Sunday, September 27, 2015

Our Mission-Community

The Mission of Clark Street Community School is to democratically cultivate a community of engaged learners, serve as a resource for educators, and a catalyst for reform in education throughout our region and our nation.

This week, as I continue to explore our mission statement and what it means to the work we do at CSCS, I turn to “community, “ which is at the heart of so much of what we do at CSCS.   Each day, and with each interaction, we work to create a community which welcomes every individual and creates a safe environment for everyone to take on the challenges needed in order to be deeply engaged in learning.  While we have established different goals each year in order to focus on different aspects of our academic program, creating and maintaining a school climate and culture which is supportive of deeply engaged learning for all has been a goal each and every year.  This is certainly not because this is an area of weakness for us….students, their families, and staff consistently report that they feel supported and safe in our school.  Rather, the continued focus on this area is reflective of how critical we believe it is to the overall learning experience.  

On a day to day basis, community is emphasized in a lot of different ways.  Each day starts with advisory, a group of up to 15 students and a staff member who develop deep, supportive relationships that span years and lots of memories and growth experiences.  Starting our day honoring the importance of connection is very intentional and an important part of what makes CSCS so special.  In seminars and workshops, it is not uncommon for the learning experience to start with a circle, which creates another opportunity for everyone in the room to connect.  Throughout the day, thousands of greetings and intentional connections can be observed in nearly every context.  The Carnegie Foundation recently released a study on student motivation and found that having a sense of belonging was a significant positive contributor to a student’s level of motivation in school.  While we certainly hope that everyone at CSCS feels good about being in our school, it is because we truly believe being connected to something greater than yourself helps humans achieve much more and learn much more that we place such an emphasis on community.  

At the heart of our commitment to community are two things.  First, our community agreements:
Be respectful
Be independent
Create a safe learning environment
Be an active community member
These agreements, created in our first year by students, keep our expectations consistent and clearly understandable to all.  The second key factor is our commitment to restorative practices.  Simply put, the philosophy of restorative practices honors that in a community, there will be conflict and there will be times when harm is done.  When this happens, we do not seek to assign blame and dole out punishment, rather we seek to develop a deep understanding of the harm done and to give the person who caused the harm the opportunity to repair the harm and rejoin the community as a fully participating member.  

One of the lessons we have learned over the first few years at CSCS is that this sense of community is not something that is consistent with the experience some of us have had in schools.  Because it is new, it at times takes people some time to accept that they are a part of a community.  We have worked hard to stay consistent in our practices and to always continue to welcome individuals into our community.  When an individual is struggling to meet our community agreements, we first seek to find ways to deepen the individual’s connection to the community,  because we know that changing patterns of behavior that have served you well in other contexts takes time, and having a community support you in making these changes greatly increases the likelihood of success.  

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the fact that our definition of community is a very broad one that seeks to include anyone who is connected to CSCS in any way.  We have been blessed in ways we could have only dreamed of five years ago by community partners, families, and others who have given so generously of their time, talents and resources.  Our students have benefitted in so many ways because of the skills and hard work of these people.  In return, we strive to create opportunities for our students to play active service roles in our community and our world as well.  Here again, a connection to a broader community and needs and opportunities beyond their own consistently deepens the learning opportunities for our students.  

Clark Street Community School truly is deeply rooted in community….both within and beyond our walls.   We strive to continue to expand this community and firmly believe that each individual brings great value to our community and should be honored for that value.   If you are already a part of our community, thank you for all you bring!  If you are not yet a part of our community, we look forward to learning with you soon!  


Friday, September 18, 2015


The Mission of Clark Street Community School is to democratically cultivate a community of engaged learners, serve as a resource for educators, and a catalyst for reform in education throughout our region and our nation.

I begin the year exploring what the mission of Clark Street means to me as a leader and how we work to put it into action in our practice.  In my last posting, I wrote about democratically.  This week, I will spend a little time exploring cultivate.  While I haven’t kept the data, I would venture a bet that in our first three years of existence, we have spent more time as a staff (and I have consequently spent more time mulling in my head) the concept of cultivating than any other concept.  That being said, if you asked my staff how much we talked about this actual word, they would likely be hard pressed to come up with one instance of such a discussion.   For me, this word in our mission beautifully captures a constant tension that always exist for the adults at CSCS:  Do we create more structure or do we give more room to grow?  How much freedom to explore, try, fail, and develop is the right amount?  How do our answers to these questions change based on the learner, the project, and the context?   Teachers working with students ask this many times a day and I as a leader of leaders ask it of myself about my staff regularly as well.  

I have mostly come to peace with the fact that this tension is absolutely necessary.  One of the things I like to talk to students, staff, and families about is my concept of the “I don’t know yet, but I will” space.  It is my belief that our role as educators and mentors is to help create the conditions for our learners to stay in this space longer.  For years, I watched students jump out of this space very quickly either by deciding that they didn’t know something and would probably never know it and therefore there was no sense in making an effort or by deciding they had to know and had to prove they knew quickly in order to remain competitive, so they would employ some shortcut to create the illusion that they knew something long before they really did.  As a student, I was the latter.  As an educator, I had committed my career to working with students who fell mainly in the former category.  As an educational leader, I have come to deeply understand that our system is set up to force kids out of this space.  Our traditional educational system values time constraints over learning, surface level demonstration of understanding over deep mastery, and sorting students into categories over developing all of their varied strengths.  For me, changing this system is all about cultivating.   

Cultivating conjures up images of gardening for me.  While I am far from a master gardener, the concept of creating the right conditions based on the best information available to you about the plants and the growing conditions and then constantly reassessing what is needed based on how the plants respond captures well my idea of why we chose the term cultivate.  A novice gardener learns quickly that there are no fool-proof recipes that will guarantee success.  You need to do your research to create the best conditions, give the plants the opportunity to grow, weed, trim, and support, but most importantly, you must remain attentive and responsive to the needs of the plants as the conditions change.  

Supporting deep learning certainly takes the same level of thought, care and attention.  As an added challenge, we ultimately hope to cultivate learners who are self-directed and capable of managing the changing conditions around them in a way that keeps them thriving!  At CSCS, most of the changes we have made in our structures have been about creating a system which provides students enough structure to confidently enter into the work without limiting their vision of where they can go and without providing so much structure that they never develop the strengths and confidence in their own ability.  As the narrative around judging educational excellence has moved more and more in the direction of narrow accountability which continues to reward and reinforce surface level understanding and the sorting of students, we have continued to push back on this through seeking to develop a system that will help each student find their strengths and passions, develop the skills they need to be independent, self-directed learners, while at the same time appreciating the power of living and working within a diverse and often unpredictable community.  

Because all of us have been trained and have spent most of our lives in systems where structure, safety, and right answers were rewarded far more than taking risks, learning through trial, and messy collaboration, we have had to spend a lot of time talking about cultivating.  What I have come to learn and appreciate is that it is in these conversations that we continue to improve both the art and the science of the work we do.  No one individual has this all figured out.  And yet, when we share our collective experiences and challenge ourselves to keep our conversations grounded in cultivating rather than forcing or neglecting,  the patterns begin to emerge.  From these patterns, we can begin to create the right conditions with (not for) each learner.   

Cultivating a community of engaged learners is stimulating, challenging work.  Holding ourselves to a standard which demands that each learner leaves us ready to do this on their own, has pushed each and every one of us to grow personally and professionally.  And most importantly….the results are beginning to show!  We would love to hear your stories and your ideas about how we can continue to grow and improve our cultivation skills!  

Friday, September 11, 2015

Clark Street Mission-Democratically

The Mission of Clark Street Community School is to democratically cultivate a community of engaged learners, serve as a resource for educators, and a catalyst for reform in education throughout our region and our nation.

When I talk about Clark Street, I often mention that prior to Clark Street, I have never been able to articulate the mission of a school in which I worked without looking at it.  They have just never been that meaningful before.  For me, this mission is different.  Simply, it is easy to remember because it truly captures what we are all about.  We have recently added the second section of our mission, which clearly states our desire to serve as a resource for educators and a catalyst for reform.  The act of writing this blog is an important part of that second portion of the mission for me and I will write more about that in the future, but for now, I want to start with the first half.  What does it mean to “democratically cultivate a community of engaged learners,” and how do we live that at CSCS?  

I will start with democratically.  As a leader, this one has been truly transformational.  As we were planning the school, a friend of mine shared the book Walk Out, Walk On by Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley.  While this book had nothing to do with education, it played a key role in shaping what I believed the leadership structure of this school ought to be if we were really going to bring about change.  In short, it emphasized creating deep and significant opportunities for every member of a community to find meaning in their work and in the role they played in the community.  About the same time, I was learning more about restorative practices and the power of circle to support rich conversations and community action that really brought people together even in very challenging contexts.  Over the course of the next couple of years, I learned so much about the power of listening deeply to those around me and trusting that together, we will come up with a much greater, much truer knowledge and understanding than I could ever create on my own.  

What this means in practice is that we do all we can to create meaningful opportunities for everyone to have their voice heard and for everyone to see the critically important role they play in the community.  Meeting in circle and making sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak and listen to everyone else is the norm in our staff meetings.  We welcome students, families, and community partners to join our planning and development meetings and will welcome you into our circle when you arrive.  This year, we have adjusted our schedule to create a weekly time for students to take the lead in school wide discussions.  While our original schedule had time built in for meetings which welcomed students and families, they rarely attended.  In talking to students we came to understand that despite our best intentions, the structure we had created really didn’t make them feel welcome and certainly didn’t feel like a natural place for them to participate in our community.  

Based on survey results and focus group feedback, our students consistently report feeling heard and valued by the adults in the school.  This means a lot to us and we strive to keep building on this early success as we know that students who feel they have voice are far more likely to engage in school and in learning.  However, our goal for this year is to move beyond this and the projects which arise out of this in which students and adults work together to create something or solve a problem. This year, we seek to deeply embedding leadership opportunities for all students in our school on a regular basis.  We believe that everyone is a leader and that through helping all members of our community (students, staff, families, and community partners)  find their strengths and develop agency to make a difference in a diverse community we are supporting the development of skills that will serve our students for a lifetime!  

If you are reading this blog, we consider you a part of our community, and we would love to hear from you.  What role should CSCS and other schools play in creating opportunities for leadership?  In what areas are we doing well?  Where would you like to see us focus our efforts?  

In the upcoming weeks, I will focus on each part of our mission to help build a clear picture of what CSCS is all about.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback!