Education exploration continues

by Vince Durnan, director
We’ve visited Boston, Austin, Washington, D.C. and next week we head to Chicago to learn what other independent and charter schools are doing best.
Getting to visit school varieties far from Nashville offers obvious idea-prompting opportunities. The complementary and maybe less anticipated benefit is the chance to see USN from a distance. Here’s how that works:
At this point, we (members of our multi-constituent, dozen member steering committee and I) have set foot on more than a dozen campuses. We’ve seen a charter school that launched an independent school, an independent school that launched a charter school, a university sponsored elementary school, a high school that lives inside a university, an independent school that’s building a research and design center, and a bilingual school that organizes all its learning around cross-curricular projects. And we are just getting going. We haven’t even gone to the Bay Area yet to see the school startup motherlode.
When we cross the threshold of a school, a few things are likely to happen. First, we’ll be asked why we’re even doing this—is the school in some kind of crisis? Then I get to say, quite to the contrary, this is something we get to do because we’re not currently overwhelmed by immediate worries back home. Then we try to explain USN’s singular history, founded as a demonstration school for a cash-strapped teachers college, emerging as an independent school from desegregation efforts convulsing our city in the 1970s, and growing for four decades thereafter in large measure because of our pluralistic nature, as a haven for families committed to inclusive excellence.
Having tried to set that historic context, we turn to the current context stuff. I get to say that we’d love to do better and more of that which we do now, and if at all possible for a lower per student cost. Head nodding ensues, then we get to walk and talk with our hosts, looking at how they answer the challenge of 21st-century learning. And to no one’s surprise, we have yet to see a school that we’d copy wholesale to swap out for the one we have. Turns out we have a pretty darn good school already.
How would we know that? Well, one source would be our annual parent survey, completed each summer by about a third of our families, a decent if not parade-worthy response rate. My sense over the 15 or so years we’ve done it is we hear from those with the strongest sentiments—people who are kind of generally content don’t leap to complete surveys. Over and over, we see 90 percent or so of the respondents are either pleased or especially pleased with what we do, no surprise given they’re not obligated to keep paying tuition if it doesn’t feel worth the investment. Couple that with a 97 percent re-enrollment rate from year to year, though, and that says something.
Further, the highest survey marks are reserved for our teachers, with those of us who serve as administrators coming in a clear second place. And past that, more than 70 percent of respondents think we got the tuition call about right, and 85 percent think our USN is neither too large nor too small relative to what would be ideal. People like what they know, and they know what they like. The recurrent highest identified priority, by far, is finding and supporting great faculty members—not buildings or programs, at least not directly. On the topic of change, when asked what we should explore with regard to learning opportunities, experiential models topped the list, followed closely by international and independent study options.
So that’s the backdrop to our big educational safari. We are by no means broke or broken, but we are curious, and we won’t coast, nor will we lock things in amber. The great challenge is finding an idea so good that it resonates with the entire USN coalition of education lovers, polyglot group though we may be. What a perfect premise. Next week I get to see a Christo Rey school, with one of the largest school/workplace internship programs in the country. And I’ll get to see one of the Noble network of high-performing charters, and an international for-profit example from the GEMS operation, in addition to a couple of the famed Windy City independent school legends.
If we get a nugget from each visit, something to prompt discussion in our constituent forums this winter, then that visit was a success. That is what has been happening, there’s no reason to think our junkets to San Francisco and New York City will be any less productive. So far, I’ve been excited every time we head out and a little more grateful every time we get back to 2000 Edgehill.
With lantern in hand,
    • Director Vince Durnan speaks with NewsChannel5 in September about a High School Theatre production on social justice issues.

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