Apr 282017

As a school, we have a long commitment to creating and nurturing a culture of reflection. We seek input and feedback and strive to work in partnership with families to meet our mission each and every day. We have always recognized the importance of gathering feedback from our community and using that feedback to help us both appreciate and affirm our strengths and also identify areas for growth and improvement.

This past year, we partnered with an outside firm, Pacific Consulting Group (PCG), to create, administer, and analyze a family survey. We sent out the survey to the community in November and invited all current families (representing 255 households) to respond. A total of 175 households completed the survey, representing an impressive 69 percent response rate. PCG shared the results with the school and then created a presentation for us to deliver to our community. The PCG presentation was shared at the HSPC meeting in April.

The survey was separated into ten areas – Educational Skills, Lower School Educational Program, Middle School Educational Program, School Programs, Teachers, School Leadership, School Culture and Community, Communications and Parent/Guardian Involvement, Facilities and Transportation. Parents also rated their overall satisfaction with Hillbrook. The results were strongly affirming for the school, with high satisfaction ratings in every category, including an overall satisfaction rate of 91 percent. 97 percent of families would recommend Hillbrook to a friend or relative, an incredibly high percentage.

One of the appeals of hiring PCG to administer the survey was that they conducted a leverage analysis of the results. The leverage analysis identified the school’s strengths to focus communications and highlight those areas where we are doing well and that are important to families. The leverage analysis also identified areas where improvement will create the most impact. These are areas where people are relatively dissatisfied and/or the area is very important to people. As PCG noted, improvement in these areas creates the biggest “bang for the buck.”

The survey reaffirmed our strengths, encouraging the school and community to highlight these areas when discussing the school :

  • Strong leadership that includes school leaders who treat people with respect and who provide a clear and compelling vision for the school
  • Exceptional teachers who combine a deep knowledge of their subject with a deep understanding of each child and responsiveness to parental communication
  • An extraordinary campus, that includes excellent facilities

On the other side, the survey suggested three areas that we should focus our improvement efforts. First, family’s are very interested in seeing us do even more to meet each child’s individual learning needs. PCG included a few quotes to help show how families respond when we do this well, as well as what families suggest for improvement. As an example of what it looks like when done well, one family wrote, “We have been thrilled at how much Hillbrook has seen our kids as individual learners with a lot to say and offer the world. Our kids have gained confidence and are more engaged in learning than ever before.” On the other side, families suggested that we might find more effective ways to challenge students. As one family wrote, “I think Hillbrook has a good program but needs to get a little more educationally intensive. For students who are academically ahead it appears that they don’t feel as challenged.”

The second and third areas were closely related, with families offering suggestions about how we can better help each child reach their highest individual potential and communicate student progress in ways that makes sense to both students and parents. As an example of what it looks like when done well, one family wrote, “I am so happy that Hillbrook and their teachers are willing to differentiate learning for kids. Some are advanced and some are not and I feel like they do a good job of adjusting the curriculum based on the child.”

On the other side, one family encouraged us to reconsider our homework, writing, “I think overall homework can cater to each child more. I find that it could be more challenging. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional homework, but more project-based, integrated learning that truly engages.” Another family suggested we reconsider parent/teacher conferences writing, “20 minutes feels quite rushed to cover a child’s academic progress, social & emotional status, and allow for questions. Our teachers know our children so well, they have such rich feedback to share with us, and I come away from conferences feeling like an incremental 10-25 minutes would be so very helpful.”

In addition to the leverage analysis, PCG included survey results that addressed some general areas. For example, the survey affirmed that both “The Week Ahead” and “Hillbrook Happenings” are used by the vast majority of families, with 88 percent using the former and 85 percent using the latter. When asked, “How would you rate Hillbrook’s level of initiative in identifying opportunities for parent/guardian involvement?” 90 percent of families said “about right,” a strong endorsement of the HSPC and the school and how we structure volunteer opportunities. Additionally, 80 percent of families felt that our level of initiative in soliciting financial support was “about right.” Eighty-seven percent of families are satisfied with our transportation programs, with 77 percent of families using our transportation services.

