Below is my first open letter to the St. Gregory community, a summer letter sharing the initiatives I have been working upon since arriving on the job a few weeks ago; the letter also includes my recommended summer reading.
Dear St. Gregory Community:
Greetings– I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and happy times this summer. I have now been on the job here at St. Gregory for about two weeks, and I fear I am overdue in communicating with you. It feels very good to be here– this school is clearly a place of action, moving forward, and it is a wonderful thing to work with these good and dedicated school people. I owe a great thanks to Bill Creeden, with whom I worked side by side for a week, and who has done me a great service in passing over such a much-strengthened school.
Let me share with you some of the new initiatives that we here at school are already working vigorously, all endeavors representative of the new era taking shape at St. Gregory College Prep. They can best be grouped into the following categories: Preparing Students for their Future; Promoting Faculty Excellence and Development; and Upgrading Technology and Communications.
Preparing Students for their Future
Above and beyond all else, it is essential we focus on our school’s mission: to educate students for excellence in scholarship, character, and leadership. I chose to join St. Gregory because it is a school which stands for excellence and is well poised as a leader in our region in its academic excellence. But what are we doing, now, to further develop this commitment?
- I am asking all STG faculty members this summer to read an important recent book (August, 2008), by Harvard Professor of Education Tony Wagner entitled: The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need, and What we Can do About it. I also invite all other school community members—parents, trustees, students and others— to join us in reading it. Professor Wagner makes the case that too many of our schools, even highly regarded schools, are not truly preparing students for the demands of our fast-changing world—and that schools must change in order to better inculcate a new skill set in our students.
Educational excellence can be distilled, perhaps, to two key domains: how actively engaged are students in their schooling, and, how effectively are they being readied for college and their professions? We are now immediately implementing new tools for measuring our success at student engagement and preparation.
- The High School Survey of Student Engagement, (HSSSE or “Hessie”) is administered annually at hundreds of high schools across the nation, and provides schools results across a wide array of activities in the life of secondary students. It will tell us how our students compare to others in each category, will give us evidence to demonstrate how very much engaged our students are comparatively, and will give us very important guidance in how to improve and advance in this important area.
- The College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) measures the critical thinking, analytic and synthetic, problem-solving, and communication skills of students. It does so by administering a test to ninth graders in the fall, and twelfth graders in the spring, and then provides us a thorough report on how greatly our students have advanced in these essential skills. Again, we can use this information both to demonstrate, and enhance, the quality of a St. Gregory education. To quote Harvard Professor Tony Wagner: “A number of very prestigious private schools—including Hotchkiss, Holland Hall, St. Andrew’s, and Lawrenceville—are using CWRA…. Teachers say it is the best test, by far, of the skills that matter most for college.” I am proud to say that St. Gregory will be the first, (and for the time being only) school in Arizona using the CWRA.
- In the coming year we will design and implement new alumni surveys to generate more information about how our graduates are performing in college and in the professional workplace. We also will seek to form focus and/or advisory groups of young alumni to advise us on an ongoing basis about how to ensure our preparatory programs are meeting the needs of our changing times.
Faculty Excellence and Development
We all know that there is nothing more important to the learning of our students than the quality of their teachers. This will always be first and foremost as a principle in my work: that we recruit and retain the very best teachers, and that we vigorously seek to stimulate and support the ongoing development of our teaching excellence.
- Professional development: I was really drawn to St. Gregory for the strength of its faculty commitment to growth and a growth mindset; this is a learning organization. Last winter, shortly after my appointment, I began a push to build on this momentum by scheduling for weekly “late start Thursdays.”. Students learn more when teachers are collaborating, reflecting, and learning in regular, systematic and systemic, way. Last fall I visited twentyone 21st century high schools, and I found a very strong correlation between those schools that had the most effective learning environments for students and those schools that had the largest commitments to providing time for faculty collaboration and development.
- The other exciting piece of our new initiatives here is the Critical Friends program we are implementing, and allotting time for each month. Two teachers are already trained, and four more trained this past month, such that we are ready to hit the ground running, providing carefully facilitated settings for teachers to better share, ponder, question, reflect upon, and constructively critique their teaching practices. Look to hear more from me and others about the impact of this valuable new initiative.
- Faculty appointments: Let me tell you a little bit about my first faculty appointment, a new middle school math teacher, an appointment I made after a recommendation by STG Middle School Head Phil Woodall, who conducted a thorough search. Steve Owens has 24 years experience teaching middle school math at two Tucson Academic Magnet schools, most recently Doolen. Mr. Owens, who holds a BA and a Masters in Music from the U. of Arizona, has had an outstanding record of success in rigorously preparing students for high achievement in mathematics—including in a statewide math competition, and in placement of students in selective Tucson high schools. To quote his former principal: “he has an innate ability to engage his students fully in their learning process. He develops and implements learning activities that students find to be relevant, fun, and challenging.” Mr. Owens reported to me he is choosing to come teach at St. Gregory because of our reputation where teachers can really focus on learning; to quote Mr. Owens, “I feel like I am coming to heaven.”
Technology and Communications:
A recent New York Times article spoke about how quality and premium companies were re-tooling to meet the challenges of the economic crisis, and much of their emphasis is on improving the quality of their service, and of their technological ability to better meet the needs of their clients. We are doing the same; following are examples of this effort.
- We just put in an order for a second T-1 Line, doubling internet capacity, and making careful plans to do more to strengthen the campus wifi, and to expand the opportunities for personal computing on the campus.
