More Foundations

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I learned more than I ever thought I would about foundations due to an unexpected crack in ours. Something that I learned that I didn’t mention last week is that your house’s foundation is likely not visible to you.

While you might have a concrete slab, some foundations are of the basement kind or pier and beam. There’s also something called crawl space. Anyway, even if you can’t see the strong foundation that supports you and your house, the point is that it’s there doing its job.

I had drawn the comparison to our strong foundation at Independence with the hiring of our leadership infrastructure, but an equally important foundation is currently being laid: that of our charter student groups. What I mean by that is that we are in the process of bringing coaches and other staff on board, and so our student athletes are beginning the hard work of establishing programs, as well as their legacies.

Different from your house, this foundation work is visible. Our first such example was our football team holding its first workout at Briar Woods High School’s weight room earlier the other week (thank you Briar Woods!). We had 27 students report to work that day, to begin laying a foundation. I could not have been happier with that showing as our team works to build a culture. At our second workout on Wednesday night, we had four additional students attend. That was great! And the hope is for the next one that even more students come out as excitement and the word spreads. I’m proud of the work and commitment these young men are putting in, and they will be remembered for it—that’s another one of those perks of opening a new school.

I am not highlighting football because it is the most important activity in the school; rather, it is because it is the first group that has been cleared to begin this work. I anticipate other teams getting together soon as more coaches come on board—in fact we have a meet and greet on Tuesday for our cheer, cross country, golf, and field hockey coaches, and I’m sure that once students meet them, they’ll be ready to put in work. And the same will hold true for other groups like band, theater, and chorus once those positions are filled. The point is, these charter students who are willing to sacrifice and sweat are also our foundation, and early indicators are that it is a strong one.

Strong Foundations

It has rained every day since March.

I know that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way! And our feelings were recently confirmed last week when it was announced that we have had the rainiest year on record: over 61 inches of rain has fallen in our area—and we still have some time left here in December to further cement this record.

But again, we knew this. If you just look around, the signs are everywhere. I don’t remember my lawn ever looking this green in the winter. Or seeing so much mildew on the north side of the houses in my neighborhood.  Or the Loudoun text alerts about flash flooding and road closures. And of course, there is the forecast for this weekend. And I am sure that you know someone who has had water damage to their basement (a colleague of mine even had hers flood twice in one calendar year). And if you don’t know anyone personally, then you at least know me.

We were surprised to discover that the strange odor in our basement was actually mold caused by water that had been coming in. We were even further surprised to learn that what we had thought was seepage was actually something much worse than that. When we ripped down drywall to remediate the mold, we found a crack in our foundation wall that was allowing water in.

In having our wall fixed, I learned a lot about foundations and how houses are built. In a nutshell, foundations are like paperclips: They bend back and forth. They are designed to have a modicum of flexibility, and they move during rainy and dry seasons.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

A house will do this naturally and we don’t even realize it. Assuming it is built well, there might be a crack or two that appear in the foundation over its lifetime, but the house will remain strong and standing because it was built upon a solid foundation that can withstand that movement.

And that is what we are doing with Independence right now: building a strong foundation. We recently finished hiring our department chairs (and have begun introducing them on Twitter and Instagram as they are cleared by Human Resources) and that is the beginning of the foundation upon which our house will be built. Strong instructional leaders who will help us staff the building and ensure engaging instruction, the department chairs are part of the leadership structure that is essential to having an effective school. And working with them to develop sound processes and procedures as well as to continue to develop relationships will help us build our strong foundation. With that in place, our school will be able to withstand the movement between dry and wet seasons, or more specifically, when there is turnover or other issues that might threaten the stability of a school.

Back and forth, back and forth.

So I am happy to report that we have the beginnings of a strong foundation at Independence High School and look forward to you seeing that as well!

Empower

Prior to posting on social media the short video that revealed what our mascot would be, I posted the following: “Voting is empowering; it allows for voice. But voting can also be divisive as it creates winners and losers. But keep in mind that we will all be on the same team.” While there was a clear winner in the vote for mascot, it was still close enough that I knew there could be some students unhappy that their choice didn’t win. And so I wanted them to maintain perspective, that soon we will be sharing one building and one mascot.

