It is rare to experience even once the heady headaches of starting a new school or educational program. Imagine the joys and traumas in developing four innovative programs in a career. Here are some aspects of the rarefied atmosphere one faces as a designer of new school programs:
· Empowered people, made so through daily doses of creative ideas
· “Can-do” administrators fighting “can’t do” when logistical realities occasionally invade
· Frustration for all when time is insufficient to the task at hand
· Professionals who dream, disagree and talk it out – every work day and often on weekends
· Shiny new equipment - if it arrives on time
· Gorgeous new buildings – if sub contractors find time to finish in a building boom economy
· Plans for tomorrow’s work that keep you awake at night
· Brochures to market cutting edge courses to students and parents; will they understand?
· Investing your all, and wondering whether it all will work
· Energetic, capable people teaming together to accomplish a possible and worthy dream.
It is so exhilarating to have work time every day to consider an ideal education set-up and then design it. No two days are the same and there are, literally, a thousand tasks to push inexorably forward. As many deadlines loom, one wonders whether students will apply, construction will be completed, staff will "buy into" the concept, and programs we be ready. IT IS GLORIOUS CHAOS!
The Conserve School in Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin is my fourth start-up in 21 years, and by far, it is the most ambitious. To my knowledge, no environmental, invention oriented, residential high school exists. But that is what the Conserve School is to be - a place we like to call the ideal school for the future.
No small challenges here. We are building the Conserve School on a 1200-acre wilderness setting. It is far from any commercial airport. It is 120 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. It borders two national forests and a federal wilderness where snowflakes, wildlife and Land O' Lakes lakes are all abundant. The nearest real mall is 150 miles away, but the nearest movie theater is only 22 miles distant. The good news is that we have until 2002 to complete construction, programs, staffing, and recruitment.
Why take on such an exotic concept? Daniel Burrus, author of the futuristic book, Technotrends put it best: "Solve tomorrow's predictable problems today." The donor of Conserve School's property and trust, James R. Lowenstine, did just that. He set the stage for addressing balance of nature issues in a high school. Wow, what a great gift to tomorrow! He recognized that we must preserve nature, but not control it. The Conserve School is a tool to that end if we design and operate it correctly, and we shall.
I suspect that the world could use quite a few schools in this mold. Unfortunately, for most academics, there rarely is time to contemplate what a school should be and do. New school programs tend to be reactionary to a described need or complaint in the community, or they are copies of other schools whose test score results are perceived to be better. In the end, the traditional approach to new school design creates mediocre gains over previous models and lackluster interest from those we would attract.
In starting a school, it is critical that designers look at more than today's test scores and short-term shortcomings. It is essential that designers take time to ponder what major needs will exist thirty years hence. In fifteen years as director of national award winning schools in Texas and North Carolina, I have been approached for advice by hundreds of individuals charged with developing or redesigning schools. Rarely were they able to plan strategically. Often they asked for advice on program design a few months before operating their new schools. There was very little real help that could be proffered at that point.
As Meredith, my wife and co-founder of Conserve School begin our best chance at developing an ideal school, we are developing a boilerplate set of instructional tasks on a database. It is not yet ready to share with the public, but when completed and tested, it should help with nuance, design, frustration, and deadline issues. Already, it is eleven pages of prioritized, single-spaced tasks and thousands of hours of design. Sometimes the mere existence of the list tires me to think of all that must be done.
While this new school checklist is not ready for prime time, there is one design point can be shared now. New school designers should think about the future – think about it as they did when they were teenagers. Build courses and programs that will motivate the most reluctant student while appealing to their better nature. Idealistic teenage students are much more motivated when the cause is "bigger" than they are. Students want "to make a difference", but they rarely know how or what to change. They want to manipulate their world, but there are few real tools that they can access so that they can construct with hands and mind and enlarge their spirit. Conserve School’s mission is to develop ethical leaders and stewards of ecological sustainability. Now, we have two years to figure out just how to do so.