Oct 122016

In a little more than a week, we will have Student Progress Conferences, a twice-yearly opportunity for parents to learn about how their child is doing at school. The focus is on the student, the academic and social emotional growth they are making and the goals they are setting with their teachers to challenge themselves. In the Middle School, students join parents and teachers for student-led conferences. Each student facilitates their own conference, proudly sharing what they have accomplished and the goals they have set for the year ahead. The conference is organized in close consultation with the student’s advisor and offers an empowering moment for each student to take ownership of their own learning journey.

Our teachers know children extraordinarily well, and they are experts at understanding where each child is on their learning journey and finding ways to help them continue moving forward. Part of that expertise is knowing that all children have jagged learning profiles. Put another way, each learner is at a different place for different areas at any given moment in their learning. A student may be an exceptionally talented writer, for example, and yet find themselves struggling to solve problems in math. They may quickly design and create a complex experiment to prove a scientific concept, and yet struggle to comprehend and speak Spanish. And, just as importantly, the “struggling” Spanish student may find themselves thriving two months from now in Spanish class, just as they discover that essay writing is no longer quite so straightforward. We are each unique learners and, as a school, we are committed to trying to meet each child where they are to help them reach their highest individual potential.

Conferences are a snapshot in time, an opportunity to stop and pay attention to where each child is on their learning journey. As parents, we have a chance to celebrate our child’s growth and to understand their struggles. We can learn what is happening in the classroom, and how we can best partner with the school to support our child throughout the school year.

During two recent Lower School Learning in Conversation events, Lower School Head Colleen Schilly shared some excellent articles about how we can support our children in school. One of them, “Give Late Blooming Children the Time They Need,” by Jessica Lahey, particularly resonated with me as it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite children’s books, Leo the Late Bloomer. Lahey recounts the story of Leo, a tiger cub who cannot read, write, draw, eat neatly, or even “say a word.” Leo’s father watches Leo for signs of blooming, but nothing seems to change. He anxiously questions Leo’s mother about whether or not Leo will ever bloom, but his mother keeps reassuring him: “a watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.” All the while, Leo’s father looks around and sees the other young animals doing all of the things that Leo can’t do.

As Lahey writes, “We all watch our children as they grow, for signs that all is well. We crave evidence, both of their healthy development and of our own competence as parents, and lacking any other source of information, we scan the playground for comparisons. That boy can count to 100 in Spanish while my son can barely speak his native tongue. That child can traverse the playground structure with the athleticism of a spider monkey, while mine needs help climbing up the slide. That girl can eat her healthful snack with chopsticks, while my child eats his boogers.”

Next week’s Student Progress Conferences are our effort to provide you information about your child so that you do not need to “rubberneck on the playground.” It is our effort to share with you information about the joyful, challenging, and unique journey your child is on, to help fill in the gaps of knowledge that can lead to anxiety about their development. It is also, however, a moment to remind each of us that children all bloom at “their own rate, in their own sweet time.”

All children bloom early in certain areas and later in others. For some children those moments of early blooming are more obvious, while for others, like Leo, it may feel at times like nothing has bloomed at all. While late blooming can sometimes leave us, as parents, feeling anxious, I encourage you to remember that the journey from childhood to adulthood is a long one, best measured in years.

And, to paraphrase Lahey, in the end – spoiler alert – they all bloom.

Sep 282016
Photo Credit: Tammy McGarry Nickel

Photo Credit: Tammy McGarry Nickel

This past Saturday morning, recent Hillbrook alums – Alex Nickel ‘16 and Liam Strand ‘16 – were honored as Los Gatos Youth Citizens of the Year. They join a growing list of Hillbrook alums –  Isabel Perez ’15, Courtney Mathisen ’14, Olivia Borenstein Lawee ’14, JT Belshe ’13, Cole Hammers ’13, Molly Ball ’12, and Jo Sanford ’11 – who have received this high honor, an award that recognizes students who have made a significant contribution to the Los Gatos/Monte Sereno community and are role models for other young people.

