My predecessors at Catlin Gabel School had the vision and courage to ask teachers to dream big. And they do – with energy and purpose. The result is a school that is successful by any measure: student and faculty achievements, college success, alumni lives, enrollment, and fundraising. The expertise and commitment of our faculty and staff inspires the parent community to trust the education we provide.
Building on that success is our next great challenge. Meeting it will require us to deepen our commitment to innovation and become even more strategic.
This year we are engaged in a strategic thinking process at Catlin Gabel. We are committed to designing a process that is inclusive and decisive. By gathering information, developing hypotheses, prototyping, and forcing choices, we will determine how to improve our students’ experience in the years ahead. The process includes the potential paradox of affirming and sustaining who we are and pushing hard against Catlin Gabel orthodoxy. It is a thrilling and daunting task, and we are taking it on with enthusiasm.
Current strategic plans in many schools articulate themes I consider to be ongoing obligations, not strategies (21st century learning, global citizenship, increasing faculty compensation, and diversity). I prefer the perspective of organizational expert David LaPiana, who describes strategy as making smart choices as the world changes around us and taking action in real time.
One way we can make smart choices is with disciplined innovation. We think of ourselves as an innovative school, but are we achieving our institutional potential in this regard? We will come closer by focusing on the science of innovation as well as the art. We can create hypotheses about ways to improve teaching and learning, test them, assess how and if they add value to the student experience, and if they do, consider scale and sustainability. If they do not, we can discontinue them. Knowing we have limited resources, we also can bring a disciplined approach to assessing programs that already receive funding. If we are to thrive in the future, we need to focus on demonstrable value to students. In short, we need to encourage breakthrough ideas, amplify what works, and know when to say no.
The various inputs we gather this fall through our strategic planning process will be synthesized to create possible value-added themes for our students and school. We then will work to understand which themes lead to the most feasible and valuable action steps. These themes will be broad and long-term in nature, allowing teachers to design toward them, with flexibility to incorporate new learning and changes in the world. By aligning resources such as time, expertise, and funding under the themes we choose, we will create a more strategic institution.
How will we know if we are succeeding at disciplined innovation? We will see evidence of dynamic new programs, curriculum changes, and experiments with a clear purpose and visible results. Student engagement and achievement will increase. How will we know we are becoming more strategic? We will assess both our progress toward our goals and the goals themselves. We will align our mission, capacities, and resources and become more confident in saying no or no more. The Catlin Gabel student experience will be more distinctive and valuable.
In 1928 our co-founder Ruth Catlin called on us “To contribute to the community and its schools an educational laboratory, free to utilize the knowledge and wisdom of leading educators.” For seventy-five years we have worked hard to avoid becoming what some educators call a “safe school,” a place where predictability is valued more than creativity. As a progressive school we believe that children should take risks, and that failure leads to learning. As an institution we believe in taking risks as well, from merging two small schools to form Catlin Gabel in 1957 to launching our PLACE Center for community partnerships in 2016. As we lean into a process to set goals as well as shape culture, we do so with our history and our future in mind.