What Happens to Empathy Deferred?

NAIS Blog

As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one’s own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows.  The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.

The importance of the ability to see the world from the perspective of others became apparent to me when I was a somewhat lonely, out-of-place freshman at my New England boarding school. At 14, I quickly began to see and understand that I was different from most of my peers. My views and perspectives were different as a result of being a black urban kid from the often unforgiving south side of Chicago. Over the years, I learned that my approach to many issues, assignments, and problems was vastly different from those of my white friends. As a black person living in a white world, I learned to understand the white perspective, and it was strange and frustrating that white people rarely, if ever, bothered to learn or even inquire about how I saw the world.
This was most apparent in 1995 when, as a senior, I was reviled by my classmates and, more shockingly, by my teachers, dorm parents, and coaches for celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict. While I knew that my white classmates wouldn’t understand why the black students, like most of black America, felt jubilation that day, I was disappointed that educated adults, some of whom had seen me grow and mature since my freshman year, could not be open-minded enough to look at this national issue from my point of view.  As usual of course, I was supposed to see the issue from their point of view.
I had the same experience a couple of weeks later with the Million Man March on the National Mall. Why did the people with whom I interacted daily and who cared about me lack the desire to empathize with my thoughts and feelings about issues that had directly affected me, my loved ones, and other people who looked like me?

Why the Differences Matter

Although I learned a lot and have an abiding affection for the four years I spent at my independent school, I wish some things had been different. Had my school focused on mindfulness and empathy back then and incorporated them into the curriculum, my experience and those of the other black students probably would have been different. I think that it would have been more equal, more fair. My experiences would have been more like those of my white classmates: My school trials would have been limited to in-the-classroom and on-the-field challenges.
Instead, we students of color frequently were forced to address, on our own, micro-aggressions and problems that the majority of our classmates didn’t even realize existed. As a result, I felt out of place on the very campus where I lived most days over four years. I frequently felt unsupported and misunderstood because there were very few adults who truly understood my everyday challenges. My ideas were often dismissed or met with indifference. I felt like a bull living among a campus full of horses.

New Generation and New Opportunities

Today, I am not bitter; I am hopeful. My goal is to offer this perspective on the importance of sparing future generations of students of color my experience by supporting the growing movement to develop in students nonacademic abilities like mindfulness and empathy.
According to NAIS data, independent schools are heavily populated by students who increasingly come from different backgrounds and who, consequently, see the world very differently. Education experts stress that in order to offer the most substantive and meaningful education, we must embrace and teach skills that promote mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a view I’ve held since the 1990s, when I realized that my own perspective-taking ability and understanding of how people operate would be critical to my success. Thanks to my school’s student diversity, I learned to expand my understanding of people who weren’t like me. Where else would a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago get to room with a Japanese student and learn Japanese customs? Where else could a hip-hop loving, urban basketball-junkie teenager find his voice and a true passion to advocate for racial understanding and multiculturalism?
Today, developing reciprocal understanding, mutual respect, and empathy among diverse populations remains our greatest challenge. The need has perhaps never been more obvious. In the last two years alone, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, to name just a few, have focused national attention on racial inequality and social injustice. We have heard “I Can’t Breathe” chants and seen “Black Lives Matter” signs and hashtags that raise awareness of and express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Independent schools claim to embrace missions that promise to lead the way — to create a healthier culture of cooperation and understanding. Consequently, independent schools must actively work to ensure that those missions aren’t empty abstractions.
What I have learned is that creating a culture of empathy requires a level playing field.  Young people need guidance from adults who understand them, who share their background and experiences. Understanding others is more likely to occur if people first understand themselves — if they understand who they are, what they think, and why they think it. White students in independent schools have the white mentors and role models they need in order to develop this sort of self-confidence and understanding — the base from which, with further guidance, they can become increasingly understanding of others. Black and Latino students in independent schools lack sufficient numbers of black and Latino mentors.

Diversity Issues still in Deferment

I’ve recently met directly with students of color who attend independent schools. They unanimously agree that what they need most are adults who look like them and have walked the paths that they stumble along each day. Theirs is an old wish not yet realized  not yet addressed.
These students need mentors and educators of color to demonstrate to them and, equally important, to white students, that the biggest brains on campus aren’t just white teachers. Black and Latino students need teachers of color to empathize with them about issues that only they can understand because they have lived them: what it’s like to be the object of racial bigotry; what it feels like not to meet the American standard of beauty; what it’s like to carry the weight of negative stereotypes on your teenage shoulders; what it’s like to have to be courageous enough to speak out and risk either becoming a social outcast or feeling ashamed for failing to speak; even what it’s like when the hair and hygiene products you use are not available at local drugstores. Students of color need adult role models who respond thoughtfully to their ideas about current events, instead of dismissing them as “immature, idealistic, or ignorant.” That’s what I needed when I was a student, and that’s what students of color need today.

