Q: In your view, what is the Fund’s role at BHS?
A: I think the Fund’s role is to spur and foster innovation at the high school. To me that means supporting teachers and supporting really interesting ideas that would benefit kids. It could be regular classes, particular curricula, or it could be grants and programming. The Fund does that, in part, by putting really smart parents and community members in partnership with Brookline High and district staff, so we get the perspectives of smart parents and smart people in all kinds of different disciplines and industries, and that helps us think about the work that we do. When we had our breakfast Elon [Fischer] was talking about his very interesting work as Innovation Fellow, and what he heard in return were several ideas about how that work could be improved or looked at differently, and really, at the end of the day, supported. We had two premier design thinkers [at the breakfast] who’d done a whole lot of work. So, is it possible that Elon would have stumbled upon those people? Yes. Is it much more likely that the Fund helped put those people together? Yes. There’s a tremendous amount of energy and expertise in this community, and I think the Fund provides a key way to support the school using that energy.
Q: So that’s a way of bringing parents in, connecting them with teachers. In terms of drawing talented teachers into the school, is the Fund something that helps you in the hiring process?
A: Absolutely. We had a very specific example of that this year. We had a teacher who was set to co-teach Film as History/History as Film — this teacher left the school and district in the late spring/early summer — it was late in the game. It seemed like bad luck. We had a very interesting candidate for the position, but we were asking her to take less FTE to be here. The fact that one of her teaching assignments was going to be this very interesting co-teaching opportunity was an incredibly powerful draw. She ended up coming.
But to answer your question more broadly, there are so many incredible teachers here, and what has been clear throughout — at least in my history with the school, and what I’ve seen and heard — is that we find different ways for teachers to improve and increase their leadership skills. One of those ways is by creating a course or leading a program, supported by the 21st Century Fund. So Elon Fischer is a leader in this school, and the Fund’s Innovation Fellowship is a perfect way for him to work on and demonstrate that leadership. That to me is under the umbrella of retention. I absolutely believe that opportunities with the Fund help us attract and retain talented, committed teachers and support them to help lead the school. With a faculty and staff of this size you need all kinds of leaders.
Q: What challenges currently face BHS, and how does the Fund help to address them?
A: I think we need to look at all of our collaborations, all of our partners, and all the work that we do to focus on challenges. There are several challenges that come to mind. I would say the biggest is that we have a group of students who struggle here to engage, struggle to achieve in the ways we believe they’re capable of achieving. It’s not surprising that it’s the historically underachieving populations of students who don’t do as well here on various measures. It’s certainly not true of everybody in those populations, and it’s not unique to Brookline, but it’s true enough that we have an achievement gap. As we look forward to addressing that, we need to think about how to do it: How does our student support, how does our monitoring of kids increase and improve so that the net is raised higher, and the net is tighter? We need to think, instructionally, about how we’re making sure that excellent instruction targets kids who really struggle to engage. These are not novel ideas — they’re things that an institution like this is always engaged in. And I think there are opportunities with Fund courses — we can look at things that have already been experimented with in the Fund, and also programs and courses that we might want in the future, and ask how can they affect as many students as possible.
Tutorial is a really good example. To me there’s a tremendous opportunity that we’re embarking on to reconsider tutorial and think: OK, this has been a really important model. How do we use it even better and differently to make sure that we’re catching kids sooner, that we’re being flexible in the structures we’re using, and then zeroing in on re-teaching or supporting kids in what they need content-wise, as well as habits of learning? That’s what I’m interested in thinking through with the Program Committee and others: We have this course proposal, or we’re thinking about these courses — what will be the impact for the students in that course or in that program, and in what ways can those experiences be offered to more kids? It becomes an access issue. The Makerspace is a great example. It is overdue and so appreciated to have the Fund’s support to have Aubrey Love and Andrew Maglathlin work on a Makerspace. And it’s going to be a space for Engineering Innovation and Design, but then we think if we have this incredible space, and the district comes in and helps improve it also, how do we make sure that that space is accessed by as many kids as possible?
Another long-term benefit of the 21st Century Fund is that these courses might run for X number of years, but it’s safe to say that the experience of developing these courses should have long-term impact: What did we learn about how kids learn? Film as History/History as Film is not only a terrific opportunity for the students who are enrolled, but: What are we learning about interdisciplinary studies? We believe that more kids should experience that, so how do we build on this model? Many examples come to mind, but those are a few. To me, the central challenges right now are issues of equity and access.
A second and parallel issue is space. We’re moving towards a building renovation, so we’re thinking about how we organize a school that, in five years, will be over 2500 students. What does that mean about how we organize ourselves? What does it mean about the opportunities and supports we want to make sure all kids have? Then there will be the challenge of a school in the midst of a renovation: How do we continue to do what we do while having our spaces changed?
A third challenge is that there’s been a significant transition in leadership. All of these are real opportunities, and that for sure is an opportunity. It’s been great to welcome Andrew Bott and Nicole Gittens. Across the board, there’s quite a bit of change.
Q: So, tell us something about your personal interests. If you could take one of the 21st Century Fund’s classes, which would you choose?
A: Historically, if I could have taken Good Citizen in a Good Society, I think I would have loved that project-based class. It was a really interesting approach to English and History. The discussion about really meaty issues and ethics would be really interesting to me. It was thematic, so they would read things like the Tracy Kidder book Mountains Beyond Mountains, the one about Paul Farmer [of Partners in Health], and were essentially looking at: What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to make decisions that are mindful of others? What does it mean to foster those same values in a community or in a society? Also certainly the Racial Awareness Seminar. Having the opportunity to be guided and supported around thinking about identity and racial identity — to do it in a highly supportive, small community, very intentionally doing work that we all pay lip service to — would be really incredible. Frankly, seeing the super-motivated young people who are involved, I would want to be a part of those classes, not only because Malcolm Cawthorne and Kate Leslie are awesome teachers, but because cool, smart, thoughtful students are working to wrestle with really important topics. Also Film as History would be really neat. I don’t have any technical skills, and I would love that. It’s a co-taught history and art class, and I think many kids are probably coming to it from one side or the other, but to have a passion for history and story, and then be able to learn some of the technical skills behind film-making would be awesome.
Q: OK to finish up — and I hope this isn’t too personal — but the Gala-Rama is coming up, with bowling at Jillian’s. I assume, being a mid-westerner, you’re a pretty good…
A: Oh, I can bowl! In fact there was a bowling alley in Minneapolis that Earl Anthony owned — he was one of the great bowlers of the ‘80s. I used to go there when I was in high school, and I joked that I was “the real Anthony.” I wasn’t in a league, but my high score was probably somewhere in the higher hundreds — 160, 170. But that was in my high school days. I think now I’m… beatable.