Apr 252015

I watched our core values come to life before my eyes on Monday at Flag.

It started with a short presentation about Nicaragua. Spanish teacher Josyane Kelly and four students – Prianca (‘15), Nikhil (‘16), Sharanya (’16), and Isabel (‘15). – shared reflections from their recent 8-day service learning trip in Nicaragua. Students spoke about the powerful lessons they had learned while helping to build a foundation, literally, for a new school in the community of Tipitapa, Nicaragua. Students worked extraordinarily hard during the trip, moving rocks, connecting rebar, hauling water, mixing cement. They became friends with and worked alongside children and families in the community, gaining an appreciation for how these people, despite extreme poverty, continued to live lives filled with laughter and friendship. Nikhil noted that despite never having experienced air conditioning in extremely hot and humid conditions and living with limited food and resources, these community members exuded a spirit and generosity that inspired all of the students to give more of themselves.

Next up was a group of student leaders from Girls Learn International (GLI), sharing highlights from their educational fundraiser the week before. The four girls – Natalie (‘16), Melody, and Polina (‘18)-  explained the importance of GLI’s work – raising awareness about the critical need to support girls education – and talked about the successful event they had hosted, where students, parents, teachers and administrators came together to learn about the challenges girls face in receiving an education in many parts of the world. They celebrated the successful collection of a little more than $300 through sales of drinks and snacks, money that will be provided to GLI so that they can support efforts to improve educational opportunities for girls around the globe.

Five 8th graders then stepped forward to share their reflections. Brandon talked about shifting friendships through the years, sharing stories about students he had “disliked” in 2nd or 3rd grade who later became his closest friends during his Middle School years. He pointed out the importance of keeping an open mind and of the role that other people had played in helping him to reform relationships with his classmates. Nico, who has only been at Hillbrook for one year, talked about the incredibly warm and welcoming community he found at Hillbrook, and how fortunate he feels to have been able to share his 8th grade year with our community. Justin and Prianca talked separately about the friendship they had with each other, providing related but different insights into the humorous events that had pulled them together and the powerful lessons they had gained from their deep and supportive connection. Charlie reflected on the first joke he told at Flag – the classic “Knock, Knock” banana joke – and the inspiration it had given him to want to be up on stage one day helping to lead Flag. Despite not winning an election in 5th or 6th grade – and only winning in 7th grade when no one ran against him – he continued to believe in himself and he took the risk to run for co-Head, an election he won.

Finally, a group of 6th graders – Alisa, Clara, Yohann, and Zach – reminded people about the African Library Project, one of the school’s long-standing service learning projects. Since 2009, our school has collected enough books to create 10 libraries in Malawi, and our goal once again this year is to collect enough books to seed two new libraries in the year ahead. In addition to encouraging people to donate books, the 6th graders sponsored a bake sale this week raising $590 to cover the cost of shipping the books to Africa.

Listening to each of these student presentations, I was inspired by their poise, their humor, and their commitment to something bigger than themselves. They are kind to each other and to people who they have only just met. Several of them clearly possess a wisdom about relationships and friendship which is wise beyond their years. They are curious, eager to learn about the world, and they are risk-takers, willing to take risks both on and off-campus. They are committed to being their best and to do things that make the world better. They offer powerful evidence that in numerous ways and across the grades our students are continually finding ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference.

This was one Flag – similar to many other Flags I have been privileged to attend through the years – and it reminded me yet again of why I do what I do. These remarkable young people are gaining the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to succeed in school and in life. I have no doubt they are going to change the world. Indeed, as we all could see on Monday, they have already started.

Apr 032015
A few weeks ago, a 2nd grader and his mother approached me at drop-off on Monday morning. As he eagerly looked on, she asked if I could call on him for a joke at Flag that day. She quickly explained that this would be his first joke he had ever told at Flag. Twenty minutes later he stood in front of the entire community, introduced himself, and then told his joke. I don’t remember the joke itself, but I won’t soon forget the smile on his face.

I thought of him these last few days as I watched our 8th graders acting, dancing, and singing their way across the stage during this year’s 8th grade production of “Peter Pan.” The show was fantastic, providing a wonderful showcase for the talented young people that our 8th graders have become. Many of our students have only limited musical theater experience, but under the careful guidance of Director Elisabeth Crabtree and her patient and talented team of adults, and with the can-do confidence of a Hillbrook education coursing through their veins, the students brought the house down both nights. Whether singing solos and playing leading roles or belting out songs as part of the chorus, they proved yet again that there are no small parts in theater. Just like my young 2nd grade friend, many of these children had first found there way onto stage telling a joke.

I had the privilege of spending part of each performance backstage in the green room. Here, I witnessed the students working as a cohesive team, helping each other with costumes and props, cheering each group as they rushed off stage, reminding each other about what was up next. Several seventh graders served as stagehands. Other than a few of us who were doing cameos in the show, there were rarely any adults to be seen. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Elisabeth and a group of teachers and parents had worked tirelessly to set up the show. For several months, they have put all of the pieces into place. Yet, when the house lights dimmed and the spotlight came on, the adults stepped back into the wings and allowed the students to shine.

It is, in many ways, a perfect analogy for what we are all striving to do as parents. We spend our children’s early years creating opportunities and partnering with teachers and other trusted adults with the hope that our children will develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to thrive on their own. The older they get, the more we have to step back and let go. The transition can be challenging, particularly during Middle School, leaving us as parents with a sense of loss for the young children who had just a few years before rushed into our arms or snuggled with us at night. Watching the 8th graders both on and off the stage, however, provided the joy of getting a glimpse into both the independent, talented, and impressive adults these young people will be in only a few years, and the sometimes goofy, enthusiastic, and earnest adolescents that they still are today.

During the show, Peter Pan and his Lost Boys declare, “We won’t grow up.” Quite to the contrary, over the past few days, these young people have grown up right before our eyes. In just a few months they will be leaving Hillbrook. I have no doubt they are ready and prepared to fly.

Mark Silver
Head of School
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.

Feb 062015

Photo by quintanomedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Monday evening our family did what we try to do every year on February 2 – celebrate one of our favorite holidays by watching one of our all-time favorite movies, “Groundhog Day”. For those who do not remember it, the movie tells the story of Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), a weather forecaster who finds himself stuck reliving Groundhog Day over and over and over.

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is a self-centered and cynical weatherman forced to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The one day visit turns into an endless loop in which he finds himself waking up each morning to the same song and stuck in a perpetual cycle of reliving Groundhog Day. Initially, he tries to use the situation to his advantage, taking knowledge of what is going to happen each day to do things like steal money from the back of a bank truck or convince people to do things for him. The emptiness of these efforts eventually leads him to try to end it all, only to find himself incapable of even doing that. No matter what he does, he finds himself waking up, the clock at 6 am, “I’ve got you babe,” playing on the radio.

Eventually, Phil shifts his focus in two ways. First, he decides to focus on improving himself, taking piano lessons and learning how to create ice sculptures, for example. Second, he starts to focus on helping others. We see Phil timing his walk down a sidewalk just in time to ensure he catches a boy falling out of a tree, kneeling in the street with a jack and tire iron to change the flat tire of a group of older woman, performing the Heimlich on a man who is choking on a piece of steak. Phil learns about every person in the town, spending the time to find out what each person needs and striving to spend his entire day making each person’s life better. In the end, his producer falls in love with Phil because he is a truly good person and Phil, after what seems like thousands of days, finally wakes up on February 3, freed from his endless Groundhog Day loop.

Watching this past week, I was struck once again that Phil’s resolution happens when he develops a growth mindset and, at least to my mind, embraces Hillbrook’s core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best. Phil shifts from a cynical and selfish individual, to a generous and kindhearted person focused on reaching beyond himself to make a difference in the world. Only when he truly becomes selfless, when he realizes his ability to be his best, does he fall in love and find himself released from his one-day prison.

This Monday morning at Flag I wished everyone Happy Groundhog Day and noted that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, meaning that we are in for six more weeks of winter. While I suspect that very few of us are overly concerned about an extended winter – indeed, if anything, we are all hopeful that a longer winter might bring more rain! – I know myself that keeping tabs on the most famous groundhog in America each year is actually just an excuse for re-watching a classic movie and for reminding myself of the importance of striving each day to be the best person I can be.

To the groundhog.

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.