The survey also affirmed the school’s success in creating an inclusive community, with 98 percent of families saying that both their child and their family felt included at Hillbrook. When asked about our vision and mission, 80 percent of families felt like Hillbrook was successful in achieving it. As one family wrote, “Our kids love waking up to go to Hillbrook and are excited to share what they are learning, and are learning a great deal on all fronts. Their confidence, knowledge, and life trajectory is far beyond mine at the same ages and it’s very impressive. I believe Hillbrook’s mission contributes to these traits in our kids.” As another family wrote, “Every child deserves a school like Hillbrook and we have seen our child blossom and thrive and grow by leaps and bounds in so many areas—academically, in her confidence, in her ability to become more responsible and self reliant. Her overall happiness with school has grown tenfold, and that is priceless.”

Overall, we feel that the survey reaffirms the focus of Vision 2020, and it has us well-positioned to build on our strengths, while addressing key issues identified in the survey. In particular, we believe that the school’s focus on reimagining the student experience, with particular attention on how we use time, how we challenge each child, and how we strengthen our assessment system, will ensure we are able to make meaningful progress in our efforts to meet the needs of each child and help each child reach their highest individual potential.

This was the first time that we have conducted a survey with PCG, and we plan on bringing them back every two years to measure our progress and help us continue to identify our strengths and areas where we can improve. We are excited that this new process offers us a meaningful and effective way to gather feedback for the school, something that we know is essential to ensure we continue to grow and thrive as a school.

Dec 092016

p1010251Make the job you want to have.

That’s the advice a Google program manager shared with our 8th graders yesterday during their visit to the Google Campus. It was the punchline to his own story. A graduate student in 2008 at the depth of the economic crash, he and a fellow graduate student took matters into their own hands – they made the job they wanted to have. They founded a toy company that designed apps and, nearly 10 years later, he and his co-founder are program managers at Google. “I get to make toys at age 35,” he said with a smile.

The visit was tied into “Everybody Can Code,” our weeklong effort to create opportunities for students of all ages to participate in a range of coding activities. The goal is to demystify coding and to help students see how coding is at the heart of the transformative changes happening today. In addition, given our yearlong focus on reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world, we want students to understand how coding can make the world a better place.


The focus of the 8th grade field trip was a session with the two founders of Toontastic and one other member of their team. Founded back in 2008, the company was bought out by Google several years ago and the two co-founders became Googlers. The app helps students tell stories by creating cartoons. It is, in essence, a techy puppet show, with the students providing the voices for the computer generated animation. Geared toward 8-12 year olds, the app was a tad young for 8th graders, although it definitely captured their interest and engagement. In just 25-30 minutes, the students quickly explored the app and created some simple stories, mostly silly and not necessarily fully formed, but remarkable in their polish and structure given the short timeframe. The room was full of laughter and enthusiasm, and I’m sure the app would be a hit, particularly with younger students.

Talking with the app’s two co-founders, it became clear that there was a great deal of intentionality and design behind the program. Geared toward educators and students, the app scaffolds the storytelling experience for children, teaching them about the arc of a story and integrating the work of renowned educators like Lucy Caulkin’s, the creator of Writers Workshop at Teachers College Columbia University. The program managers, one of who had taught for several years and another who had initially considered a career in education, were committed to designing a free app that would help children from all different backgrounds learn how to tell stories. Their goal is twofold – the creation of a teaching tool that also becomes a favorite online toy for children.

At the end of the session, the three Googlers took a few minutes to talk with the 8th graders about how the app was making a difference in the world and to offer advice for what a 14-year-old should be thinking about today. We are always telling stories, they noted; indeed, stories are at the heart of the human experience. And, yet, until recently there have been few tools that provide young children the ability to tell a story and speak up. Toontastic gives children a way to share their ideas, to tell their story.

As for advice? One noted that the students need to “rage against the machine of not being creative.” The people he worked with at Google were not just good at ones and zeros, he shared, but knew how to approach problems and how to solve them creatively. Keep drawing, singing, or doing whatever creative things inspire you, he encouraged. Don’t let school stifle your creative soul.

Another manager, as noted early, shared my new favorite line – make the job you want to have. It epitomizes the Hillbrook way, to my mind. Ask what problem you want to solve, start down the path of seeking a solution, collaborate with others along the way, and show your work and learn from it as you make your way back through the cycle. They are the skills we prioritize at Hillbrook – storytelling, creativity, problem solving, risk taking – encapsulated in the idea that we are narrators of our story.

