Monday, September 28, 2009

On Service Learning

Where do we find the “learning” in “service learning”?  Over the years, programs like ours have evolved from what used to be called “community service” to what we now call “service learning,” reflecting the importance of reflection to the experience of doing good works in the world.  Our 2008 Strategic Plan includes as a major action step to “further identify and develop service learning opportunities” in support of the overall goal”  “St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School will build and strengthen relationships with our families, neighbors and extended community.  Our relations with each other and the world will reflect our core values.” 
Our students and families are engaged in a great many service learning activities each year. I am particularly impressed that our families have so genuine an interest in helping and serving others, that our community gives generously and from the heart, and that students engage in service with their families as well as their classmates, as many involve parents, siblings, and others. 
Led by Chaplain Amber, our Service Learning Committee is working hard to ensure that many of the programs you already know and love are continued for the 2009-2010 school year, including the PARCA Halloween Party, Shelter Network Holiday Decorating Party, Bayview Mission, Samaritan House, and the Beach Restoration Project.  As in the past, each of these projects will be sponsored by one or two lead classes.  In addition, the Eighth Grade will identify and sponsor a Global Service learning project. 
With Shelter Network (www.shelternetwork.org) in particular, we have made a commitment to extend our relationship with this important organization, and we have two new programs in the works.  You may know that Shelter Network’s San Mateo location provides temporary housing to 39 families and is located only a few blocks from the school.  You may not know that it is filled with school-aged children who are eager to learn but don’t always get the extra help they need while their families are in transition.  Tutoring assistance has been identified by their Executive Director as the shelter’s #1 need right now, and we intend to step up and deliver.
I am excited to announce that we will be launching a St. Matthew’s Tutoring Program starting on October 7, 2009.   Our goal is to staff this program with our Middle School students, parents and faculty.  We will initially start off by offering tutoring sessions on select Wednesdays this Fall, from 3:45-5 p.m.  Given space limitations, we will only be able to send four students each time, along with two parents and one or two members of our faculty.  
Please give it a try and sign up today at http://bit.ly/StMatthewsTutoringSignup.  Not only will we be helping the youth of our community, our students will benefit greatly by giving back in such a direct and meaningful way and by honing their own teaching skills! You will see that Chaplain Amber and I, along with several others among our faculty, have already signed up and are ready to go. 
In partnership with St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, we are also excited to launch a Halloween Costume Drive for Shelter Network’s kids, which will start this week and run through Thursday, October 15.   Consistent with our Strategic Plan goal to identify service learning opportunities where we can partner with the church, we will be working hand in hand with them to make this drive a success.  Please bring in new or gently used costumes (each in a separate bag and clearly marked with age/gender/type) and place them in the bin in the foyer.  Let’s all pitch in to help make Halloween a special night for Shelter Network’s kids. 
We are grateful that Susan Wright, whose family has long been involved with Shelter Network over the years, has agreed to oversee the tutoring program with the help of her daughter Caroline (Eighth Grade), and to be our liaison as well with this organization for the upcoming school year.  From time to time, Susan will be updating us on our progress with the tutoring program, and she will also keep us informed of other Shelter Network activities and opportunities, many of which your families will have the option to participate on an individual basis.   If you have any questions regarding Shelter Network, please contact Susan at (650) 344-1261 or susan@techmarket.com.
I don’t think anyone in our community needs convincing of the value of service.  There is a world of need, and we all have experienced how good it feels when we can lend our hands, hearts, and minds to help others in small and large ways.  The value in the “learning” part of service learning is found in this hope:  that by teaching lessons of helping others, we build habits of action, reflection, and concern that will multiply their impact over the lifetimes of our students and their families, helping some now, and many more in years to come.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Twelve Months Later: State of the School

It has been a year since the historic events that marked the crisis in global economy.  Twelve months ago, our Board was completing final revisions of our 2008 Strategic Plan, while our parent volunteers were busy preparing for the 20th Dickens House.  We entered the financial storm in a position of strength on many levels:  the admission season had filled every Lower School place in Prekindergarten through Grade Four, and our Annual Fund had set a record for total giving. 

