From Roots to BranchesApril 21, 2016
Wendy and I had visitors over spring break. Fifty-six years ago my parents got married in Michigan, drove their Chevy to San Francisco, loaded it and their meager possessions on a boat, and sailed off to Australia. They returned to the U.S.A. with a family a few years later, but last week was their first visit back to San Francisco since the 1950’s. It was fascinating and exciting to help them rediscover a much-changed city, and revealing to hear their reflections on that significant transition in their now mature lives.
In the midst of a transition myself, I appreciated that the week offered me moments of reflection as well, something I crave as the school year accelerates towards its finale. The transition plan I presented at the beginning of the year called for a mid-year check-in/reflection that was shared with the faculty, the board, and with parents during February’s Town Hall meeting. These sessions were opportunities for me to synthesize the themes which surfaced out of hundreds of formal and thousands of impromptu conversations I have now had with parents, trustees, faculty, alumni, and friends of the school.
Just as I am getting to know the school, the community is getting to know me and has likely recognized that I think in images and communicate in metaphors. As such, I framed the “Six Month Synthesis” around the image of a tree as a way to encourage us all to think about the school as a system - an interconnected and interdependent set of variables that shapes and sustains a complex whole.
The tree metaphor affirms the importance of the school mission as the philosophical roots and as a guiding structure for decision-making and strategic planning. This year, I have listened carefully for how well the school mission is known, understood, and embraced. I was also fortunate to meet with and listen to the original authors of our mission, who established that our school founders were inspired to create a school that “educates, nurtures, and inspires girls and boys of diverse backgrounds…”. Organizations benefit from a periodic reconsideration of their mission statements in order to clarify, reaffirm, or if need be, rejuvenate their purpose, something we should consider prior to our reaccreditation in four years.
Just as branches deliver the nutrients of a tree, so do the people, program, and place/spaces that support a school. The talks with faculty, trustees, and parents allowed me to more extensively elaborate on the impressions I have gathered and my recommendations going forward. I have emphasized that our collective focus needs to be on how to best know, understand, and meet the needs of our learners. Similarly, how we inspire, support, and sustain the caliber of all of the individuals teaching and interacting with the students every day is a vital priority for SFDS’s future. To better meet the needs of the students we will continue to strategically resource the professional growth and development of the faculty and staff, something we look forward to reporting on in the fall after our summer’s work.
Programmatically, we increasingly need to think like and plan as a K-8 institution. We have already begun the work of reviewing the curriculum. The goal is to organize content thematically and to sequence the core competencies accordingly. As we review and revitalize the curriculum, we will organize grade levels around interdisciplinary themes so what the students learn in one content area is connected to and reinforced by their other learning, an approach supported by neurological research.
The excitement around the creation of an “Innovation, Design, and Maker Lab” affirms the importance of the spaces in which children learn, and is a strong endorsement for increasingly strengthening, expanding, and promoting this part of the curriculum. I used the metaphor of the Golden Gate Bridge at CultureFest to talk about this initiative because I do strongly believe that providing students more opportunities to design and innovate will be the bridge that enables them to apply what they are learning in the sciences and math. It is how we can operationalize the stated goals of giving the students opportunities to be “critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.”
The reference to resources in the tree diagram acknowledges the challenge of all that it takes to provide this quality of educational experience. As we review this year's budget, build next year’s, and plan for the future, fiscal stewardship remains our highest priority. We recognize what families commit in order for their child or children to attend SFDS, and we greatly appreciate, benefit from, and depend on those families who give their time, talent, and resources beyond tuition.
Of course, my parents wanted to see San Francisco Day School during their visit last week. While the school was eerily quiet during the break, it was easy for me to talk about all of the amazing learning I see and the interesting people I interact with on a daily basis. As I enthusiastically described for them what your children do at SFDS, it was an example of how “messaging” plays a vital role in the tree metaphor because ultimately, how we communicate about SFDS in many ways defines us, for ourselves and others. If there has been a highlight of my year, it is the personal interactions I’ve had with what I am finding to be a very close community. I am thoroughly enjoying these children, I am inspired by the work I see our teachers do every day, and I am invigorated by the energy and commitment our parents bring to the school.
Mike Walker, Ed.D.
Head of School