March 1 marks the start of Women’s History Month. This is a moment in the year when we look back at our founding. One Schoolhouse was founded as the Online School for Girls in 2009, the world’s first single-gender online school and the world’s first online independent school. We were founded with the belief that the values that power girls’ education–collaborating, creating, connecting, and engaging in real-world application–are the same values that make online learning a powerful experience.
Thirteen years later, our roots in the girls schools’ world are still strong. As One Schoolhouse, our courses are open to students of all genders now, but we still offer girls-only sections in 19 courses, placing our focus in disciplines where girls are historically under-represented. We remain committed to serving the girls schools’ community that has supported us since our founding.
We’ve been through a lot of changes, and we’re continuing to grow and evolve. At no time has that been the case more than in the past three years. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, friends and colleagues would say to me, “Well, nothing much has changed for you, right? You’ve been working remotely and at an online school for years!” While it’s true that my commute remained short (a flight of stairs, with a quick stop for coffee before I reach my desk), life at One Schoolhouse shifted drastically. We had the opportunity to share our experience and expertise with dozens of schools, and to offer reassurance to hundreds of Academic Leaders who were managing a seismic reorganization of how their schools operated.
In those early days, in our webinars and on our listserv, we met Academic Leaders who were hungry for community. They pooled ideas and resources; they asked questions and found novel solutions. Their ingenuity, grace, and grit are our inspiration as we launch the Association for Academic Leaders.
Now, we’re in a new age of One Schoolhouse. We continue to offer a thriving program to supplement high schools across the country and around the world. At the same time, we’re championing Academic Leaders through the Association. That feels especially appropriate, because we believe we’re entering a new age of academic leadership.
In the past ten years, academic leadership has become an increasingly complex job with an expanding set of responsibilities—one eye on the horizon, and the other eye on the inbox. collaborating, creating, connecting, and engaging in real-world application. As we created the Association, we understood we needed to provide the opportunity for Academic Leaders to collaborate and connect, to find creative solutions to real-world challenges: exactly the values and skills that we were built to nurture thirteen years ago. Our history is part of creating our future.
In recognition of Black History Month, we want to talk about the ways One Schoolhouse is working to celebrate Black identity and represent the African Diaspora. Like many independent schools, we grapple with our identity as a predominantly white organization; we recognize that many traditional courses, including ones we’ve offered in the past, erase and elide both Black identity and the experience and impact of systemic racism. We’re committed to ensuring that the courses we offer students now, and in the future, are identity-affirming.
One Schoolhouse courses center students’ identities in course design. We see this as a core aspect of a learner-driven, personalized, competency-based pedagogy, with an explicit focus on creating a space of belonging where students can engage constructively in a diverse and changing world. The opportunity to engage with other students in an identity course -- Asian American, Black, Gender, or Latina/o/x -- provides a haven for a deep dive into what it means to be uniquely you in America today. Here, we share three commitments to honoring Black identity and the history of the African Diaspora:
Black identity is reflected in our curriculum and catalog. Our course, Black Identity in the United States, takes a transdisciplinary approach to exploring cultural, social, and political movements. Other, more traditional courses don’t shy away from engaging with similar questions. For example, our Civics and Politics course asks students to read Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” alongside the Declaration of Independence, ensuring that the United States’ founding documents can be understood in their historical context, examining the wide range of their impact.
Curriculum constantly widens perspectives. In our Modern Language sequences, we’re asking what it means to decolonize the teaching of a colonizing language. For example, the majority of French-speaking people live on the African continent, but language learning materials–including ones that we’ve used in our courses–spend the majority of time exploring Francophone culture in France and Canada. We’re committed to ensuring that our curriculum doesn’t replicate distortions and erasures, and accurately reflects a diverse world.
Our courses have to address how we innovate to evolve. We aren’t afraid to rebuild courses so that students can explore the legacy of slavery or the impact of racism on modern society, and ask questions that connect the past to real-world issues. In our AP European History course, for example, we’re examining not only European colonialism but also African resistance in a deep inquiry into the Mau Mau Rebellion, which leads students to ask their own questions about imperialism, hegemony, and cultural identity. In this course, “AP Readiness” is just one of the four course competencies, making space for students to explore the essential context and information that illuminates the course content.
No one at One Schoolhouse should check their identity at the door. We are more effective and joyful when we embrace the fullness of ourselves, tackle privilege, and open ourselves up to change. Everyone at One Schoolhouse -- students, teachers, administrators, board members -- is accountable to and for their identities, and every day we work to make this explicit in our work.
Our blog post this week was inspired by your own responses to our Pulse question last week, asking what you enjoy most about being an Academic Leader–you’ll see some quotes from the inspiring responses we received.
Academic Leaders, this Valentine’s Day, we want to share a little bit of the love we feel for who you are, what you do, and the essential role you play in schools everywhere.
We love the way you provide high quality education in service of your schools’ missions. You devote yourselves to developing a rich, multifaceted learning experience for everyone in your community, students and teachers alike.
We love the way you innovate, the way you’re constantly wondering what more is out there, what further possibilities there could be for change or development. You push the boundaries for the students in your schools.
We love the way you do your homework, the way you dive into conducting and absorbing current research. The One Schoolhouse team is home to people who got in trouble as kids for reading under their desks, who asked questions that couldn’t be easily answered. As students, we adored the educators who took our questions seriously. That’s another reason we love working with Academic Leaders–when you aren’t satisfied with the status quo, you challenge accepted wisdom and seek out more information. You take all questions seriously, even–especially!--the ones that can’t be easily answered.
We love the value you place on growth: in your students, your faculty members, and your own pedagogical approach. You steer learning at your schools, as one Academic Leader told us, “elevating, recognizing, and appreciating growth and the knowledge that you can help students and faculty feel supported and seen.” You also acknowledge the link between professional growth and student growth, and you know that communities improve when every member has the resources that allow them to thrive.
We love the way you collaborate with other Academic Leaders and the way you mentor emerging leaders in your schools. You make yourself available to colleagues far and wide. You give up your time to share your ideas across the digital universe in meetups and on our listserv. You thrive on thinking through initiatives and innovations in community with others.
We love the way you balance the tiniest of details with the biggest of strategic questions. You never forget about the impact of your decisions on individual students’ lives. One Schoolhouse Strategic Planning Chair Naa-Adei Kotey, Academic Dean at St. Paul’s Schools in Maryland, reflected, “When we are all in concert about what deep and meaningful learning is and strive to make it happen for our students, that’s a gift. It’s a joy to see curricular work translated from the theoretical into the actual as students engage with meaningful curriculum and with intentional instruction that stretches them to see themselves and others.”
We love the work you’re doing to build what one Academic Leader described as “an inclusive and progressive culture where students can thrive and feel supported.” One Schoolhouse board member Sean Raymond, Assistant Head for Enrollment and Tuition Assistance at York School in California, wrote, “As an educator, I’m motivated by creating meaningful learning opportunities for students. As an academic leader I enjoy supporting educators who wish to inspire and prepare youth toward a positive and productive future.”
We love the way you’ve supported and guided your communities through the past two years, even when you felt overwhelmed, or when you struggled with grief or fear. You’ve encouraged resilience in learners who have struggled through a barrage of challenges. You’ve also fostered resilience in yourselves and the other adults in your communities.
We love how much you love the students you serve, and we love the way you love each other and your schools.
Several decades ago, as compelling new ideas on teaching and learning began to arise, independent schools created a new class of administrators, charged with oversight and planning of schools’ academic programs. Academic deans, assistant heads for teaching and learning—titles proliferated, and the work became ever more complex.
In 1999 I became one of these administrators in a coeducational day school serving grades 6 through 12. It was my first foray into actual administration; I’d been a department chair, but never part of an actual “administrative team.”
I was an “office” of one. I had no staff support, only the detailed working version of the school’s strategic priorities, regular meetings with the head of school, and friends and allies on a strong but independent-minded faculty. I also traded happy spring and fall afternoons coaching for chairing the weekly meeting of department heads.
Those were lonely times in my working life. We assembled a small “academic program team” consisting of myself, the chief diversity officer, the division leaders, and—ex officio—the head, and we generally worked well together, agreeing on the directions of our work and mostly on the means of getting there. But the APT was a working team, not a mutual support group.
By that time I had subscribed for a few years to a free email service and listserv in our state for K–12 teachers, a small community in those days of 600-baud modems. There were some useful discussions, and I learned a bit, but it wasn’t what I needed.
One of the reasons I could even imagine what I might have needed was that I had attended several workshops run by the late, great David Mallery. These had provided something that didn’t otherwise seem to exist in my universe: opportunities for independent school educators with similar experiences and portfolios to gather, to share stories and resources, to ask questions of one another, and to forge personal and professional connections. Those events, with David’s benevolent warmth melting any ice and shattering reserve, were bliss. I WAS NOT ALONE!!!
Shortly before the turn of the century a new listserv appeared, the Independent School Educators Listserv, soon known as “the ISED.” The ISED quickly became the locus of any amount of querying and resource sharing. Here were a bunch of school tech folks, sure, but soon there were assistant heads, deans of this and that, department chairs, and even the occasional head of school. The ISED was a community, and list members soon knew about one another’s professional aims and quandaries—more than just our names, titles, and geographical locations.