Twelve months later, where are we?  We open school this year with an enrollment of 211, just seven students down from last year.  For a small school, where a small number of decisions adds up, to be down only 3% in this year is not bad.  Schools like ours are not merely businesses, however:  mission-driven and not-for-profit, we are all about people .  Many families were affected directly by the crisis, including some who chose, sometimes painfully, to leave the School, whether a direct or indirect effect of the new economic realities.  Other new families have joined us this year.  Our Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee worked hard to look into the uncertainty, and for the first time we adopted three budget scenarios, for various enrollment levels.  (Our opening enrollment is just ahead of our “middle target.”)  Moreover, the Finance Committee and the Board boldly created a new Tuition Support Program, a bridge for families not qualifying for tuition assistance who were nonetheless stretched to pay tuition.  Overall, we met our explicit goal of helping sustain our families in the School.  Our parents and friends of the School loyally stepped up: our Dickens House fundraiser was profitable, though less so than recent years, and our Annual Fund, while down from the year before, exceeded its goal for its contribution to our operating budget.  Together these helped close the gap between tuition revenues and actual costs and helped us maintain a modest surplus in reserve.

Our Business Manager and I worked to control expenses as well, and we found savings to balance our budget at our new enrollment projections, without sacrificing program.  We reduced or deferred some of our capital equipment expenditures and facilities improvements, reorganized some positions, and reduced our reliance on substitutes in the Middle School, for example.  Some things we did not cut, I am proud to say.  We guaranteed our valued and talented teachers a modest salary increase, as we could not afford to stand still in recruiting and retaining the best faculty.  We did not discontinue our commitment to professional development, recognizing that our teachers are our “innovation engine” and a downturn is the time to invest in innovation.  Rather, we made focused investments in team learning in key programs:  Responsive Classroom, Reading and Writing Workshop, and Math Instruction, and we maintained our investment in redesigning our daily schedule, in keeping with the primary programmatic goals of our Strategic Plan. 

Finally, the Board and the School community have continued progress and momentum with the major items of our Strategic Plan.  The three major items, Campus Space, School Size, and Financing, are supported by established or forming committees, including the insight of our team of consultants from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business Alumni Consulting Team.  I recognize, however that the single, foremost “strategic plan” is program excellence.  The faculty, staff, and administration are unified in this “Job #1”: to ensure a St. Matthew’s education is an outstanding one, fulfilling our mission and serving our students and families.  Reviewing our 2008 Strategic Plan, one finds the largest section, not surprisingly, is Program.  Among the eight program objectives identified in 2007-08, six have been completed, or are of an ongoing nature and have made substantial progress:  schedule redesign, athletics, fine arts, service learning, technology plan,  and ongoing curricular review.  Two others have received attention and are ongoing:  assessing our Preschool/Prekindergarten schedule (which will be completed in the context of larger Space and School Size questions) and reviewing our Spanish program (which will be done with the support of our new K-8 Spanish teacher).  These milestones are encouraging, but even more encouraging is the spirit of professional growth and collaboration among faculty that will yield continued enhancement and innovation.

Twelve months later, the School still has big and important visions ahead, even as we attend to the critical daily work of teaching, understanding, and caring for our students’ learning and growth.  We have a critical need for campus spaces to sustain our programs and elevate our facilities to the level of excellence of our teachers and our education.  While we were fortunate last year not to rely on endowment income, we must not lose sight of investing to sustain our School for the future.  The good news is the wellspring of support and enthusiasm one finds in our community.  Once more, the tremendous volunteer spirit is flowing to support our community events, parents’ association, and our new fundraisers.  I am encouraged that so many see the need in today’s world for our School, our mission, our dedication to the ideal that Truth is Love – and to our educating the next generation of leaders who will continue these ideals.

Belonging, Significance, and Fun; and the Economy

         At our training this summer for Responsive Classroom (“RC”), the student-centered approach that informs our teaching practice at St. Matthew’s, I was struck by the way that RC orients a classroom to meet children’s basic human needs for belonging, significance, and fun.  This simple insight was powerful, capturing some core principles and practices of our School.  Two quick recent vignettes, with links to read more:
         Friday was our third Middle School Assembly, a great way to build community among Grades Five through Eight made possible by our new schedule (and our Lower School Chapel).  Already, one of the arts classes was sharing their work:  students in Grades Seven and Eight in a combined Drama & Technology class are making public service announcements, videos and presentations about causes of global importance.  They are learning about their place in the world, how they can make a difference, and how they can communicate to move and educate others about issues from child labor to poverty to infectious diseases.  You can read the teachers’ blog describing their collaboration by clicking here – a collaboration of two teachers and students across two grades enabled by our schedule.  Students in the class shared their feeling of significance with the whole division – and Middle School students could admire the work of their peers.  Already, the Assembly has promoted leadership in another way as well, as students have suggested future assembly ideas and presentations.  I was impressed that after twelve days of school, our Middle School artists already had work to show, with more to come.
         Today was our first Special Chapel, a Eucharist or communion for the Feast of St. Matthew, our patron saint who is celebrated each September.  Last Thursday, Chaplain Amber led our Second Grade in baking bread for the Eucharist.  The students had fun mixing the flour, water, honey and other ingredients, and they were proud of the result, that they had prepared the communion bread for the whole school.  It was a fine example of experiential, hands-on learning, full of insights into math and science as well spirituality and community.  (You can read Chaplain Amber’s chapel talk about the bread, including how the bread is consecrated, by clicking here, her blog with all of her chapel talks.)  Throughout our program, our students experience the powerful feelings of participating in a community with a strong sense of purpose that enjoys one another – both in service to our School, like these Second Graders, and in service to our broader world, like our Middle School video producers.
         By the fourth week of school, we now feel very much into the rhythm of the school year.  I thank all who came to our Back to School nights.  I have been thinking a great deal about the State of the School, and I was prompted by the anniversary of the events precipitating the economic crisis to reflect on how our School has fared.  You can read my thoughts at my Blog, www.markjmckee.com, by clicking here, and you can also find Friday’s Photo of the Week, as a reward.  I was inspired this summer to learn more about new web technologies and how they can be used to achieve old, even ancient ends of educating and building community.  The power of all of these blogs is their interactivity.  In an echo of an “RC” Morning Meeting, “I’m ready for questions and comments.”  Your turn!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Value and Significance of Teaching

At our faculty meeting this week, we opened the meeting with some Back to School inspiration -- a speech by Smith College alumna Margaret Edson, an award-winning playwright who happens to be a Kindergarten teacher.  Her words on classroom teaching capture the joy of learning together and the profound love at its core.

Watch the video of her talk here. It is worth watching!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Photo of the Week for September 18

Our new schedule permits more time for Middle School Arts.  Here an Eighth Grade student sketches a campus scene.

MS Athletic Season open


St. Matthew's Fall Athletic season is officially open!  Both Varsity and J.V. Football teams have had two games each.  Pictured here are the Varsity boys and Athletic Director Mr. Vanier.  Cross-country practice began this week as well.  Go Mustangs!

Why I Love My Job

Getting to know the new Preschool students -- in the sandbox we remember that "play" is children's "work."

Monday, September 14, 2009

President Obama's Speech to Schoolchildren

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation's schoolchildren, a matter of some debate for some public school superintendents and principals.

If you or your children are interested in seeing the address, a link to the full text is available by clicking here.

A link to a video of the speech is available from C-Span here.

Photo of the Week for Sept. 14


Middle School teacher Mrs. McMillan takes part in the fun of Activity Day Friday with Lower and Middle School students.

Of Schedules, Responsive Classroom, and New Math


This year’s Fall Festival was a terrific celebration of the opening of school. It truly put the “community” in our “community for the heart, mind, and spirit” to see so many families here enjoying one another’s company. The event is the result of the effort of many volunteers, and I want to thank them all, led by Lisa Kearns, Jen Parker, and Kristi Pickering.


