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Reflections on Six Months of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

2020 was always going to be a milestone year. It was the end of a decade. We brought the UPrep strategic plan to its conclusion. New leadership joined the UPrep community.

Then the global pandemic and tragedies of black lives hit, and 2020 became significant for unanticipated and unwelcome reasons. I have been so proud of our school community through this all. The best qualities of our teachers, staff, students, and families have come forth in the face of adversity. Everyone has risen to the challenge.

When it became clear that COVID-19 infection posed a major threat, we planned decisively and pivoted quickly to close campus and move school online. While we didn’t know it at the time, our experience teaching intensives online during January snow days served as a useful, early test.

Once the first weeks passed, and it became clear that we would be online for a while, we adapted to our new reality and delivered an online school experience that was decent, given the nonexistent timeframe to prepare.

This summer, the strength of our culture of professional learning has been on display, as all teachers have attended external workshops on teaching online, our own staff have offered 15 internal workshops, and the school has supported everyone to evolve their curricula for the fall. The result will be a richer, fuller experience in online school for as long as it’s needed.

Empty hallway


home office

Temporary home office

Schools have experienced these three stages—pivot, adapt, and evolve—over the past six months. As events continue to unfold this year, we may need to repeat this cycle, hopefully in smaller degrees than the spring.

Black Lives Matter has mobilized people to identify what they can do to support racial justice in our community. We listened to our own students share their experiences in a discussion panel in the spring. We quickly added new learning materials to the summer professional development program. We are planning additional learning and program changes for this coming year.

The national education community has never before been so focused on addressing the same problems. As a result, the network and professional development conversations have been numerous, rich, and specific. Schools are tending toward action as much as their resources allow. Our memberships in national organizations and networks have been so valuable as we have learned and shared with each other. It’s been particularly great to see different approaches and recommendations, which help situate our plans within the regional and national landscape.

Global Online Academy norms and strategies

Two frameworks from Global Online Academy’s COVID-19 page

Looking forward, we have developed a promising reopening plan, which we will use to return to campus, with appropriate health measures, when it is safe to do so. This could take place as soon as October 5. Whatever this year throws at us, we will continue to respond with resilience, hope, and togetherness, for the sake of our students’ learning and emotional health during this tragic time.

UPrep reopening plan

12 Highlights From POCC

1. Co-chairs welcome

E-chieh Lin (UPrep), Mahtab Mahmoodzadeh (Overlake), and Dori King (OES) delivered powerful opening remarks to 7,000 attendees.

2. Opening Keynote with Dr. Joy DeGruy

The country’s racial history is hiding in plain sight.

3. Affinity Groups

Familiar faces from past POCCs

4. Grading for Equity with Joe Feldman and Mark Boswell

How does change happen in schools? Teacher leadership with an “administrator tailwind.”

5. Anti-Racist STEM Education with Alyssa Reyes and Moses Rifkin (UPrep) and Shaye Whitmer (Evergreen)

The Underrepresentation Curriculum Project, “a  modular, student-centered curriculum designed to examine and address equity and inclusion in science.”

6. Lola’s dance performance

Bold dancing to an audience of a thousand

7. Building Institutional Capacity for Sustained Conversation About Race

Eric Temple, Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA); Martha Haakmat, Haakmat Consulting

8. Valerie Kaur’s General Session

The Revolutionary Love Project

9. Islam in Context with Changa Bey, MICDS

Adjust spring program for students observing Ramadan

10. Wayne Au’s Featured Speaker Session

This was recorded live for The Straight A’s Podcast. Wayne is a professor at UW Bothell and editor for Rethinking Schools.

Wayne’s advice to new teachers: study your institution

11. Student-led Dialogue

I always love it when students lead the adults in conversation and activity.

12. Pedro Noguera’s Closing Keynote

Acknowledge the progress made, so that we acknowledge the work that has been done to this point.

An Exchange of SEL Ideas from Research and Practice

I recently attended the CASEL SEL Exchange conference in Chicago. This is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the defining national organization on which most social and emotional learning programs I have encountered are based. Our SEL Coordinator Emily invited me to attend with her. Going in a team is the best way to attend a conference! Social and emotional learning is one of five projects in the learning portion of our current strategic plan.

Attending to students’ emotional being and social skills have long been an informal part of independent school programs, often embedded in the culture of kindness and genuine relationships that characterize independent schools. In recent years, three things have changed to elevate the need for SEL in schools. First, brain science has caught up to conventional wisdom, deepening our understanding of how much emotional state inhibits cognition. Second, the world has become fraught with uncertainty and tragedy that hits close or directly to home. Third, students feel more anxious due to the immediate, unfiltered view that social media provides of their social standing and the world in which we live.

