2020 and Clear Vision

A lot of people are talking about 2020 as the year of clear vision, and I like it.  I want to see clearly this year.  Easier said than done.  Am I the only one who can hear the voice of my biggest critic louder than my supporters?

Seriously, there could be 10 people telling me that they appreciate me, that they love my work, and that they are thankful for various initiatives I’ve led, and I will feel appreciated in the moment but replay the opposite feedback in my head…over and over and over.  I think it comes down to this for me…

It is an important value of mine to treat all people with respect and equitable care.  So when that critic raises concerns, I truly want to listen.  I also truly want them to see that I am not an ass, when maybe I should just focus on making sure they feel appreciated and valued while letting their opinions go.  Valuing the person while disagreeing with their perspectives is hard.  Really hard.  Isn’t easier to just write the person off altogether, or work to win their approval?  What will it look like to value the person while letting their hurtful words fall like snowflakes on warm ground, disappearing as if they never existed?

That is what it will take for me to have clear vision in 2020.

First Annual State of the School Address

Madame Interim School Leader, Honored Board Members, Faculty, and Staff:

Inspire Academy is a place of belonging, a place where we unite around a shared mission and work to ensure all students are empowered to achieve more than they dream possible. We are now in our sixth year of providing gifted education to everyone and aiming to empower students on the margins to be at the center of the educational endeavor in this country. We started this school to provide an inquiry-based option in contrast to the prevailing educational norms, which often seek to conform all students to a uniform way of learning, to iron out diversity.

We have faced many challenges over the years. Many assumed that another educational option would never open in Muncie, that a grassroots organization with a shoe-string budget and big dreams could never make a genuine impact in the educational climate of our community, that a diverse body of educators and students would not rise to the challenge of exceeding expectations and sowing seeds of hope. However, in every challenge, whether in regard to facilities, enrollment, staffing, finances, or leadership, we have not only risen to the challenge but we have exceeded expectations. The same is true for this transitional season right now. We are so thankful to Bridget Duggleby for her leadership during this season and to all of you for your commitment to this mission. We are not going anywhere. We are re-upping our commitment to this unique and important mission.

Inspire Academy has never been stronger than we are right now. I have watched Inspire Academy grow over the past year from feeling dependent on one person to mobilizing independently and steadily, able to weather the storms of life. As a team, we have increased our student retention rate from 62% to 80%. Our ability to keep students with us longer is foundational to our students’ academic success, as our approach is aiming at long-term improvement, not quick fixes, and I congratulate all of you who have worked hard to improve this retention rate through improved family communications and higher quality educational practices.

Our students continue to create complex, authentic products for authentic audiences. Within the past year, we have seen students create stationary, informational pamphlets, seed packets, public service announcements, and representations of real-world data, to name a few. Our students continue to engage in meaningful work, work they will encounter in the professional world, work that fans the flame of their natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure.

We have implemented several systems to facilitate continuous improvement of the educational programming at our school. We have added Kickboard, a program that holds us as adults accountable to give more positive feedback than negative feedback to students. The evidence and research are clear – instances of affirmative feedback must outnumber instances of corrective feedback if we are going to be able to hear the corrective feedback and be able to translate it into positive improvement. This is true of adults and children alike! With data from Kickboard, we are learning how to use more positive feedback for improvement.

We have implemented the EL Curriculum and Literacy Block, both foundational to our students becoming effective readers, writers, and researchers who can contribute to a better world through expeditions, projects, and products. We are meeting learners where they are in their literacy journey and prioritizing time and space for students to receive the literacy support they need, with learners of various ages. We have implemented Bridges in Mathematics, a more user-friendly curriculum for elementary. We have identified Power Standards, standards that, if focused on regularly and prioritized, have the power to move student outcomes both on standardized tests and high quality work.

