Tag Archives: Reimagine Parish

Why We Choose to Reimagine



To us at Parish, it deserves all the attention it receives.

In fact, the statement digs at the root of one of today’s “dirty little secrets” in the business of “college prep” education – be it of the public or private variety: the model commonly embraced to accomplish the task is broken. Not only is it ill-suited for preparing students for a seismically changing world, but in attempting to do so it undercuts their levels of engagement, passion and wellness.

ExcellentSheep_blogTo Reimagine School and create a framework more attuned to the modern learner is, of course, our present obsession at Parish. Undoing the broken school model – how curriculum is packaged and delivered; how time and space are used; how students demonstrate mastery – stands as the most audacious of tasks given how entrenched that model has become.

As I noted in August, quests begin with a call – a beckoning to journey toward an enhanced condition of world or self. In part, our Reimagine School: Parish at 50 vision emanates from the disturbing headline above. Of the many calls harkening us to Reimagine School, the threat to the well-being of our children blares most urgently.

Simply stated, the transactional, achievement-fixated texture of today’s school experience is creating a generation of stressed-out, anxious, and fragile young people.

Former Ivy League educators William Deresiewicz and Julia Lythcott-Haims are among those raising the clarion call. Lythcott-Haims’ take on “check-listed children” vaulted up the list of top TED Talks last spring.

More specifically, an extensive survey (14,000 upper school students from 44 independent schools like Parish) commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) puts data behind the anecdotal observations expressed in Deresiewicz’s book.



A learning culture or model that contributes to outcomes like these needs to be reconsidered (as do parenting styles and higher education’s admission processes, but these are topics for another day).

As advocates for our children, it is a moral imperative to answer this call.

And, so, at Parish, we have begun our journey fortified by the belief that learning should engage a student’s mind with meaningful, relevant problems to solve and inspired products to create, not just numb it with buckets of content to memorize. Learning should stoke a student’s desire and capacity to discover by offering guided opportunities to assume control of the learning journey (what gets learned; how it is learned; and how mastery is demonstrated), not dull it with repetitive, adult-directed exercises.

Indeed, learning does not have to hurt.



A New Year, A Unique Path

An exciting year lies before us. In the Monaco household, this is especially so as we face transitions of significance for two of our boys.  T.C. ’16, of course, is off to college; we leave him in College Station at Texas A & M later this month. Meanwhile Robert ’20, begins his journey through the Upper School in just a few weeks.

As a parent, we face junctures like this in the lives of our children with a range of emotions: pride, disbelief, sadness, wonder and a dash of anxiety. For me, I would cite wonder as my prevailing state of mind. What life-shaping experiences will these two men have in the next four years? Which people will enter their lives and leave an indelible impact on the men they will become? Our life narratives are unique: how transformational will this next four year chapter be on T.C. and Robert’s life stories?

If a quarter century in the school business has taught me anything, though, accurately answering questions like these is nearly impossible. That’s the magic of it all: watching our kids forge their unique paths.

Still, whether your experience is – like Mollie and mine – crossing the threshold of a significant academic transition with your child or, as is our case with Sam ’23, readying to begin another year, we arrive at the first day of school with a sense of hope and wonder. We want our children to have every opportunity their God-given intelligence and hard-earned effort can afford them. We aspire for them to experience life unbounded, flush with limitless options and opportunities.

Such aspirations, while well-intended, can present problems. Our hopeful aspirations, if we are not careful, can become – in the minds of our children – a set of unending and seemingly unattainable expectations.

LoveThatBoy_quoteRon Fournier’s Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About A Parent’s Expectations, a touching memoir about his experience parenting a son with Asperger’s syndrome, captures this parental dilemma perfectly.

The source of our dilemma, most often, is that our expectations emerge not from a fair and true assessment of our child’s unique skills, interests and gifts, but rather from the backdrop of what society (read: the media; our friends; other “experts”) paints as “successful,” “exceptional” or “above average.”

