From the Director: Finishing One Year, Imagining Another

by Vince Durnan, director

Faculty and staff will wrap up the year with presentations on School Renewal, our introspective approach to improving USN.
Here’s another installment from the “did you know this” file. Our faculty and staff will report out to one another in just a few weeks, having met through the academic year on more than a dozen topics they chose in August. It’s a process called School Renewal, and appropriately so. Their recommendations often carry clues to what’s next for USN.
The concept goes back to the 1980s, to an idea championed by John Goodlad, noted education reformer at U of Washington. He was responding to A Nation at Risk, a powerful critique of the shortcomings of America’s K-12 landscape. Goodlad advocated for schools improving from within, rather than searching out solutions to be imposed by others, at scale. Ultimately, the appeal of big, top-down, national initiatives proved more compelling to states and municipalities—but not at USN.
Instead, the idea of identifying the best opportunities specific to our own campus took root here. By the mid-1990s, it had become part of our professional culture and the primary vehicle for our five-year reaccreditation cycle. We may, in fact, be one of the only schools anywhere with this kind of continued commitment, given the proliferation of educational bureaucracies in our sector crowding out site-based creativity.
So what does School Renewal look like in action? The good people who work here express preferences for committee assignments in August, after looking at a menu created by our division heads and (usually) by suggestions directly from faculty. Then those groups meet several times through the ensuing months, leading to a set of recommendations to be delivered by late May. Some of the groups tackle very practical issues, like food service or recycling or calendar challenges, while other ponder more ethereal questions like the purpose of education or the best form of classroom assessment. In many instances, the practical joins the philosophical.
This cycle’s recommendations are just beginning to emerge, from committees across a typically broad range of focus areas. There’s energy behind creating a pilot program for a small cohort of 11th and 12th graders to focus on our city as our classroom. Less enthusiastic has been any such endorsement for a micro version of USN, with far less program available for far less tuition—the idea has been popular fodder nationwide but had a hard time getting traction here given our commitment to equity of access. And on the program front, social-emotional learning and more intentional differentiated instruction practices (pardon the edu-speak) continue to draw support.
In the practical realm, the group looking at next steps for the River Campus coalesced around an important but not flashy (or inexpensive) idea—connecting to Metro sewer services, something once deemed logistically beyond reach but now possible. That change would be the first step in providing more restrooms for that increasingly busy 80-acre facility. With all the sports and outdoor education functions represented on this committee, it’s impressive that the primary recommendation doesn’t track to any one primary beneficiary.
Additionally, a group exploring the way USN helps encourage and prepare the next generation of teachers, harkening back to one of our founding purposes, will offer some good ideas for pathways forward. Similarly, the committee reviewing the ten core principles connecting all we do in curriculum did important work. And on it goes, with another half dozen groups preparing School Renewal recommendations to share in those closing gatherings after Memorial Day.
The nature of the groupings, bringing people together who already share common interests, runs the risk of confirmation bias, and that’s part of the reason why the deliverables come in the form of recommendations, not binding decisions. But the culture around here tends to favor the survival and implementation of compelling ideas once they surface. What gets discussed in School Renewal tends to develop and ripen into productive action as the conversation grows to include more constituencies.
Just figured you might appreciate that peek backstage. The truth is, change is hard at USN. I saw that with crystal clarity in the responses to last year’s big survey following visits to innovative campuses nationwide. Our risk tolerance, for many decent and defensible reasons, tends to be low. We have a lot to lose, and it has taken a while to get where we are as a school. But we owe it to our origin story and to the students walking today’s halls to keep asking, keep pushing, and keep thinking of USN in its best iteration. School Renewal strikes me as the best kind of tool for that work.
Now on to Commencement,
P.S. As a bonus for sticking with this column, here’s a beautiful video from a dear alumna and friends in Los Angeles, announcing the winner of our annual humorous essay contest—The Leaky Pen. One of the year’s sweet moments, revealed at High School assembly Wednesday, May 9.

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