The President's Blog

The Pace of Change in Education and at Hill-Murray
Jim Hansen

I have respected the work of Dr. Ted Kolderie for many years. He, and the organizations he led, have been community leaders that took on issues that were critical to the success of a functioning society but where the root cause was often a tangled web of social, economic and political value systems so “deep seated” that addressing them required the thoughtful, engaged work of a cross section of societal leaders.

Dr. Kolderie recently authored an article in the Star Tribune that addressed the almost five-decade old debate on what is needed in schools to accelerate innovative ideation and adoption of those ideas that address the core issue of student engagement that leads to them being prepared to succeed in a rapidly evolving economy.

Dr. Kolderie states and Academic research supports, that the future of education is more personalized, more rigorous, and more flexible. But most importantly, the leadership for student learning must come from teachers.

As a former public school teacher, board member and University Faculty for three decades, I have seen firsthand the political difficulty of moving an educational institution and the faculty at a pace that would allow it to address the changes occurring rapidly in the environment.

The Hill-Murray strategic plan which was developed four years ago, emphasized innovation, rigor, personalization and flexibility, while supporting innovative ideation and encouraging teachers to take on the important responsibility of driving the differentiated, culturally-sensitive learning process for students.

 

Supporting Innovation

In 2016 Hill-Murray formed the Lasallian Grant program in honor of the Christian Brothers who founded Hill High School and whose charism is dedication to teaching. That fund targeted at $2 million at maturity now has raised $1.1 million and is supporting grants for teachers. Some of these grants have been used to start clubs (Aquaponics), develop a Virtual Reality lab, pay for teachers to visit Civil War sites and enhance their curriculum, fund “escape room” experiments, purchase software that reviews spelling and grammar, and many others.

As those ideas are put into practice, the successful ones are adopted organically by peers and then must earn their way into our normal school funding cycle. This is an example of leadership supporting a climate of innovation at the front lines to engage students.

 

Rigor

As a school we adopted our composite ACT score as a measure of our preparation of students for college. Our goal was to have our average student in the top 15% of all students who took the test in any given year. As a faculty and leadership team we all agree this alone is an insufficient measurement of rigor. We still celebrate that we have increased our average ACT score for each of the past four years.

We track other measures as well: growth in college credits earned; the amount of college scholarships offered; and are looking for other ways to measure our success at building emotional intelligence and values. This is still an area for us to improve upon so that we can demonstrate that we are actually making a difference.

 

Personalization

Our entire faculty has been trained in differentiation as part of their staff development to support the initiation of The Nicholas Center and last year we welcomed Dr. Sharroky Hollie, a national leader on Culturally Responsive Learning. He is working with us throughout the year to integrate his ground-breaking work into the “tool box” of our educators.

We started Tech and Entrepreneurship certification programs, have received a grant to start a Science, Technology and Engineering Director position, a Clinical Psychologist position, and are working on a certification program in Design. A Health Care certificate is still in the workplan for completion by 2020-21.

We expanded our summer programming so students could take credits or electives they might not otherwise have access to. Similarly, we started a Scholars Program that allows students who have a specific area of interest to have a more flexible schedule to develop their passion (starting later in the day or finishing early in the day).

Luckily, adopting this concern and worrying about what is best for each student was always part of the culture of the school. Institutionalizing this has not been as easy or swift as I would like, but we are on the path.

 

Flexibility

Flexibility and efficiency can be deadly enemies. Standardization and large scale is certainly the model of many public schools, with class sizes as large as 800 or 1000, even though the “ideal” cohort size is closer to 200. They can be very efficient, but will they be effective if personalization is the path forward? Each student needs to be Known, Loved and Respected to make a new way forward work, and that requires an agile culture which is more prevalent in a startup environment than it is in a 70 year old institution.

We are working to build a growth-oriented mindset into all our systems and culture but like all private Catholic schools we work with limited budgets and a strong desire to offer students from diverse, challenged economic communities access, which govern the speed of change.

I am a “car guy” so I loved the article’s analogy that public education is like a “shift stick car stuck in first gear that will go no faster.” We have made the shift to second gear and are building the institution so that when the time comes to shift to a higher gear, we will be ready. I only wish we could get there sooner.

 

Faculty Focused On Student Learning

The article by Dr. Kolderie is emphatic that success in the educational system must start with the school focusing on ways to build professional accountability and responsibilities into the role of teaching. To motivate teachers who in return will motivate students. The article goes on to say, “Teachers will change a school more dramatically than Boards will” when it comes to reaching the individual child.

To that end, we started a Leadership Congress two years ago. This group was formed with diverse faculty (younger, more mature, multiple disciplines) to work with the leadership team to develop a performance review system that is simultaneously evidence-based and comprehensive, including feedback from multiple peer members and leadership feedback. We added student feedback to that review system last year and in the future, we will include parent feedback; and someday - total transparency to all parties. The Leadership Congress restructured our school start time and school schedule to build in flexibility, are driving our Advisory period curriculum and supporting the initiation of a school-wide curriculum review cycle.

We have come a long way but still have a long way to go if we are going to compete with Amazon-funded schools. Those institutions would be fanatical about the student experience and rigorous in providing the data to make decisions at every touch point.

Dr. Kolderie says that faculty leadership is the answer to accelerating the pace of change and at Hill-Murray, we are well down the path. As a leadership team we are committed to working with the Leadership Congress, accelerating the pace of change that directly impacts student engagement, improving our outcomes and assists us in developing students who make significant contributions to the world.