Almanac

Cover Story - June 19, 2013

Envisioning a 'frontier of possibility'

Hillview's principal blazed new trails during first year on the job

by Renee Batti

On a newly built campus, in a spacious new auditorium, at the start of a school year, a dynamic new principal took the microphone.

It was September 2012, and parents of Hillview Middle School students had gathered for Back to School Night to hear what Principal Erik Burmeister envisioned for his first year at the school's helm. After reviewing four of his top goals for the nine months ahead, he came to his final goal, which, he said, was at the heart of why he "eagerly accepted the opportunity" to lead the school:

"This year, we will begin to answer the question, 'What will an excellent 21st century middle school education look like in 10 years?' And instead of waiting 10 years to do it, we're going to start it now, here, at Hillview ... ."

The goal was based in part on confidence in the level of support and achievement of staff, parents, and students of the "now." But looking to the future and to the ever-accelerating pace of change in the world, Mr. Burmeister urged parents to consider: "There is a frontier of possibility that awaits our community."

Although change cannot be instantly assessed as successful — or not — the innovations put in place at the school during the last year and that are at the ready to launch in August make it clear that empty words are not part of Mr. Burmeister's lexicon.

In January, he introduced an "acceleration" program to support kids who were performing below grade level in reading and math. Participation was voluntary; 30 students were supported in the reading program, and 30 in math, with a few of the students enrolled in both, according to Vice Principal Willy Haug.

Mr. Haug said the program has had "astonishing results." In the math program, for example, "on average, students ... have made one year of academic growth in six months," he said in an email.

Beginning early in the school year the new principal gathered together a team of staff and parents to review and improve the school's master schedule to accommodate a new approach to teaching and learning. The group was called the Design Team, and used concepts developed by Stanford University's Design School, called "design thinking."

Applying design thinking concepts — a process beginning with empathy and moving through the brainstorming of possibilities, to the design and testing of prototypes, to the naming of a solution — the team came up with a master schedule that significantly changes the flow of school days at Hillview beginning in August.

With the new schedule, there will be three days of 45-minute "direct instruction" periods, focusing on "foundational knowledge and skills," Mr. Burmeister explained in an interview. The other two days will be broken into 90-minute segments, with the focus on "extended learning ... where students engage in the application of knowledge and skills."

Design thinking will be a key component in the longer classes, with students focused on collaborative, project-based, creative projects that include design and debate, Mr. Burmeister said.

"Design thinking is simply a great way to solve problems, whether it is a third world health care conundrum or a Menlo Park school schedule," parent Anne Ballinger Morrissey said in an email last spring, when the new schedule was being announced. Ms. Morrissey was part of the Design Team that crafted the new schedule, and said it was "the direct result of input from all stakeholders — administration, faculty, parents and, most importantly, students.

"It will certainly present change, but the overall school will simply be better. Our kids need to have skills to utilize what they learn in the core curriculum in order to succeed in their futures and the challenges presented by a rapidly changing world. The framework of design thinking will equip these kids for solving problems that we cannot predict today."

Teacher Michael Kaelin, who was also on the Design Team, did some pioneering work with design thinking at Hillview last term, applying the concepts in a flex class of seventh-graders. He's eager to "integrate the excellent feedback given by the students" as he plans classes for the new school year, he said.

Under the new master schedule, he said in an email, extended learning days "will allow students the opportunity to develop their prototypes (in hands-on projects) in a way that seems much more authentic. As a teacher, straight-up pen/paper or even laptop testing is fine, but it isn't always authentic. A new schedule provides opportunities to build more authentic real world assessments to determine what students have learned."

Designing change

Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels, a district leadership team and a handful of teachers attended a "boot camp" with the Stanford Design School last summer, and a partnership between the district and "d school" began soon after. It is now "growing and deepening," Mr. Ghysels said.

When Mr. Burmeister took his new position later that summer and attended a workshop that included design-thinking discussions, he saw the potential of using the concepts to redesign Hillview, said Allison Liner, the district's chief learning officer.

Mr. Burmeister said design thinking is a teaching and learning tool that helps kids develop the "soft skills" needed for the world they will live in as adults — skills such as creativity, innovation, and adaptation.

"We must prepare kids for their future, not prepare them for our past," he said. No one can see what their future will look like because of the rapid change brought about by technology, so "education needs to learn to adapt, and prepare students to be more adaptive."

Mr. Burmeister is calling the "redesigned" school Hillview 3.0. This school year, all eighth-graders were given iPads managed by the school, and next year — by January, he hopes — all Hillview students will have them. With iPads, students "can access information instantly. ... It then frees the child to move to the next level of the task," he said.

Students are not able to download apps, and part of their training will be in "effectively evaluating what is a reliable source of information and what is unreliable. ... It's our duty as a school to help teach them to be responsible users" of technological tools, he said.

Mr. Burmeister came to Hillview from a post as principal of Union Middle School in San Jose. He had recently been named California Middle Grades Principal of the Year.

"Can-do spirit"

In his first year at Hillview, Mr. Burmeister "has just exceeded expectation beyond measure," Superintendent Ghysels said last week. "He has an ethos — a sense of energy and a can-do spirit."

Example: "He's established strong relationships with his teachers, and has developed a lot of teacher leaders there," Mr. Ghysels said. He's also nurtured a strong team dynamic with the school's vice principal; "Erik and Willy — one plus one equals four," Mr. Ghysels said.

An unexpected strength, he said, is Mr. Burmeister's "passion and expertise in parent education." The principal has organized parent education events, and plans many more next year; he does so "in a research-based, humorous and delightful way, where parents walk away hungry for more."

Parent Anne Morrissey said there's "tremendous support for Erik Burmeister throughout the district." A mother of two kids in the district, with one in private school, Ms. Morrissey sees Hillview as a "fantastic school" that's only getting better. "Hillview will be in a class of its own in the next few years, and people from all over the country will be asking Erik, 'How did you make this happen in a public school?'"

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