EndOfAverage_quoteOne of the most compelling books I have read in a long time, Todd Rose’s The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, seeks to disabuse us of our tendency to fixate on how we or our children compare to the group. In it, Rose details the emergence of the exciting and relatively new interdisciplinary “science of the individual,” which centers on one big idea: “individuality matters.” Ability, talent and intelligence, Rose argues, are “jagged” (not one-dimensional), manifest differently depending on the situation, and emerge on a pathway and timeline unique to the individual.

We are wise to consider the implications of Rose’s premise as we ponder our children’s futures. What we know about the “complex global society” referred to in our mission statement is that the pace of change is fast, its rate constant, and its orientation directed to personalization and customization. The world of work is just one example. According to Cathy Davidson with MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, 65 percent of today’s students will end up in jobs that have yet to be created: Big Data Doctor, Meme Agent and Microbial Balancer, to name just a few. Indeed, the possibilities in the emerging “gig economy” of today – where one fits his or her unique skills to needs in the marketplace for a short period of time – seem limitless.

Increasingly, we are coming to understand that the path to a life of meaning, fulfillment and success in this complex world is rapidly becoming less linear or formulaic. In recognition of this reality – and our belief that each of the approximately 1100 students soon to start the new school year are gifted by God distinctly and uniquely – we are deep in the process of our Reimagine School vision for Parish. The core principles guiding our Reimagine effort, which is on track for full implementation by fall 2019 but being beta-tested and planned for even today, reflect our awareness of individuality.

  • Honor student voice and choice in learning;
  • Meet students where they are and help them reach new levels of mastery as they are ready;
  • Help students develop enduring habits of mind which are transferable to a lifetime of learning and excelling;
  • Create learning conditions which engage students in authentic meaningful work.

As the new school year starts at Parish, my hope and expectation is that each of our students has a rich and full experience, one which propels them to a future of unbounded possibility.

What to Make of Summer Break

The midpoint of summer will soon be upon us. At this juncture, the final days of last school year represent increasingly distant memories. The change of pace afforded by the break from classes has likely taken hold and restored some energy. Yet, as I write, close to seven weeks of summer break still remain.

Now, I embrace summer’s more leisurely pace as much as anyone. Yet, as my career in school leadership has evolved I have increasingly found myself wondering whether summer break represents too much of a good thing. In this day and age, it puzzles me that a school like Parish would take an 85 day hiatus from pursuing its mission to prepare young people for the complex global society that awaits them.

Of course, most schools like Parish do stay somewhat engaged in the business of education during the summer months. Through ParishVirtual, our blended education program, close to 30% of our US students take for credit courses in subjects like religion, health, and history. They come to campus during the summer for 7-10 face-to-face engagements but otherwise complete their 6-8 hours of weekly coursework on their own schedule.

Our EXTEND summer program welcomes close to 500 young people to campus each week for a variety of courses, some academic, others not, but all offering students the opportunity to build skills, self-awareness, and confidence.

And through ParishAbroad, our global travel program, our students have journeyed to places like Peru, Spain, and Mexico to experience a new culture, hone leadership skills, study a foreign language, and/or engage in service activities.


Increasingly, though, I’ve wondered how Parish might play a larger role enriching the lives of students in those 85 days when they are “on summer break.” Is this something our families even desire? If so, what type of programming might engage students? What new expenses would it introduce to us as a school? What would it cost our families? How sustainable would it be for teachers and students with finite stores of energy, campus facilities which absorb added wear and tear, and administrators who need planning time to launch the new school year?

Beyond these questions, there is the reality that for a student population like Parish’s summer is anything but languid. Students attend camps or special programs – my middle son just returned from a two week backpacking trip in the Tetons with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), for example – pick up valuable work experience (as my eldest is), or broaden their global and cultural competency through travel with their families.

Clearly school as we offer it and students experience it for 9 months will not compete in the summer. I don’t believe our teachers, students, or families want 85 more days of “school as usual” in June and July. But it seems there might be a middle ground. While I do not have any immediate answers, an audiobook I am listening to this summer has provided a useful stimulant to further thinking.

SusanBlumIn I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College, author and anthropologist Susan Blum offers a commentary on the state of higher education, a system she believes needs “radical transformation.” A decade of research – including 300 student interviews and another 200 surveys (many done at Notre Dame where she is a professor) – has brought Blum to a conclusion: Our system of compulsory education – replete with its adult-curated and delivered curriculum and incentivized by grades and competition rather than student interest or engagement – has made schooling transactional. The learner does it because she has to while her more relevant, connected, and engaging learning occurs elsewhere.

Blum presents a framework befitting her identity as an anthropologist and informing to ruminations on what role, if any, school might play during the summer. Blum characterizes higher education as “Learning in the cage.” This term, which could aptly extend to educational institutions below the collegiate level, describes learning environments where students sit still in chairs; comply with the predominate expectation that they listen quietly; and complete the “schoolwork” prescribed to them. Schoolwork is just that – “work” to be tolerated until learning which occurs more naturally and engagingly can begin, often away from school.

“Learning in the wild,” on the other hand, Blum characterizes as “learning by doing, learning through play, observation, imitation, trial and error, guided participation, and apprenticeships, in which young people or novices are assigned to an expert to learn a craft or a trade.” When I think of what kids do during the summer, I think “learning in the wild.” If school is ever going to penetrate the mindset of “summer break,” we best consider Blum’s paradigm.

At Parish, we want our whole program to be more “learning in the wild” than “learning in a cage.” We are presently trying to reimagine school at Parish to infuse it with learning experiences which reflect the voices and choices of students, which engage them in meaningful, authentic work, and which focus more on building powerful habits of mind than warehousing endless volumes of content. Maybe once we complete the design of our reimagined model to reflect these outcomes, students would find the notion of being disconnected from us for 85 days as bewildering as I do today!



Wonder Never Ceases

What we know about relentlessly innovative organizations is that wonder never ceases.

Amazon_UberThe same sense of wonder which fueled Jeff Bezos to question in 1994 how he might bring millions of books to readers whenever they want and wherever they might be has more recently become how he might deliver products to customers within the day.

A more recent market disruptor, Uber, initially penetrated the sharing economy by wondering how they might provide people access to a personal chauffer anytime, from anywhere. Now, Uber has begun to wonder how it might leverage this same network to deliver business messages more efficiently and quickly.

After a half decade of launching various signature programs fueled by our own inquisitive nature, we, too, are pondering once again.


A series of new questions drive our purposeful vision to Reimagine Parish by our 50th Anniversary in 2023:

  • How might we rethink paradigms of time long familiar in school (e.g. students learning the same topics at the same rate organized by age rather than by interest or level of demonstrated mastery)?
  • How might we rethink paradigms of program long familiar in school (e.g. academic departments which reinforce thinking in silos rather than exploring the intersection of disciplines as is more common in today’s interconnected world)?
  • How might we rethink the paradigm of the learning spaces long familiar in school (e.g. redesigned classroom furniture and on-campus learning spaces; redefining learning spaces beyond campus classrooms through creative partnering with individual experts, businesses and universities, and non-profits)?

We are deep into this work already and it seemed due time to provide an update.

Reimagine Parish aligns with our mission to prepare students for the “complex global society.” It also requires major paradigm shifting for all of us – students, teachers, and parents alike. We must embrace the opportunity to redraw the blueprint used for over a century to design the school experience; we should also recognize and celebrate Parish’s unique positioning to do so.

Think of this work as akin to building or remodeling a home. You have a picture of what you want that home to look and feel like, but the initial work does not include accessorizing the rooms. One first engages in thoughtful design thinking and the necessary, if largely invisible, laying of key utilities before proceeding to the inarguably more exciting and evident finishing.

Provost Michelle Lyon leads our Reimagine Parish endeavor. This year, she has concentrated our efforts digging the important footings and trenches which will form the foundation of our Reimagined program. Work has focused in three areas:

  • Paving Pathways: If students are to experience optimal levels of challenge, it must be clear what learning mastery looks like.  This equates to an architect’s drawing for the new dream home. Faculty teams in each discipline have written competency statements and standards this year and will continue over the next 24 months to articulate even more detailed curriculum pathways.  (See a draft of the English department’s work here).
  • Tackling Time: if students are to experience more “voice and choice” in our program, their learning experiences shaped in part based on their optimal level of challenge and/or their areas of deepest passion, we must consider how we allocate time. We have begun our wondering at the level of the student experience. In the next several weeks, a dozen faculty and administrators (including me!) will spend an entire day shadowing a student in one of our divisions. This will help us ascertain daily ebbs and flows in student engagement and fuel our creativity as we design the time structure which undergirds our vision.
  • Building a Backbone: if you dream of a modern home which anticipates rather than reacts to your needs (smart appliances, for example), a robust technology system is necessary. Similarly, delivering more personalized learning experiences will require that we develop a learning management system to power our vision. A small team of our professionals have begun analyzing solutions and will continue to do so next year.

Some of you have likely experienced living in your home while major remodeling projects are underway. Envisioning and constructing the new while simultaneously trying to live life as usual can be a challenge! But, in our case, we view this as an opportunity. Consider it this way: visiting showrooms helps to shape your vision for the look and feel of the spaces you are redesigning in your home.

Similarly, as we thoughtfully and deliberately Reimagine the Parish learning experience over the next several years, we will continuously develop and test dozens of “Reimagine School” showrooms across campus to inform our final design. For example:

  • Students in math classes in all three divisions, 7th grade science, and Middle School Humanities (for grammar and vocabulary), just to name a few, experience personal learning pathways, many featuring technology platforms which we will evaluate as we develop our technology backbone. (Picture Billy or Kevin’s class)
  • Students in 3rd and 4th grade spend 90 minutes every six days on “Passion Projects,” deep learning experiences organized around student interest. Like ParishBridge, which launches for seniors next month, Passion Projects represent a “time showroom” from which we will learn.
  • In addition to our 3th and 4th grade STEM blocks or Middle School Humanities course  – revisions to our program made in the last several years to break down existing walls between academic subjects – we have approved a new Upper School course for next year which will merge AP English Literature and Philosophy. We will continue testing showrooms featuring such interdisciplinary learning experiences as we develop Reimagine Parish.


We will also continue to rethink our use of space. Inspired by our Maker Spaces, including the ideaLab added at Midway this year, we will incorporate new furniture into several learning and common spaces next fall – in most cases informed by the input of our students.

Purposeful Innovation: Wondering, Questioning, and Creating Never Cease

senioritisWe have all been afflicted with it: Senioritis. 

Do you remember the sensations?

  • A debilitating loss of interest and urgency (mostly toward school).
  • Sheer revulsion at the very thought of school
  • A deep desire for liberation (especially from school, but parents sometimes make the cut too!)

Senioritis, notorious among high school and college seniors for generations, now even has its own hashtag: #senioritis. It’s amazing what you can find if you look hard enough. Already, with the calendar’s turn to 2016, present members of senior classes everywhere have a forum for sharing their plight with the world. Note: While the following statements may reflect the present mindset of some members of Parish’s class of 2016, these quotes are NOT from our precious graduates-to-be!:

  • Jan. 13, 2016: “figuring out the lowest grade you can get for the semester to still pass the class…” #senioritis
  • Jan. 14, 2016: “Giving up one class at a time” #senioritis
  • Jan. 14, 2016: “I’m surviving each week of school by thinking about the next weekend” #senioritis

As an educator, I’ve been fascinated – and candidly a bit hurt – by this phenomenon. After all, who wants to feel like the same students you’ve aspired to influence positively want nothing more than to be done with you? For many years, now, I’ve wondered if one day we educators might drive a stake through the heart of senioritis. But how?

Well, wonder leads to questions and questions lead to exciting new possibilities. Over this last decade, through our expansion and in the creation of our unique signature programs, Parish has used wonder and questioning to fuel our purposeful commitment to innovation.

So, wondering about senioritis, for example, begot questions such as these:

  • How might we make the last part of senior year one of the most exciting and meaningful periods of growth for students during their time at Parish?
  • How might the final weeks on campus energize students for their next life phase?

Over the last several years, a talented committee of Upper School faculty members pondered questions like these. Together, with input from colleagues and students, they have created Parish’s newest signature program, one which will launch this April with the class of 2016:

ParishBridgeRather than count down the days until graduation, seniors at Parish will now engage in five weeks of rich, personalized and meaningful experiences which prepare them not only for college but for the “complex global society” in which they will lead and serve.


Working around their AP schedule, students will create their own five-week Academic Coursework experience. Guided by a faculty mentor, students will develop an independent research project personalized to their area of interest. In the class of 2016, for example, approved projects include:

  • Analysis of 2015 stock market/prediction report for 2016
  • Case review on Texas family law/alimony
  • Effects of medicated/natural childbirth
  • Physics of golf swings
  • 1920’s writers of the Lost Generation

We recognize the pivotal role networking, internships and career-exploration will play in our students’ lives beyond Parish. ParishBridge will afford our seniors valuable exposure to these experiences. For their Professional Experience students will choose a career, service or creative domain of interest and have a 15-50 hour exposure over five weeks. Students will maintain a blog throughout the experience and share their insights with peers in May. Already, students have identified exciting opportunities such as:

  • Intern at ESPN NYC
  • Robot Entertainment (video game programming)
  • India to help open an orphanage
  • The Integer Group marketing agency
  • Bickle and Brewer law firm

Given that Lifelong Learning will be instrumental to their future success, and realizing that blended and online coursework will be a ubiquitous learning tool both personally and professionally, Parish seniors will take an online course of their choosing at some time before or during their senior year. Reflecting their personal interests, students in the class of 2016 have identified a rich array of courses including:

  • Brookhaven Online Jogging
  • Ashworth College medical assistant
  • AP Chemistry review (with Parish’s Mr. Abronowitz)
  • Texas Tech ISD Economics (HS credit)
  • EdX Basic Mandarin
  • Coursera Buddhism and Modern Psychology

Finally, there are Life Ready experiences we aspire for our graduates to have but have been unable to fit into our core or advisory programs. Therefore, we’ve designed it into ParishBridge. Seniors will return to campus during the five week ParishBridge program to participate in a series of seminars taught by experts in the field:

  • Financial Literacy
  • Leaving a Healthy Digital Footprint
  • Acing the Interview / Job Etiquette
  • Emotional Wellness and Resiliency
  • Alcohol, Drugs and Making Good Choices

Needless to say, we are eager for this latest example of Parish’s purposeful innovation to launch. We believe it will not only serve our seniors well, but will offer us lessons as our thinking continues for the broader vision for reimagining of our programs – Reimagine School.

Wish us luck. Our long awaited battle with senioritis is at hand!

Celebrating a Year of Successes While Dreaming of Future Ones

As the school year draws nearer to its conclusion, I recently communicated news of success and thanks to our community for its support on a couple of fronts. First, our community is excited for what the future holds for our students as was apparent by the more than 250 parent participants that joined the “Parish at 50” vision meetings in the fall, and those that returned in January to see our vision for personalized learning in action during student demonstrations.

Second, as we continue on our quest to bring a Community and Performance Center and second gymnasium to our Midway campus, we have had great news as of late. To date, we have received $4.79 million in pledges, including $1.1 million in commitments since January of this year! We will continue to invite members of our community to conversation about this exciting project. I am confident our community can and will rally together to make it a reality. In doing so, we will elevate the learning and performance experience our students have on campus and enhance our campus’ connection to the broader Metroplex community, further realizing our vision for “Parish at 50.”

As part of my communication to our parents, I shared this “Students in Action” video which includes a glimpse of what Parish students are already doing and to hear the excitement from our community as they dream alongside them. I hope you will take a look!

The Latest Divide

Recently I’ve wondered whether we educators now face our latest if not greatest philosophical divide.

Earlier this month, Sweet Briar College officials announced the 114 year old women’s college in rural Virginia would cease operations at year’s end. The college’s financial circumstances had been in freefall since 2009, despite the favorable window-dressing of a 94 million dollar endowment in fiscal year 2014.

In late February, the National Association of Independent Schools – of which Parish is a member – held their annual conference in Boston. Though unable to attend, I followed the conference Twitter feed and read summaries of several of its major presentations. The conference featured a self-explanatory theme, “Design the Revolution: Blending Learning, Leading, and Innovation,” and keynote sessions to provoke thinking, conversation, and action among the representatives from its 1,500 member schools. On the surface, the conference challenged independent school leaders to consider the sustainability of our model and the practices which shape it. We operate today in an environment of dizzying change, ever-escalating tuitions and heightened competition. How might our schools improve the preparation we afford our students and enhance our value proposition by leveraging the new opportunities presented by seismic changes in information technology and capitalizing on the autonomy afforded by our independence?

But here lies the cusp of the divide, at least as I perceive it.  I wonder who among my independent school colleagues left the conference with an altered mindset. Who senses that the next generation for tuition-bearing institutions like ours will be fundamentally different, and perhaps more perilous, than any previous era?  Of my peers, how many would characterize the necessity to change our model as nothing short of urgent?

On the one side of this divide stand those – myself included – who feel tremendous urgency and see incredible opportunity to rethink many of the time-worn paradigms for how we “do school.”  Those on the other side of the chasm view calls for transformational change as alarmist at worst or, more benignly, riddled with so much complexity and uncertainty as to inhibit action.

At the NAIS conference, the Association’s President, John Chubb, noted that “independent schools are facing some tough realities. No matter where your school is in the process of addressing new realities, it is important for you to be prepared for anything —especially the opportunities.”  The conference also featured a panel of higher education leaders, whose institutions feature a business model similar to those of independent schools. The Presidents agreed that “the business model of higher education is broken and will need to be fixed.”  One university leader went so far as to ask whether education might “change in the same way the music industry changed with new technologies” and as a result became “affordable, unbundled, [and] accessible.”

I know several of my colleagues embrace such challenging thinking and have taken steps to shift practices. But I also know others whose mindset mirrors that of an educator from the northeast who emailed me in the wake of the NAIS conference.  He was a candidate for a position at Parish. Around the business of his candidacy, he opined about his experience at the conference. “Some of it,” he noted, “was the usual headliners saying outrageous things about the future of education that no one is seriously going to act on (italics added); others were really thoughtful, practical, and helpful and presented ideas and practices that I suspect a lot of people are discussing this week back at their schools.”

I placed him on the other side of the divide.  Perhaps unfairly, I concluded he would categorize any talk of tenuously sustainable independent schools as “outrageous” and view experimentation with new models for tomorrow’s independent schools with similar diffidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I concluded further conversation about a position at Parish was not a good idea.

A respected colleague of mine posted a compelling question in light of the Sweet Briar announcement: “Outlier or Omen?”  It encapsulates perfectly the philosophical divide I’ve experienced anecdotally as of late. Today’s educator needs to make room amidst the valid and worthwhile philosophical conversations pervading our campuses – about math programs, literary canons, or foreign language offerings – for an even more fundamental discussion on which side of this divide each of us and our schools stand.