Turning the Corner with Meaningful Solutions

Creating the conditions for a more mindful, empathetic culture begins with faculty diversity. If independent schools are to truly provide a full, substantive, and meaningful education to all of their students, each institution must staff itself with educators who can provide all students firsthand experience and perspective. Schools must understand that educators of color absolutely have a critical role to play. It is they who, working with their white colleagues, will help develop empathy and understanding, while conditioning all students to understand that there are black and Latino education professionals and administrators. What better way is there to simultaneously improve the educational experience for students and faculty at independent schools, prepare students for the global society and workforce they will soon enter, combat long-standing stereotypes, and address a need that has for too long gone unaddressed?
As a black alumnus, I know firsthand that aggressively seeking and hiring candidates of color will make a significant difference. But hiring isn’t enough. Schools must do three other things. First, the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis.  Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected?
Second, schools need to hire sufficient numbers of teachers of color so that the teachers won’t feel as though they are isolated tokens or appear like tokens to other members of the faculty or to students. Retention of good teachers of color is a constant problem, and creating a strong cohort of teachers of color can improve the chances that the teachers will stay.
Third, administrators must empower teachers of color to ensure that the dominant white culture will not indirectly or unintentionally silence them. Once schools have created the right culture and conditions, the real work of developing empathy can begin and will have the greatest likelihood of success. The key is caring enough to care.
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How Racial Affinity Groups Saved My Life

NAIS

Each year, I attend and look forward to NAIS’s People of Color Conference. It is the only time I sit in a room with other African American educators who also look to recharge. One year, an attendee shared with me that her experience at PoCC convinces her she is not crazy and keeps her from going insane. I feel like a member of a family and PoCC is the family reunion.

One of the many reasons I love PoCC so much is the affinity group experience. An affinity group is a group of people with common interests, background, and experience that come together to support each other. Affinity groups for people of color can be magical places in a historically elite and exclusive independent school system. Participants of both adult and student affinity groups often find it to be a place of encouragement and a way to increase their sense of belonging in their institution.


Brentwood School’s family affinity group at a brunch for mothers of African American students. Photo credit: Brentwood School

Hurting Hearts

Before I found affinity groups, I struggled to breathe. For 15 years, my tank was empty. I was exhausted beyond measure. Being the only African American educator and administrator in my predominately white institution had almost worn me down completely. My heart hurt for the efforts I made to advocate for and protect all families, but specifically families of color that existed in this white, affluent, independent school world.

In my second year at this same institution, a brilliant and talented African American young lady decided to start an African American culture club. Her idea was to celebrate African American culture and educate others about it, regardless of their racial and ethnic heritage. When one of her classmates responded, “We should start a White culture club,” I saw the strength disappear from her eyes.

This young woman battled in the same space I did. She shared in the same constant struggle to defend, justify, and give purpose to her existence as an African American on our campus. She wanted to tell her classmate that he was a card-carrying member of a white club all day, every day. That in each class his identity was so integral to the teaching and curriculum that he didn’t even realize it. She wanted to ask how it felt for him to sit in the lap of privilege and make a comment that served as a dichotomy when the reality was that his comment was why she was initiating this club. She wanted to ask him when was the last time (knowing there would never be a time) he was alone in his identity or was asked to be the spokesperson for his entire race. When had he ever been invisible? Rather than risk losing the breath that was so hard to inhale, she cried. This pain was all too familiar. I, too, was out of oxygen and could not let this be my death.

A Magical Place to Relate

Right away, the African American Culture club became the largest student club on campus. It created a space where students in all stages of their identity development could belong. Black students and their allies addressed diversity topics in the school and globally. We talked about defying stereotypes, leaders and figures in Black history, and media headlines that affected us. When one student shared that he felt a heightened sense of surveillance on campus, another student could relate. Another student shared her frustration of people touching her hair and making ignorant assumptions — and yes, we could all relate. Students expressed how they were often called the name of another student of the same race by students, teachers, and administrators.

The affinity space was a place of affirmation and empowerment that we all so desperately needed. We acknowledged shared experiences in ways that were productive, valuable, and meaningful. It was a brave space that preserved our dignity as a people. It was a place where people of the same identity could share how they navigate the complexities of a PWIS (predominately white independent school), and it was no longer an ostracized experience.

Becoming a Change Agent

For the first time, I felt invited, welcomed, and included in an institution that pretended to represent the same moral and philosophical educational initiatives that supported all people. I knew I needed to help students stay alive in this institution so I continued to create the same space that kept me alive. I knew the time would come when I gave all I had to give and needed to align my own beliefs and experience in an institutionally supportive space.

One day, I read a job description for Director of Equity and Inclusion in a different school that completely described me. The school called for an administrator who would speak to every constituent and ensure that the school was doing its best to envelop all members of the community, regardless of identity, so everyone could thrive. It was time to make a change. Now I’m in year two of being an effective change agent.

A Call to Schools

While developing and supporting affinity groups for my students, I’ve found that I’ve benefited just as much, and potentially more, than they have. Now I see the success of both student and parent affinity groups. Affinity groups allow us to support the humanity of others. It is the most inclusive effort we can make.

