Safari complete, now we talk

by Vince Durnan, director

As we complete our educational odyssey across the country, help USN by hosting a group discussion with other parents in your living room.
With a three-day junket to the Big Apple last week, my peripatetic tour of thought-provoking schools reached its finish line. Care to host a conversation about what we saw and why it might matter to USN? Seems like the right next step.
 
To review, since late September, I've had the good fortune to visit schools in Boston, Austin, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and New York City (in roughly that order), seeing more than three dozen schools along the way—not to mention several here in Music City. The sample group included campuses that I knew to be high flying, reform-minded, and often in some way comparable to USN, in addition to charter or other really different models identified by my co-chair Chris Barbic, education guru and High School dad. 
 
By the time our traveling road show got to Manhattan, this time with a group including Christy Plummer and Joel Bezaire from the faculty, Seema Mehrotra and Tim Ozgener from the Board of Trustees, Rick Ewing from the Alumni Board, Josh Feng from the Peabody College M.Ed. program across the street, and yours truly as the troop leader, a familiar pattern had been set. We walked the halls, spoke to our hosts about what set them apart and what we have in common, then talked about finances and priorities, and promised we'd keep in touch. People we meet are invariably interested in this project, though few seem inclined to replicate what we're doing.
 
Just to open a little window on what we saw, the New York City trip brought us to a K-8 school founded by the Blue Man Group — really. Then we saw, across the street from each other in Harlem, Bank Street School for Children and The School at Columbia, both K-8 units of higher education institutions. Then we saw Avenues, a for-profit K-12 headline grabber in Chelsea, pledged to be the first of a worldwide network of synchronized campuses. And before we went back to LaGuardia Airport, we spent a morning at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, best known as the epicenter of the "grit" movement in character education, partnered with their KIPP charter neighbors. 
 
These were exemplars in the independent school hothouse that is New York City—a furnace like no other. They tended to charge about $50K and not think twice about that price. They featured plenty of bells and whistles.  And questions about access from the wider community to the program offered at their schools.
 
This experience brings me back to the purpose of our visits in the first place. We set out not to find answers but to identify questions, the right next generation questions for USN. With the help of our Steering Committee, we’re closing in on a working version of what to ask the USN community as a next, formative step. We'll have a few questions about our chosen educational model, and some questions about our financial strategies, and others about our size, scope, and impact as a school measuring itself by national standards.
 
Our alumni will be invited to participate via survey and a couple local events, while our students will be asked for their sentiments while here at school. As part of our outreach to families, and at the risk of offering more than I could realistically manage, let me make the following offer:
 
Assemble, as you see best, a group of 20 or so in your living room for an hour, and I’ll be to there to share a conversation about the issues, challenges, and opportunities ahead for USN. We’ll get summary notes from each evening, and those sentiments will be folded into the constituent report from all quarters. Just let me know you’re interested, and I’ll get busy finding a time (with the invaluable assistance of Susan Pearlman in my office of course).
 
To be painfully honest, I'm not sure how this will go, but maybe not knowing for sure is OK at this point, or maybe it's essential if we hope to uncover something new together. To have reached this point strikes me as an accomplishment in itself, though not yet sufficient, and nothing would be more invigorating than to do the living room tour next. 
 
Hoping to hear from you,
 
P.S. Get you, as we say regionally, some Music Night tickets. Loath as I am to tell you what to do, this event is one of those splendid USN perks. A Wooten Brothers show in our Auditorium is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it will sell out.
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    • Kindergarteners visit Director Vince Durnan's office on the 100th day of school.

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