Friday, May 28, 2010

GALS - Girls Athletic Leadership School

There is a new school opening in Denver that is sure to be a success. It is a Denver public charter school serving girls in 6th-12th grade with the expeditionary learning framework. I have had the pleasure of speaking with several of the schools leaders, including Liz Wolfson (founder and Head of School) and Nina Safane (Director of New Schools Development) and they were happy to share more about their school with me.

How was the idea for this school born?  

Liz Wolfson created the concept for GALS out of an innate desire to help girls find their voices. She spent most of her adult life implementing visions as a consultant for CEOs, philanthropists, politicians and corporations, and then realized what she wanted to do was implement a vision of her own. After reading and researching and talking to folks in the education world, she realized that a girls' school grounded in mind-body development could offer young woman the opportunity to access the skills and knowledge to be leaders of their own lives as well as the world. It would allow a space where they could find that this path was their birthright. And she realized that this choice was not yet available to parents.

Why just girls?  What is the value of separating the genders?

Girls' schools demonstrate wildly successful academic achievement across the country. They provide girls the opportunity to step up in leadership roles, to take risks, and to focus on their academics. Graduates of girls' schools have bigger visions of the world and their own path within it. For GALS specifically, a girl-only environment allows us to focus on how girls learn as well as issues particularly relevant to their development and address them in ways that foster leadership, global responsibility, and positive self-image building.
Explain the importance of engaging health and wellness in education, especially in an urban setting?

GALS draws on health and wellness as a key contributing factor to success in education. At our school this plays out in a number of ways as we consider the whole child on the path to academic success and personal development. We draw on the brain science behind engaging in physical activity/movement before a student's most difficult classes in order to stimulate the neurological and behavioral connections between the brain and the body. We supplement this with the use of active and engaged teaching and learning practices that encourage students to fully participate in the learning process. We foster a community where healthy choices are valued whether that relates to food or relationships or anything else. We also pay particular attention to the psychosocial dynamics of what it means to grow up female in today's world - issues that if not addressed, become barriers or risk factors to academic success and positive self-image building.
What kind of families are attracted to the school?

GALS attracts an incredibly diverse population. It appeals to students from a wide range of backgrounds and will support their diverse needs well. This model is meant to be a choice for any family who believes in single gender education and the importance of health and wellness being integrated into a school philosophy.
Expeditionary Learning allows the student more choice and autonomy in her education.  How do you feel this model fits with the GALS mission, as well as the overall success of students who attend the school?

The framework of EL allows students the ability to connect with their education. It integrates subjects when appropriate, draws on their relevancy to the world, and focuses on engaging students at  individual access points. It allows school to be relevant and interesting by using projects and drawing on local expertise and resources -- a particularly important framework for a girls' school, and it will allow students entering a classroom with a diversity of skills and knowledge to begin at a place that works for them and work off of a model of individual growth.

I love that every student has an Individual learning plan (ILP), which is something I have advocated for because it helps all students and reduces tension related to giftedness and struggling students, among other benefits.  I’ve heard that “this can’t be done” though.  How are you making it happen?

First and foremost, GALS is committed to a staff of educators who believe in this model of education. EL provides a great framework for differentiation, but the school will be built on a culture where a student is expected to own her education and work with her peers and faculty achieve appropriate growth.

 How might a successful student that graduates from GALS look and sound different than one that graduates from a conventional public school?

A GALS graduate will emerge into the world with the knowledge of how she learns best both intellectually and physically and how she needs to take care of herself in order to succeed. She leaves with courage and commitment as well as a strong sense of the responsibility of communal leadership and well-being. Throughout the course of the journey at GALS, she will explore 10 general physical and character traits that begin with the premise of power and strength and end with an understanding of balance. As she moves into the world, she can come back to these core skills and apply them in her life.

For more information on the Girls Athletic Leadership School, visit

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Formula

In construction there are some formulas used for planning purposes when an owner requests a project to be expedited. There are a couple of different ways to expedite a job. One is to work longer hours, employing a day shift and a night shift. Another is to add more employees to the job. Both of these are effective in a limited way.

One formula shows that if you have an 8 hour day shift and an 8 hour night shift, you will yield about 13 hours of production over a 16 hour shift. The reason that doesn't add up is that a night shift is inherently inefficient and dangerous. In fact, night shift production has been shown to go down by as much as 37% and the likelihood of accidents increases. Simply put, people who are tired do not perform well, so understanding this fact will help setting realistic goals and promises.