Dec 122014

Tuesday morning, I reached into my box and pulled out an envelope. Inside, a card greeted me with the following message:

“My Dear Hillbrook Friends, Here is my contribution for our school. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a joyous and prosperous New Year. With all my love, Richerd Cancila.”

Enclosed was a $25 check. As I read the card, I was struck by the following phrase “our school.” Nearly 70 years after graduating, Richerd – The Children’s Country School’s (Hillbrook’s original name) first student and a graduate of the Class of 1946 – remains deeply connected to the school, retaining the same strong sense of ownership that he has always felt for this place and this community. Each month Richerd sends a card with a $25 check.

Last week at the opening session for the People of Color Conference (POCC), NAIS President John Chubb talked about a school, Cathedral School on the Upper East Side in New York City, where he said it was clear that every child mattered. He described a school that was by the standard indicators of independent schools intentionally diverse, with nearly 40 percent of students identifying as students of color and 37 percent of its students receiving tuition assistance. He noted the school’s commitment to producing “citizens of the world,” and highlighted their identity curriculum. As he later wrote in his blog for NAIS:

“Starting in kindergarten, teachers help students, very deliberately, appreciate the similarities and differences among them, and the simple dignity of every child. As students mature, they come to appreciate every difference, including family structure, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. As I visited classrooms, one teacher shared with me a recent conversation with a group of second-graders in which they volunteered differences. One student said, “Money.” The teacher asked for more: “You know, apartments, cars, toys; not everybody has the same things.”

At Hillbrook, we are also intentionally diverse, with 34 percent of our students identifying as people of color and nearly 20 percent of our students receiving tuition assistance. Our commitment to diversity harkens back to our earliest days when the majority of our students, like Richerd, were wards of the state, students who, without Hillbrook, would not have had the opportunities that would help them succeed in school and beyond. Like Cathedral, we have, since our beginnings, been committed to creating an environment where every child matters and where all families feel a full sense of ownership.

A key part of nurturing that strong sense of community is continually reflecting upon ways in which we are or are not meeting the challenge to ensure that all children feel like they matter. In order to do that, we need to create a culture in which children are allowed to be their own people and where difference is recognized, understood, appreciated and valued. Understanding and appreciating differences starts in the many ways in which we strive to know each child and each family, but it goes beyond that, as we look to educate children about differences and to teach them about ways in which inequity and injustice still persist today in our country and around the world. In addition, we strive to teach our students about the opportunities, and the challenges, that different people have faced both historically and today due to differences. During POCC, I heard several extraordinary speakers who told their stories about how difference impacted their lives. Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American comedian with cerebral palsy, joked that she has 99 problems and palsy is just one of them. “I’m Palestinian, I’m disabled, I’m female and I live in New Jersey.” She also noted how she had persisted in spite of these challenges and how her father had always told her, “If I can can, you can can.” As she said, “The doctor said I wouldn’t walk, but I’m here in front of you. If we had more positive images [of handicapped people], it might foster less hate on the internet … If I can can, you can can.”

The conference opened the morning after the recent grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case in New York and in the wake of the nationwide conversation about Ferguson. Participants at the conference talked formally and informally about the historical and contemporary roots of contentious police relationships with communities of color, and about the continuing need for our communities and our society to challenge our students to think about racism and prejudice today. Inspired by the experience and realizing the importance of engaging our students in these critical conversations, Middle School history resident Jules Findlay, who was part of the nine-person Hillbrook delegation that attended the conference, and 7/8 history teacher Jenn Gingery helped guide their students through a two-day conversation about Ferguson and the related issues earlier this week. As Jules noted in a conversation with some members of our faculty earlier this week, she knew that we as a school have an obligation to create spaces for these types of difficult dialogues, particularly with our oldest students. Other teachers who attended the conference echoed similar sentiments about the need to find age-appropriate ways to have conversations about diversity and inclusivity.

The Inclusivity Task Force, which is made up of Board members, parents, and members of the faculty and staff, is actively working to revise the school’s Statement of Inclusivity and to create a 3-5 year strategic road map to help us nurture an increasingly inclusive community. As a school, we continue to engage this conversation in multiple ways because we know that the work of inclusivity, diversity and community building is never done. I hope that, like Richerd, all members of our community feel like they are coming home when they step foot on campus, that every student and every family feels part of our school.

Mark Silver
Head of School