As we often note, we are preparing children for a world that we can only imagine at this point. Yesterday’s visit provided some real-life affirmation that the skills we prioritize at Hillbrook are the skills that will enable our children to change the world.

Thank you to Hillbrook parent and Googler Sherice Torres for setting up this visit for our students.

Apr 272016

To my mind, there may be no more quintessentially Hillbrook artifact than the white shirt. We have often envisioned an ad which would show a white shirt with a series of stains – a touch of red paint on the front, a dash of Epicurean lunch on the collar, mud stains up the back from running across campus, a bit of whiteboard marker on the sleeve. At the bottom of the ad might be a tagline like, “Got dirt?” or “Evidence of an Extraordinary Education,” and perhaps in really small letters at the bottom, “Bleach and Spray n Wash not included.”

What is it that I love so much about the white shirt?

It tells our story. At Hillbrook, we believe that a good day is a day in which children embrace the messiness of learning. Every morning fresh white shirts arrive on campus, ready to take on the challenge of a Hillbrook day. By 9:30 am shirts look a bit more frayed – perhaps a hand absent-mindedly wiped on the shirt as a student wrestles with a complicated math problem on a white board table or a bit of dirt on the sleeve from efforts to build an artificial hand in science class. By noon, multiple stains have started to emerge, evidence of specialist and elective classes, a few well-traveled trips across campus, a bite of lunch, and an intense game of gaga ball in the Middle School or digging in the sandbox on the JK-2 playground. By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile. One glance as a parent at your child’s white shirt at 3:30 pm tells you that it has been another active, engaging, fully-lived day at school.

As the person who typically does laundry in our house, I am well-aware of the increasingly daunting challenge over the course of the year to restore the white shirt to its original splendor. After several months, even bleach and Spray n Wash have a limited impact.

Thus, it is with genuinely mixed emotions – a bit of sadness AND untold relief – that I share that we have decided to add navy blue shirts to the uniform next year. The decision comes as a result of a two-year effort by the Student Council to expand the possibilities for the student uniform. Through conversation with the Student Council, we learned that students really wanted the navy blue shirt option. As we sought out perspectives from adults in our community, we were not surprised to learn that parents were equally eager to have a new option, one that wouldn’t get quite so dirty day in and day out. Thus, with only a bit of hesitation, we have embraced the change and we will be adding the navy blue shirt option to the mix next year. White shirts are still allowed. In addition, we will likely implement a specific uniform for concerts and all-school pictures, most likely the white shirt, so all students will want to have at least one white shirt in the mix.

So, as students arrive on campus next year, I will be greeted by a new sight – a sea of white AND navy blue shirts. It will be a small, but significant, change, for no longer will I necessarily be able to tell what type of day it has been for each child by reviewing the shirts at carpool. And, yet, I know that regardless of the shirts, the Hillbrook experience will not change. Each day will continue to be a day a joyful learning, filled with all of the excitement, challenge, and, yes, messiness, that we all know is the result of an extraordinary education.

Jan 272016


Last spring, the Board of Trustees adopted a revised Statement of Inclusivity, building on the original statement approved by the Board in 2002. Developed by the Inclusivity Task Force, a multi-constituent group made up of faculty, staff, administrators, parents, and members of the Board of Trustees, the statement reaffirms Hillbrook’s commitment to be an intentionally diverse community that reflects the extraordinary diversity of Silicon Valley. It calls on us to lean into the sometimes complex and challenging conversations about inclusivity that are required to create a community in which each individual feels valued and has a voice.

This past Monday, we talked about the new Statement of Inclusivity at the HSPC meeting and shared some of the work new Director of Inclusivity and Diversity Jules Findlay has been doing this past year to support teachers in creating activities and discussions connected to diversity and inclusivity within our program. Recent examples include an 8th grade history study where they analyzed and discussed stereotypes in Disney characters, a conversation that emerged from an initial study of Walt Disney’s character, Jim the Crow, in “Dumbo.” Other examples include a unit that is being developed about stereotypes in 2nd grade and an integrated history/English unit in 6th grade connected to the reading of Chains, a book about two young slave girls in the antebellum era.