Their recognition highlights how members of the Hillbrook community are being noticed for our commitment to reaching beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. Last Spring, for example, Hillbrook was by far the largest team entered in theGreat Race. With more than 65 runners, we earned prize money that was then utilized to sponsor the recent Stop Hunger Nowproject that was part of the Week of Service. In just a little over a week, the school is receiving the 2016 Compassion in Action Award from the African Library Project, a recognition for the 15 libraries created by the school in Malawi and Swaziland since 2009. Over the past five years, we have been consistently recognized byBreakthrough Silicon Valley as one of their strongest and most valued partners, a partnership that has made both of our organizations stronger.

Of course, as a school we are not performing a wide variety of service project in an effort to be recognized. Instead, we are striving to live out a core piece of our vision “to reach beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world.” The recognition simply affirms that what we are doing is making a difference and, we hope, inspires others to join us in seeking out their own way to make the world a better place.

Even more importantly, we are continually seeking ways to integrate our service projects into the curriculum. Last Friday, for example, our Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten students met a visitor from the West Valley Waste Management team who taught them about the importance of the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle as they launch their yearlong study of garbage and the impact we have on the environment. This coming Friday, the 3rd grade will be launching their study of disabilities, with the DisAbility Awareness Presentation, a hands-on presentation that helps students gain insight into the reality of those with disabilities by having them experience different types of challenges that people can face. Students then develop a pen pal relationship with local children and, later in the year, meet and play with the children.

HSPC Service Learning Parent Coordinator Elan Nguyen has recently completed a beautiful, inspiring, and accessible exhibit in the library that ties together children’s literature, a wide-array of grade-level service projects, and big questions about how children can make a difference in the world. The exhibit will help teachers, students, and families extend the work we are doing as part of our curriculum and consider how we can push in new and interesting ways to make things better both on campus and beyond 300 Marchmont Drive. I encourage parents when they are next on campus to swing by the exhibit and check it out.

This coming week, we will be donating 100 iPads to Treasures 4 Teens, an organization that provides holiday gifts to under-resourced teenagers. Founded by a group of Los Gatos high school students back in 2010, the organization is currently led by several students, including their vice-chairperson and Hillbrook alumnae Sophie Mortaz ‘13. Youth Citizen of the Year recipient Alex Nickel and Aleksy Coughlin ‘13 also were active members of the organization last year. Sophie’s commitment to service connected Hillbrook with this worthwhile cause, and enabled us to make a gift that will positively impact a number of teenagers this December. Sophie’s leadership and initiative, traits we know were nurtured during her time at Hillbrook, and her recognition that Hillbrook is committed to giving back to our community enabled this positive outcome.
Vision 2020 calls on us to “deepen and extend the work of our Service Learning program, creating opportunities to partner with a broad range of organizations throughout Silicon Valley in order to engage the Hillbrook community in meaningful service projects both on and off campus.” Clearly we are already doing much of this. I can’t wait to see where we take this program in the next four years and beyond.

Sep 142016


At the heart of our campus sits the Village of Friendly Relations. Built by our students back in the late 1930s, these small houses represent the physical manifestation of founder Mary Orem’s vision for how Hillbrook (then called The Children’s Country School) could make the world a better place. The Village serves as “an experimental plant for promoting Peace,” she wrote in a letter in September 1937. She continued,

“Training for peace must begin in the nursery, where tolerance and a willingness to share are natural outgrowths in adjustment….to discard the chaff before prejudice has a chance to set in… (to show) that friendly settling of disagreements is possible in a group of variegated backgrounds and so through understanding and working for a common good, Peace is possible.”

More than 80 years later, we remain committed to this idealistic and optimistic notion – the belief that through an educational experience that prioritizes engagement, collaboration, social emotional learning, and student choice, our students are inspired to become changemakers and leaders, individuals who look for ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

We are in the middle of Hillbrook’s inaugural “Week of Service,” a weeklong exploration of how our community can reach beyond ourselves to engage both on and off-campus in meaningful service opportunities. Inspired by the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, the week provides us an opportunity to link our efforts to a broader, national effort.

