On Thursday, August 14, I was witness to an historic occasion of a school being born. This was the third such opportunity in my career and while each one was quite different, as you will see in a moment, there were also some surprising similarities. What we might learn from these occasions will depend on our own insight, understanding and experience. Starting a new enterprise of any kind can be an enormous challenge and starting an independent, private school has its own peculiarities.
The challenges for those who have a vision for what a new school should be include:
- inspired leadership
- sufficient financial support
- adequate and desirable physical facilities
- outstanding teachers
- a dynamic curriculum
- the enthusiastic support of the local community
- families and students who want to be part of the experience.
Fortunately, in each of the three cases that I will outline very briefly, these elements came together because there were talented people who wanted to make a difference, who were passionate about the project and who were committed to see it through. The most recent one, just beginning, does not yet have a track record of success but I believe they are well-positioned to head in that direction very soon with an opening scheduled for August of 2015. In all three cases, advanced planning has been a key component in putting the pieces together.
1. Bosque School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. It opened in August, 1995, with 60 students in grades 6 and 7 and today has over 500 students in grades 6-12 on a campus of 40 acres, nine buildings and growing. I was asked to become the founding head of school and began work in August of 1994 with a year to put it all together. I had a lot of good help along with the vision of the founder, Peggie Findlay, who marshaled a field of energy, people and resources that took us forward. We rang the bell on opening day that has rung every day since for the past 20 years. The stories surrounding the beginning years has many aspects, more interesting to those of us who were involved than the current constituents. Suffice to say that Bosque School would not exist without the early support of many people and all seven characteristics listed above.
2. Monte del Sol Charter School, Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1998, Tony Gerlicz and I had a conversation about his career path and I suggested that he consider opening a charter school since the legislation for these public schools of choice had just been enacted in New Mexico. Tony worked diligently, as is his style, and the charter was granted in December of 1999 for five years. I served as the founding Board Chair. In the ensuing years, the first 10 of which were under Tony’s leadership, the school received many awards and is still ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best high schools in the United States. The fourth head of MdS has just taken the reins and the school continues to thrive with its innovative and progressive programs.
3. The Delta School, Wilson, Arkansas. Last year I was contacted by a former colleague who has known of my work these past 15 years as a school consultant focused on leadership. John Faulkner, formerly of Choate and Ensworth schools, had been hired as the town manager and developer for a small town in southeastern Arkansas about an hour north of Memphis. John was working with Gaylon Lawrence, Jr. one of the principals of The Wilson Company and Gaylon believed strongly that the town and the region would benefit greatly with the presence of a new, independent school.
I agreed to help The Delta School find a founding head because I saw the possibilities and I had been in the search and consulting business for quite awhile. I was no longer ready to take on a project of such proportions although it was very tempting because of the uniqueness of the situation. The Delta School founding Board signed the papers this past Thursday and that paves the way to build this new school with all seven components churning away. A 17,000 square foot mansion and surrounding property have been allocated for the opening in August of next year. A new head has been hired, plans are on the drawing board and the next steps are being taken in the weeks and months ahead.
What I conclude from all three of these experiences is that while each one is very different from the other, the similarities may be more important than the differences. The success of each of these schools rests on those seven characteristics at the top: 1- inspired leadership from both head and board; 2- sufficient funding that comes from numerous sources; 3- a teaching/learning environment that is optimum for both students and adults, 4- passionate, talented and committed teachers,
5- a program that is student-centered, developmentally appropriate, comprehensive, integrated and performance-based; 6- community recognition and support; and 7- students and families who are excited about being part of a progressive educational experience.
The stories of each of these schools are rich with people who care and who have what it takes to make it all happen and keep happening. I am grateful to have played some part in each one and feel honored and humbled by the experiences.