In addition to the work we are doing in the classroom, the Inclusivity Task Force will have its first meeting of the year this Friday, focusing on this year’s topic – socioeconomic diversity. This work dovetails with conversations we are having about tuition assistance and how we can create a long-term financial model to support this important commitment from the school. As one example, the fund-a-need at this year’s auction will be in support of tuition assistance, helping us to generate increased philanthropic support to grow and sustain the tuition assistance budget which is over $1 million per year and allows us to provide tuition support to over 20 percent of our students.

Clearly, as a school, we are broadening and strengthening our work in this area. So some may ask – why?

The answer hearkens back to our earliest years as a school. Since our founding in 1935, we have been committed to attracting a diverse group of children to the school, knowing all children – regardless of their background – will thrive if given the right educational environment. It is at one level a question of equity, a recognition that the opportunity for a Hillbrook education should be available to students of all ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic status, and that we should continue to seek to enroll students who have been historically underrepresented in independent schools.

In more recent years, we have also come to understand that there is an academic argument for how creating a diverse environment benefits all students. Indeed, a growing body of research has emerged in the past few years arguing that diversity makes us smarter. An article by Katherine Phillips in Scientific American in September 2014, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” for example, described a series of studies that show that individuals respond differently to ideas when they come from diverse individuals. In one study, for example, university students were asked to discuss a social issue for 15 minutes. Researchers then wrote a dissenting opinion and had it delivered by a white or black member of the group. Phillips writes, “When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.” Viewed collectively, the studies in Phillips article make a compelling case that “we need diversity -in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.”

In a New York Times article titled, “Diversity makes you brighter,” Sheen Levine and David Stark described studies showing that people in diverse groups make smarter decisions. They write, “When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.” In the end, they argue, “Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.”

If diversity matters for issues of equity and academic excellence, inclusivity matters because it ensures that all children are given the best opportunity to thrive. If we are going to commit to attracting and enrolling a diverse student body, something that has been part of our mission since our founding, we must create a culture and climate where all children and families are celebrated for who they are, and where all children and families feel like they have full membership in our community. We understand that children must be known and valued as individuals in order for them to achieve their highest individual potential in school and in life.

People often remark that we are preparing children for a world that we cannot imagine. Creating a diverse and inclusive environment and equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they need to live in an increasingly diverse world is one way we can ensure that they will thrive in that world, even if we don’t know exactly what it will be.

Jan 062016


The beginning of January is a period ripe with possibility. While it may be cold and rainy outside, there is a palpable feeling of optimism and energy on campus. Walking through classrooms and interacting with students, I’m struck by how much our students have grown physically, socially, and intellectually during the first few months of the year, and how eager they are to engage in increasingly challenging and exciting work as we enter the second half of the year. Routines are in place, relationships established. The opportunities seem limitless.

Amidst this moment of possibility, I find myself reflecting on where the school is and where we are going. The strategic planning process has surfaced much to think about, both in terms of the school’s many strengths and our opportunities for growth and improvement.

In the classroom, teachers often employ visible thinking routines, practices that help students structure, share, deepen, and extend their thoughts in a way that is public. I thought I would borrow one of the more commonly used routines, “I like, I wish, What if?” to structure my own, quick thoughts on Hillbrook today.

I like….

  • that each child is known, valued, and celebrated as an individual
  • our broad and integrated educational program, that engages children as writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, artists, musicians, athletes, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers from the earliest ages
  • that we value questions as much as we value answers
  • the strong sense of community that connects us as adults and children in pursuit of a common vision – to inspire children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world
  • that we have such a talented and dedicated faculty and staff, each committed to helping children thrive
  • that children from our youngest grades to our oldest grades run across campus to get to their next class, embodying the joy that can be seen and felt throughout the day on campus
  • that children and adults are encouraged to take risks and tell jokes

I wish….

  • we had better ways to measure children’s growth and learning. As Einstein wrote, “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
  • we were better able to support balance in the lives of children and adults in our community and beyond
  • we were able to find even more ways to reach beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world.
  • more people throughout the Bay Area heard and understood our story – that Hillbrook’s approach to learning – an educational program which is relevant, challenging, and places children in charge of their own learning – is the most effective way to raise successful young adults. The evidence speaks for itself.
  • there were more high school options for our graduates that felt aligned with Hillbrook’s approach and mission

What if….