That said, I also wanted them to know that their voices had been heard. In fact, a parent later posted on Instagram that she knew a lot of parents wanted Cavaliers to win, and the fact that the Tigers won demonstrated that I took their vote and choice seriously. And I did. That was one very public way that students were empowered. They had gained a level of control over an aspect of their future lives.

Empowerment is an important part of the new schools process. Letting students have choice and input on things ranging anywhere from the mascot to the name of the school store and so forth gives them an emotional investment in the school they are about to bring online. It helps them feel less like renters, and more like owners.

But empowerment shouldn’t be limited to just the opening of a school. Empowerment is important throughout the course of the school day and year as well. While empowerment can certainly take the form of student government and leadership, what I am referring to is the second principle of my vision, Engage, Empower, Excel.

Empowering students as learners is essential to nurture the natural curiosity that students are born with but sometimes lose by the time they reach high school. I’ve written before about the importance of having firestarters on staff, and while I stand by that, perhaps the best way to spark that fire is to empower students to pursue their interests and passions. There are obviously standards and set curricula that must be addressed and followed in high schools, but within that, I think there is enough room for students to maneuver and follow what they are interested in: doing so empowers them in their own learning. In other words, when students have more choice in what they are doing (and why), they have more investment in it.

We can help in this by having students start with questions rather than presenting them with answers. With Google always at their fingertips, their time in school must consist of more than a slavish adherence to rote memorization; rather, they need to learn how to develop questions and the skills to explore them. This kind of deep exploration in turn helps them create meaning on their own, and when we can facilitate that and help them make connections, we will have students who are not only engaged but empowered as well.

This is a lofty goal. I understand that. But that is what a vision should be—it should be aspirational, something to strive for. Will we always hit that mark? Probably not. But if we keep that as our focus as a school, as administrators, as teachers, then we will be better positioned to meet it.

Providing You with More than Just Braces

A little over seven years, I received a Facebook message from a community member congratulating me on my appointment to the principalship of John Champe High School and encouraging me to reach out to him if there was anything I needed.

At the time, I couldn’t understand why an orthodontist would be messaging me or what he could possibly do for me, so I kindly thanked Dr. Kravitz for his warm wishes and left it at that. Thankfully, he reached out to me again shortly after and reiterated his initial offer. Even then, I still didn’t comprehend what was occurring, but I explained that I would certainly like to meet with him.

Again, this was 2011, and while there was the ubiquitous advertisement for Kravitz Orthodontics in the Stone Ridge Harris Teeter, he was not as well as known throughout the county at that point. And being new to working in Dulles, I didn’t know about him either. But I soon learned what the rest of Dulles South (and now the county) knew about Dr. Kravitz: he is a generous, humble soul who cares about people and his community.

And so seven years later, I found myself in a similar situation: opening a new school and in need of financial assistance. This time around, I approached him and asked if he could help Independence High School like he did for Champe, and his immediate response was, “Absolutely—anything you need.” And that is why Dr. Kravitz is regarded around the county as the staunchest supporter of our schools: he unhesitatingly offers support to so many and in so many ways. He loves children and is passionate about his work, and his infectious smile instantly conveys that to anyone who interacts with him.

Of course this is why it was no surprise when he received the Loudoun County School-Business Partnership Make a Difference Award in 2015. He is committed to helping our schools thrive; to the best of my knowledge, his support of our schools and education is probably unparalleled. For example, aside from things like sponsorship, Dr. Kravitz subsidizes student agendas, instructional materials, teacher supplies, luncheons, clubs, and numerous after school activities.  He also contributes to athletics, Fun Runs, charity fundraisers at the school, festivals, parent nights, the PTSA, book clubs, holiday events, dances, Teacher Appreciation Week, and academic scholarships. And he does this by following up by asking, “What else can I do to help?”

If it were only the schools he helped, that would be impressive enough, but Dr. Kravitz supports the entire community. He sponsors Dulles Youth Sports, Loudoun South Eagles Baseball, South Riding Little League, South Riding Challenge Soccer, Loudoun South Soccer, Old Dominion Football Clubs, South Riding Stingrays, Froggers Swim Club, Stone Ridge Sharks Swim Club, Pleasant Valley Piranhas, Dulles Storm Lacrosse, CYA, SYA, South Riding Dance, middle school basketball and iBots programs, and Loudoun County Fire and Rescue and the State Troopers. He also goes beyond that by attending school plays, athletic events, fundraisers, awards ceremonies, and even hosting events at his office.

And that is just what I know of. I suspect that if you were to start asking around to different schools across the county, they would echo this as well as give you numerous other examples of his generosity and assistance.

My point is, I am appreciative and grateful when community generosity finds its way to our schools; as I wrote earlier in the month, I intend to highlight some of this generosity in my blog. And so, I am thankful to Dr. Kravitz for supporting Independence High School and am glad that he will be a part of this journey with us.

I guess the other point is that I also learned a valuable lesson: when you receive an email from an orthodontist, take him/her at their initial word!

Engage, Empower, Excel

Around three months old, our daughter energetically started to engage with the rest of her new family. Now that she could see a little more clearly and was a little more self-aware, she would burble and coo any chance she saw us, craning her neck to ensure that we not only heard her but saw her as well. And when she would hear her big brother’s voice from across the room, she would track and lock in on him and start babbling specifically for his benefit.

At five months now, she happily chirps during her waking hours in the family room, and if she doesn’t receive a response, there are sometimes small (and increasingly larger) signs of frustration when she is not acknowledged. She is engaging with us, trying to communicate with us as she observes the rest of the family doing the same thing. Now, as much as I would like to think my daughter is special (spoiler alert: she is), I do recognize that Stella is just like other five-month-old infants: these are developmental milestones that she should be hitting. Regardless of that, we still marvel at her desire to engage with us. We encourage it, and we expect it.

That said, why don’t we encourage and expect a similar kind of engagement when children are not five months but 15 years old? And I don’t mean students with their heads down, zeroed in on a screen (although this certainly could apply); rather, I’m referring to student engagement in high school. We marvel when it does occur because we have become so accustomed to disconnection that when it does happen, we are unmistakably in wonder of it. The point here is that when students enter high school, they are too often not engaged. They lack an emotional involvement or commitment to their learning or the subject at hand; interactions can be limited to their Mead notebook. The only conversations or discussions they have might only be at lunch. This surely conjures a drab portrait of high school academics, and not necessarily and entirely inaccurate one (in fact, it is likely one that you might recall from when you were in school with all of its tidy rows of desks).

But schools don’t need to be this way. And thankfully schools are beginning to change how they do business.

When I hosted my first meet and greet event with the community to share my vision for Independence, I began by asking parents the following question: what business was Walt Disney in? Everyone had the expected responses. Animation. Movies. Theme parks. While all of that might be true, when he was asked that question, Mr. Disney’s response was simple and unexpected: the happiness business. His vision was that he wanted visitors to his parks to be happy—from the moment they got there, through lunch, and even when they left. And if they weren’t happy, that signaled there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

So that night I shared in a similar way that my business is not simply “school.” Rather, I am in the engagement business. What that means to me is that I want students to be engaged with significant content and authentic problems. I want students to be engaged with each other—both in small groups, collaborative groups, and with the larger student body. I want to staff the building with teachers who will engage and inspire students as well as facilitate their engagement with a larger environment, to help them make meaningful contributions to the world. I also want students to be engaged in the new schools process—and part of that will begin next week as Mr. Rogers and I will be visiting students during advisories, resource periods, and lunch blocks to talk with them about their ideas and their hopes for Independence, forming Ambassador Teams, and building relationships with our future students. And once we are in our school a year from now, I want students to also be engaged in what is unique about the American high school experience: a wide variety of clubs, activities, and extra-curricular and co-curricular activities that appeal to a wide range of interests and talents.

In the coming months, I will be looking to continue engaging with the Independence community, both through this blog as well as different meet and greet events. In the coming blog posts, I will elaborate more on this notion of “engagement” as well as touch on the other two aspects to the vision for Independence High School. And along the way, among other topics, I will also highlight business partnerships that have already started to help us with a variety of needs that new schools typically have.

Lastly, to engage with us, please follow us on social media and email if you have questions. Also, please come out to see us at our meet and greets, which will be advertised on the school’s website and through social media!

Welcome!

And a happy first day of school to you!

If you’ve followed Principal Reflections in the past, you know that I dedicate the first post of the school year to the power and importance of the first day of school. Even though we are surrounded by that sense of electricity, wonder, and hope in our schools this morning, I am going to forgo that usual entry and instead welcome the Independence community to my blog.

Over the course of this year, I will post regular entries about a variety of topics related to Independence High School or even life in general. What you won’t find on this blog is informational items; meaning, if you need to know about meetings or specific details about events, especially once we are in the building, this is not the place for that. Those aspects would still be pushed out through regular means such as the school’s website, ConnectED, or social media (if you haven’t so already, please start following @IndyNationLCPS on Twitter and Instagram and Independence High School on Facebook).

Rather, my intention for this blog is to allow people to learn more about Independence High School, the staff, the community, adolescences, school-related matters, as well as me. It’s not heavy reading but I hope you will find it engaging reading, something that could easily be digested while you enjoy your morning coffee and maybe even tickle your brain a little.

You can certainly check back here from time to time to see if there is a new post, but I would also encourage you to sign up for alerts. That way you will know when something has been posted—and you can tell a friend as well! So in the meantime, please feel free to look over past entries and archived posts when I was the principal of John Champe High School until my next entry.

Anyway, I hope your student had a great first day and comes home with his/her sense of wonder and excitement primed and ready to go for the rest of the year!

“All I Know Since Yesterday is Everything Has Changed”

There is a saying—I think originating with American author and humorist Mark Twain—that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. As my wife and I are up to our eyeballs in diaper-changing with our newborn, I can say that my daughter embraces change wholeheartedly. But for most people, that is certainly not the case. Myself included. We tend to fear change. And if it is not fear, it can be avoidance or reluctance: it is uncertainty of the unknown that causes feelings of anxiety.

Because uncertainty can be a risk. Uncertainty can be a threat. Uncertainty can be dangerous

As a result, many of us feel safer in what we are more comfortable with: it is what we know. We take a level of comfort in the routine, and from that we also gain structure and safety. That is likely why we don’t make changes even when we know we have to, even when we will be better off for it. Moreover, certainty and stability gives us knowledge which can give us a sense of control over our environment or over our circumstances. Change can also cause us to engage in introspection and reflection, which we might not be open to. This also makes change seem less attractive.

But as the school year comes in for a landing, every single one of us is faced with change for the upcoming year. The seniors are moving onwards and upwards. John Champe will only have grades 10 through 12 next year. Rising freshmen will be at Willard but will still have a foot in Champe. Returning students will face new challenges, new classes, and new teachers. I will be leaving to open a new school, and Champe will have its next principal named in a few weeks. And these are the changes that we know about: change is constant. We will of course be confronted with a myriad of other changes that will challenge and test us—they are just unseen and knowable, hiding in the shadow of the future.

All of this can be unnerving, but as we look to next year—or even tomorrow—it’s important to keep in mind and approach these changes as amazing opportunities. While that might not mitigate our unease, how we perceive our changes can determine how effectively we adapt to them. And so one of the last things I want to convey before we all go our separate ways is to emphasize how important our mindset, our beliefs, and our behaviors are each and every day, especially in the face of change. These are life-lessons that are important at 16 as well as at 60. We might struggle with them, but ultimately these lesson help us to continue to grow and help to shape us. So whether you are moving to Blacksburg, signing up for your first AP class, or preparing your resume, I wish you the best of luck as you embrace these changes and navigate your course.

Right is Right

About this time a year ago, I had blog post about Twenty One Pilots (and by the way, when are they going to have a new release?) entitled “Stressed out,” about doing the right thing, making the right decisions. This is something that we have emphasized at John Champe High School from our inception: in drawing upon the school’s namesake, we have regularly talked about the idea of courage and what that means and how it can manifest itself. In particular, how doing the right thing oftentimes takes courage, which is why the right decisions can sometimes be so hard.

There have been times on an individual basis or even on a small scale where we have been able to demonstrate this and our commitment to doing what is right. But recently, near the end of the winter sports season, on a much larger scale, we were faced with a situation where we could take the easy way out or we could model what we value.

To summarize briefly, it was pointed out to us that there was a question about athletic eligibility as it pertained to the basketball team. While we were in compliance with the rules and policies of the Virginia High School League, we were not compliant with Loudoun County Public Schools’ rules as stated in the athletic handbook (which by extension, are policy). The right thing to do was to advocate for what we believe in and what we think is best for students, which we did—which was an easy thing to do. However, we were unsuccessful in being able to reverse the decision about the local rule in question. As a result, we had a player who would not be able to play the remainder of the season, which is unfortunate for several different reasons. But we then faced a dilemma of how to proceed. That was not as easy.

If we decided to follow the guidance of the local rules—and even the VHSL—we would have fulfilled our obligation as school officials. We would have been finished with the situation and been able to quickly move on.

And yet, that didn’t feel quite right.

So after talking it through with Mr. Breinig, the athletic director, we agreed that the right thing to do was forfeit two of our wins. That was hard to do. These were district wins against Broad Run and Briar Woods, and we were confident that these would have been victories regardless. However, we ultimately decided that we didn’t want there to be a shadow of a doubt about our wins, let alone our integrity. So even though we were not required to, we forfeited those two games, and many fans and community members were not happy about that (but with some conversations, some understood why we had done and some even respected us for it).

Unfortunately, because these forfeitures were district games, they had an adverse impact on our seeding for the district playoffs. Instead of being the number five seed, we dropped down to the seven seed. The ramifications were that we would be squaring off against a tougher opponent (Stone Bridge High School, which had beaten us twice during the regular season by 29 and 25 points) earlier in the playoffs and that we would likely not host a game at home.

What was also especially difficult about this was that this was all in the public eye for everyone to see. Fans knew what had happened, parents were aware—even opposing schools knew when we played them. This was partially because we had sent an email to the program, but also because word travels fast, not just in subdivisions but even across the county. And so this also made it hard for our athletes, being on the court and knowing what people were thinking.

But to their credit, they held their heads high and played hard. And so when we traveled to the number 2 seed Stone Bridge High School for the district quarter final, it was so energizing to see our athletes compete and play with a zeal that we hadn’t seen in a while. And so that thrilling upset over Stone Bridge 62-58 was that much sweeter because our students had triumphed in the face of struggle and adversity.

My point here isn’t to pat ourselves on the back; rather, it is to highlight one of our learning opportunities. It is my hope that everyone was able to learn something from the actions of the students and the adults in this situation because learning doesn’t just occur in our classrooms or in isolation. Some of the most important lessons in life can be learned on the court, in the stands, or even on the way of the event. As such, I’m confident that our basketball program and our community is stronger for this and hope that they can draw from it in the future.

Vapes

It seems that many parents (as well as even teachers) are not familiar with vaping. Students certainly are, but when we have contacted parents about it, many have never heard of it before, which is what prompted this blog post.

Vaping is an electronic form of smoking where the person inhales and exhales a vapor, as opposed to smoke from a traditional cigarette. You might have heard about e-cigarettes several years ago, and this is a form of that. However, you might not be aware that the e-cigarette landscape has changed significantly since it was first introduced, which has led to an increase in vaping across the country—especially since it is being marketed as a “safe alternative” to smoking cigarettes (but I would push back on that since vaping hasn’t occurred long enough for there to be a true longitudinal study to determine if there are health risks associated with it or not).

First, the old e-cigarette which resembled the shape and look of a cigarette is no longer used by most people who vape. Rather, what has become popular, especially in schools all across the country, are devices such as JUUL (you might also hear about kids who are JUULing, which is another term for vaping). What students love about them is that they are incredibly discreet and easy to hide. If you take a look below, you will see that they almost resemble a flash drive and are about the same size:


What complicates their detection even more so is that students can actually charge them off of laptops, so it genuinely gives the impression that they are working with their thumb drive. To the casual observer, or teacher walking around the room, he or she probably wouldn’t question it or give it a second thought (please know I recently shared this information with staff as well):

And because of their size, students are able to creatively hide them:

And when students vape, it is nearly colorless and odorless, which has led students to be more brazen about doing it publicly—possibly even in your house without you even knowing about!

Another thing to keep an eye out for are vape pods or vaping oils:

The legal age to purchase a vape is 18 years old, just like cigarettes, but also like cigarettes, students have been able to find ways to get their hands on them. Some will use it for nicotine or flavored oils, but there are also others who use it for completely illegal purposes such as vaping marijuana. Per the school board policy, students are not permitted to have vapes in their possession, so when we encounter these situations, consequences are given and we will call you to make you aware of the infraction.

It certainly seems like each day there is something else to be on the lookout for or to be aware of, but with the increase in popularity of vapes, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing it to your attention. If you would like to learn more about this, click here to view an ABC 7 On Your Side segment.

Don’t Break the Chain

I make no secret that I am huge Seinfeld fan.

During the nineties, Seinfeld was not just must-see television but a cultural phenomenon as well. So much so that we still see echoes of it today as it still permeates our shared understandings and vernacular—from its phrases (“yada yada yada”), common experiences (Jerry as Everyman), and focus on minutiae (close-talkers), much of the show is still relevant today. That it still holds up well is a testament to Jerry Seinfeld’s (and co-creator Larry David) wit and sharp insight into human nature and society, and one can only wonder what the comic genius would have done with such rich material all around him today.

Actually, you don’t need to wonder too hard as you can get a glimpse from either Curb Your Enthusiasm (George investing in an iToilet app, before losing his earnings to Bernie Madoff, and now there is a real-life AirPNP app) or the Modern Seinfeld twitter (modern plot points like a barista writing evil things on George’s coffee cup), or some fan-favorite full-length scripts that were penned (Seinfeld in the 9/11 era).

Anyway, because I am such a fan, I have Seinfeld as an interest on my Flipboard and I came across an article (“How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the ‘Seinfeld Strategy’”) again that I had read a few years ago and shared with my department chairs. Rereading it, I thought it was timely to share now.

The gist of the article is how Seinfeld maintained such consistency and has such a quality product over the years (both as a standup, then as a showrunner, and probably even now with his most current vehicle, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). James Clear zeroes in on a piece of advice Seinfeld gave to a young comedian. We all want to create or succeed, but for some reason we fall prey to procrastination or laziness. His advice to this budding comic was very simple: “Don’t break the chain.”

Basically, what he is advocating is not to focus on results, but on the task. In this instance, it was to write jokes everyday. It didn’t matter if they were good or not—the act of writing them was what was important. For so many of us, we might get disheartened if the jokes weren’t good enough which would cause us to maybe not write one day or another and then we are no longer productive or effective. For Seinfeld, that was irrelevant, you continue to write jokes until you have done so for a few weeks. After that time, you have a catalog to pull from and evaluate their efficacy. What was important was maintaining the practice. In this, not breaking the chain.

What he is saying, which is so relevant on the heels of New Year’s and all the accompanying resolutions that people make, is that it is easy to get discouraged and stop, especially if we don’t see immediate results. We need to look past that and settle into a routine. Once a routine is established, it is harder to break it—even if we don’t see the results at that time. If we maintain and nurture this habit, we are less inclined to end it and we will ultimately see those results.

And so if you are like me or most others, you might have made a resolution about exercising or working out. It’s easy to skip a day/night, but once that happens, it’s a slippery slope. And it’s even easier when we have sub-zero temperatures to contend with! But if we establish manageable tasks and commit to them or adjust them as needed (like getting steps indoors/going up and down stairs if it is too cold outside), then we have a better chance at not breaking the chain. The point is that the longer we are able to establish patterns, habits, or routines, the less likely we are to break them. This is just as applicable and important to students as well as we near the midpoint for the school year. It is easy to change bad habits and cultivate new ones, good ones, if we focus on developing and maintaining small and sustainable ones.

And so as the semester starts to wind down, I wish you the best with your New Year’s resolution and hope that you had a Happy Festivus!