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:















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.

Oct 212015

Last Thursday evening, a packed theater of parents and educators from Hillbrook and the Los Gatos Union School District joined together to watch “Most Likely to Succeed,” one of the most widely discussed educational documentaries to appear in several years. The film chronicled High Tech High School, a San Diego-based charter school that has been at the leading edge of conversations about the future of education.

DSC_0366Produced by filmmaker Ted Dintersmith, the documentary focuses on the project-based learning approach at the heart of the High Tech High experience. Through the experiences of two classes – and two students in particular – we see what it looks like when student learning is revealed through public displays of understanding, including a student-written and directed play and an elaborate, multi student-designed artistic installation that merged engineering and historical theory. One student’s inspiring success with the play, coupled with the other student’s struggles, failures, and ultimately success with the installation, highlights the engagement, student ownership, and real world learning that is at the heart of the educational experience.

Central to the documentary’s argument is a refrain increasingly heard from educators, corporate leaders, and thought leaders across our nation – the skills that students need for success in life are changing. As technology has made a growing number of jobs that highlighted muscle and intellectual prowess obsolete (as they noted in the movie, now that IBM’s Watson has conquered chess and Jeopardy, what’s next?), schools need to focus on the skills that are fundamentally human. What are those skills?

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

An article in this past weekend’s New York Times, “The Best Jobs Require Social Skills,” argues that what we learned in preschool is the key to success in the work world. Cooperation, empathy, and flexibility  – skills commonly taught in early childhood programs – are increasingly understood to be essential skills for lifelong success. “Work has become more like preschool,” the author Claire Cain Miller insists, noting that “Jobs that require both socializing and thinking, especially mathematically, have fared best in employment and pay.” She points to the work of James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who argues that “character, dependability, and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.”

At Hillbrook, we have always believed that social emotional skills are as important as academic achievement. From Kindergarten study teams, where they learn to work together as they explore shared passions, to the 8th grade play, where the entire class comes together to produce a complex theatrical production, we create numerous opportunities for students to work together and to focus on being their best, both as individuals and as a group. So does it work?

Last May, we reconnected with the class of 2011 as they prepared to graduate from high school and head off to college. We asked them to talk about their memories of Hillbrook and how it had prepared them for high school, and created this video to help tell their story.

In addition to talking about how well they were well prepared academically, students spoke glowingly about how they were known as individuals at Hillbrook, and they remembered the emphasis on communication and collaboration that clearly positioned all of them to thrive in high school, despite attending an incredibly diverse set of high schools. Perhaps the most memorable line in the video for me is from the student who notes that Hillbrook taught him to learn how to learn, a skill that will ensure success in whatever environment he finds himself.

As a school, we are incredibly proud of the accomplishments of these extraordinary young people, and yet watching “Most Likely to Succeed” I am reminded that we need to keep asking ourselves how we can continue to provide an extraordinary educational experience that remains vibrant and relevant in a world that is ever-changing. As they note in the movie, we are increasingly preparing children for jobs that do not exist today.

Equally as important, we are educating children, not designing widgets. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in the film, education is like gardening. We need to create the conditions to help children grow and thrive. Mary Orem, one of Hillbrook’s  founders could not have agreed more. “As the twig is bent, the tree will grow,” she often said. 80 years later, we continue to heed her words.

Sep 192014

This past Monday at Flag, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley (BSV), Melissa Johns, shared the exciting news that the Hillbrook community will be recognized at the upcoming, “Are you Smarter than a Breakthrough student?” event on Thursday, October 23 for the extraordinary contributions we have made to the organization.

BSV, a non-profit organization with a dual mission – to launch high potential, underserved middle school students on the path to college and to inspire high school and college students to pursue careers in education – has been a partner organization with Hillbrook for the past five years. The partnership involves hosting BSV at Hillbrook each summer, bringing 100 Middle School students and a dynamic group of high school and college-age teachers to our campus. Several of our teachers have served as mentors and advisors for the program. This past summer, for example, 5th grade science teacher and Makespace Director Christa Flores collaborated with a Breakthrough teacher to bring the world of making and design thinking to a group of 7th grade students.

We also have been fortunate enough to have several extraordinary young people from Breakthrough attend our Middle School, allowing us to extend their experience beyond Breakthrough and into the Hillbrook classrooms. Recent BSV/Hillbrook graduates have gone on to excel at schools including Andover, Thacher, and Notre Dame High School. And this year, for the first time, we have hired a resident teacher — Yanelly De La Rosa – who is both a former Breakthrough student and former Breakthrough teacher. In fact, Yanelly had spent the past few summers teaching on the Hillbrook campus, providing her an opportunity to learn about the school firsthand and inspiring her to apply to and become part of our dynamic cohort of early career teachers.

Our partnership with BSV is one way that our school lives out a critical piece of our vision – to reach beyond ourselves and make a difference in the world. As a school, we are committed to raising young people who want to be change makers, individuals who look at the world around them and strive to make things better. Partnerships like BSV are one way that we as an organization model for the students the importance of engaging with the broader community in an effort to make a difference.