As we noted at Flag this past Monday, 9/11 has become a historical event for our students, not all that different to them from other historical events like Pearl Harbor, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Vietnam War. For all of us adults, who have strong and indelible memories of that day, it is often hard to recognize how quickly something shifts from a felt memory to just another historical event read about in history books. With this in mind, it is important that we find ways to teach them in age-appropriate ways about that day and help them understand that giving back and making a difference in the world are not only Hillbrook values, but values that are shared by many within our local, regional, and national communities.

p1000443This week our students are having an opportunity to learn about hunger, poverty, and homelessness, serious and complex issues that are somewhat invisible to many within our community, particularly students. We are working with a broad range of local organizations – St. Luke’s Pantry, House of Hope, San Jose Family Shelter, Georgia Travis House – to provide hands-on experience and education for our students. In the process of serving others, our students gain insight into the broader needs of the community and the ways, both big and small, that they can help to make a difference.

p1000438We are also finding opportunities to engage with other local organizations, in the process strengthening our connections with the broader Los Gatos community. Last Spring, our school received an $800 prize from the Los Gatos Rotary as the largest team to participate in the Great Race (over 65 members of the Hillbrook community participated!). When we learned of the prize, we immediately talked with the Rotary Club and decided that together we would utilize the funds to support Stop Hunger Now, an international organization committed to ending world hunger.  Thus, this week, volunteers from Los Gatos Rotary joined with students and parents from Hillbrook to package more than 15,000 meals. As explained on the Stop Hunger Now website, “meals are shipped throughout the world to support school feeding programs, orphanages, and crisis relief. The food is stored easily, transported quickly, and has a shelf-life of two years.”

We are proud of the impact our efforts are having this week, efforts that build upon the extraordinary work we have done in previous years as part of our service learning efforts. Whether it is the fifteen libraries created in Malawi through the African Library Project or the school foundation laid in Nicaragua by our students two years ago, the thousands of meals served at local shelters or the hundreds of students at local elementary schools positively impacted by our Middle School students, the indelible connections forged between our third graders and special-needs students from the local public schools or the passionate commitment to recycling inspired by our many green projects, our community has always been committed to making a difference in the world.
Since 1935, we have believed that through the creation of an educational environment that nurtures, challenges and inspires, we can raise children who will change the world. While many things have changed in the past 80 years, our “experimental plant for promoting peace” continues to thrive and grow both on and off campus.

Aug 242016

August is a time of entries (and reentries). The largest cohort of new students and families in our history is joining the community this year, as we increase our enrollment to 339 students. In addition, we welcome a new group of teachers and staff members to join our extraordinarily talented team.

At Hillbrook, we put a lot of time and thought into how we structure these entry experiences. From those first moments in March when families enthusiastically open the envelopes with their acceptance letters through the welcoming committee events coordinated throughout the summer, we focus on helping families not only learn the organizational details that they need to know to prepare for the first day of school, but also on helping families develop the connections they need to ensure they feel like full members of our community when school starts on August 31.

For me, on-boarding new community members means dedicating a significant amount of my time during the summer to meeting with new families. These conversations provide me an opportunity to connect with people and hear their Hillbrook stories. I’m always impressed with the thought and intention that people have put into their decision to join Hillbrook, and I continually find myself inspired and humbled by the commitment that families are willing to make to ensure their children are able to be part of Hillbrook’s extraordinary educational experience. As in past years, several families shared with me that they moved to our area in order to be part of our community.

In addition to working with new families, we also pay careful attention to how we integrate new teachers and staff members into our community. Last week, we had a three-day orientation that helped prepare these new employees for the start of the school year. While some time was spent sharing nuts and bolts essential to helping new employees successfully perform their jobs, a significant amount of time during the orientation was devoted to conversations focused on Hillbrook’s vision, mission, core values, and history. We shared stories about Hillbrook traditions, like Flag, reflected on our continuing connection to the progressive educational philosophy visibly reflected in things like the Village of Friendly Relations and our many flexible classroom spaces, and talked about how the core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best – animate everything we do as a school.