And most recently, but certainly not most insignificantly, we have added the Apex Virtual Learning platform in middle school, a platform that will facilitate students becoming leaders of their own learning through core curriculum with the support of teachers as guides in the learning and exploration process. The system provides immediate feedback in the form of grades and progress monitoring for teachers, students, and parents…a much needed piece for students to grow and make visible academic gains. We have also very recently added event coordinating as a separate duty, with additional compensation, to ensure that family and social activities continue to grow as a priority to build a sense of community and belonging as students get older and are looking for more school events.

The work we have chosen is not easy work, and there are challenges that lie ahead. We are committed to solving problems that our nation has never solved – namely that we have a public education system that values all young citizens having access to a free education while often not disrupting patterns of marginalization and the prioritization of some students over others. These are not easy problems to solve, but I know that we are up for the challenge. My goals for Inspire Academy for the coming years are simple but not easy:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond.
  2. We will increase test scores until we are above average.
  3. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work.

How we accomplish these goals is anything but simple:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond. Elements of our school that increase enrollment must be prioritized. Enrollment is our bread and butter, as well as the way we reach more students with our mission. Financially speaking, at about $7,000 per student, we cannot afford another year of low enrollment. Missionally speaking, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are well beyond 50 more students in Muncie who would do better at Inspire than elsewhere. Prioritizing enrollment will include:
  • Consistent communication of events and achievements
  • Improving and expanding our sports and arts programming
  • Adding predictable cycles of fieldwork and summer adventure trips that make kids yearn to participate
  • More social family events
  • Decisions based on the felt needs of families and students
  • Flexible class sizes

We must become an organization built with systems and structures that do not change based on who is in the organization in a given year. As a people-centered organization, we have taken a lot of hits as people come and go. Life is hard, mobility is regular part of the technological age, and people are fickle. (Sometimes we need to just jump in a bus-turned-RV and drive away for our own sanity!) In the following months, we will create and adjust positions and structures to meet the needs of students rather than the needs of adults. Then, we will find adults who want to plug into those positions and structures, and we are hoping that all of the adults in this room choose to do just that!

  1. We will increase test scores until we are above average. Leadership structures must improve. The addition of an Executive Director position was a good start to increase efficacy and sustainability, but additional shifts need to be made.

What will this look like?

  • When hiring a replacement for our Interim School Leader, we will change the title to Principal and limit the duties of the position to those more typical associated with a principal position, directed and guided closely by our Executive Director.
  • We will dissolve what was previously called “School Leadership Team,” a team that is unclear on its role and, as a result, tries to fit too much into short, limited meetings. We will replace SLT with two different teams, an Executive Advisory Team and a group of Professional Learning Community (PLC) Team Leads. Members of the Executive Advisory Team will be appointed by the Executive Director for one year, renewable terms. This team will serve as a sounding board for big picture decisions and shifts made by the Executive Director of the organization. PLC Team Leads will be appointed jointly by the Executive Director and Principal (Interim School Leader for now) for one year, renewable terms based on academic outcomes as measured by standardized tests and/or student portfolios of work. This team will lead the work of instructional improvement in classrooms.

In order to meet our goal of increasing test scores until we are above average, we must also codify and improve our multi-tiered systems of support. This is a large part of our work plan this year and will continue into next year. Bridget and I have mapped out a 30-week process for deep implementation of academic support and intervention to ensure all students meet growth targets. Through PLCs, led by PLC Team Leads who follow a focused calendar of planning and implementation, we will spend 30 weeks improving our multi-tiered systems of support and making sure we do it well.

  1. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work. In order to ensure students are achieving at competitive levels academically, identifying agreed upon standards of academic outcomes is necessary. In an organization that is working toward educational reform and continuing to pushback on standardized tests as the definition of all student achievement, we often fail to define what we will honor as accurate and reliable measurements of student achievement. We need to define clear expectations for complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity as a supplemental measurement to standardized test data. Replacing a mono-dimensional measurement of student achievement with no measurement of student achievement is not in the best interest of kids. We must define these things, and we must ensure teachers achieve measurable outcomes with students.

Empowering a diverse body of students with an internationally competitive education by fostering students’ natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure is a monstrous mission, a mission we believe is tremendously important for the success of our students, the health of our city, and the progress of our world. We have been doing this hard work for several years now, and the growth is evident.

One example of this growth is the story of Kara Baugues. She joined the Inspire Crew as a parent on day one of year one, and then she joined us as a staff member for year two. She saw in our school an opportunity for her children to receive an education they can receive nowhere else in Muncie, one that honors critical thinking and deep discussion, one that honors growth regardless of disability, one that teaches habits along with facts, and one that values all students as equals in deed, not just words. As a parent, Kara now has her oldest earning a 4.0 at one of the most esteemed high schools in Muncie and 3 girls developing into young ladies who can read and write with impact. As a staff member, Kara has gone from managing a room well (she has always had a knack for this piece) to doing it with confidence and fewer self-doubts. She has gone from focusing primarily on behavior to focusing primarily on academic outcomes, and her students’ are benefitting from this shift, surpassing average growth targets on NWEA and moving toward closing achievement gaps.

Another example of the growth and impact of our organization can be seen in the Pickett family. Brittany Pickett joined our organization months before opening this great school as my administrative assistant..formerly a bank teller. Brittany and I were the ONLY administrative positions – imagine running a school not much smaller than it is today with just Brittany and Bridget – no Paul, no Emily, no Emilie, no ED. As you can imagine, she and I both grew very quickly in this sink or swim environment! Over the years, Brittany’s responsibilities and leadership have grown, and her title and position have followed. Her family has also grown in size and in mission. By year 3, Harry Pickett joined the team as a TA while working on a degree in education, becoming a Teacher Fellow by year 5. The mission is contagious. Also in year 5, the little guy who had been at our ankles when we opened was now coming to Inspire in uniform for his big kindergarten debut and has been thriving here ever since.

The list could go on simply from families represented in our staff – the Oldfields, the Carpenters, the Stouts, the Drapers, the Dugglebys, Julie and her kiddo and Veronica and her kiddo joining us recently – each of these families will testify of belonging, of the foundational difference in thinking that our children have gained from their time here at Inspire, time that we wouldn’t trade for the world! And there are all the examples of kids and families not in this room – from a student who came with an IEP with an accommodation of “not requiring him to speak” and Inspire shattering those low expectations, paving the way for that same student becoming a presenter in front of a large audience of strangers before he left us – to the student who has grown from the 2nd percentile to the 25th percentile in reading over the course of his years here. These students exemplify Inspire’s journey – we’ve come a mighty long way…and we have a long road ahead if we are truly going to shatter glass ceilings for our students!

Join with me today and into the coming years! We must be unified. We must up our commitment to ensuring our students achieve more than we dream possible…or we must change professions. This means hard work. This means confronting improvements head on and not gossiping about challenges. This means long hours. This means non-profit pay scale. This means planning a lifestyle of healthy habits to keep ourselves at our best for the sake of those we serve. And this means doing it all joyfully because we chose this work!

This also means making a tangible difference in the lives of families and children. This also means having a role in dismantling systems within public education that devalue those with less privilege. This also means going home every night knowing you’ve done all in your power to make the world a better place. This work also means great feelings of pride when you see a child share meaningful content in a professional way at Exhibition Night. This work means being involved in student projects that restore the natural world. This means being an advocate and an ally. This means you get to speak into people’s lives and watch them grow and achieve more than they dreamt was possible.

Lives are at stake…the lives of the children we serve, and we cannot let them down. I hope each and every one of you will rally around these next steps in continuing the momentum and upping the quality of this important work. We are Inspire. We have high expectations, and those high expectations with adequate supports in place to meet those expectations are what will propel our students forward to experience deeper and broader success. Thank you for your service, and thank you for being fully present this afternoon. We will now open the floor for questions. Please text your questions to Emily Franks. She will take your texts and organize them into consolidated questions in the interest of covering as much as possible in the time available.

Sabbath is Completion

Some people say that the number seven is the number of completion.  Today I am enjoying the feeling of being done.  It’s been a busy few weeks of preparations for Inspire Academy’s Giving Gala and our float in the BSU homecoming parade.  When I got home mid-day today after the parade, I realized that I was done my work and that there was nothing else that needed to be done right away.  What a great way to rest!

As a school leader, the work was never done.  There was always a to-do list longer than the time needed to get it done, and with every tasked ticked off, three more were added.  There were always people waiting to hear from me, people who needed something from me.  In education, we’re focused on continuous improvement.  After all, that is what the educational process is all about – constantly growing, changing, and developing new skills and insights.

I am keenly aware today that one of the gifts of this sabbath year is being able to enjoy the feeling of being finished.  I haven’t felt that in years, and it brings great satisfaction and relaxation.  Even though there are busy weeks, I get to the end, and they are done.  I’m not staring down the next busy week that’s about to take the wind out of me.

So, here’s to completion!  Whether it be marking the end of a season (school envisioned, opened, and in its second charter term – check!), the end of a few important events (giving gala, homecoming parade – check!), a benchmark in my kids’ education (met our academic goals by fall break – check!), it feels good to be done!

Room to Grow: Allowing Children to Become Experts

We spent some time at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture recently. I am always amazed and inspired by experts in any field who endlessly dive deeply into a subject, with love, passion, and purpose, unveiling important discoveries and sharing perspective-changing experiences. Today was no exception; I was awestruck by everything from geological diversity to masterful playing of ancient instruments. But I was also saddened, mourning the many genius discoveries that we miss out on because of our nation’s approach to education.

One of the ideals I set out to pursue in my work in educational leadership was deeper learning rather than broad, surface-level learning. I wanted to allow children, yes, even young children, to become experts who could know a field deeply and share their learning with others. It works! Kids love it; adults are awestruck by the amazing young brains that know more than the adults on their topic. But it doesn’t work…because we also want kids to know a little bit about a lot…and in the process we slowly suffocate that inner curiosity of so many students because they are not curious about the “right” things, the things our nation has deemed necessary for every single little human being to know. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that every little human being should learn to read and write and calculate simple equations because these are skills needed for a comfortable standard of living in modern society. But what diseases have we not conquered? What life-saving technology do we not yet have? What international miscommunication persists? All because so many young minds have checked out for lack of interest in this broad knowledge and skills base we insist every little human must muscle through and conquer regardless of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions.

Some say we shouldn’t limit young children by allowing them to become fully absorbed in one interest.   Oh, friends, but this isn’t limiting them. Interests and passions ebb and flow. Many adults change careers multiple times. To learn to think deeply, commit to a course of study, and become an expert is a gift. Why do you think the phrases “geeking out” and “what do you geek” are trending? Because everyone enjoys pursuing an interest deeply, no matter how fleeting the interest or temporary the season! And have you read the studies about prior knowledge, reading levels, and domain specific vocabularies?   Research indicates that children who are well versed in a topic will demonstrate higher levels of proficiency reading complex texts and higher levels of content recall when reading about that topic. This means allowing students to become experts in something they love increases their reading skills. For more information on the idea that knowing a subject deeply increases one’s ability to interact with complex texts, check out Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory of Text by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie or The Challenge of Advanced Texts: The Interdependence of Reading and Learning by Marilyn Jagger Adams.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not sure how to accomplish this in mass through public education, but I dream of participating in a society committed to getting there. I want legislators, educators, and industry leaders to commit to working together to empower our youngest citizens to become experts rather than generalists, to pursue becoming experts in things that interest them, and in so doing, to unleash the power of the many young citizens that society has limited by trying to make them masters of everything instead of allowing them to become world-changing experts at something that ignites the fire of learning within them.