I have written before about our new schedule, and in the spirit of Lower School Back to School Night, I want to explain how our ten minutes’ earlier start time can yield up to thirty minutes more academic time (hence “new math”). You may be aware of our commitment to Responsive Classroom, an approach to child-centered education that includes Morning Meeting among its teaching practices. When we reviewed our schedule, we found that our morning time did not allow for a full Morning Meeting, and so teachers were either not holding one, or holding Morning Meeting after chapel, delaying the start of the academic day by up to thirty minutes. By starting only ten minutes’ earlier, we allow adequate time for classroom Morning Meetings before chapel, so that students can get directly to the academic business of the day when chapel concludes at 9:00 a.m. It has made for much more productive use of time in Lower School classrooms, just as it has added many features to our Middle School program (see last week’s eNotes). More about Responsive Classroom in an upcoming post and here.


Our two significant school-wide professional development investments this summer were in Responsive Classroom and in Reading and Writing Workshops, and our major schedule innovations have made both possible. 

Our Language Arts teachers were inspired by what they learned this summer at Teachers College. One of them commented to me that the only way she was able to implement the Reading and Writing Workshop in her classroom was the time made available by our schedule redesign. It is exciting to see our schedule and our professional development budget and programs working together as they should to support educational innovation and programmatic excellence.


I have started a blog! You can find it at www.markjmckee.com. In addition to eNotes articles, it will include a Photo of the Week and additional notes and insights. Take a look – and “Follow” my blog or subscribe to RSS updates if you are interested. Among my summer reading was Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody, about social media, and I am inspired to think about the ways web 2.0 does and does not change the fundamentals of education. Click on my blog to see this week’s photo, and much more!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Gallery of Firsts

By 11:30 a.m. last Wednesday, the campus was humming with purposeful activity. These first weeks of school are full of new routines and new people, and it was impressive to me how quickly everyone found the rhythm of the school days. For individuals there were surely many “firsts” – school uniforms in First Grade, the first day of Middle School for Fifth. And there were a number of “firsts” for St. Matthew’s as a school. Friday and today, we celebrated our first chapels intentionally scheduled for Lower School students and Middle School students. While these have happened before, our new schedule designs every Tuesday for Middle School chapel and every Friday for Lower School. We will be able to speak to the needs of different ages, to build community within divisions, and to expand leadership opportunities for younger students. Friday was also our first designated Middle School Assembly time, scheduled during Lower School chapel. They spent the time discussing the new Arts programs for this year.

Walking about the campus last week, it was a joy to be back among school children. Some sights and sounds from the week: in Preschool, our youngest students were exploring and sharing the onions they dug from the class garden. (Me: “Do you like to eat onions?” Preschooler, enthusiastically: “Yes! They’re good!”) Second Graders were busy running about the playground in Mrs. King’s class, where I learned the rules to “friendship tag,” while Fourth Graders were asking Mrs. Zehner some insightful questions in preparation for writing workshop. Sixth Grade walked to St. Charles’ House and Central Park for a retreat with teachers and Chaplain Amber. In Eighth Grade Language Arts, students were discussing their hopes and concerns for the year, in class and beyond. Judging from the energy, we have quite a year ahead.

In honor of this Thursday’s Middle School Back to School Night program, I want to offer a quick preview of what has already emerged regarding our new schedule. Many students have reported to me and to their parents that they like the new schedule – but having been through changes before, I am reserving judgment! Still, in a quick conversation with a Seventh Grade parent, I outlined the following:

Ten Advantages to the Middle School schedule

  1. Student Leadership Clubs – over two dozen offerings from which students can choose
  2. Longer class periods for deeper, more intense learning – almost all classes are scheduled in hour blocks, with fewer blocks each day
  3. Morning Break time – important for pre-adolescents
  4. Dedicated Middle School and Lower School chapels
  5. Middle School assembly time
  6. A/B weeks for rational, equitable scheduling
  7. Study Hall before lunch – more productive and focused
  8. More dedicated homeroom time for class meetings
  9. More time for the Arts, including drama productions rehearsed largely during class time
  10. Electives in the Arts, giving Middle School students opportunities for choice

It is a gift to be able to start from scratch and build a new school schedule, and I salute the courage and will of the teachers to take this on. So many complex systems would benefit from the approach of starting from scratch to find ideal solutions, but such an approach is challenging and often not feasible. This year, where our schedule is concerned, we committed our best educators’ thinking to just that proposition. I look forward to reporting the results in a few weeks’ time.