  • our daily schedule allowed us to even better individualize the program for each child?
  • we had better assessment tools and structures that provided quick, meaningful and transparent feedback to students, teachers, and parents?
  • we were able to attract and retain families who were a philosophical match for Hillbrook regardless of their ability to pay?
  • we were able to find new and creative ways to help support and retain our extraordinary faculty and staff as the cost of living in Silicon Valley continues to rise?
  • all 8th grade students participated in a capstone project that reflected the qualities of a Hillbrook learner – we ask questions, we talk and we listen, we work together, we solve problems, we make things better?
  • our program served students beyond 8th grade?
  • we had more partnerships with local companies and non-profit organizations, further strengthening our ties to Silicon Valley?
  • we had extended project-based experiences both on and off-campus?

These are just a few of the things that spring to mind at this moment, and I’m excited to see how our community’s thinking about the school’s future continues to evolve in the months ahead. I invite you to share your thoughts – how would you answer these questions?

Dec 162015

During Thanksgiving Break, I had the opportunity to read a book – The End of Life Book Club, which offered a beautiful insight into the power of books to bring people together. The book chronicles the nearly two-year battle of Mary Ann Schwalbe against pancreatic cancer. Written by her son, Will, the book describes the informal book club they create with each other, as they share and discuss a broad range of books during the hours he spends with her during her final years.

Schwalbe’s book reminded me that reading, while ostensibly an individual act as you are actually doing it (unless, of course, you are reading a book aloud to someone), is in reality a powerfully social activity, one that can bring people together and deepen our connection to individuals and ideas. Books often compel us to connect with others, as we want to share what we have experienced or learned. Books can inspire us, challenge us, entertain us, and transform us. Moreover, great books can be read and reread many times, each time providing us a different experience and insights. Where we are in our life or the person we are reading a book with, can profoundly influence our understanding and our experience.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few books I have been reading or rereading recently. While I have read a broad range of books in the last six months, from the bestselling novels The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See to the intriguing history, Dead Wake, which chronicled the sinking of the Lusitania, I thought I would share a few titles connected to education and parenting that are influencing my own thoughts about school. Particularly as the school looks to create a new strategic plan to build upon the transformative work of Vision 2015, I am increasingly struck by the opportunity and the necessity that we face as a school and as an adult community to ensure that Hillbrook, and other schools, prepare our children for the future, and not simply replicate practices that prepared them for the past.

Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner

Written in 2012, Wagner’s book was a follow-up to his earlier work, The Global Achievement Gap. Taken together, the books make a compelling case that schools need to focus less on what you know, and more on what you can do with what you know. Information is readily available and easily accessible, he notes, so education needs to teach you how to make sense of that information. He challenges schools to focus on what he and others have termed 21st century skills, including creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.

People who had the opportunity to see “Most Likely to Succeed,” the film we screened in partnership with the LGUSD this Fall, may remember seeing Wagner in the film.

The End of College, Kevin Carey

Carey shares his vision for the “university of everywhere,” envisioning a future where access to education is easy and inexpensive, perhaps even free. He shares a brief history of higher education, exploring the historical roots of colleges and universities and argues that the current system is seriously broken. While I’m sure that Carey’s vision of MOOCs and online education as a panacea are overstated, I think his questions about the value of a college education should not be taken lightly. Like Wagner and others, at the heart of his book is a critique of what students need to know in order to succeed in today’s world.

How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims

This book has gained a great deal of attention in part because of author Julie Lythcott-Haims professional career, which included a stint as the Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. In her book Lythcott-Haims asks, “Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults?” Her answers echo earlier books on the subject, including one of my all-time favorites, Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and challenge us to think both about what we are doing as parents and as schools to help prepare children not just for school but for life.

There are several other books still on my book stand that I have not yet had an opportunity to fully read, including Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools – The Grassroots Effort That’s Transforming Education, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, and William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep – The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. These books, like the others I have recently read, challenge us to rethink our traditional models for education and for schools.

With winter break fast approaching, I can’t wait to settle down into a comfortable chair and start reading. During this time of rest and rejuvenation, I invite you to pick up one or more of the books I have read – or I am about to read – and join me in thinking about and discussing the future of Hillbrook. I also encourage you to share with me the books you have been reading and enjoying, whether in education, leadership, or in other fields. As we look forward to welcoming a brand new year, I hope that each of you find within the pages of a book further opportunities to  hope and envision the future of education and our school.

Wishing you all wonderful holidays, a happy new year,  and I look forward to welcoming each of you back to school in 2016.


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