A year or so later I was privileged to write an article for Independent School magazine about how schools—all of which I had learned about from my far-flung colleagues on the ISED—were doing interesting things in the areas of curriculum and instruction. The listserv had brought this project together. So began a whole lot of moonlight work writing and researching for NAIS and other organizations. In that era of “Web 2.0,” Nings and wikis materialized that served to further demonstrate to their members the power of collaboration. I even had a few direct, meat-space contacts with listserv friends, including a young academic dean in North Carolina who was later to become my boss!
This work created for me a rich personal community, enriching my own life and my work at my own school. As I spoke with counterparts at schools around the planet, I realized how much of a hunger there was for connection and community among independent school academic leaders. When a group of ISED listeros came together over the issue of how “independent” our academic programs could truly be if our most advanced courses were driven by an externally validated curriculum and standardized testing, a small community of purpose—soon to be called the Independent Curriculum Group—came into being.
The ICG wanted to be more than a single-issue organization, and we focused on broadening our community. We even sponsored a few “Academic Leaders Retreats,” the spirit of David Mallery, that are among my happiest professional memories. When our board members and several One Schoolhouse leaders started talking, the alignment of missions and aspirations became apparent, and in 2019 the ICG and I became parts of One Schoolhouse.
I hadn’t forsaken my dream of a kind of space where academic leaders could come together to learn and share and feel at ease and at one with peers, and One Schoolhouse had the staff and the resources to start thinking about creating a structured community. The pandemic accelerated the upgrading of the sleepy ICG listserv into the robust and super-active ACADEMIC-LEADERS list, and One Schoolhouse had already co-sponsored some Academic Leaders Retreats around the country.
So now we at One Schoolhouse are rolling out the Association for Academic Leaders, for me the realization of a decades-long dream. We do our work better and more confidently when we aren’t doing it alone, and we know that in this wide world at least someone else has conceived an answer to some question that has troubled our sleep. Someone has an answer, a resource, an idea, or a new perspective that we can adapt to the needs of our own schools, our teachers, and our students.
An Association of Academic Leaders! How about that!
(Too) many years ago, an author who had literally “written the book” returned a cold call from a newly minted academic dean who faced a dilemma. The new dean felt insecure about approaching the wise and kind head of school who had hired her (and who ultimately became a wonderful mentor). The author kindly let the dean know that he did, in fact, know who she was from her participation on a listserv to which they both contributed. His sage advice saved the day and, while I don’t remember the dilemma itself (yes, that was me!), what I do remember is feeling utterly alone and unsure of where to turn. Over time, I built a network of peers in similar roles via online forums, conference connections, and referrals. And, of course, I kept in touch with Peter…
When I share that story with others, many who have served as Academic Leaders recall the same worry: “How will I find my network?” While the associations serving independent schools are powerful forces for good, there is no one professional organization focused solely on the needs of Academic Leaders. That’s not just an anecdotal observation–in a study we commissioned with McKinley Advisors, 75% of the Academic Leaders surveyed agreed with the statement, “There’s no one organization that meets all my needs.”
Enter the Association for Academic Leaders, powered by One Schoolhouse. We’re thrilled to share that we have launched Academic Leaders to support all those whose work is strategically focused on teaching and learning beyond a single classroom. This includes academic administrators, division directors and department chairs.
As Academic Leaders ourselves, we did our homework first. We focused on two areas: deepening our understanding of those who serve as Academic Leaders, and better understanding the competencies they use to succeed.
Through our research into competency-based leadership and a series of focus groups with a diverse array of Academic Leaders, we developed a compelling collection of competencies. The features and benefits of the Association are designed and built to nurture and grow these competencies.
We’d love to know how these resonate with you as you consider your work in your school. Please consider leaving a comment to tell us what you think.
We believe that Academic Leaders need to live and model these competencies as they support their schools in delivering mission-aligned academic programs that fulfill the promise made to families enrolling their children. In the coming weeks, we’ll share more about what we’ve learned, both about competencies and about the Academic Leaders who embody them.
In a nutshell, this is the organization those of us building it wish we’d had when we were beginning our academic leadership careers. We’re honored to bring it to you.
Join Head of School Brad Rathgeber and Senior Director Sarah Hanawald at noon ET on Wednesday, February 9, as they share more information about the new Association for Academic Leaders, a professional organization devoted to championing Academic Leaders and meeting their needs by offering community, learning, and resources. Register here!
Don't miss our weekly blog posts by joining our newsletter mailing list below:
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)