Sunday, 30 October 2016
New Roads School - a school within a community, a community within a school
The notion of hiring a car in the US was part excitement and part nervousness. Driving on the wrong side of the road from the passenger's seat was just 'odd'. The deliberate act of forcing myself to do something counter to what was deeply established in me at the 'unconsciously competent' level - was going to take some effort and focus.
I arrived at the car rental agency expecting an efficient process - I was disappointed. The car that I had booked had not been delivered, although I had paid in advance the computer system was not acknowledging this and so what should have been a 10 minute process turned into the best part of an hour - and I was behind schedule.
I took Interstate 405 to travel from San Diego to Santa Monica - a 10 lane freeway that was full!
The Ford Explorer was a really good drive and I enjoyed the trip a lot (albeit further delays to my already decaying schedule due to road works).
New Roads School
New Roads School offers 'an inspired education for a changing world.'
A lens through which to begin to understand New Roads School is provided through the Head of School's message on the school website: We live in a world defined by change and uncertainty. There is too much information to memorize; technology can perform many of the functions of human beings; and knowledge becomes obsolete quickly. In this context, a profound question calls for an answer: how should we educate our children for this world?
The Head of School - Luthern Williams, sees himself as the 'Johny Appleseed' of the school community. His approach is to seed ideas with his team and then return to see how those seeds had taken root and been nurtured. The legend of Johny Appleseed has him (Johny), cast as a nurseryman who randomly sowed seeds across America, it seems the reality is that he was far more strategic than that - his establishment of orchards enabled land claims to be established and he also yielded significant economic benefit from selling his orchards once established. It is this strategic sowing of seeds that resonates more with the Luthern Williams that I met. He was deeply aware of his school community, his people, and the learning journey that he wished the school to take. The 'seeds' that he sowed would have been well researched, well understood in terms of their potential and sown at the right time to yield maximum benefit.
Luthern applies what he calls a 'tight-loose' style of management. A similar approach is found in their learning approach - a mixture of both direct instruction and discovery learning. Getting the balance right in both leadership, management and learning was one of the matters stressed by Luthern as he shared his approach with me.
Luthern was unambiguous in describing his leadership style as 'distributed leadership.'
With that construct, what was very impressive was Luthern's focus on his people - and in particular his focus on strengths. The structure that Luthern has built in the school is shaped on existing staff's strengths and passions. I met many of the staff at the school - they were all deeply grounded in their approach to learning, deeply committed to the school, believing in the positive contribution that the school was having in the lives of the students and in the broader community and deliberate in their recognition of the influence that the Luthern was imparting across the school and outspoken in their loyalty to their leader. What flowed from that was a pervasive and powerful culture.
New Roads school deliberately employs a lean administration team. The rationale for this posture is in order to keep the organisation nimble and responsive. By removing bureaucratic layers the organisation is able to be more responsive to 'moving with what the world needs' rather than beholden to existing systems, processes and structures. This bureaucratic weight 'forces down young saplings' (to quote Luthern directly); and so the absence of this weight provides a more nurturing, passion oriented, student facing and people focussed culture.
The lean organisation also forces innovation because there is not the spare capacity to absorb issues as they arise - pivoting is often required.
The team that I met valued their culture.
They were able to point out that this approach to leadership, the agility of the organisation, the changing nature of the world and the community in which they were located - all contributed to a dynamic environment which can, and often was, 'messy'. From their perspective, and in the words agin of Luthern: 'the magic is in the mess.'
Conflict was not something to be avoided. Questioning of authority was celebrated (provided that it was done in a respectful manner). When there was tension the points of agreement were identified and the points of disagreement were also identified and either worked through or (occasionally) 'agreeing to disagree' was the step off point.
I was told by many staff at the school that the Head of School took an active interest in what they were doing. They felt valued, there was a strong value of trust and respect - it was this underpinning I suspect that enabled the professional discourse described above.
New Roads comprises an elementary school, a middle school and an 'upper school'. The elementary school engages subject matter experts which facilitates deeper learning and allows teachers to teach from an area of passion. Introduced in 2016 it has already seen a significant revitalisation of the elementary school, and lifted parental satisfaction.
New Roads School is a 'private school' with relatively high enrolment fees. It contributes %35 of all fee income earned to scholarships for students to attend the school. Students at New Roads School learn in an environment that reflects the diversity found in the community in which the school is located. This is deliberate - however, it is expensive.
My AirBnB accommodation in Santa Monica was delightful and I got there late in the afternoon determined to see what I could of this famous part of the world. A long walk took me to Venice Beach crossing Santa Monica Boulevard and many other well known landmarks. I found myself singing along with Cheryl Crow and have many times since - I am sure I saw 'Billy' a couple of times throughout my journey around Santa Monica.
One of my 'must dos' before I left was get a haircut in an american barber shop. It happened in Santa Monica and I wasn't disappointed - my barber had more stories to share than I had time to hear (35 years a barber in Santa Monica having emigrated from England) - and coloured and articulated with a good mix of hyperbole and colourful language - the haircut experience was 'just what I'd hoped.'
Dinner was in the Stella Barra Pizzeria - 2000 Main St Santa Monica. A seat at the bar afforded me many conversations with locals and insights into the local area, the US political situation, American's perceptions of Australia and many other lofty discussions.
A great, though brief, visit to Santa Monica and tomorrow I leave the West Coast, next stop - New York!