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.

May 112012

A few weeks back, we had a group of thirteen educators from New Zealand on our campus learning from Technology Director Don Orth, several Middle School faculty members and a group of students about our cutting edge iPad program.  After the visit, the team spent two days at the Apple Campus in an executive briefing. Apparently, the group mentioned to Apple that of the many schools they had visited in Southern and Northern California, Hillbrook was one of two that truly opened their eyes to the power of these emerging technologies. They marveled at the engagement of faculty and students, and the thoughtful manner in which our school is approaching the iPad implementation.

A few days later, two executives from Apple called us to learn more about what we are doing.

Increasingly, Hillbrook is being recognized as a leader in JK-8 elementary education. Our iPad program has been a catalyst for these conversations, as we have hosted hundreds of educators in the last year who wanted to learn more about our program.  Yet it is not only technology. Art teachers from throughout the Bay Area visited campus earlier this year to learn from our talented art faculty. This summer, we will be hosting forty independent school leaders as part of the joint Center for Teaching Excellence/Santa Fe Leadership Center Innovative Leadership Conference. In addition, we will be hosting twenty-five teachers as part of the joint Center for Teaching Excellence/Martin Institute John Hunter Master Class in August.

We are pushing the conversation in other areas as well. The adoption of Singapore Math places us at the forefront of the national math conversation, while the implementation of Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs has us deeply engaged in understanding and enhancing our already strong social emotional learning program. The recent English/LA and science audits identified opportunities for growth that promise to stretch us and keep us striving to provide an innovative, engaging, and rigorous academic program for our students.

All of these things reflect an essential truth at the heart of the Hillbrook experience – our teachers not only strive to foster a love of learning in our students, they live it every day themselves.

Our teachers are true lifelong learners, passionate about what they teach and about the students they work with each and every day. Like all active learners, they need opportunities to reflect, renew, and grow. One of the ways we do that is through our Faculty Fellowship Program.

Each year the school funds a number of summertime fellowships providing faculty an opportunity to explore new interests, pursue passions, dive deeply into specific curricular areas, and collaborate with colleagues.  The goal – to provide faculty with meaningful professional development opportunities that meet their needs as adults for lifelong learning, reflection, exploration, and rejuvenation.

The last few years, faculty have been asked to focus their proposed fellowships on areas that will enhance the school’s efforts to successfully implement and realize the school’s strategic plan, Vision 2015. The four core areas of Vision 2015 are broad – program, operations, community, innovation – providing teachers ample flexibility to craft an experience that connects with the school’s vision and yet also is connected to individual passions and interests.

This year we have a series of exciting fellowships that we are planning to fund, including:

  • Participation in the Writer’s Workshop and Reader’s Workshop training at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University for eleven Lower School teachers
  • Participation in the John Hunter Master Class, to be hosted on campus in mid-August, providing our three Middle School Social Studies teachers an opportunity to ask important questions about building genuine problem-solving curricula, understanding the role of the teacher, and empowering and engaging students to make a difference
  • Independent technology-related initiatives, including science teacher Christa Flores who is proposing to create an eTextbook, English teacher Tom Bonoma who is seeking to do Khan-academy style video lessons for grammar, and Technology Director Don Orth and a team of teachers who are looking to kick-off next year’s Technology Audit with several days of exploration and collaboration this summer
  • Participation in the Georgetown Day School Equity Collaborative for several administrators and teachers as a kick-off for next year’s scheduled Inclusivity Audit
  • Membership to the Tech Shop for three teachers who are hoping to nurture their “inner Tinkerers” which in turn will help us build innovative programming in design thinking and the arts
  • Participation in The African Performing Arts Workshop in Ghana for LS music teacher Roberta Lipson to deepen her understanding of African music and dance and augment our already excellent Orff-Schulwerk program
  • Support for unofficial school historian Paul DiMarco to develop a history walk on campus, building on the remarkable work he has done with both the recent movie and book about the school’s history

The Walk-a-Thon provides an opportunity for students and families to support the lifelong learning of our teachers.  As always, we are striving for 100 percent participation by students and families. Any amount makes a difference.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to visit the website and set up a Fundly account for your child. It is quick and easy and a great way to encourage friends and family to sponsor your child as they seek to raise money to support our talented teachers.

We hope that all students will be inspired to raise some money to help support the continuing education and growth of their teachers. Each day our teachers inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. This summer, let’s help our teachers continue to seek out and achieve their own dreams.

Mar 232012

Be curious.

It is the second of our four core values but the one, I sense, least discussed. Take Risks resonates strongly amidst the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, and Be Kind is at the tip of many a parent’s and teacher’s tongue. As for Be Your Best, I always offer it as my parting shot at Flag, and it is easy to invoke when talking to children who are doing something especially well or, perhaps, acting in a way that doesn’t reflect their best selves.

Curiosity, however, sometimes seems to fall through the cracks. Its importance, however, should not be underestimated. After all, isn’t the root of problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity – indeed, all learning – curiosity?

The recent results of the Science Audit reaffirm the many strengths of our science program, while also providing some clear suggestions about how we can make our program even better. In the process, it also reminded me of the central role of curiosity in our program.

The Science Audit Committee, chaired by 7/8 science teacher Brian Ravizza and Director of Summer, After-School & CTE Programs Elizabeth Deitz, conducted a thorough review of our science program. The committee compared our approach and curriculum to programs in other top Bay Area schools (visiting Harker, Castilleja, Marin Country Day School and others), reviewed surveys from parents and alumni, consulted the National Science Standards, reached out to parent focus groups, and spent significant time reflecting as a group on how they could take a good program and make it even better.

One outcome of the process was the clear delineation of the skills and understanding we expect from a Hillbrook graduate: an understanding of the core concepts of science, the ability to apply the scientific method and write a formal lab report, an understanding of design thinking and its application, and a healthy degree of skepticism.

Survey responses from graduates of the Class of 2011 offers encouraging news about how well we are currently meeting these goals, with 100 percent of respondents saying that they strongly agree/agree that Hillbrook prepared them in understanding scientific concepts, and 95 percent of respondents saying that they strongly agree/agree that Hillbrook prepared them in designing and conducting independent experiments, understanding and using the scientific method, and producing a written lab report.

During the audit, other strengths of the program also became apparent. Hillbrook is one of the few schools in the Bay Area with a dedicated science lab and science specialists from the earliest grades, a robust garden program, and a burgeoning program in design thinking.  Perhaps the greatest strength is how the school nurtures a genuine sense of inquiry, encouraging our children to be curious, ask good questions, and actively engage in the process of finding the answers.

The committee also identified several areas to focus that will help us strengthen our program. Key recommendations include:

  • Further integrate physics, particularly engineering & Design Thinking, into our program
  • Increase the amount of classtime dedicated to science in 5th grade
  • Develop JK-4 and 5-8 science notebooks, which will allow students and teachers to capture the growth in scientific understanding and skills of our children as they move through the program
  • Create new opportunities to highlight and support student engagement in science, including the creation of science showcases like an “Invention Convention” and increased participation in outside scientific competitions
  • Collaborate with a landscape architect to enhance our outdoor learning spaces and further strengthen our garden and sustainability program
  • Create a network through LinkedIn to help facilitate connections between our many parents in scientific fields and our teachers and students

As a school, we believe that these recommendations will help us take what is already a strong program and make it a showcase program in Silicon Valley. Furthermore, the strong support of the parent community at the auction will give us a running start on the implementation process. We are hugely grateful for the more than $85,000 we raised through the fund-a-need that will be used directly to support the science program.

Toward the end of the audit presentation at the most recent HSPC meeting, one of our parents observed that that the audit process itself was a wonderful model for what we hope to see our children doing. As a school, we have developed a way to look intensively at a program, analyze it from all directions, gather feedback from key stakeholders, explore how other schools are structuring their programs, reflect upon what we are seeing and learning, and then offer recommendations of what we can do to further strengthen the programs in the years ahead.

The process affirms the passion our faculty feel for what they do, their natural curiosity about what is happening at other good schools, their willingness to take risks and try new things, and their commitment to being the best they can be as individuals and as a school. It is gratifying to see the Hillbrook motto – especially the injunction to Be Curious – works for the entire community.

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 (http://www.hillbrook.org/discover/ms) 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.