Most of our schools’ missions include a component of excellence or achievement. We have non-discriminatory clauses in our policies and procedures. The best way to not discriminate is to value and support the spaces of those who are underrepresented in your population. Give them a place on your campus to exist freely — and to thrive. Be committed to achieving excellence in every area of your school’s mission by recognizing that those whose identities lie in disadvantaged and oppressed groups are having a different experience. If you are uncomfortable or unable to understand the necessity of affinity groups, you probably have never needed one. However, if you are committed to providing an education that is truly excellent for all students in your institution, encourage and support the vital role affinity groups play toward this noble goal.

Research and Strategies from Challenge Success: Spotlight on Woodside Priory School

NAIS

“People don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, or so they think.”
—Kevin Romoni, Grade 10, Doing School

Kevin was one of five students I shadowed for a year at a high-achieving high school in Silicon Valley. His classmates echoed his belief that future success was inextricably tied to high school performance. This narrow notion of success as defined by grades, test scores, and college admission ultimately took its toll on these teens. The pressure to over-achieve led to high levels of physical and emotional distress and exhaustion.

The students’ stories and voices became a critical call to action and a catalyst to starting Challenge Success, a nonprofit school reform organization that advocates for a more comprehensive definition of success to foster school environments where students thrive both academically and emotionally. Our interventions include the Challenge Success School Programparent education and professional development workshops, and our student survey, the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences.

Defining the Problems

Since 2007, Challenge Success has surveyed more than 100,000 middle and high school kids in high-achieving public and independent schools across the country. We have found that Kevin’s narrow definition of success is overwhelmingly prevalent. In our fast-paced culture, kids are busy in and out of school, often maintaining schedules that are more hectic than those of the adults around them. Many students and parents feel they have no choice but to continue, day after day, at this frantic pace. They believe the prospect of a good education, future employment, and financial security are at risk if they don’t. But this “more is better” lifestyle takes a toll on student well-being and learning in many ways.

Sleep Deprivation
Our research shows that high school students get, on average, about six and a half hours of sleep each night, even though medical experts recommend eight to ten hours of sleep for healthy development. We know that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and depression, anxiety, memory function, bullying, and car accidents in adolescents, according to the Stanford Medicine News Center.

Academic Worry and Emotional Distress
Nearly 75 percent of high school students surveyed report being often or always stressed by schoolwork. In fact, the National Association of Health Education Centers reports that academics are the leading cause of stress for middle and high school-aged students, and that prolonged stress can be debilitating.

Academic Disengagement
Almost 40 percent of high school students we surveyed reported “doing school,” working hard but rarely finding schoolwork interesting, meaningful, or valuable. The pressure to perform often leads to a loss of engagement with learning and perpetuates a culture of “robo-students” — students who focus on getting the grades but do not find intrinsic motivation, meaning, or joy in the process. Our research shows that students who are not fully engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively are less likely to achieve in school and more likely to suffer from symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Cheating and Drug Use
When students are under pressure and lack sufficient sleep, they often engage in cheating behavior. Challenge Success research shows that 88 percent of high school and 75 percent of middle school kids admit to cheating in one form or another. Students tell us that “it’s cheat or be cheated,” and they feel they have no other options but to break the rules. Health professionals have also observed an increase in the overuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, known as “study drugs.” Many adolescents believe that study drugs help them stay up and focus, and they are unaware of the severe health risks associated with abusing prescription medications.

All Kids Need Their SPACE in School

So, how do we break this cycle? How do we change our schools to emphasize meaningful and joyful learning and a broader definition of success? Challenge Success has used its research-based SPACE framework to guide solution-focused reform efforts with more than 150 schools in our School Program since 2003.

We typically begin working with our partner schools by surveying students to identify the school’s most pressing concerns, and we ask each school to bring a multi-stakeholder team — administrators, faculty, parents, counselors, and students — to our annual conferences. We encourage each school to examine its specific circumstances and then create a site-specific plan for change with a Challenge Success coach. Each school’s needs are unique and solutions can focus on one or more of the SPACE framework categories. For instance, schools might focus on professional development for deeper, interdisciplinary learning, and they may decide to strengthen teacher-student relationships via advisories.

One School’s Spotlight on the “S” in SPACE

Photo Credits: Woodside Priory School

One NAIS-member school, Woodside Priory, a 6–12 grade day and boarding school of 350 students in Northern California, participated in the Challenge Success School Program for several years. The school has shown extraordinary growth in the “S” category of SPACE, examining “students’ schedule & use of time.” Specifically, Woodside Priory recognized that student engagement and well-being could be improved by addressing two highly interrelated issues: the bell schedule and homework practices.

A Saner School Schedule
The school schedule has a substantial impact on engagement, teaching, and learning; it affects the entire school community and is an important lever for school improvement. Woodside Priory’s leaders recognized the need to make a change to the bell schedule based on results from the Challenge Success student survey. After learning that their students were only getting on average 6.5 hours of sleep each night, they decided to move the start time of the school from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. four days a week, and to start even later (9:45 a.m.) once a week. This allowed students the opportunity for additional sleep each morning, and had the extra bonus of increased professional development time for faculty.

That year, they also changed from a traditional schedule to a modified block schedule. This meant that students had five classes per day for 65 minutes each, instead of seven classes for 45 minutes each. Students felt the benefits immediately. With more time in each class, they had more opportunities to engage deeply with the material and felt less rushed throughout the day with fewer transitions.

The shift to a block schedule also dramatically changed how students experienced homework. In the past, kids typically had homework from seven classes, every night. In a block schedule, students only had homework due for the five classes that met the next day. The result was that students had more control over how they managed their homework load and had more flexibility after school and in the evenings.

Homework: Quality vs. Quantity
Educators, parents, and students often confuse the concepts of “rigor” and “load.” Rigor is associated with depth of learning and mastery of a subject matter. Load is a measurement of the amount of work that is assigned to students. Research shows that students in courses that assign more hours of homework do not necessarily experience greater mastery or in-depth understanding. Because of this, Woodside Priory sought to reduce the daily quantity of homework and increase the quality of their assignments. They decided to place student learning, engagement, and well-being at the forefront of their new approach to homework.

The In-Class Experiment – Homework Week
To get started, Woodside Priory’s Head of Upper School Brian Schlaak asked all teachers in the upper school to allow 30 minutes during each class period to get homework done in class for one week.

Here is what they learned:

  • Teachers learned that students take varying amounts of time to do homework; some get stuck and need help right away, and others are done in ten minutes. This challenged teachers’ assumptions about how much time was actually needed to complete each assignment.
  • Teachers learned that sometimes students don’t understand the purpose of a homework assignment and, as a result, can perceive it as “busy work.”
  • Teachers noted that they saw an increase in the quality of the students’ work — students had time to ask the teacher for assistance during class and they seemed more engaged.
  • Teachers noticed that many students were not using appropriate note-taking methods when reading assignments for class. This observation prompted teachers to support students with additional guidance and study skills to reduce wasted time on tasks and to increase retention and mastery.
  • Students learned that they can be much more productive with homework when they aren’t on social media or other distracting devices, when they aren’t exhausted at the end of the day after sports practices and other extracurricular activities, and when they have a designated amount of time to focus on their work.

Woodside Priory’s Homework Week exercise led to a fruitful discussion and support for teachers to experiment with many different approaches to homework, including: self-graded assignments; revise and resubmit opportunities; homework-free nights, vacations, and classes; and optional homework. Teachers worked on better aligning their homework assignments with the enduring understandings of their courses, and observed which approach to homework seemed best for reducing load while maintaining appropriate rigor.

This year, the school continues to focus on enduring understandings, coupled with authentic assessment work, to eliminate extraneous content and busywork, and they are orienting their curriculum around five learning competencies — communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and resilience.

Redefining Success

We know that school reform can be a daunting task. Rather than focusing on educational fads, our strategies are founded in educational research and built to have long-lasting effects in schools.

As a result of our work with schools across the country, students:

  • sleep more,
  • cheat less often,
  • engage in learning,
  • worry less,
  • feel supported by teachers, and
  • perform just as well or better in school.

By embracing a new definition of success, we are ultimately defining what we value. Our students shouldn’t have to choose between health or stress, and academic rigor or engagement. By challenging the current, narrow view of success, students, families, and schools can find a healthy balance and thrive.

More information about the SPACE Framework and our research can be found in our book, Overloaded and Underpreparedwhite papers, and vodcasts. Continue this conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

What Independent Schools Can Learn From New Educational Models

NAIS

Independent schools are trying to keep pace with rapid changes in the demographic, economic, and social composition of their student and parent populations. At the same time, new forms of competition have emerged, providing alternative school options for parents and their children. Despite this, most independent schools continue to provide the same type of education with little variation.

Many schools have made changes in the form of adding programs or services that are perceived as being valuable to parents as well as upgrading facilities, but these changes have contributed to the increasing cost of educating a child in independent schools. Tuition and cost of living increases have made most independent schools unaffordable for middle- and some high-income families. How can we continue providing a top-notch education while keeping our schools affordable?

To understand the forces at play and to help independent schools better compete, NAIS examined schools with different financial and educational models. Over the course of three months, we conducted a review of publicly available information, interviewed administrators at six U.S. schools, and created profiles that highlight some of the distinguishing attributes of each school. Three school profiles follow; all six profiles are available here.

Blyth-Templeton Academy

Blyth-Templeton Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Washington, DC, combines very small class sizes with city-wide learning opportunities. Blyth-Templeton opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and is scheduled to open a campus in New York City for the 2017–2018 school year.

Blyth-Templeton’s curriculum focuses on immersive, student-centered experiential learning, where teachers teach what the students want to learn. The experiential learning is not just an occasional field trip, but a daily and weekly part of the school’s curriculum. Blyth-Templeton’s academic year is divided into four terms, each term lasting about two months. During a term, students study only two subjects, allowing them to explore various subjects in greater depth than in a normal school schedule. Students follow a daily schedule consisting of three two-hour periods. During these three periods, students study an array of traditional academic subjects, such as math, science, or history that are combined with travel time around DC to make it experiential. The final two hours of a student’s day consists of an open period, where the student is free to write papers, work on projects, or study for tests. Teachers are available during this period to assist students with their work. In addition to traditional coursework, the students complete several courses that are more adaptive to their personal interests. These courses explore the students’ interests in a more personalized way, while simultaneously helping them to develop their critical and creative-thinking capacity.

Blyth-Templeton is part of the Blyth Education family, a private Toronto-based company founded in 1977, that offers secondary education and educational credit programs. Belonging to the Blyth Education network means that students at Blyth-Templeton can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses through Blyth-Templeton Academy Online, study overseas with the Blyth-Templeton Academy Global High School, or even do an academic quarter at a Blyth-Templeton Academy High School in Canada.

Fully funded by tuition, Blyth-Templeton has no fundraising events. In 2016–2017, the tuition was $14,850, compared to $37,030, the median day school tuition in DC. The school also offers financial support via financial aid or merit scholarships; about 20 percent of students receive financial support. One of the main reasons Blyth-Templeton is able to provide this type of education at such a lower cost is that instead of spending money on new facilities, labs, or athletic fields, the school uses existing community resources. Operating out of the Hill Center, a community center close to the U.S. Capitol, Blyth-Templeton rents classroom space in the center, paying only for the space while it is used. Instead of buses or vans, students navigate the city via public transportation and walking. School libraries and textbooks have been replaced by laptops and trips to a local public library. There are no athletic teams, but students who want to participate do so in clubs or leagues outside of school.

Rather than lecturing, Blyth-Templeton teachers facilitate academic discussion in the classroom. The
average class size is eight students. The school currently operates with seven faculty members and five school leadership positions. The school’s compensation is comparable to other schools; however, Blyth-Templeton offers part-time faculty positions for those interested in other pursuits. This flexibility helps attract talent and allows faculty to pursue outside endeavors such as graduate school or other work.

BASIS Independent Schools

BASIS Independent Schools, a network of pre-K–12 private schools, combines a STEM-focused education with an emphasis on foreign language skills to provide students with a practical education for the 21st century. BASIS places heavy emphasis on science and mathematics in the classroom. Students begin studying chemistry, biology, and physics in sixth grade, and begin high school math during middle school. Upon graduation, all BASIS students will have taken all three sciences at the honors level, one AP science course, and one AP math course. Foreign languages are also a critical component of the curriculum. All students begin studying Mandarin as early as pre-kindergarten and are given the option to continue Mandarin or learn a new language in middle school. Many high school students elect to take AP courses in their respective languages, often studying Mandarin, Latin, French, or Spanish at the college level.

During senior year, all BASIS students take capstone courses, studying advanced subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory and political philosophy. Students spend their last trimester completing a senior project, which allows them to apply their knowledge to an area of their choosing. Senior projects are guided by a staff mentor, and can take the form of internships, university-level research, field work domestically or abroad, and other options depending on a student’s individual interests.

The BASIS promise includes that not only will students graduate with a deep understanding of academic disciplines and a mastery of traditional skills, but also that they will learn to innovate and think across disciplinary silos and become 21st century knowledge workers. While most schools have similar goals, BASIS prides itself as having a proven track record of great student outcomes as measured by both national and international ranking—like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools—and college acceptance rates. The OECD Test for Schools is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and provides information on students’ performance in math, reading, and science compared to other students at schools in the United States and the world.

Class sizes at BASIS Independent Schools vary between 20 and 25 students. The elementary classes have a unique teaching approach: Each first- to fourth-grade class is staffed by two joint teachers. The first teacher is a subject expert, who has a degree in whatever subject they are teaching. The second teacher is a learning expert, whose job is to help facilitate the holistic development of students, focusing on their emotional and social development. The joint teacher model ensures that students will learn from teachers who are experts in their
field, while developing more general emotional/interpersonal habits simultaneously. Teachers also have two hours of “student time” set aside to support students individually and in small groups.

Funded by a tuition rate that varies from $22,900–$29,500 depending on the grade and location, there is no fundraising or state/federal money. This is possible in part because BASIS Independent Schools are managed by BASIS Education, a company that started with operating charter schools. When BASIS Education expanded into opening private schools, the company drew on 15 years of experience with fiscal control and responsibility. Teachers are paid competitively, but BASIS schools aim to restrict facilities spending to only what is necessary to deliver a competitive educational program.

BASIS Education currently operates 28 schools across the United States and the world, including charter schools and independent schools in Silicon Valley, California (5–12); Brooklyn, New York (pre–K10); McLean, Virginia (preschool-11); Fremont, California (K–8); and the BASIS International School in Shenzhen, China (preschool–12). BASIS plans to expand its current U.S. locations and open private schools in other cities around the country; another New York campus (K–8) is set to open in Manhattan in 2017. Internationally, BASIS plans to open a second school in China by September 2017 and is opening its first European location in Prague in 2020.

Acton Academy

Student agency—the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation—is at the heart of the Acton Academy model. Acton is a learner-driven community that strongly believes children can plan their school day and manage their time. It’s modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, enrolling 36 students in the elementary studio, 36 in the middle school studio, and between 36 and 48 students in the high school studio. The school year consists of trimesters spread out over 11 months, during which students engage in real-world projects, apprenticeships, state-of-the-art educational gaming or “quests,” and Socratic discussions in a multiage classroom.

The educational approach is based on a concept Acton refers to as the “Hero’s Journey,” which seeks to help students discover how they can live a life of meaning and purpose and develop hands-on skills that will allow them to do something that will change the world. No homework is assigned at Acton; however, students are able to access multiple learning programs like ST Math, Khan Academy, and Dreambox at home. Instead, “young heroes” celebrate the mastery of tools, skills, and character by earning badges, assembling portfolios, and taking part in public exhibitions. Parents use these badges to track academic progress in core skills, like reading, writing, math, and spelling, and character development. Electronic and hard copy portfolios capture rough drafts, photos, video, and other creative work. Public exhibitions at the end of most quests allow young heroes to present work to experts, customers, or the public for a real-world test.

Acton Academy opened its first location in 2009 in Austin, Texas, and has since opened another 25 U.S. and international campuses. Schools (as well as parent groups and entrepreneurs) can apply to become part of the Acton network. Most of the schools in the Acton network are nonprofits, and tuitions depend on each school location and offerings. In 2016­–2017, tuition ranged between $500 and $1,000 per month. Acton Academy in Austin reports an annual cost-per-student at $4,300. This low cost may be a direct consequence of the teaching model: Students are supervised by adult “guides” who are more of a support resource than a traditional teacher. The school is run with fewer adults than what you typically find in other schools, which in turn, saves money in overhead.

Acton plans to continue opening additional campuses in 2017 across the United States and in various countries around the world, with the goal of opening 50 to 100 schools a year. There seems to be growing interest in the Acton model: The school has received 2,500 applications from parents who want to start their own school, representing about 100 applications a week. This doesn’t mean that Acton runs these schools; it provides them with kits and resources to use as guidelines for creating an Acton-inspired learning experience.

Modeling These Models

The approach that these schools are taking—combining a teaching model that is more student-centered with a business model that focuses on what is core to providing an excellent education—might not be a good match for the mission of some independent schools, but the inherent practices offer a lot to consider and explore.

  • Balancing low-cost and quality education. A brick-and-mortar type of school, while offering the latest and greatest in facilities, programs, and services, comes with a high price tag. Many for-profit schools prioritize their investments in teaching core academic programs, while outsourcing extracurricular activities. What are the programs and services that your school could outsource? Are there opportunities at your school to take a more minimal approach to facilities and lower operating costs?
  • Understanding your niche market. Many schools offer a wide selection of programs and services trying to please as many parents as possible. However, by being the school for everyone, you’re risking not being the right school for anyone. It’s important to clearly differentiate your school’s offerings from your competition and communicate these differences to prospective families. What type of parents are the best match for your school’s mission? (See sidebar below, “Parent Profiles”) What are the types of messages that resonate best with them?
  • Delivering on the promises of personalized learning. Many independent schools say they offer personalized learning, but to what extent are you offering students the opportunity to decide what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it? Consider what programs or services your school offers to guide students in pursuing a career. Are there additional opportunities to help students explore their interests or to connect them with professionals in relevant fields?

Sidebar: Parent Profiles

What type of parents does your school attract—or want to attract? NAIS’s Parent Motivations Study can help you learn more about the parents in your school community.

The 2011 study sought to understand high-income parents’ attitudes and motivations about independent schools and examined how parents learn about various school options, what they value in an education, and what persuades them to select independent schools. The study identified five parent personas: Challenge Seekers, Success-Driven Parents, Right Fit Parents, Character-Building Parents, and Public School Proponents.

Members can download the full study, which includes an in-depth look at each persona as well as messages that resonate with each segment and tips to help you reach out to parents more effectively, here.

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

Supporting Transgender Students in Single Sex Schools

NAIS

All-girls and all-boys independent schools face a unique moment of reflection as they consider policies to support openly transgender students. How might girls’ and boys’ schools stay true to their gender-specific missions while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies? Join this online conversation with girls’ and boys’ school administrators and representatives from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), and International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) as together we reflect on current challenges and future opportunities for educators to support transgender and nonbinary students in all-boys and all-girls schools.

Recording of Webinar

Synthesis of Breakout Discussion Groups:

Supporting Transgender Students in Girls’ and Boys’ Schools Tuesday, November 15, 1:00 p.m. ET

How might your school stay true to its gender-specific mission while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies?

● Multiple breakout groups wrestled with the existential question: “What does it mean to be an all girls school or all boys school?” ○ Discussions raised the ideas of strong communities, and single-gender schools as safe spaces for students to explore their identities and grow intellectually and socially. ○ How do these ideas converge with gender fluidity or a non-binary concept of gender? Can schools still create a safe space for transgender students to explore their identity and find their voice? ○ Some schools emphasized our commitment to our kids and the value of each of them within our schools and beyond, and to consider how their transition will impact their continued growth and development into adulthood, college, returning for transcripts, and more. ○ Overall comments across all breakout groups emphasized the need to support the student and keep them at the center, as opposed to creating hard and fast policies.

● Another thorny question that was raised was “Can it be inconsistent with a school’s mission to have a transgender student in the school?” ○ Depending on where the student is in their school career, can the school better serve the student by keeping them in the community or by helping them find a school where the mission is better aligned with their transitioning identity? ○ Some girls schools reasoned that there was mission congruence in aligning women living in a patriarchal culture with transgender individuals in a dominant binary culture.

● Some groups focused on the wording or underlying meaning of the school’s mission ○ Specific words and phrases pulled from mission statements, such as “to be rather than to seem”, creating a caring and diverse community, affirming the worth and dignity of every individual, can be explicitly used to rally support for students ○ With a mission statement such as “build fine young men, one boy at a time”, finding space for a transitioning student is challenging, but language focuses on the individual needs of each student, which creates room for interpretation.

● Based on Tony’s narrative, some schools mused on the difference between supporting the transition of students who are existing members of your community versus encountering transgender students in the admissions process. Most attendees thought there should not be a specific question in admissions applications to screen for transgender students. What have been the primary challenges to confront in having initial conversations around supporting transgender students in your school? What have been the most rewarding moments?

● Challenges ○ Shifting from a binary view of gender. How we understand what a girl or what a boy is. ○ Parental perception and expectations. They send their student to a school and the paradigm shifts. Not ready to have conversations with their young students about gender and sex. ○ Education of and communication with the boards of trustees. Using outside resources from experts (Gender Spectrum) or religious organizations (Episcopal School) is beneficial. ○ Admissions process when a student has already transitioned and the school may not know at the outset. ○ Boarding schools. Housing. Which floor does the student live on? Based on a discussion with a lawyer, the students are living on the floor of the gender with which they identified.

● Points to Consider ○ Go through the student’s experience minute to minute and analyze every aspect of your school to ask what can affect them during a transition. If we backtrack and experience our school through students’ eyes, then maybe we can relate with them when they’re exploring their gender expression even before they make the decision to transition. We want to support our students fully, and maybe this starts sooner than when a student comes to us with a firm decision to transition. Maybe more students need our support as they are questioning. ○ Anecdotally, the largest groups of students who are talking about transitioning are ages 4 – 6 years old. When we started to talk about the process, we thought we’d work more with older, high school students. With this younger age group, it raises the question of whether we can continue to serve this student well years after they transition?

● Initial Steps of One School Shared ○ We are gathering groups of faculty, staff, trustees to start an ongoing conversation about vocabulary, transitioning and gender fluidity. We hope to proactively learn about the gender spectrum and think strategically about our approach now, so we will be ready to help a student when they need our support (rather than reacting to the situation when it does arise). We’re thinking about the series of concentric circles of faculty we’d involve and inform so that a specific student is supported but also so that their privacy is respected. The better we prepare ourselves as a school community, the better we can support all of our students.

Finding Resolve After the Results

It is 7:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning, November 9. I have just arrived at my office, a bit earlier than usual after a sleepless night. A few hours before, I was on the phone with another friend — a school leader in another city — who said she could not stop vomiting and asked if I would pray with her. Before that, there were countless texts and calls throughout the night as people processed their waves of emotions.

At 7:16 a.m., a white male colleague came into the office for coffee. He looked at me and fought back a mixture of tears and anger as he relayed his night. At 7:25 a.m., a white female colleague came in and burst into tears. I hugged her tightly, and as I released, I looked up and a black female colleague was standing there, tearfully ready to be received. I stood in my office foyer until 8 a.m., in that same spot, as it filled with colleagues who needed a safe space. I could feel this coming during my drive in, so I had the counter prepared with breakfast treats next to the Keurig machine.
We readied ourselves for the start of school. I went down to the morning meeting location to greet all of my sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders as I do every week. When I rang the chime that signals the start of our day, they fell silent more profoundly than I had ever seen. I looked at 117 sets of eyes staring up at me from their cross-legged places on the floor. I fought back my emotion, and lost the battle, as I said, “If you had a night like mine, then you’re feeling all sorts of ways this morning. Turn to someone next to you and share with them how you’re feeling.” They quickly turned and formed duos or trios, tightly knit together.
I walked among them, and saw students leaned up against each other, holding each other, or looking at each other intently. One white male seventh-grader sat there with his lip poked out. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “This is how I feel. I’m sad.”
I passed a white female eighth-grader leaning back on her friend, looking up at me with eyes as big as saucers. “Why are your eyes so big this morning?” I asked her.
“I’m frightened,” she said.
Several students were in tears. I rang the chime, acknowledged the emotion in the room, and gave our call to action for the day:
“Today, of all days, let’s be the middle school that we say we are. Let’s be that school where you can feel however you feel and be however you are, and you are respected. Some of us are sad, or frightened or angry, and we get to be that. Some of us are excited, and happy, and hopeful, and we get to be that. Let’s try to understand each other better today. But let’s not make today the day that we are not careful with our words, or where we judge each other or ignore each other. Today, of all days, focus on what you can control — yourself, and carry yourself like one of the middle schoolers I love today.”
And that is how the morning after the election results began in my school.  I have experienced many elections, but I have never experienced an election result that scared the children more.