Another formula shows that adding all sorts of personnel to the jobsite can only increase production to a certain point. At a certain level of manpower "stacking", productivity begins to decrease dramatically. The reasons for this are numerous. More people results in:

- more chit chat and other non-work related activity
- a greater sense of anonymity that tends to decrease work ethic
- a crowded worksite that raises inefficiency (a drywaller, a painter, and a finish carpenter cannot work in the same room at the same time)

In education we have tried similar strategies with results that mirror the construction industry. The pressure to increase the speed and scope of learning while spending fewer budgetary dollars has caused strategies such as longer hours in the classroom, reduction or elimination of recess, cutting out the arts and physical education, increasing class sizes, etc. Each of those may work in their own way for a short term gain in productivity, but in the long run they are doomed to fail. We can look at the world of construction to extrapolate from their experience.

Akin to the night shift strategy, increasing school hours while decreasing recess, the arts and physical education results in tired, burned out, unhealthy, uncreative learners with limited ways to allow them to identify or build upon their strengths. Any of these strategies will work in a "final push" scenario, just like it does for short periods of time in the work world. But these strategies are not used as temporary measures and therefore are not sustainable. A woman I recently met told me with pride about a school that goes from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM with a one hour break in the middle. How would you like a work day like that?

Just like adding personnel to the project, increasing class size has very similar affects. Students who are aware that they are known and understood cannot hide in a crowd. Their teacher will not fail to interface with them frequently and will know whether they understood a concept or need more help. That inability to hide also reduces time spent on non-academic behavior (goofing around, chit-chat, etc.). Finally, a crowded classroom is full of students with a wide range of abilities in each subject that it makes it more and more difficult for a teacher to facilitate learning for each student based on their needs.

A lot of lessons can be learned from the business world and the formulas for efficiency may be one of those valuable lessons that can be applied to the world of education. For optimal learning: take your time, go for quality rather than speed, work when alert according to natural human rhythyms, and work in small groups with ample space where you are well-known and supported. Do our students' classrooms look like this, or do they more closely resemble a night shift loaded with hurried tradesman stepping on each other?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Help Make School Lunches Better!

In the last year, hundreds of thousands of people have spoken up for America's children and asked for improvements to the National School Lunch Program. As a result, Congress has drafted a Child Nutrition Bill with the deepest investment and strongest standards in the program's sixty-year history.

But now our progress is on the line: Senate leaders are thinking about postponing the bill's passage for another year or two. Our deadline for changing their minds is tomorrow.
Can you help out today by emailing your Senators?

The progress we've made with this bill is the result of months of hard work on the part of Slow Food USA's network and our many allies in the food movement. As it stands, the bill will equip schools to buy and cook healthier food, strengthen nutrition standards (including for school vending machines), and provide new support for local food and school gardens. Since school lunch is a federal program, the only way to make some of these big improvements is via Congress.

Senators Blanche Lincoln and Saxby Chambliss are circulating a letter asking Senate leaders to schedule time for the bill. The deadline for Senators to add their signature is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 19 -- so please write your Senators today.

Thank you,

Gordon, Jerusha and the rest of the Time for Lunch team at Slow Food USA

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Enneagram of Parenting - A Review

A friend recently recommended I read "The Enneagram of Parenting" by Elizabeth Wagele because I was struggling with the fact that discipline strategies that I use on one kid do not work well with the other kid. The book helps you to identify your child as one of nine different types and gives a little insight their habits and behaviors. The point of the book is not to pigeon-hole your child into a static, limited identity, but, as my friend pointed out, it helps to understand that your way is not the only way to relate to the world.

The nine types are:
1. The Perfectionist
2. The Helper
3. The Achiever
4. The Romantic
5. The Observer
6. The Questioner
7. The Adventurer
8. The Asserter
9. The Peacemaker

Each type gets a chapter and the book starts each chapter with a quiz that helps you determine whether you or your child are that type. After the eight-question quiz, there are plenty of cartoons that illustrate each type in humerus ways. Toward the end of the chapter there is a section called "Approaching Ten Common Problems with a Child in the _______ Style". This section talks about each type's challenges with such topics as getting to school on time, study habits, manners, getting along with others, decision making, and more.

It turns out that I am a Perfectionist and my husband laughed out loud when I read the quiz that acts as a description for it. As a child I willingly did chores, cleaned my plate and took school work seriously without external pressure. I was (and am) an idealistic leader who likes to share knowledge with others.

My older son is a Romantic, who tends to be melancholy and has feelings that are easily hurt. He has a strong sense of the dramatic and likes to engage in fantasy play. He is a creative, soulful humanitarian. He reacts well to a rational heart-to-heart talk after a cooling down period and I have learned to ride out his dramatic side without getting sucked into it.

My younger son was harder to peg and I read the book for the express purpose of learning how to better parent him! He was a little bit of everything, which didn't help me. A time out for him only serves to fuel his anger, not cool it off. He is also very physical and is not one to talk it out - he'd rather duke it out. But he is also very loving and loves to be with his family the most.

The book is a quick, interesting read that helps to understand others and relate to them in better ways. I would have preferred a lot more examples of kids in each type and more specific strategies for dealing with each type, but I did enjoy the book and it spurred a lot of good conversation about parenting and personalities in our house.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Denver Green School: A new community school in Southeast Denver

The Denver Green School will be opening this fall to a tremendous amount of community support and enthusiasm. This is one school that truly deserves the excitement it is garnering as a new neighborhood school within Denver Public Schools.

I talked to two of the Founding Partners and came away more excited about the school than before. Mimi Diaz has been a special educator for 15 years, an Instructional Specialist, and an Assistant Principal at Schmitt Elementary, until she had the idea for this school and met others that had similar dreams. Frank Coyne is currently the Associate Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning at the University of Denver and oversaw the partnerships between DU and DPS. Both of them shared their contagious enthusiasm for the unique school that will open in a few months.

What was the inspiration behind the creation of this school and how did it get started?
I (Mimi) attended one of the first "Innovation" schools in the country, The Center for Self Directed Learning at New Trier East High School in Winnetka, Illinois. This experience is what has driven not only my career in education, but also a lifelong love of learning and leading. The experience inspired me to research green schools and renewable energy around the nation and best-practice 21st century learning models. Through Earth Force (, I met Jeff Buck, one of our Founding Partners and gurus on sustainability. From there, it was just meant to be, as the nine of us met for the first time and quickly honed in on a vision and mission, and the dream was born. We felt that project-based, service learning model in a diverse setting would work well in a classroom and make for a strong, sustainable school. Together we have 147 years of combined experience and it’s been two years in the making. We can’t wait for our doors to open.

Shouldn’t all schools be promoting and practicing environmental awareness and good policy? Why a separate school for this with such a focus?
It’s not a school just about the environment, but about sustainability. It follows the Cloud Institute’s Education for Sustainability Standards. The Cloud Institute ( is not only about environmentalism, but they focus on sustainability in the economy, social constructs, and teaching and learning as well. It’s about sustainability for the whole child, and we are excited that we will have a three-year consulting relationship with them for their support.

This school is promoted as being project-based and student-centered. How is this different from experiential learning models?
It is quite similar in the project-based and service learning components, but the main difference is that the Experiential Learning model tends to take school outside with a strong physical focus, and the Denver Green School will make efforts to bring community action inside to learn across disciplines. Earth Force will help us integrate that across all areas of our curriculum. We intend to be a community school and build reciprocal relationships with our community to build investment in the success of the school.

Describe the service learning model and how that is beneficial for learning and communities.
The research shows that the more kids are engaged, the more they learn and service-learning takes a hands-on, brains-on approach to engage kids in active learning. An example of a strong service-learning project would be that instead of just cleaning up a river in our neighborhood, we would encourage analysis, research and upstream problem solving. They could research the source of the litter, the frequency of visitors, the propensity of trash cans, etc. This is problem solving through analysis, synthesis and critical thinking – the higher order thinking skills for successful learners and change agents of the 21st Century.

What kinds of families are attracted to the school? What kinds of students will thrive there?
We were recruited by this neighborhood because they wanted a strong new model in this great building (formerly Fallis Elementary) and it very much fit within our vision of sustainability and diversity. There are 50 different languages spoken within our boundaries. Many are attracted by the green movement and sustainability approach. The student-centered, project-based model attracts others. They will each inform each other. The model is based on instructional practices that work for all kids. Every student will have an Individualized Learning Plan that will address not only his academic strengths, but also his interests and learning styles, and talents. Because learning will be balanced and tailored to each student’s need, it is truly an approach that will meet the needs of every student. So, in essence, we find that we are attractive to boundary families and choice-in families, too, both of whom are attracted to our “hands-on brains-on” model.

I understand you do not employ the typical hierarchy but instead go for more democratic model that also translates at the student level. Describe the leadership at DGS and how this will affect student life.
It is a Democratic model of governance. There are nine Founding Partners who are part of the decision-making body, along with students, staff, and community. There will be three Lead Partners who will take on more of an administrative role and directly carry out the mission, values, and vision of the school on a daily basis. Getting that kind of consensus and buy-in from the top down is an investment in sustainability and cooperation within the school and community. It’s not an easy process, but it creates long term buy-in and we think it’s worth it.