This was CASEL’s first national conference! With 1,500 attendees, 500 on the waitlist, and dozens of presentations and papers, the field has matured in a way that makes the path to school SEL integration stronger. In the past, I experienced SEL as a standalone field, a new world of student support to enter and learn. I first experienced SEL through wellness programs, light meditation, yoga, emotion thermometers, collaboration games, and getting in touch with one’s senses. It had value, but the road to full adoption in school would be long and challenging. This conference was nothing like that.

Dozens of sessions explored applications of SEL to many existing fields and types of teaching. The path to integration was well-defined and interdisciplinary. Here is the full program, and this is a list of sessions that caught my eye. The conference must have encouraged everyone to share, because I downloaded the presentation files and handouts for all of these, in addition to attending as many as possible.

Best Practices for Providing Professional Development to Build Classroom and School-Wide SEL Capacity and Collaboration
Molly Jordan, Boston Children’s Hospital)
Shella Dennery, Boston Children’s Hospital

Choosing and Using SEL Frameworks: Challenges, Opportunities, and Tools
Dale Blyth, University of Minnesota and Strategic Consulting
Stephanie Jones, EASEL Lab
Teresa Borowski, CASEL
Clark McKown, xSEL Labs

Embedding Social and Emotional Learning in High School American History: Teaching the Reconstruction Era
Dennis Barr, Facing History and Ourselves
Heather Frazier, Facing History and Ourselves

Embedding Social and Emotional Learning in Secondary Classrooms
Michele Tissiere, Engaging Schools

The SEL Integration Process Through Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: A Schoolwide Approach
Molly Gosline, Adlai E. Stevenson High School
Tony Reibel, Adlai E. Stevenson High School

Integrating SEL Into Leading and Coaching
Wendy Baron

Reimagining Leadership to Create Equitable and Socially Intelligent Organizations and Teams
Kathleen Osta, National Equity Project
Linda Ponce de Leon, National Equity Project

Racial Equity in our Schools: SEL Is Necessary But Not Sufficient
Tala Manassah, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
Cassie Schwerner, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Social Emotional Learning Skills in the Sex Education Classroom
Teagan Drawbridge-Quealy, Planned Parenthood League of MA
Jennifer Hart, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts

Harnessing the Power of Action Civics and Youth Voice to Support SEL and Academic Goals in the High School and Middle School Classroom
Brian Brady, Mikva Challenge Chicago
Michelle Morales, Mikva Challenge Chicago
Molly Andolina, DePaul University
Hilary Conklin, DePaul University

The Evidence Base for SEL: Current Status and Future Directions
Roger P. Weissberg, CASEL
Joseph A. Mahoney, University of Wisconsin, Superior
Ruth Cross, CASEL

Teaching the skills of civil dialogue also featured strongly in the conference. I leave you with this quote:

Debate is empathy and evidence coming together.

– Linda Darling-Hammond

Finally, we were pleased to learn that our SEL project has a contemporary focus. CASEL’s strategic priorities, as shared by Robert Jagers, Vice President of Research, look very similar to our current growth areas.

  • Equity
  • Adult SEL
  • Integration with academics

Attending the SEL Exchange equipped us with research and projects to better prepare students for their present studies and future lives.

New Spaces and Community Impact

The opening of school this year introduced an exciting new space to the UPrep community: our transformed Commons. Construction that started last May reached its end just before Labor Day, thanks to the effort and organization of our staff, architect, and construction teams.

Four years ago, the school comprehensively reviewed the campus, created a list of remodel and new construction projects that would improve the student experience, and then rank ordered them. Transforming the Commons rose to the top of the list, because it met several goals.

  • Improve the character of the Commons
  • Use space more flexibly
  • Provide more space for a growing student body
  • Upgrade and grow the kitchen

We improved the character of the space in several ways. When you walk in, you immediately notice a full wall of windows looking onto the Picardo Patch, the original and largest community garden in Seattle. This view was previously restricted to offices located along this wall. The second big change is the lighting: brighter and whiter than other spaces. Finally, enlarging the Commons makes it possible to have many different kinds of furniture: four-tops, long tables, high seating, the above pictured “farm” table, and soft, casual seating.

We also designed the Commons for flexibility, so that the limited space we have can be used for different activities throughout the day. The large room, flexible seating, and versatile displays support hosting events here. The Commons Meeting Room (not pictured) has large, sliding, glass doors so that it can integrate with the Commons during meals and events and close for meetings and classes.

Some features in the new Commons got a big upgrade. The new bathroom block features individual, private, gender-neutral stalls. The kitchen is modern, well-sized, and thoughtfully laid out. The display screens are coordinated and controlled using Raspberry Pi devices and touch pads. Wireless network and video connectivity exists throughout.

Beyond the Commons, we also installed flexible partitions between two pairs of classrooms in another building. Along with the Commons meeting room, these allow us to try three different ways to create a double-sized classroom, to inform how we design such spaces in the future. Larger spaces are essential to support intensive classes, class meetings, and special program days.

These changes did introduce new inconveniences. Since we could not add square footage during this phase of the project, we had to relocate some offices to different parts of the building. The staff room, College Counseling, and Makerspace were all affected. The latter two of these will ultimately gain brand new spaces when we build the second project on our list across the street.

Opening the transformed Commons generated new excitement and momentum, to build on the big changes we made to the school program in the last few years, and look forward to future construction and program development in the future.

Our First Intensives are Complete!

We just finished our first intensives term, the result of two years of planning and collaboration inside our school and with school and organization partners. I have written a blog post for UPrep to summarize how our first intensives began to meet the goals for student experience established for this project.

UPrep’s First Intensives Were a Great Success


Assessment for Next Generation Learning

A new article from EdSurge describes a MIT effort to design assessments for next generation learning. “Playful assessment” captures curiosity, creativity and critical thinking within the natural context of student learning activities.”It emphasizes recognizing and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and in response, identifying skills to improve on moving forward.”

While such habits of mind are recognized as essential for today’s learners and are frequently embedded in curriculum and lesson design, they are also difficult to systematically and accurately assess. Instruments such as the Mission Skills Assessment and SSAT Character Skills Snapshot have emerged in recent years but are disconnected from classroom curricula.  Effective teacher assessment is needed to both measure and deepen lasting next generation learning for students.

Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash

WorldStrides Summit on Global Awareness & Leadership


Last week, our global programs director Brian and I spent two days at a WorldStrides-sponsored event in Philadelphia, at which we studied questions about optimal program design and student experience. The presenter lineup featured organization and school experts in global travel, providing a rich range of perspectives and wisdom on the topic.

Some highlights:

  • What is the overall purpose of your program? Curriculum, experience, or service?
  • What does your school community value? Is your global program aligned?
  • How much is global education represented in the rest of the school curriculum? Do students see the travel program connected to the rest of their school experience?
  • Has your school thoroughly studied student health and safety preparations and plans?
  • Do groups travel during or outside the school term?
  • Where does student leadership live in your travel program?

We have returned with a decent list of outstanding school travel programs of different types:

At UPrep, we are implementing the first large shift in our signature Global Link program in 10 years. Our new Intensive terms allow Global Link to travel during an intensive term rather than over spring break. So far, two trips have migrated into the January intensive, with plans to continue moving trips next year.

Adding a specific subject’s curriculum to the trip is a new feature of Intensive Global Link. Our first three examples are Human Rights in Colombia, Global Link American South, and Storytelling in Samoa. As a result, schools that have established strong curricular connections for global travel are of specific interest to us right now. From the above list, these include Ideaventions, Lawrenceville, and Trinity Palmer, at a minimum.

Finally, Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) Executive Director Clare Sisisky presented three times on insights gleaned from GEBG’s 250 member schools, including broad perspectives on global program outcomes, school partnerships, conceptual frameworks, assessment instruments, and examples from model schools.

[Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash]

The Busy UPrep Blog

The UPrep blog has been very active in the past week, thanks to the great work of student and staff authors and the Communications team. Check out these recent titles, including one by yours truly.

Developing Our Best Ideas

Originally published in the Leadership+Design Monthly Recharge.

“How do we provide students with the most powerful, lasting learning opportunities? Where do we do this well? Where might we do more?” A learning organization is always asking these questions. Today at University Prep, fully half of our faculty and staff voluntarily serve on research and design teams that produce our best new ideas for enhancing the students’ educational experience. How did we get here?

To develop our new strategic plan, we asked the school community to answer these questions and thereby set our course for the upcoming years. We held focus group discussions, conducted internal research and design workshops, administered community surveys, and consulted with national experts. Along the way, we found that the seeds for UPrep’s future had already been laid. We just needed to create the conditions to help them flourish.

This is one example of what Ito and Howe term “emergence” in their book Whiplash. They write, “emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that would benefit the group.” Doesn’t that perfectly suit a school? One of our teachers commented, “I have had ideas for student learning for years. Now, I feel invited to share them, because they actually get adopted!”

The ideas collected during this listening phase coalesced around five themes. We may have predicted some of these in advance, but others were unanticipated. In emergent systems, Ito and Howe write, “decisions aren’t made so much as they emerge from large groups of employees or stakeholders.” As an added benefit, each project started with the advantage of existing community support, because the community had generated the ideas.

Next Generation Learning at University Prep

New Models of Time

Social and Emotional Learning

Social Justice and Educational Equity

Interdisciplinary Learning

U Lab: Student-Directed Learning Connected to Community

We then invited leaders from outside the administrative team to facilitate each team. Ten teacher leaders and program directors stepped into this leadership role. John Kotter describes this as “a dual operating system” in his book XLR8 (Accelerate). The first operating system, hierarchy, is expert at efficiently managing ongoing operations but also tends to maintain the status quo. The second, network operating system, is creative, divergent, and connects ideas across disciplines and departments. In the organization with only the hierarchical operating system, decisions are made at the top and handed down to uninspired employees. With a dual operating system, both the hierarchy and network play to their respective strengths.

Ubox, a product of the student-led Social Entrepreneurship class

By inviting many voices and broadly distributing leadership, we created a dynamic innovation engine that continues to create great ideas, promote involvement, and cultivate its own support. Within the first year, we designed and adopted a new school schedule, added social and emotional learning activities to advisory, ran our first Senior LaunchPad (an enhanced senior project), launched the first two entirely student-led courses (no teacher needed), and committed to design intensives (single courses that run full-time for a three-week term, borrowed from Hawken School). We have also joined other national networks that uphold emergence, such as Independent Curriculum Group, Mastery Transcript Consortium, and Global Online Academy.

How does UPrep prepare students for a world that values emergence over authority? It’s easy when we value the ideas of every individual. Students serve on research and design teams, propose new courses and independent study projects, take risks when designing their Senior LaunchPads. Valuing emergence means supporting student voice, choice, and leadership in the classroom and school life. Community partnerships create opportunities for students to pursue their passions through online study, internships, social activism, and entrepreneurship. The principles that have made Next Generation Learning a successful strategic initiative have also made the school more responsive and celebratory of student needs, wishes, and dreams.

Explore, Question, Develop: Next Generation Learning Initiatives

Originally published in UPrep Magazine

“A rolling stone gathers no moss.” — proverb

This ancient saying admonishes wanderers to settle down and establish themselves. But perhaps some wanderlust is good for you. The Rolling Stones evidently felt so, inspired by a Muddy Waters song of the same name. Wandering is not so aimless when we call it “exploration” and give it purpose: to experience broadly, appreciate difference, and try new ideas.

In 2015, UPrep set out to explore, question, and further develop intellectual courage, global citizenship, and social responsibility. First, the UPrep community identified the most promising opportunities for enhancing the student experience. Then, volunteer Research+Design teams surveyed literature, visited schools, presented at conferences, and wrote proposals. As you can see below, we are well on our way toward implementation of our Next Generation Learning Initiatives, which should be fully in place by 2020.

New Models of Time

Completed: A new daily schedule that is easy to follow, supports deeper learning and independence, and
makes time for social and emotional development.

Upcoming: Intensives (our working title), in which students take a single course for two-and-a half weeks to think deeply across disciplines, study contemporary topics, and learn in the community.


Completed: Senior LaunchPad, in which all seniors design and engage in an off-campus passion project,  and present it to the community. Social Entrepreneurship and Feminism, two new courses that are entirely student-conceived, designed, and delivered. Global Online Academy, in which students have registered for 50 fully online courses for next year.
Upcoming: Construction of a dynamic new center to support entrepreneurial thinking and connection to community. The building will feature flexible spaces for independent, group, and class work and house global programs, the Makerspace, college counseling, mentorship, and other student leadership programs.

Social Justice and Educational Equity

Completed: A comprehensive review of justice and equity practices in and beyond the classroom. New courses that include social justice topics or represent many cultures. Coordination among teacher leaders, the Board of Trustees, and the Diversity and Community program.
Upcoming: Further development of culturally responsive classroom practices, course curricula, student leadership opportunities, and enhanced collaborations among different parts of the school.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Completed: A detailed review of SEL programs and UPrep needs, multiple surveys assessing students’ emotional health and social skills.

Upcoming: SEL curriculum built into the new schedule, Advisory for Advisors, and SEL classroom practices.

Intensives/Immersives Design

Upcoming: In 2018-2019, a new school calendar that includes intensive terms in January and June. New courses specially designed for these terms in which students deeply immerse themselves in different ways of thinking, study contemporary topics through multiple lenses, and learn in the community
and through travel.


While much of the UPrep program is consistent from year to year, Strategic Plan 2020 allows us to shake off a little moss and develop exciting new opportunities for powerful learning, which will equip our students to wander with purpose into a complex and ever-changing world