An Opaque Wall Becomes Clear

There are no two ways about it; this election season was a long and arduous one. For more than a year, we were steeped in this historic, and histrionic, run for president. We have watched our country grapple with some of its most pressing issues, and in the midst of the protracted campaign, the level of our national discourse dipped frighteningly below the bar. As we watched the campaign season in shock and shame, we had to come to grips with the fact that our country is more divided than we realized, along more lines than we knew could be drawn, and that voices on all sides have taken up the call of “silent no more.”
One only needs to watch the news, turn on CNN, log in to Twitter or Facebook, to see the rise in acts of hate and acts of protest on college campuses, on church grounds, in neighborhoods, and in secondary schools. This is not the tale of two candidates but the tale of (at least) two Americas, who suddenly find themselves meeting at the once invisible but opaque wall between them.

An Imperative to Broaden My Circle

There are 60 million Americans who were on the other side of that wall that I do not understand. I have stood next to them in line at the grocery store, and sat next to them in movie theaters and meetings. I have had polite conversations with them at dinner parties. Many of them I have never seen or heard; I have never walked in their neighborhoods or sat at their tables. I have no idea who they are or how they see the world. I thought I was in touch and connecting across differences.
But this election showed me that my circle is not broad enough. I know I have the freedom, and, now more than ever, the responsibility, to engage with those around me of all ages, faiths, races, genders, classes, and political orientations. After November 8, it is clear that we have work to do to realize the fundamental American dream — that out of the many, many stories that inhabit our country, we would find common ground that allows one to live one’s truth without invalidating someone else’s.

Dialogue: The Ultimate Civic Duty

After moving through the five stages of grief to arrive at that illusive sixth stage — empowerment — I find myself once again thankful that I am an American. Indeed, the luxury of a multitude of opinions and the right to express them are two of our most treasured American ideals. I know many of us have shied away from talking about the results for fear of negatively affecting our relationships with friends or coworkers. I have heard from people whose Thanksgiving tables looked and felt differently because of the way this election has divided families.
Now that the election is over, I implore us all to take up the challenge that it has brought to us — to dialogue honestly, deeply, and continually by sharing our stories, learning from each other, bridging our gaps of understanding, raising the level of discourse — that we might become a people more united, more compassionate, and truly, more careful with each other. This is not the work of the president, but the work of the people performing the ultimate civic duty. Now that we know who the next president is, let us show who we are, so there can be no mistake that making America whole again resonates with us all.

A Call to Educators: Model the Way Forward

In the days immediately following the results, children were raw, and so were the adults. One woman said to me that she talks about America’s emotional reaction during 9/11, and now she will talk about our emotional reaction on 11/9. Our campuses are abuzz with post-election noise.
As educators, we must model for our students the best way forward. We must engage them in fierce conversations, even when they don’t think they need to have them, so that they are present to the power of active listening. Students need to see our firm resolve and trust in the moral arc of our nation and our democracy, and they must see us engage intentionally and positively across difference. Let us make sure that our schools have diversity practitioners who are empowered and supported to do this important work. Let us ensure that our missions specifically mention our dedication to diversity, equity, inclusivity, and indeed, justice.
This is the time that our school leaders — from the head of school to the administrative team — must be out front and out loud in their commitment to a pluralistic culture and inclusive pedagogy. The thoughts and actions expressed in this nation, including in our own schools, in the wake of this election should be a wake-up call that the diversity work that we have sometimes questioned is without a doubt a necessary ingredient to our recipe for success — reaching our shared mission to educate responsible global citizens.
Remember that each of our presidential candidates was a student in someone’s elementary, middle, and high school at some point. What lessons did they learn there that could have informed some of what we saw as they campaigned? As educators, we have an obligation to take a strategic, systemic approach to creating equitable and inclusive campuses that nurture a spirit of civility, civic engagement, and multiple perspectives.
A president cannot divide us; only we can do that. Let us have the faith of a first-grader, who said, “I hope that Donald Trump helps a lot of people. That means everyone.” And on that, we can all agree.

15-0921-RodneyGlasgow-sm.jpgRodney Glasgow is the head of middle school and chief diversity officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. He also chairs the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference.