Apr 272016

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

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

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 By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile.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

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

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

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

Jan 272016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mar 132015

Recently, several of us attended the NAIS Conference in Boston. The theme of this year’s conference – Design the Revolution: Blending Learning, Leading & Innovation – made it clear that the conversations we have been having at Hillbrook the past five years are increasingly finding their way onto the national stage. An entire section of the exhibit hall was devoted to Maker Spaces, for example, an affirmation of the Making program we have been developing as a school. Of course, this is a conversation that has been a part of Hillbrook since 1935, when our earliest students built the Village of Friendly Relations – the original Makers Movement project.

Indeed, the conversations we are having about topics including individualized learning, learning spaces, the meaningful use of technology, and making place us squarely in the forefront of a national dialogue that is challenging us to reimagine schools. Furthermore, our attention to the craft of teaching and our focus on professional development has created a team of teachers that are not only participating in but leading these conversations themselves. A few weeks ago, for example, Director of Technology Bill Selak and CTE Research Designer Ilsa Dohmen were featured in a webinar about agile learning spaces that was viewed by more than 250 educators around the world. As another example, this past Monday, more than a dozen Hillbrook administrators and teachers led sessions at the CAIS Conference in Oakland.

One of the more thought-provoking sessions at NAIS involved a panel discussion with four university presidents speaking about the future of higher education. NAIS President John Chubb asked them what elementary, middle and secondary schools should be doing to prepare students for college. President Pamela Gunter-Smith of York College encouraged our schools to focus on two things – preparing students to be part of a community and teaching them the self-advocacy skills needed to be independent, self-confident learners. President Rebecca Chopp from the University of Denver agreed with Gunter-Smith, adding that the students she sees today are less socially mature and self-aware than earlier generations, and that they show a need for instant gratification. She added that schools are seeing incredible rates of depression and anxiety. Chopp also noted that schools are looking for students who can write.

Perhaps the most provocative comments came from Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University. He believes that higher education is beginning to undergo a disruptive change, and argued that in 10-20 years, the entire industry will be different. He believes that technological innovation and the unbundling of what he termed the “coming of age experience” and “education” will lead higher education to become more affordable and accessible. In essence, he noted that business as usual will no longer serve universities well and, by extension, he suggested that all of us in education need to be thinking about how to respond to a rapidly changing world.

The collective comments made me reflect on what I see as Hillbrook’s fortuitous space in the independent school market. Our intentional approach to social emotional learning, our emphasis on collaboration and collective problem solving, and our focus on preparing students not only for school but for life helps our students develop the maturity and self-awareness necessary to be valued members of their future communities. Our rigorous and well-articulated writing program, starting with Writer’s Workshop in the Lower School and evolving into a high-school level analytical writing program in our Middle School, ensures that our students leave well on their way to becoming highly proficient writers. Finally, while we have a storied history and financially stability, we remain entrepreneurial and nimble, continually looking for ways to strengthen our program and willing to take risks and try new things in order to keep ourselves at the leading edge of the educational conversation.

This coming Monday, the first group of 8th graders will share reflections at Flag. This relatively new tradition provides an opportunity for our soon-to-be graduating students to share thoughts about who they are and about where they are at this moment in their lifelong educational journey. Over the course of the remainder of the year, 4-6 students will share reflections at each Flag. I invite you to attend at least one Flag during the remainder of the year as it will offer you a window into the thoughtful, articulate, and talented young people that make up the Class of 2015. Like 78 classes before them and like future classes that will come later, these young people vividly reflect the values that are at the core of the Hillbrook experience.

Knowing these students, I am incredibly optimistic about their future and the future of our school.

Jan 092015

Over the course of the past few months, I have been asking faculty and staff members to review our new “Who We Are” video and to share with me examples from their experiences that exemplify these values – we are curious, we work together, we talk…and we listen, we solve problems, we make things better.

Their stories have inspired me and remind me of the extraordinary educational experience that happens each day for our students. During this past week, these stories have also helped to ground me as I have spent time with Board members and many other members of our community preparing for next week’s Town Council meeting where our appeal of the October Planning Commission decision will be heard. After nearly four years, we are nearing the end of this complex and challenging process.

As I was talking with one of the teachers earlier this week, it occurred to me that our school’s approach to the CUP application provides another exemplar of “who we are.” Throughout this long and sometimes frustrating process, our community has remained resolute, focused on finding a solution that enables the school to better meet our mission while ensuring that we are good neighbors and members of the broader Los Gatos community.

We have retained a growth mindset throughout, hosting numerous meetings with neighborhood groups and showing our willingness to both talk and listen as we have sought creative and meaningful ways to address the concerns of our neighbors. Looking at our proposal today, we have responded directly to the suggestions of our neighbors, including:

  • proposing an all-day count that ensures that traffic will remain at the 2011 baseline level (880 average) in perpetuity. This 2011 baseline represents a 40 percent decrease from traffic levels in the early 2000s.
  • proactively and in good-faith adopting an aggressive Traffic Demand Management program that includes a range of shuttle options and shows the neighborhood and the Town of Los Gatos that we are serious about meeting the proposed all-day count.
  • hiring a staff member to serve as a Transportation Coordinator and placing a traffic support person in the neighborhood each day to ensure we are able to manage traffic proactively and ensure the safety of our students and of the broader Los Gatos community.
  • proactively implementing an all-day counting system that is hosted by a third-party provider and ensures that the Hillbrook community, the Town and the neighborhood will all have a clear and transparent mechanism to monitor the school’s compliance with the new conditions.

I am incredibly proud of how our community has worked together to improve traffic in our neighborhood. It is a testament to the community’s focus on solving problems and making things better and a model for other schools in Los Gatos and beyond.

Next Tuesday, we need our community to come together to share our story and to stand up for Hillbrook. We need to show the Town Council members that we are united in support of our application and that we are serious about our commitment to being good neighbors. We also need to explain to the Town Council that the Planning Commission’s decision to create an 880 cap, instead of an 880 average, significantly impairs our ability to operate as a school. As Board Chair Chuck Hammers and I shared in our letter in early December, a small number of neighbors are no longer focused on finding a fair and reasonable compromise, they are intent on creating conditions that will cripple our school. We cannot allow a small group of people to use misinformation and hysteria to damage our school, a thriving part of the Los Gatos community for the past 79 years.

Who are we?

We are a school that is committed to providing an extraordinary educational experience that inspires students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

We are a school that has asked for a modest increase in enrollment that will allow us to strengthen our program and ensure we can continue to thrive for generations to come.

We are a school that, true to our values, has listened with an open mind to our neighbors and has proactively adopted and implemented a Transportation Demand Management program that will ensure that the school will be able to increase enrollment without increasing traffic.

In the end, we are a school. A school that has served children from Los Gatos and the surrounding area for 79 years, and that will continue to serve children for generations to come. Each day that I walk around campus and see children and teachers at work and at play, I am reminded what an engaging, vibrant, and joyful place it is.