- Revamping the Website— Director of Technology Andrei Henriksen and I are working daily, with a target date of September 1, to launch a wholly revamped website, more contemporary and attractive in style, with more features, better menus, and enhanced marketing appeal.
- The Hawks e-view will become a weekly publication, something you can count on every Friday, communicating the news you can use for the coming week and including more information and feature style writing about our students and their learning. It will also become more interactive, with readily available contact links, and mini-surveys you can use to give us feedback and critical information.
- The format of Parent-Teacher conferences is being reviewed, and will be strengthened at least in the middle school in the direction of greater student leadership and responsibility.
- We are preparing plans for enhanced teacher-student advising with new tools and new approaches, building upon the already strong home-room teacher arrangements at St. Gregory.
- You can follow me on Twitter (@jonathanemartin), where, when the school year begins, I intend to post daily or more frequent micro-messages about developments at school.
- I am also blogging daily (again, after a prolonged absence) at my blogsite celebrating twenty-first century K-12 education, www.21k12blog.net
None of these initiatives are expensive; we are not taking a path of throwing money at issues, or glossing over tough problems by touting fancy new buildings and shiny new equipment. This school is committed to ever more becoming a school that is both values based and a value proposition—the best possible investment you can make in your child’s future.
Of course, there are many other important initiatives and ongoing developments happening, including the new student “house” program of intramural competition and cross-grade (and cross-division) teamwork; a new and multi-constituency Green St. Gregory committee, with a mandate to audit and plan for enhanced environmental consciousness on campus; and the Academic Committee work’s reviewing and improving processes and protocols of student assessment.
I hope you will enjoy the rest of summer, and I am eager to meet you, or visit with you again, as school starts up in August. Although the bulk of our summer is being spent here in Tucson getting settled and acquainted with our new home, we will travel to California, and Colorado for two weeks from the 10 to the 25th of July. Like many of you, we will use most of recreational time visiting with family and friends, and spending time together outdoors on beaches and trails.
Reading, too, is a joy for summer—and here are a few recommended titles if you are still seeking more summer reading options:
v Author Lee Child might be dismissed as only a genre writer for his series of P.I. type thrillers, but this is fine genre fiction. Begin the series with Killing Floor, and you will likely find yourself compulsively seeking the next title immediately thereafter. Child writes with great intelligence and deep research; you will learn about so much—ballistics and physics, international trade and currency, investigative technique and psychology—as you read Child, but this is learning on the fly as you race to the end of each of these engaging and intriguing mysteries featuring ex military detective Jack Reacher.
v Between Here and April, by Deborah Copaken Kogan, takes us into the mind-spinning psychology of a nerve-wracked mother in contemporary New York City. Haunted by dreams, she seeks out the true story of what happened to her best friend in first grade, who mysteriously disappeared from her life. Upon discovering the friend was the victim of deranged mother, she is forced to re-examine her own motherhood anxieties. Full disclosure: Deb Copaken was a friend in college.
v Kate Atkinson Jackson Brodie novels are not plot-driven, as you’d find in a typical mystery or thriller; they are painted in lovely colors and built upon rich characterizations of diverse personalities, and only gradually—oh so gradually—do the multiple story lines begin to converge on a common hinge, carefully puzzled out by Brodie. Read them in any order; the first to be published was the wonderful Case Histories, but the subsequent One Good Turn and When Will There be Good News? are also terrific.
v This goes back a few years in its publication, but Robert Graves, best known for I Claudius, wrote a fascinating novel re-imagining the Odyssey which I read, and loved, while traveling in Greece this past spring. In Homer’s Daughter, he keys off of a theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and does so by storytelling from the perspective and in the voice of Princess Nausicaa. The princess has a series of trials paralleling those of Penelope, and she is assisted by a wandering stranger who arrives in her midst, but she is no damsel in distress; she is a maker of her own destiny, and a determined teller of her own story.
v Outliers: The Story of Success is the third product of Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliance, and I think significantly better than Blink, his second. Romanticism left an indelible mark on the way we view the world, and we tend to regard individual accomplishment as just that—the striking product of a unique genius or talent. But, Gladwell argues, accomplishment is rather more so the product of the environmental circumstances. Read this short and lively book to rethink what really matters in making possible greatness.
v Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, from Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, similarly takes on the challenge of exploring how success happens, but instead of looking at environments, she looks at our internal mental structures: how do we each understand ourselves and our abilities. Some of us, she says, believe our mental (and other) abilities to be fixed and realized; others of us view ourselves as still growing. Sadly, this is just as true for children as adults—some children believe themselves to just not be very good at math, for instance, and that is the way it always will be. Dweck then goes on to explain how very different the prospects are for these two groups—and ultimately calls upon all of us to reinvent ourselves as “growth mindset” practitioners. This book will change not only your parenting (or teaching), but also will change yourself.
v The Global Achievement Gap: Join the teachers and administrators of St. Gregory this summer in reading this very readable book, written for a general audience, by Harvard Professor Tony Wagner. Wagner writes about the seven survival skills necessary for the new century and the new world (Critical Thinking & Problem Solving, Collaboration across Networks & Leading by Influence, Agility & Adaptability, Initiative & Entrepreneurialism, Effective Oral and Written Communication, Accessing & Analyzing Information, and Curiosity and Imagination). But more than that, he delves deeply into the kinds of classrooms where these skills are learned, and the kinds where they are not. This is a very important book.
Happy Reading, and I can’t wait to see everyone in the coming weeks!
Jonathan E. Martin