As another example, several of our faculty and staff – 3rd grade teacher Elizabeth Wright, Lower School music teacher Kristin Engineer, 3rd/4th science teacher Jenny Jones, 4th grade teacher and Literacy Coach Kate Ferguson, 6th grade science teacher & CTE Research Designer Ilsa Dohmen, and Director of Technology Bill Selak – were off-campus today participating in EdSummit Los Altos, a conference organized by the Los Altos School District for public and private schools that bills itself as, “A gathering of innovative educators who are interested in pushing the boundaries of learning.” Each of our teachers was invited to participate because they are doing innovative and thought-provoking work that can inspire and inform other educators. They presented on topics that included hacking your learning space, using blogs to support social emotional learning, designing literacy units, curating the world with the Google Cultural Institute, and recreating the Hillbrook sound project, a found object unit integrating art, science, and music. The presence of six Hillbrook educators at this conference testifies to the leading edge work we are doing as a school.

Similar to our partnership with BSV, our participation in events like EdSummit Los Altos affirms our belief that we have an opportunity and obligation to give back to the broader educational community, independent, parochial and public schools. It reflects our belief that in order to be our best, we need to push beyond the confines of our own campus and engage in conversations with other innovative and talented educators from around the Bay Area and beyond. We know that we have a talented team of educators at Hillbrook who have something to share AND we also know that by engaging with the broader community, we will continually challenge ourselves to re-imagine our own practices and ensure we are always making our program better.

Ultimately, the work we do as a school to reach beyond ourselves pays extraordinary dividends here on our own campus. Our partnership with BSV has enriched our community in untold ways, as has our participation in conferences like EdSummit. The benefit can be seen in the lives we influence, the quality of community we create, and the impact it has on our students as we nurture them and help them grow into adults who will be committed to changing the world.

At Hillbrook, we believe it is important to make things better. We are honored that Breakthrough Silicon Valley is publicly recognizing the work we are doing and look forward to celebrating our partnership and the work that we have done together to provide extraordinary educational opportunities for all children.

Feb 012013

Ask 1st grade teacher Barb Johnson about this year, and you will hear the following, “This is probably my strongest teaching year ever.”

6th/7th grade English teacher Julia Rubin would add, “It’s like everything is better. Everything is in technicolor.”

What are they so excited about? The new Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Resident Teacher Program. More specifically, Barb, Julia, 4th grade teacher Kate Hammond, and 7th/8th science teacher Brian Ravizza are inspired to be teaching shoulder-to-shoulder with our talented cohort of resident teachers—Olivia Swan, Emily Stekl, Emily Drew-Moyer, and Ilsa Dohmen. These eight dynamic educators are collaborating together to help us realize the extraordinary potential of this new program.

The Resident Teacher Program (RTP) is a transformative initiative that emerged from Vision 2015 and our injunction to ourselves to be innovative. The RTP has three main goals:

1) Increase individual attention and differentiation in the classroom. Two teachers in a classroom (or three teachers at a grade level) makes our already small classes even smaller and creates opportunities for increased understanding and support of each child.

2) Create mentoring and co-teaching opportunities for teachers that allow for more opportunities for deep reflection on best practices. What does that mean? Invigorated teachers always pushing forward to make sure they are providing the best possible program for our students.

3) Train and nurture beginning and early career teachers so they are extraordinarily well-prepared candidates for top schools around the country, including Hillbrook.

Spend time in any one of the classrooms with a mentor and a resident and you will immediately see the transformative impact this is having on our program. Walk into a 4th grade classroom and you might see students working in small reading groups with support from three 4th grade teachers. A closer look reveals that groups are split among the entire 4th grade, not just one section. Three teachers for one grade level provides powerful individualized attention.

Walk into an 8th grade science classroom and you might see students intensively working in teams building a rocket. The challenge? Get the rocket to stay up in the air as long as possible. The two teachers move among the groups offering advice and feedback, a level of personal attention not possible in previous years.

Walk into the library classroom on a Thursday afternoon and you might see the residents, RTP Director Aimee Giles, and a member of our faculty or administration actively discussing an important topic in education as part of the resident’s weekly seminar. Topics might include supporting a range of learners, adolescent development, or building your own professional learning network. The seminar shows that curiosity and lifelong learning are happening all across our community, not just with our students.

In the end, the evidence is strong—the program works and it is allowing us to better meet our mission as a school to help each child reach their highest individual potential.

Looking ahead to next year, we expect to hire a second cohort of four residents to join our initial cohort of residents. With eight residents on campus, we will be able to have one resident each in grades K–4 and three residents in the Middle School. Every student will benefit from the increased individual attention, the active collaboration of teachers, and the energy that this program is infusing into our campus.

We cannot do it, however, without raising the funds to pay for this second cohort of teachers.

Last year, a small number of families provided the seed money—a little more than $200,000 —to allow us to launch this program and fund our first cohort of four residents. This year, some of those same families and a few additional families have stepped forward to offer another round of funding to support the program for the 2013–2014 school year. To date, we have raised over $180,000 to help fund the program, with several families contributing more than $30,000.

Next Friday’s auction—A License to Bid—will provide all families an opportunity to support this program and make our vision a reality. We are looking to raise at least another $100,000 to fully fund the eight residents for next year.

So when the moment comes on Friday night, please raise your paddle and show your support for the Resident Teacher Program. Your contribution will help ensure that this initiative continues to grow and transform our program in the ways that it has already done this year. Most importantly, your gift enables Hillbrook to continue to be a place where both students and adults are learning, growing, and reaching their highest individual potential.

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.