One of the threads that struck me this year during conversations with both new families and new employees was that Hillbrook is a school of optimism and hope, a school committed to celebrating and preserving childhood. It often feels like we live in a time of fear and anxiety, a culture that is particularly visible when we look at how our society approaches parenting and education. The sometimes overwhelming narrative that we as parents hear is that we need to protect our children from the world around us, that our children must do more, earlier and faster than before, or else they will not make it when they grow up. We are told to fear for their futures, and to start preparing and protecting them from the day they are born to help them compete in an ever-more competitive world.

At Hillbrook, I like to think that we reject the fear. We believe that preparing our children for the future means creating an educational experience that prioritizes skills – communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity – that will equip our children to tackle any and all challenges that come their way. We believe that creating experiences that prioritize student engagement and choice, and leave room for struggle and even failure, help children develop the independence, the flexibility, and the resilience necessary for success in an increasingly ambiguous world. Our job is to help students develop a sense of agency and to identify a purpose larger than the self, so that they may be positive solution-makers when they leave school. Just as importantly, we believe that preserving childhood – allowing children to remain children longer – enables our young learners to develop into confident, self-aware, and capable adults. Imagination, play, joy, and laughter remain critical components of the Hillbrook experience.

The night before the first day of school I always have a difficult time sleeping. Despite more than 20 years as an educator, I find myself tossing and turning, anxiously anticipating the arrival of students and families to campus. Yet, each year, as I look out at the sea of clean uniforms, fresh haircuts, and smiling faces eagerly awaiting the start of our first Flag, I am filled with an incredible sense of optimism and calm. It is the confidence of knowing that I am working with an extraordinary team of educators and that we are partnering with you – our families – in the most important and rewarding work there is – inspiring children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. The future is bright indeed.

Jun 082016

Please enjoy a transcript of  Mark Silver’s speech at the Graduation of the Class of 2016:

Good morning and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2016. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Barbara Spector, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, 8th grade level coordinator Eden Maisel, and Izzy Braham, graduate from the Class of 2012. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2016.

The Class of 2016 has the distinction of being the first class to graduate in this beautiful new amphitheater. Sitting here – surrounded by the Village of Friendly Relations, including the newest addition to the Village – the History House, this reimagined space beautifully links our past and our present. It seems fitting that this new space was created during our 80th year, a testament to the school’s commitment to continually find ways to strengthen and improve our program and facilities while remaining true to the spirit and values of our founders. Perhaps the highest praise that we have received since we finished this project in October came from our alumni community during the 80th anniversary celebration in May, when numerous alums remarked, “It seems like it has always been here.”

The Class of 2016 is less than an hour away from becoming part of that alumni community. Since our founding in 1935, I suspect we have graduated well over 1,500 students. Whether in graduating classes of 2 or 3 – as was true in the early years – or classes of 35-40, as has been more typical in recent years, students have retained strong ties with Hillbrook long after they leave. In just the past few weeks, we had an alumna from the Class of 1946 who showed up on campus one day, and another alumna from the Class of 1952 who returned on two different occasions to look through old photographs and historical materials. Both took us on a joyful walk down memory lane, and both described a feeling like coming home. We saw that same connection last Fall when so many of our alumni returned to campus to be together following the tragic death of Loukas Angelo. In that moment of extraordinary grief and loss, this campus and this community was indeed a second home for our young alums. Thus, even as we celebrate the graduation of this impressive group of young people today, I hope they know that there will always be a place for them back on our campus.

As I thought about what I should talk about today, I found myself continually drawn back to one of the biggest “things” in American society this past six months. Not the presidential primaries, not drones or self-driving cars, not the Golden State Warriors or San Jose Sharks, not even the emergence of “the dab”. No, I’m thinking about a phenomena which, at my house, is best captured in three words, “Alexa, play Hamilton.”

That’s right, I’m talking about the most popular musical on Broadway. If you somehow missed it, “Hamilton” has become a national phenomena in the last year, winning a Grammy, earning an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations, grossing over $60 million in Broadway ticket sales and creating more conversation among people of all ages than any musical….ever. It tells the story of “the 10 dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton, and his unlikely rise from an immigrant orphan to”decorated war vet” and George Washington’s “right hand man”. A gifted and prolific writer “whose skill with a quill” made him the primary author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury, battled fiercely with Secretary of State (and later President) Thomas Jefferson over the creation of the Treasury, and, ultimately, fell to an early and tragic death in a duel with longtime rival and one-time Vice President Aaron Burr.

Now, as an American historian by training and a longtime US history teacher, I can think of few topics that are more interesting than the early Republic. I get why it entrances historians and history buffs, but teenagers? That’s right, many of the biggest fans of Hamilton are sitting next to me here on stage. How do I know this? Well, at a minimum, I know that several students on stage – and in the audience – know every word to every song. So, given that Hamilton mania has struck both young and old, I thought I’d use this opportunity to share some lessons from Hamilton.

The Revolutionary Era was a time of incredible change, when the world was truly turned upside down. We live in a place and time today – Silicon Valley – that is in the midst of its own modern day revolution. The technological changes that are happening right here where we live – changes that are being led and driven in many cases by people only a few years older than each of our students on stage – are creating opportunities that seemed unimaginable 14 years ago when our soon-to-be graduates were born. Back in the late 1700s, Hamilton recognized that he was in a moment of change and he embraced that opportunity. Hamilton’s story is, in many ways, a quintessential American story – the story of an ambitious, scrappy immigrant who managed to rise up and change the world. In the musical, Hamilton sings, “I am not throwing away my shot.” I encourage all of our 8th graders to heed his words – you are living in a moment of incredible opportunity, seize that moment, don’t throw away your shot.

Second, stand for something. One of the most compelling moments of the musical is when Alexander Hamilton shocks everyone by supporting Thomas Jefferson for President in the election of 1800. Hamilton and Jefferson had disagreed on everything during their time in Washington’s cabinet. In fact, the dramatic reenactments of their debates make up some of the best songs in the musical. They did not like each other at all, and thus Jefferson’s presidential bid seemed doomed when it became clear that Hamilton’s endorsement would carry the day. In the musical, the tension builds as Hamilton notes:

“The people are asking to hear my voice, for the country is facing a difficult choice, If you were to ask me who I’d promote, Jefferson has my vote. I have never agreed with Jefferson once, We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts, But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.”

While Hamilton disagreed with Jefferson, he at least knew that Jefferson was willing to take a stand. As Hamilton says to Burr earlier in the musical, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Hamilton saw that the greatest danger to our country was a leader who would say anything to get elected.

Finally, there is a lesson in the success of the show’s composer, lyricist, and creator Lin Manuel Miranda. It is no accident that Miranda appeared on the cover of the most recent Fast Company magazine, earning the  title most creative person in business. As the article explains, Miranda was reading an 800-page biography of Hamilton several years ago when he had an epiphany. Hamilton’s story – the rise of an immigrant with a powerful ability to use words – felt to him like the story of a Revolutionary-era hip hop star. Building on this revelation, he cast the show almost exclusively with actors of color, creating in the process a musical that both reflects and reimagines our past in powerful and compelling ways. His gift was to see connections that no one else saw. Just as importantly, in true Hillbrook style, he took a risk. He tried it. Now, to be clear, many of us have tried things and failed. I’m sure Miranda himself has had many ideas that didn’t make it past the initial draft. Yet what Miranda knows – and what I hope each of you on stage never forgets – is that the only way to succeed is to take a risk and start. In this case, he created something that has, I’m sure, gone well beyond even his wildest dreams. But don’t let the extraordinary success he is experiencing today fool you. Miranda’s accomplishments required an ability to see things that others did not see, a tireless work ethic, and a willingness to take a risk and try something completely original.  It hopefully raises the question for each of you – what will be your “Hamilton” moment?

Our vision – as it has been for 80 years – is to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. As you sit here today, I hope you know how proud we are of each of you and the extraordinary growth that we see that each of you has made during your Hillbrook journey. You are ready for high school and, just as importantly, for what lies beyond. One of my favorite songs from Hamilton includes the following refrain:
“When America signs for you will they know what you overcame? Will they know you rewrote the game? The world will never be the same.” Class of 2016 I can’t wait to see what each one of you does in the years ahead, the stories you will write, the problems you will solve, the industries you will reimagine, the lives you will change. I have no doubt, the world will never be the same.

Jun 012016
3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

Looked at your children recently? I don’t mean just the standard quick glance to see if they brushed their hair or remembered to tie their shoes. I mean the “take a step back, pause and really look at them” moment. I did it the other day with my three children and I did a literal triple-take. Three things struck me. 1) They have grown a lot since September, 2) They have all matured as learners and people in significant ways, and 3) I wish that I could find a way to slow down time.

This is the time of year on campus where we, as educators, find ourselves taking a step back and reflecting on each child. We are inspired by how much growth we have seen in each student over the year, as scientists, as writers, as problem solvers, as artists, as thinkers, and as people. There is a bittersweet quality to the experience, as we realize that the end of the year – and the impending transitions to a new grade or, in the case of our 8th graders, to high school – are right around the corner.

One of the ways in which this growth is made visible is through public demonstrations of learning. The recent Art Show*, for example, provided an opportunity to view the work of our students across all grades. We saw the beautiful drawings and creations of our youngest students, the elaborate designs on the totem poles and the ceramic tables of our 4th and 5th grade students, the exquisite busts of our 6th graders, and the sophisticated and impressive creations of our oldest students. As a parent, you hopefully had a chance to have your children tour you through the exhibits, hearing them describe what they learned in the process of creating these showcase pieces.


The Hillbrook HERstory museum goes on the road to Makerfaire.

Other events have provided opportunities for students to show their work, demonstrating what they have learned over the course of the year. In just this past week, for example, 5th graders shared their learning and their creativity with peers and makers from around the Bay Area when they took their HERstory installations on the road to MakerFaire in San Mateo.
They also impressed parents and peers with their Heritage projects, showcasing their research and writing skills as they created detailed stories about ancestors. 3rd graders performed on the amphitheater stage*, entertaining and amusing us with their renditions of several well-known Greek tales. The performance capped an extended study of Greek myths and provided a visible example of each child’s growing confidence on stage and in the classroom. And, just today, 1st and 2nd graders read their own original illustrated books to friends and family at the Author’s Walkabout, showing all of us how much they have grown as writers, illustrators, and readers.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Tomorrow, a group of our 8th graders will be sharing their results with parents, faculty, and students from the school’s first-ever round of capstone projects. This pilot program, nicknamed the “ultimate elective,” offered students an opportunity to pursue a passion of their choice and then share their work with the community. Some projects were analytical in nature – How does stress and anxiety impact 8th graders at Hillbrook? What makes a book emotionally compelling? How does caffeine impact sleep?. Other projects involved creating something – a series of videos to support STEM education in under-resourced schools, graphically designed t-shirts, or a montage of sports clips that integrated a passion for sports and film editing. Tomorrow, each of these students will deliver a 5-7 minute presentation to their peers and all interested community members. I am excited to see how much each of the students who participated in this pilot program has grown and learned through this process.

As adults, we also have our own “show your work” moments. This past year, as a community, we took a step back, paused, and really took a look at where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as a school. The result will be an ambitious and forward-looking strategic plan – 2020 Vision – that we will be sharing at the start of the 2016-17 school year. Eighty years after our founding, we continue to grow and evolve, always remaining focused on meeting our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. We do it each and every day, one child at a time. Thank you for entrusting us to partner with you in this extraordinary journey.

*Please note: This link points to internal content that requires a Hillbrook Portal login and password.