not offer AP (or IB) courses, and believes they will be perhaps the only independent high school in the East Bay, at least among the CAIS/NAIS set, to not offer AP. Ray explained that at AP schools, “there is too great an obsession with the coursework, that AP students rarely enjoy AP courses, and that at RDS they are determined to provide a high school experience which is enjoyable for students, not just “doing school” for college prep.” He also explained that “RDS seeks truly creative teachers, and great teachers want to be creative, rather than having to just follow the AP curriculum guide.”

7. Both Ray and Mike, separately, spoke of recasting the concept of homework, preferring to call it “growth assignments.” Ray explained to me that teachers will deliberately (intentionally!) ask or assign students to do work which is more meaningful to them. They will incorporate students into most every assignment; instead of asking students to write about Gilgamesh’s journey and how he develops in the course of it, students will write about how their own life journeys are like, and unlike, that of Gilgamesh. Cool thinking– may be a bit harder to do in practice than to say in rhetoric, but a great direction to go.

7. Ray spoke of “putting students back into the assignments, making them deeply purposeful, and his determination students not feel bored.” I was very interested to hear him speak of how he draws upon his own experience in teaching and directing Summerbridge programs (aka Breakthrough Collaborative), and the importance within Summerbridge of teaching and learning that is creative, exciting, and intentional. If you want to keep kids in school in the summertime, it better be stimulating, and why not bring that wisdom into school-year learning as well!

8. A frequent theme of my blog is that good learning begins with good questions and tough problems; Mike had a great message in his Open House remarks about the RDS intention to teach critical thinking: “There is so much information in the world today, that it is not accumulation of information that is important but analysis of information. Kids needs to have a healthy relationship with confusion– confusion can stymie us, but instead, if we hang with confusion, something good can come of it.”

9. RDS is also working to develop a new late-afternoon concept for its new high school, a slot from 3:30-5 during which students can choose to do a sport, or another kind of “studio” course, with options including conventional studio arts, theater but also special science, math, and other kinds of studio coursework. There is a work-in-progress quality to this plan, but it quite appealing. Students will be required to do at least one art studio annually (great for promoting creativity), but may do all three, and RDS is intending to explore opening these studio courses to students from other schools as well, which is a cool concept for expanding the reach of the school into the community, and broadening their students’ social experiences.

10. At the RDS high school open house, the guests enjoyed an activity I hadn’t seen before. All prospective students, the current 8th graders, were called to one side of a room, and the parents/guardians to another. Cards containing key school values and attributes were distributed to each group, and each group then selected preferred qualities, and constructed from the a “school of cards.” In keeping with my student shadowing mode, I chose to hover near the 8th graders, and watch closely the choices they made; my group thought academic excellence and college prep very important, and athletics not so much. The best part of the activity was Mike’s facilitation of the conversation that followed, where the parents and kids examined their contrasting views of what was important in school. Mike commented that it is so important for us all to remember how creative adolescents are, and it is our challenge as adults to create a high school that values that creativity while also allowing for critical inquiry.

Redwood Day School’s High School is a very cool project, and deserves continuing attention. Kudos to the team there developing it, and I wish it the best as it prepares for opening.