Denver Green School will be hosting a Community BBQ Saturday May 15th and all are invited. 3:00pm – 6:00pm at the school, located at 6700 East Virginia Avenue.

All students, families and community members are invited to DGS to meet our school leaders, interact with teachers and tour the school – all while grabbing dinner and checking out some live music. Enrollment forms will be available. We will have lots of fun activities for the kids, too!

For more information about the Denver Green School, go to:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Donnell-Kay Foundation - an Interview with Amy Anderson

Amy Anderson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Her career has shown a commitment to promoting and expanding high performing public schools around the nation from the very beginning. Her work at the foundation includes new school development, social science research, and education policy analysis. Amy and I shared breakfast and our passion for education recently, and she told me about the work that takes place at the Donnell-Kay Foundation.

How did the Donnell-Kay Foundation get started?
The foundation was incorporated in 1965 through a trust by the Kay family. The board of trustees is led by Allen Dines, a former Colorado state legislator, who has an abiding interest in improving public education. The Executive Director is Tony Lewis.

What are the goals of the organization?
The mission of the Donnell-Kay Foundation is to improve public education and drive systemic school reform in Colorado through solid research, creative dialogue and critical thinking. The Foundation focuses on funding systemic reform and state level policy in the areas of early childhood, K-12, and higher education. The Foundation also provides operating and program funding to school districts and non-profit organizations statewide - with a focus on urban schools in metro-Denver.

What kind of education reform does the foundation support and how does it do it?

A major area of focus is increasing the supply of high performing public schools, especially in areas where a lack of such schools exist. We also have invested considerable resources in efforts to reduce Colorado’s drop-out rate. We are also exploring business models to link more Early Childhood Education (ECE) to charters, having them co-located, and recently held a Summit on Blended Learning that introduced leading ideas and approaches for integrating online and innovative technologies into brick and mortar schools and classrooms.

It seems that if a school has a waiting list to get into it, there should be more schools of that ilk that enable more students access to that kind of education. Why aren’t there more expeditionary learning schools or more schools like Denver School of the Arts? Why is the supply not keeping up with the demand?
Some schools cannot keep up with the demand, while others, especially new schools, struggle for enrollment. It takes efforts on the district part to close underperforming schools in order to make room for new, higher performing options. And, it takes more marketing and education to help families to understand what their choices are.

One reason why there are not more of the schools you listed above is because it is a lot of work to start a new school. It takes leadership to get a school like this up and running and it is a task that is overwhelming for many people. Some schools are replicating, like DSST, while others are growing to meet increased demand, such as Odyssey will do if it is able to raise the necessary funds to build a new building and grow. As for Expeditionary Learning (EL), that organization is planning on creating a regional center that will foster the creation of more EL schools, develop teacher and leadership pipelines to work in these schools, and provide ongoing support for existing EL schools in the area.

I love how the Donnell-Kay Foundation looks at nearly every aspect of a student’s education and where improvements can be made based on research. Tell me about some of the projects that are not academic, but greatly impact student’s lives.
Yes, this is largely a function of what our interests are. We are interested in improving the lives of students in a holistic way. We’ve worked with health foundations and health care providers to expand school-based health initiatives and have spend considerable time over the past couple of years to bring healthier school lunch options to Colorado.

We went to Revolutionary Foods in California and recruited them to come here to improve the school lunches in Denver. This was the easy part. It’s the policy negotiation, the district hurdles, and the state statutes that are still ongoing that are the difficult part of reforming food service programs. Initially, some of the school districts we met with were resistant to working with a group like Rev Foods and/or revamping their lunch programs in order to serve freshly prepared, non-processed meals. That said, a handful of districts have agreed to release charter schools from their school lunch programs, allowing them to use Revolutionary Foods. We launched and funded this initiative, and much of the work now is being handled by the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Interestingly, this year DPS unveiled a healthier lunch program as a means of trying to attract back some charters that had left, provide different options for non-charter schools, and keep others from opting out in the future. This new optional lunch program will roll-out in selected DPS schools next Fall.

Looking through your website, I see a lot more effort to improve education and very little about accountability/standardized testing. This is a refreshing break from much of the government’s focus on education. Tell me about the foundation’s general view on the accountability movement.
The testing is necessary to monitor teacher effectiveness and student growth over time, but the success of a school is more than just doing well on a test.

For more information on the Donnell-Kay Foundation, go to the website at: