Nov 172017

Walking on campus this week, I have found myself pausing to look. The dramatic color of the leaves in combination with the changing light of late Fall make for a tableaux that is consistently stunning. It is a period of time that I anticipate each year, a campus experience that I never take for granted.

Friday afternoon our students will gather together on the amphitheater stage, underneath the colorful canopy of trees, to sing a series of songs as part of Grandparents & Special Friends Day. It is essentially the same set of songs that we have sung for as long as most people can remember. I have several favorites – “Simple Gifts,” “Turkey Trot,” “The Leaves Turn Gold in the Fall,” but there is one – “Home is the Place” – that always strikes a particularly resonant chord.

“Home is the place where somebody loves you, I’m going there,

Home is the same old streets and people, yet I know they care,

I’ve traveled far, and I will travel more,

But my heart longs for my own front door.”

The words, to me, beautifully capture the place that Hillbrook holds in the lives of our children, employees, and families. There is a palpable sense of calm that I feel each day that I step on campus, a sense of coming home to a place where each person is known and valued for who they are. It’s a sense of the familiar and the predictable, of knowing that you’ll know the routines, that you will understand what is happening. It’s the feeling that comes from traditions, from having songs, shared values, and experiences that continue across generations.  It is the feeling of childhood joy and memories. It’s the feeling that draws alumni of all ages back to campus throughout the year.

At the same time, we are a school that is known for being innovative, for asking big questions and challenging ourselves to rethink the possible. We are not, typically, a school that does the same thing every year, that pulls out last year’s notes and repeats lessons from generations ago. We take risks, try new things, and continually strive to better meet our vision and mission as a school.

This past Monday, CFO Margaret Randazzo, Finance Committee Chair Vlado Herman, and I shared highlights of the initiatives that have emerged from Vision 2020 at the State of the School address. We highlighted how we are striving to reimagine the student experience, make Hillbrook a destination workplace for educators, create an increasingly diverse and inclusive community, and ensure the school’s long-term financial health. Initiatives shared included:

  • The creation of a new schedule for the 2018-19 school year that will enhance our ability to individualize the student experience and reach beyond campus to make a difference in the world.
  • Programs designed to extend learning beyond our campus, including Reach Beyond Week for all 6th-8th graders this Spring, and the newly launched Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the only JK-8 center of its kind in the world.
  • The launch of our Flexible Tuition Model, which has allowed us to broaden the support we are able to provide to students and ensured we are accessible to families from diverse economic backgrounds.
  • Tangible evidence of our commitment to provide competitive compensation and benefits for our employees, as well as a dynamic and innovative environment, that ensures we remain able to attract and retain top educators to our community.
  • The launch of the community phase of the “Be Your Best” Capital Campaign and the incredible momentum that is developing to ensure we can complete the campaign and build the Hub

Clearly, we are not a school that is resting on our laurels.

So how do these two things coexist? How can we be both a place where children and adults feel a grounded sense of belonging AND a place where they are challenged to ask big questions and dream? How do you balance the tension between tradition and innovation?

The answer ties directly back to our history. The Village of Friendly Relations sits at the heart of our campus, an exemplar of the Hillbrook Way since the mid-1930s. The Village represented a leading edge innovative educational model, something that garnered us attention in a national magazine. It was an innovation that placed student choice and engagement at the center. It was an innovation that reflected our deep understanding of children and learning. It was an innovation that preserved and honored childhood. At Hillbrook, tradition and innovation are not in tension, they are forever intertwined.

In “As the Twig is Bent,” the school’s award-winning 75th anniversary video created by Paul DiMarco and alumni parent Felice Leeds, Richerd Cancilla, Hillbrook’s first graduate, describes the school this way, “Coming back to Hillbrook is like coming home. It feels so good to me that sometimes I just like to stay here and take it all in and just pretend that I never left.” Whether you are in your first year at Hillbrook or have been here for generations, I suspect you recognize that sentiment.

At this time of year of thanksgiving, I am grateful that my family and I are privileged enough to be part of this community, a place where innovation and tradition strengthen each other and where our vision – to inspire children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world – remains as compelling today as it did in the 1930s.

Enjoy these videos:















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.

Nov 022012

Earlier this week, I visited the 4th graders during their first publishing party of the year, a key part of our newly implemented Writer’s Workshop program. When I walked into the classroom, the children were silently reading stories authored by their classmates. The room had the quiet and powerful energy of a fully engaged class of students. I joined in, as quietly as I could, and then had the privilege of reading a few of the stories myself—adding my own feedback next to the comments they made on their peers’ work.

As they reached the end of the sharing time, I spoke with the students about what they had done. They described the process they had undertaken to write their stories, from identifying a personal moment through writing, revising, and final publication. I marveled at the language they used, as they described how they came up with the seed ideas that became the basis of their stories, their use of anchor texts as models for story openings, the genuine challenges they had overcome (what should I write about? how do I find the right word to describe this moment?), and the pride they felt in producing a published work. They spoke like real writers, not 4th grade students. I was impressed.

Later that same day, Director of Technology Don Orth shared with me a short video he had put together about art teacher Ken Hay’s clay animation project with 3rd graders. Ken has explored clay animation with his students for many years, but this is the first time that he used iStopMotion, an application on the iPad. Ken explained that the intuitive nature of iStopMotion allowed the students to begin producing their animations immediately, instead of having to focus extensive time and energy on the technology and the software. Freed to focus on the story—and not the filming process itself—students produced elaborate stories with sophisticated examples of movement. My favorite moment is a scene in which creatures go underwater, a scattering of air bubbles on the surface the only evidence they were there.

As I reflected on it later that night, it struck me that these two projects are perfect examples of how we are always looking for ways to encourage our students to author their own stories. Sometimes we do this literally, allowing them to create written or artistic narratives. Much of the time, however, we do it by placing children as the lead characters in their own educational story. Our teachers are not the classic “sage on the stage” talking at children for six hours a day, but rather are talented guides and coaches who create a lively and interactive classroom where children are empowered to make decisions, solve problems, and become the the joyful authors of their own learning adventures.

As a school, Hillbrook has its own narrative. It is a story rooted in the school’s earliest years, when our students built the Village of Friendly Relations. The story has carried through the interceding years as we evolved from a small boarding school for wards of the state to the Hillbrook of  today—one of the premier elementary independent schools in the South Bay. Even as we have evolved and grown, we have not lost touch with our earliest roots. Indeed, when I look at Hillbrook today with its focus on problem-based learning, extensive opportunities for hands-on learning, and a commitment to innovation as seen through our iPad program and the iLab, I’m struck by the resonance between what we are doing today and the vision of our founders.

Each year, I have an opportunity at the State of the School to stop at a moment in time and share with the community how the Hillbrook story continues to unfold. During this presentation, I will share with parents the programmatic improvements we have implemented as a school in the last few years, the major initiatives we have underway this year, and the many ways in which we are constantly striving each day to better meet our vision and mission as a school. In addition, Tom Archer, the Chair of the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees, will discuss the school’s financial model, affirming our strong financial health and answering questions about the school’s finances.

I ask you to join me, Tuesday, November 13, at 8:15 am or 6 pm in the multi-purpose room to talk about Hillbrook today. It is a narrative that is firmly rooted in our storied past as well as thoughtfully focused on an extraordinarily promising future. A story about a community of teachers, parents, and students who are linked together by a powerful vision of what a school should be—a place that inspires students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. I look forward to our conversation.

Feb 032012

Hillbrook School has been a vital part of the Los Gatos community for more than 75 years. Originally founded as a boarding school for wards of the state, we have grown and evolved to become a dynamic, JK-8 school that provides an extraordinary educational program preparing students not only for school but for life. As we have for generations, we continue to serve many families from Los Gatos – 44 percent of our students live in Los Gatos.

Throughout our 75-year history, we have continually sought ways to make our good school ever better. A key component of our current strategic plan – Vision 2015 – was to identify our school’s optimal enrollment. After nearly a year of conversations, we identified the need to increase the school’s enrollment from 315 students to 414 students.

The increase allows us to address two important issues. First, the increase enables us to avoid the cap-induced under-enrollment we have faced in certain grades. Our current enrollment cap – 315 students – has no correspondence to a logical enrollment model, thus we end up with some grades with fewer than 30 students while other grades have up to 40 students.  The enrollment cap limits our ability to deal with normal attrition from families moving and we sometimes end up with classes that are small and unbalanced in terms of gender. Each year we turn away many students and their families.

Second, we believe that the addition of one section of middle schoolers in grades 6-8 – growing our middle school to 54 students per grade – will enhance our educational program. Expanding enrollment will strengthen academic departments and allow more academic flexibility in subjects like math and foreign language, provide more opportunities for activities such as dance, drama, band, and robotics, increase participation in our athletic programs, and create more social opportunities for our students during this critical stage of growth and development.

In order to increase our enrollment, this past week we submitted an application to the Town of Los Gatos to modify our conditional use permit. In our application, we have asked the Town to allow us to change our enrollment cap from 315 students to 414 students. We have also asked to increase our traffic car count from 165 cars leaving campus each day during our peak periods (7:30 – 8:30 am and 2:30 – 3:45 pm) to an average of 185 cars leaving campus during those same peak periods.

We recognize that traffic is a concern in our neighborhood, and we have already taken steps to mitigate our traffic. During the last year we have added two buses moving our average morning car count into the 130s and the average afternoon car count into the low 140s. In addition, we have an extensive carpool program, including easily accessible on-line maps for our families, allowing them to locate potential carpool partners from throughout the school community. We have placed signs throughout the neighborhood asking families to follow the speed limit, and we have a staff member who stands at different places in the streets several times a week reminding people to drive carefully.

As part of the pre-application process, we decided in consultation with the Town of Los Gatos to commission an independent traffic consultant to ensure that our proposal would be viable. The consultants, who expect the increased enrollment to generate 45 outbound trips in the morning and 42 outbound trips in the afternoon, concluded that intersections in the greater Marchmont neighborhood would continue to operate at acceptable levels of service, and that the school would be able to contain the increased traffic on our campus.

As part of our application, we have proposed to install a permanent counting device at our gate that would relay information electronically to a computer that could then be easily shared with our families, the Town, and the neighborhood. We are committed to creating a process that is transparent and that ensures that everyone is able to see evidence of our school’s traffic patterns.

I have met with a number of neighbors throughout this process and remain open to further conversations and to identifying additional solutions that will help mitigate the impact of traffic in the neighborhood.

In the end, we are committed to ensuring Hillbrook remains an extraordinary school for the next 75 years and beyond, while also doing our best to be good neighbors. I encourage you to visit our website ( for more information about our proposal, including our letter of justification and the full copy of the traffic study.

Jan 202012

Visions of Hillbrook’s past and future merged on campus this week.

Walking down the hill Thursday, people were greeted by a newly installed replica of the original sign for The Children’s Country School (Hillbrook’s name until 1960). The inspired idea of unofficial school historian and teacher Paul DiMarco, the sign was created by 93-year-old local San Jose artist, Rey Giese. The sign will hang at the entrance of the Village of Friendly Relations and provides a beautiful and playful connection with the school’s early history.

The sign was unveiled as part of of our second annual Founder’s Day celebration. Hillbrook’s first student and graduate of the Class of 1946, Richerd Cancilla, joined Paul in front of a student assembly on Thursday to share the story of the Village of Friendly Relations. Built by the students in the late 1930s, the Village was a living community complete with a tea house, a newspaper, a general store, and a bank. Through the Village, the students learned invaluable life lessons that, in the vision of founder Mary Orem, would help prepare the children to create a better world.

Following Richerd and Paul’s presentation, the students had an opportunity in buddy groups to build models of a 21st Century Village of Friendly Relations. Computer stores, a water slide, castles, a variety of general stores, a full-length football field (not a Village “house”, per se, but something a group if 2nd and 8th grade boys really hope to see at the school!) and even a thinking house emerged from recycled boxes and assorted odds and ends. The tinkering masterpieces will be on display at Flag on Monday and will provide a vivid image of how much things have changed – and, in some cases remained the same – since the late 1930s.

While the students and faculty ventured into our past, as a school we took a significant step in the process of laying the foundation for our future. On Wednesday evening, we met with our neighbors to share our plans for building a better middle school. The meeting represented one of the final steps in the process before we formally submit an application to the Town of Los Gatos to grow our enrollment from 315 students to 414.

A key component of Vision 2015, the effort to grow the Middle School is an important step in helping us remain a leading JK-8 school in the Bay Area. Our plans call for increasing grades 6-8 from two sections to three sections of 18 students, which will increase our overall enrollment in grades 6-8 from just under 100 students today to 162 students within 3-5 years. There will be no change in the Lower School enrollment model.

A larger Middle School will benefit our program in several key areas, including:

  • Stronger academic departments that allow more academic flexibility, including the potential for tracking in math and foreign language
  • More opportunities for co-curricular activities, including dance, band, and drama
  • Increased participation in existing athletic programs, including lacrosse, softball, and track & field, as well as opening up new sports, such as swim team or golf
  • More social opportunities for our middle school students during this critical stage of growth and development
  • More flexibility to balance grade size and gender balance in the upper grades while simultaneously bringing in new students and new families who add an exciting new energy to our community

As a community, we will be asking you in the months ahead to work with us to help this important application get passed. In the next week or two we plan on submitting our application to modify our conditional use permit to the Town of Los Gatos. We then expect our application to be placed before the Planning Commission in 60-90 days. Following approval by the Planning Commission, the application could be appealed to the Town Council in which case we would appear before the Town Council most likely at some point during the summer or perhaps early Fall.

How can you help?

The most important thing our families can do is to continue to be good neighbors. We remind you again to:

  • carpool or use the shuttle, minimizing the number of cars coming on and off our campus.
  • drive slowly through the neighborhoods, 15 mph on Upper Marchmont and 25 mph on Lower Marchmont

I also encourage you to visit our Building a Better Middle School page on the website to educate yourself about our proposal. On this page, you can see the traffic study that was completed as part of our pre-application process and a copy of the presentation we gave to the neighbors on Wednesday night. We will be sharing more information with you in the months ahead as we shepherd our application through the planning process.

Standing with Richerd Cancilla today and reflecting with him upon his time at the school more than 70 years ago, I was struck by the depth of his connection to TCCS/Hillbrook. While the school has changed in dramatic ways since he was here, he returns because the essence of the school – a life preparatory school – remains the same. Whenever I speak with Richerd, he is clearly proud of the extraordinary school that we have become today.

I was also reminded that our generation – like every generation in the school’s history – has an obligation to do things to ensure that our school is thriving 75 years from today and beyond. We need to continue focusing on making the school ever better, while preserving the core values that have guided us since our founding. The effort to build a better Middle School is another important step in our school’s journey.

Talking to Richerd, I also couldn’t help but look at our JK/K students and try to imagine which of them will be standing in front of a group of children 75 years from today. I am confident they will proudly share stories of 2012 and how the work we did today helped ensure that Hillbrook would provide an extraordinary educational experience for generations to come.