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.

Nov 112015


This past weekend, we hosted our annual Saturday Open House on campus, the largest turnout of prospective families that we have had in at least five years. The highlight of the day – as it is nearly every time we have an admission event – was watching our Middle School students interacting with prospective families. These dynamic young people confidently led families around the campus, answering questions and interacting with children of all different ages. Several prospective parents remarked to me how impressed they were with the students, and commenting how refreshing it was to hear their unscripted remarks about their school experience. Confident, poised, authentic, comfortable in their own skin – these were the words they used to describe them.

As I watched the students, I was reminded of a line from the mission statement created last year by the students in HERO, a Middle School student group that supports the LGBT+ community and other minority groups that face discrimination. In their mission, the students write, “At HERO, you are recognized as an individual and welcomed to be all of who you are.”

All of who you are.

It’s a powerful idea and something that resonates with our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. In order to achieve your dreams you need to know yourself as a person and a learner. Sounds straightforward enough, right? And yet creating spaces where students can be all of who they are is something that is rarely found or nurtured in traditional schools.

Instead of meeting children where they are and nurturing their growth, schools have traditionally forced children to fit into the structure of school. Rows of desks, teacher-centered classrooms, rote memorization and recitation of disconnected information – this stereotypical image of school persists because it reflects the reality of all too many classrooms across our country. Some children, of course, thrive in this environment, while all too many children simply  survive school and bide their time until they make it into the real world. Even those who thrive develop a set of skills – following directions, paying attention, recalling information, taking tests – that have little connection to the skills our children need to thrive as adults.

As a growing list of books and movies – Creating Innovators, How to Raise an Adult, Most Likely to Succeed  – suggest, people are recognizing that traditional models of school do not work. As I looked around last weekend, I sensed that the families visiting our campus are looking for alternatives and they are seeking a school in which their children will be known and understood as individuals.

At Hillbrook, we are committed to helping children realize their full potential, recognizing that each child is a unique individual. We want them to be the best Devan or Hailey or Naomi or Colin they can be. We want them to be all of who they are. It’s a powerful idea, and it’s at the heart of the Hillbrook experience.

Nov 162012

Our youngest, Piper, woke me up at 3 in the morning the other night. It has become a pretty consistent pattern. She’ll sleep through the night for one or two days and then, all of a sudden, her big brown eyes will be staring at Carla and me from the side of the bed. Of our three children, she has been the quirkiest sleeper. She slept through the night early and was a “good” sleeper until she was about 2½. The last 18 months, however, she has struggled to sleep through the night consistently.

I wish I could claim I was a perfect parent who calmly and rationally found a way to soothe her at this dark hour of the night. Unfortunately, I have found myself increasingly frustrated and at certain moments desperate for a solution. We have tried one of us lying down next to her in her bed, bringing her into our own bed, or just plopping her back into her bed and letting her cry herself back to sleep. One or two nights will go by and, just when I think we may have a resolution, she’s back in our room, eyes wide open, pleading for Mom and Dad.

I mention all of this not for sympathy—I know that all of you have been there at some point, and many of you are there right now—nor in an effort to ask for help finding a solution. I mention it because it was the first thing that popped into my mind today as I was thinking about why I am thankful.

With Thanksgiving next Thursday, it is the season to take a step back and reflect on the many things we have in our lives for which we are thankful. In a community where we are blessed with so much, it is easy, I suspect, for most of us to generate answers relatively quickly. Speaking for myself, I immediately note that I am grateful for my health, for a partner and children who love me and who are blessed with their own good health, and for a job that I find challenging, inspiring, and incredibly rewarding. I am thankful for this community where my entire family has been welcomed these past three years and to be at a school that has a vision, mission and core values that are closely aligned with my own personal values and beliefs.

All of those things are true, and yet I find myself drawn to thinking this year about how I am—and should be—thankful for those things in my life which may not at first glance be obvious things to appreciate. I started to think about how important it is to challenge myself to keep a perspective on life that strives to find the positive—the proverbial silver lining—in difficult moments. It is easy to be thankful for the good things, but shouldn’t I also strive to be thankful for at least some of the challenges?

When I was 13 years old, I competed in nine tennis tournaments. It was my first year in the 14 and under division and I won only two matches the entire season. During the summer, I know I found little to appreciate in the experience, yet, looking back, I know that I learned more about perseverance, humility, and good sportsmanship than perhaps at any other time in my life. I’m thankful for that summer and for the important life lessons it taught me.

The past 18 months I have worked tirelessly along with many other members of the community to put together our application to modify the conditional use permit, thus allowing us to grow our enrollment. The opposition has, at times, been fierce and the situation is definitely not resolved. I am thankful, however, that through it all the Hillbrook community has remained respectful and professional, and that as a community we have proactively taken steps to improve the traffic situation in the neighborhood. The process has made us better neighbors, and for that I am grateful.

So, I ask myself, why should I be thankful for Piper’s 3 am visits?

I’m thankful that I still have at least one child who believes that being with her parents can be comforting in the middle of the night. I’m thankful that Piper is challenging me to become a more patient and understanding parent. I’m thankful that she gives me a kiss and a hug every morning, even after those nights when I have eventually had to take her back to her own bed and let her cry herself back to sleep.

And, finally, I’m thankful that she reminds me that the true test of our character and unconditional love is not how we respond to the good times, but how we react during the inevitable times of challenge.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sep 072012

During my summertime meetings with new families, I typically ask parents to share a little about their child. “Describe them for me,” I’ll say. Parents become animated and their faces light up, noting the child is playful, confident, outgoing, and, yes, a bit stubborn, or perhaps shy and reserved but a non-stop talker once they warm-up to the situation. The deep sense of knowing, the unconditional love, and the honest description of personality traits that are both strengths and challenges always make me smile. I feel a deeper sense of connection to the family—and to the child—having heard these responses.

These meetings are one of many intentional steps we take as a school to help us build a partnership with families. Knowing parents—just like we know each child—provides a foundation that allows us to work with families through the years to support each child.

At the heart of the parent/school partnership is communication. Last year, the faculty and staff adopted a set of communication norms to guide all of our interactions. These norms are: Assume good will, Come from your experience, Practice a growth mindset, Suspend judgment, Avoid avoidance, and Don’t triangulate. During the past year, we found ourselves continually returning to these norms, especially during difficult conversations with each other. We even printed credit card size, laminated copies of the norms so that each faculty member could keep the norms with them. I have two sets at all times with me in my wallet.

In thinking about the parent/school partnership, these same norms apply to the many conversations we have with parents. I encourage parents to ask themselves the following questions the next time they are frustrated, confused, annoyed, or even angry about something that happened at school. Before sending a “screaming” email or coming to a meeting ready to “set things straight” ask yourself:

1) Am I assuming goodwill? Our goal as teachers and administrators is the same as your goal as parents – to help your child reach their highest individual potential. We may disagree at times on how to reach that goal, but we are all trying to accomplish the same thing.

2) Am I speaking from my own experience or am I basing my opinion on other people’s perspectives or stories? We want to work in partnership with you, and the best way to do that is for each of us to speak directly from our own experiences. Don’t try to represent a “cause”. If other parents have concerns, encourage them to come in and talk to the appropriate person.

3) Am I practicing a growth mindset and have I suspended judgment? It is important that you provide your own perspective during conversations, but it is also important that you remember to listen and really try to understand the teacher’s perspective. Enter conversations with an open mind and a willingness to learn. You should expect the same of us.

4) Am I addressing problems directly and at their source? If you didn’t agree with something a teacher did, talk to the teacher directly instead of immediately going to the division head. If your middle school child is frustrated by something that is happening in class, encourage your child to approach their teacher or advisor to seek a solution instead of immediately going to the division head yourself and demanding that things change. If you have a concern with a school policy, set up a time to meet with the appropriate person to share your concern instead of trying to convince your friend to talk to the school for you.

I know how hard it can be to suspend judgment when having a difficult conversation, particularly when your own child is involved. Our protective instincts as parents are strong; knee-jerk reactions are tempting—and, at least initially, can feel cathartic. Remember, however, that we expect these same communication norms of our children. When a conflict arises on the playground, we ask students to put themselves in the other’s shoes, use “I statements” to explain how they feel and what they experienced, and look for ways to resolve the problem that allow everyone to retain their dignity. As adults, we want to be role models for our children, showing them that we can address problems directly, actively listen with an open mind, and disagree respectfully.

It is tempting to try to resolve conflicts over email. I continually remind the administration and faculty, email is not an effective way to address complicated issues. The tone and nuance of a face-to-face conversation are lost. Furthermore, it is much easier to say things in an email that you would never say in person. How many of us have written an email at 11:30 pm (or later) that we regretted the next morning?

In order to help all of us manage communication, as a school we are trying to set some boundaries around communication time. As in the past, you can expect a response to a phone call or email from us within 24 hours. Parents should not, however, expect responses between 7 pm and 7 am. We all—teachers, administrators, and parents—need an opportunity to disconnect. During the weekends, just like the evenings, parents should not expect a response. If a true emergency arises during the weekend, administrators can be reached by phone. Undoubtedly there may be exceptions to this rule, but we believe that the overall goal —to allow each of us as adults to maintain boundaries around communication—is an important one for us to aspire to and something that we can model for our children.

In the end, the most effective communication almost always occurs face to face. Reminding ourselves of communication norms allows us to reconnect with each other on a personal level as individuals. As a school, you can expect us to know and value your child, to provide them an extraordinary educational program, and to communicate with you directly and in a timely manner. We will not always get everything right and we expect you to talk to us when something is not working. Please remember, however, that we all have the same goal—to raise confident, articulate, and intellectually curious young adults who will leave Hillbrook prepared to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

Jun 052012

The following are my remarks from this morning’s Class of 2012 graduation:

Good morning students, faculty, parents, grandparents, and friends and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2012. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Mayor Steve Rice, Chair of the Board of Trustees Steve Benjamin, Head of Middle School Brent Hinrichs, and Sean Reilly , graduate from the Class of 2008. I also want to extend a special welcome to our first graduate, Richerd Cancilla. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the multi-talented, ever enthusiastic, and soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2012.

Today marks a significant transition for the 28 dynamic young men and women seated behind me on the stage. Yet they are not the only ones who are undergoing change. In front of me sit their proud parents and in many cases proud grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings.  For the parents, today marks a major milestone, the movement of your son or daughter from middle school to high school and the beginning of an exciting new chapter in their lives. I hope that your sons and daughters have thanked you for all of the love and support you have provided through their years at Hillbrook, but if, by chance, they have not, let me, on their behalf, thank you. You have given them the gift of an extraordinary educational foundation, a gift that will stay with them throughout their lives.

Today also marks a transition for long-time Middle School Head Brent Hinrichs. Brent joined Hillbrook back in 1999 and has played an instrumental role in making Hillbrook the school that it is today. He helped to rebuild the campus – both literally and figuratively – and he has helped to lay the foundation for the Middle School’s long-term success. We wish Brent the best of luck as he and his family head off for the East Coast and a new opportunity at the Congressional Schools outside Washington, DC.

The Class of 2012 might be thought of as the iKid class. As 7th graders, they were the fortunate group who had the opportunity to pilot the first set of iPads. Along with their teachers, they boldly ventured into new and uncharted territory, territory that no other school in the country or the world occupied in the Fall of 2009. In December of that year they found themselves on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News and later that spring a video was made showing the new iPad program in action. That video, by the way, has now gone viral. Just last month, one of our administrators was at a meeting with schools from throughout California and all of a sudden a clip of 8th grader Sophie Green talking about the benefits of the iPad appeared onscreen.

I should add that by calling them the iKid class I don’t mean to suggest that their time at Hillbrook is defined only by the iPad experience. The first 8 years of their time at Hillbrook, after all, predated the invention of the iPad. Indeed, when the original cohort of JKers arrived in the Fall of 2002, iPods had only just recently been invented and YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were still several years away from being created.

No, the iKid moniker reflects the type of class they are. There is an openness to new ideas, a willingness to take risks, and a spirit of creativity. They are flexible and adaptable. They are also articulate, able to share their experiences and their insights with others.

Looking at the Class of 2012 a word that keeps surfacing for me is – possibility. These young people have the skills, knowledge and confidence to do anything to which they set their minds.

I have recently been reading Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book, Imagine. In the book, Lehrer talks about creativity, focusing on the key factors necessary to foster and nurture creativity in people. At one point in the book, he talks about the classic children’s story, Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. I’m sure all of our youngest students in the audience remember the story, but just in case we have some people who haven’t read it in awhile, here is a quick synopsis: the book follows a young boy, Harold, who decides to go for a walk in the moonlight. Using a purple crayon, Harold draws the moon and a path and starts off on his adventure. Realizing the path doesn’t seem to be taking him anywhere, he draws a shortcut that leads to where he thinks a forest should be.  Fearful of getting lost in the forest, he draws a single tree that then becomes an apple tree. To protect the apples on the tree until they have a chance to ripen, he draws a monster that ends up scaring Harold. As he backs up his hand shakes and, before he can stop himself, he realizes he has created an ocean. Thinking fast, he draws a boat and climbs in. The book proceeds in this way until at the very end he ends up back in his home, where he literally makes his bed , draws up his covers, and falls asleep.

The book beautifully captures the spirit of the possible – Harold imagines what he wants to happen and then draws this new reality. It is empowering to watch Harold create his own world. The possibilities seem endless. At the same time, however, the book also captures the obstacles that inevitably appear as you create your own adventure. As Harold draws the new reality he has to deal with the world he is creating. In other words, the world he imagines becomes real and he then has to confront the challenges or problems that he inadvertently creates. Harold never falters, as he realizes that he holds the key to the solutions in his purple crayon. He falls into the ocean but he is able to draw a boat to pull himself out. Later in the story, he falls from the top of a mountain, so he draws a hot air balloon that safely brings him to the ground. At the end, he can’t seem to find his way home until he remembers that when he sees the moon in his bedroom it is always surrounded by his bedroom window. He draws the window and, lo and behold, finds himself back at home.

The lesson I ask the members of the Class of 2012 to take away is thus twofold. First, don’t lose your belief in the possible. You have shown yourselves to be flexible, creative, and open to new ideas and opportunities. Keep that spirit – it will serve each of you well.

Second, and just as importantly, recognize that as you pursue new things and create your own reality – you will be faced with obstacles that you won’t be able to foresee. Life will be full of challenges that are, in reality, opportunities. Remember Harold and his purple crayon and realize that you have the resilience, the creativity, and the ingenuity to tackle any problem that may come your way. Put another way, each of you possesses your own purple crayon – don’t be afraid to use it.

Class of 2012 – you are a bright, talented, and thoughtful group of young people.  I know you will have many adventures in the years ahead and I’m confident you will make the Hillbrook community and your families proud. Congratulations.

Jan 062012

One of the early lessons I learned as a parent was how to short-circuit toddler-driven decision-making gridlock.

You know the routine. You don’t ask, “What do you want to wear today?” Instead, you pull out two outfits and say, “Do you want to wear the polka-dotted dress or the one with the frilly skirt?” Over the last year, I’ve been living this almost daily with my very opinionated three-year old, Piper. Most of the time the strategy works. Piper gains some control and is able to make the decision, and yet I avoid the process of having her look at every dress in her closet. Most of the time….

I was reminded of this last weekend when I happened to catch a short piece on National Public Radio where they were talking about a book that made the rounds just a few years back, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Cass Sunstein and Richard H Thaler. One of the central arguments of the book is that people’s decisions – or behaviors – can be strongly influenced by the context – or “choice architecture” –  in which they make those decisions.

As an example, they talk about the setup of a cafeteria. Placing things in key places – sticking the salad bar at the front of the line instead of hidden behind the burgers and fries – can influence decision-making and encourage healthy choices. As another example, they note that countries that require people to actively opt out of organ donation, instead of having to opt in, have significantly higher organ donation rates.

As parents, our role is to create the framework – the “choice architecture,” so to speak – to support our children in their efforts to make good decisions. When they are toddlers, it may sometime feel like we are just performing tricks to maintain our own sanity – how can I avoid a 10-minute tantrum about today’s outfit? As they get older, however, it becomes increasingly clear that it is about creating a safe and nurturing framework in which our children can grow into independent, self-reliant adults.

Allowing older children to decide how they are going to complete weekend chores, for example, can be a good way to teach them responsibility and offer them a level of choice. Instead of telling them they need to do something at a set time, you can provide them a list on Saturday morning – clean your room and weed a portion of the garden, for example – and then tell them it needs to be done by Sunday evening.

At Flag last Monday, I took a few minutes to talk to the students about kindness. I reminded them that it was the first of our core values and explained that, like a cold, kindness can be contagious. I encouraged them to share heartfelt compliments this week with their classmates, their teachers, and their parents. By actively embracing the challenge to be kind, all of us – students, teachers, parents – can create the strong, nurturing community we all believe in as the foundation for a healthy school.

In a sense, I see our core values as the “choice architecture” of the school. These values provide a strong framework that students operate within. I have no doubt that our constant injunction to student to take risks, for example, creates an environment in which students are more likely to volunteer to complete a difficult math problem or to speak in front of their peers. At Hillbrook, kindness, curiosity and risk taking are default settings within which our students operate on a daily basis and something we hope they take with them to high school and beyond.