A Look Forward -- A Vision for WHRHS
In order to express my vision for our school in the years ahead, I will take a few moments to discuss what has been done already and how these accomplishments lay the foundation for our future and for improvements in student achievement and performance.
To begin, I invite you to look at events that have shaped our current position. In six short years, Watchung Hills doubled in size of student and staff populations. We completed a large construction/renovation program to address this growth and to make much needed improvements to the physical space. Many veteran staff members who served our school for 25 and more years left us for retirement. We moved quickly into an era where substantive changes would occur on many unprecedented levels.
With this, my team and I began to address the issues of changing demographics, construction, and school redesign. We used and continue to use a process of developing thoughtful and reflective questions which closely examined:
It became clear through this examination that Watchung Hills Regional High School was a school in need of reform or redesign. We also knew we needed to consult with outside resources and solicit some of the brightest minds in the best universities to accomplish our desire to create a school that would prepare students for the 21st century. Thus, with the support and generosity of the board, my team and I went to Harvard and attended several spring and summer institutes and programs focused on high school redesign. These scholars, researchers and practitioners helped us realize that "business as usual" would not bring us forward with our vision of redesign and reform. These wise educators led us through several sessions to help shape our thinking about doing things differently and moving our students, our faculty and our school from good to great
First, we had to look at our teaching personnel and the way we prepared, supervised and evaluated them; we had to look at our students and the opportunities we were or (in some cases) were not providing them; we had to look at our time for instruction and how instructional time was allocated; we had to look at our processes for developing and aligning curriculum, for constructing meaningful and creative assessments and for enhancing instructional practice in the delivery of instruction; we had to look at our use of data to inform and frame the necessary changes for improvement. Before embarking upon this path, our faculty and administrators needed to feel respected and valued for their contributions so that they were secure and comfortable when their bedrock beliefs and daily practices were questioned. We then began to describe our collective mission as a quest toward a model of continuous improvement which underscored the notion that an investment in improvement was not only possible but desirable.
A key element I structured for the new order was focused upon rigorous improvements in curriculum design and instructional strategies. Rigor, challenge, and purpose became the watch words vigorously communicated and taught. The status quo was shaken and expectations elevated. Integral to this aspect was selecting a sophisticated and customized technology platform to develop curriculum maps that creates an invigorating environment for teachers that demands collegial conversations about what is important for students to know and understand. This meant conversations about covering the textbook as the curriculum and instructional practice were abandoned; instead, alignment of curriculum, instruction and assessment to standards (state, national and international) framed the criteria of instruction that gave validity to the rigor and purposefulness of the teaching and learning process, thereby, serving to improve student achievement. Curriculum mapping also functions as a tool to provide every new teacher (amounting to as many as 40 annually since 2005) with knowledge of the prior professional conversations that crystallized the critically important content for our students, that considers the pace of curriculum delivery, and that catalogues the assessments to determine student achievement and program effectiveness. Maps are constantly evolving and this means that teachers are actively and consistently engaged in departmental conversations about performance. The bottom line is that mapping is a transparent vehicle that provides teachers with a consistent and data rich method of helping students improve their academic achievement and performance.
Another pivotal piece to our reform and redesign initiative centered upon the introduction and proliferation of technology as part of the daily conduct of business at the Hills. The implementation of technology exponentially in the teaching and learning processes served to help smooth the way for substantive changes on multiple levels because it was easy to use and made sense in the process. Our users, both teachers and administrators, pulled the technology into their daily work as we made a conscious effort to make the technology user-friendly. We did not push it on our staff; instead we gave them time to learn and adapt through structured staff development. Once again, I cannot underscore emphatically enough the positive effect of the board's investment in and its support of the use of the best technology the district could afford.
The final aspect to discuss here, which will remain of critical importance in our path forward, is the increasing emphasis placed on the safety and security of our students and faculty through new procedures and protocols. Our culture is an open and inviting one; however, we must be continually mindful of the changing landscape of the environment around us as it affects the health, safety and well-being of all.
Now that the foundation for growth is firm, I wish to posit my vision for the second act of this important work. In my view, our vision and mission statements must include the words "transformation and innovation" as core elements. The process of transformation has begun and is evidenced in our school in the ways described herein. The fusion of technology with instructional practice as well as with curriculum and assessment will keep the process of knowledge moving forward in the face of ever-changing demands and unknown expectations from our students in the 21st century.
In 2006, Kevin Kelly, a writer for the New York Times, discussed the creation of a massive on-line digital library. He described how Google started the project in 2004 by digitizing all of the books in five major research libraries (Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, University of Michigan, and the New York City Public Library). Since then, others have joined this effort; Carnegie Mellon and Superstar (a company based in Beijing) work together to scan books from over 200 libraries in China. Kelly wrote in 2006, "Turning inked letters into electronic dots is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages."
The "magic," the second act, for our district in the next five years will be to create ways for our students to have more access to hyperlinked information, with excellent and creative teachers. Our digital kids learned to travel this path at an early age so they must be allowed to network and collaborate with each other and with experts from around the world on an ad hoc basis. These connections are natural for them.
We recognize that our students today are very different than they were even ten short years ago. Those of you with students here currently, or those who have younger children who will be here soon, know that these young people approach learning in a very different way than previous generations. Current brain research uses dynamic images revealing that teens use different active centers in the brain than do adults when each group is asked the same question. The neuroplasticity of the brain is a relatively new discovery that describes the brain's ability to reorganize how it processes information based on new input. Thus, if the brain encounters a new kind of input for an extended period of time, it will reorganize neural pathways to handle the information more effectively. This means that the digital world is having a profound impact on our students. They are digital natives in a digital world. Earlier generations are digital immigrants. I believe that this example illustrates the transformational shift taking place now. This shift requires us to be innovative in the programs we design for our students if we are to make significant and meaningful strides for their achievement. This transformation and innovation agenda will benefit greatly from consistency in leadership. Researchers such as Andy Hargreaves, 2004, state that this is one of the single most important factors in maintaining a culture that continues to move forward in a positive manner, even when subjected to change or stress to the environment.
I have spent much time and energy researching ways that we can improve student achievement by providing them with rigorous and relevant experiences while they are here with us. One important body of work that supports improvement in student learning and self-actualization lies within the International Baccalaureate, Diploma Programme. In IB, six subjects are studied with a core consisting of three parts. Three subjects are studied in great depth and at a high level for two years ( 240 teaching hours) and three are studied at a standard level for two years ( 150 teaching hours). The three core IB subjects are Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and Creativity, Action Service. For example, the IB curriculum centers on the students' ability to ask challenging questions, learning how to learn, developing a strong sense of self-identity, and developing the ability to effectively communicate with and understand people from other countries and cultures. To pursue a program such as this would require flexible use of time, intensive teacher training and preparation, and access to experts who would work with us to support our efforts. We can use these same tools to secure access to training and experts that will help us advance this agenda. As we did before, we used experts to become experts.
To be an innovative, rigorous and transformational high school, we must continue to work hard, to develop our teachers' skills and understandings so that they can challenge and understand our students.
Giving faculty, community members and student the opportunity to offer input to the learning experiences we provide at our school will be important in the advancement of our innovative work. Securing varied input in educational research is called "Balanced Leadership;" it takes into account the baseline of satisfaction of participants with various aspects of our school, makes suggestions for improvements or changes or modifications over time, and then revisits their level of satisfaction with the questions posed by a survey. This work can also be the underpinning for creating a long range strategic plan, with short and longer term objectives. The consistency of leadership is a critical element in carrying forward this vision.
Our school has been fairly consistent in ranking among the top fifty high schools in our state. I believe we are positioned to pull away from the pack and move into the top 15-20 within the next few years, using evaluation imposed metrics and continued financial support. In partnership with our community, parents, faculty and students, and with the careful guidance of the board and superintendent, we can activate our vision of moving from a comprehensive high school to an innovative and transformational center of learning. We will use solidly tested research principles and the best technology as a bridge for learning tied to a student-centered philosophy that provides students with real-world and real time experiences.
Thus, a new district mission statement could be crafted to state that "Watchung Hills is an innovative, rigorous, and diverse high school serving Warren, Long Hill and Green Brook Townships, and Watchung Borough with programs designed to meet the needs of our students in the 21st century. The focal point of all programs and learning experiences is the student. Students are taught to synthesize, analyze and evaluate information using literacy and technology skills and to think logically and critically, using higher order thinking skills. We actively promote individual self-realization along with social awareness and civic responsibility. We strive to create a meaningful understanding of and a tolerance for other cultures as well as a deep respect for moral and aesthetic values."
Small changes over time can make big differences. The choices we make, the words we say are backed up by the actions we take, and these not only impact our students, but also our community at large. I believe the following principles articulated by B.M. Holland (2008) best summarize my view moving forward:
We will undertake this with a recognition of fiscal responsibility to our taxpayers and other supporters. The future for our students belongs to methods that affirm, compel and accelerate learning and in turn involve larger and deeper levels of collaboration, collective efforts and access to knowledge and global experiences. I believe we owe this to our students.