Saturday, February 8, 2014


Michael Magee, Ph.D., is CEO of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies

I helped found Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in 2009. Our five-year-old daughter Fiona was randomly selected number 38 in BVP’s first enrollment lottery. Her two siblings followed. Our three daughters have pretty different personalities and interests and we really had no idea whether BVP would be a good long-term fit for them. Despite my pride in BVP we’ve always been open to them going some place else if they weren’t happy or BVP wasn’t meeting their needs.

With our oldest Anabella finishing seventh grade, we’re starting to think about high school. As of today, we plan to send her to BVP High School. I thought it might be useful to share some of the reasons why.

First and foremost, she wants to go. She’s made good friends and overall has had a great experience at BVP. We think children should participate in an informed decision on where to go to school. We also think our experience and foresight matter and we should steer our kids in the right direction. So, having thought a lot about it, here are the things that excite me about BVP High School.

Stable leadership committed to excellence and continuous improvement. The BVP community is blessed with world-class leaders. From its board of directors to Executive Director Jeremy Chiappetta to our principals, deans, grade chairs, and finance team, these guys are just very, very good. School districts (which is what BVP is, at the end of the day) are complex organizations where quality is often difficult to sustain. A superintendent or “rock star” principal leaves, the board or school committee changes over and quality can slip because maybe it wasn’t as deep as you thought. Sometimes this process is slow. Reputations for excellence sometimes outlast excellence itself. Nothing’s certain in life, but what I see at BVP is a group of leaders with great pride in what they’re building, who are planning to be here for a while, and also – perhaps more importantly – creating a “deep bench” so that what they build outlasts them: a sustainable culture of high expectations and a willingness to change to meet the needs of scholars and families.

Great teachers. They’re smart. They’re talented. They care about my kid and all kids. They want to improve their craft. They collaborate with their peers and listen to parents. They could have done a lot of other things with their lives but they decided to do this. They went through a rigorous process to get hired and they understand the agreement they entered into: that to be part of our community in the long-term, all of the above needs to remain true.

Results. As Edwards Deming once said, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” As a school community, it’s not enough to “trust our eyes.” Our kids can be happy, our teachers can care and, still, students might not be learning what they need to learn to reach their full potential. The fact that BVP 8th graders are 94% proficient in math matters to me. Ultimately I’m looking for outcomes like graduation from a great college; skills to be able to choose from among many interesting careers; talents, hobbies and interests that keeps a person curious, happy and hopeful over a lifetime. BVP is tracking things that matter to my child’s success and meeting its own high standards.

Optimal size. I like that BVP is building its program around schools that I think are the right size – not so small that programming is difficult, economies of scale are poor, or people just get sick of seeing each others faces. But small enough that I know the adults in the building know my kid, that families know each other, that a close sense of community is achievable.

Athletic opportunity and perspective. My daughter’s on the middle school basketball team. This is her first year playing organized sports. I like to think she’s naturally athletic, but I don’t believe she’ll be starting for UCONN in a few years. I like the fact that she’s getting a chance to play and improve. I believe in the "10,000 Hour Rule": you get better by practicing a lot. I also think BVP has athletics in perspective, in proper balance with its academic mission. I love sports and have played them all my life, but I don’t want “Friday Night Lights” to dominate my children’s school culture. I do believe, however, that there are great lessons to be learned from sports – about teamwork and perseverance, improvisation and discipline, health and physical grace, camaraderie and celebration. I see all that at work in our small but growing athletic program. I also think it’s a pretty unique and valuable experience to be part of something in its beginnings. I like to think they’ll have great stories to tell at homecomings some day.

Music and celebration. We’re a family of music lovers. I’m grateful for the central place that music education has in the BVP program. I expect it to get better and better. We all know that a strings program for all kids beginning in third grade is unique, but I think this is just scratching the surface of what BVP will build.  I also like how music is integrated into an overall culture of celebration: songs, chants, claps, joy, and appreciation. It creates a special sense of community, its therapeutic—good for the soul. And this will be true for our children forever: singing and playing instruments is a lifelong gift they’re getting. And did I mention it's good for their math skills?

Diversity and complexity. BVP offers our children a very unique and valuable cultural experience. Our school looks like the world: various races and ethnicities, languages, birthplaces, family backgrounds, personal stories, and economic resources that span the spectrum. The perspectives our children are gaining from each other and from each other’s families is a gift, a rich cultural heritage. Diverse communities are not without their challenges; it’s easier when everybody looks the same, acts the same, thinks the same, and has the same needs. But that’s the point: being challenged is a good thing. It makes you think more and learn more. It makes you more empathetic. It makes you wiser. Our children will graduate from BVP with the ability to think critically about their own perspective and their world and to navigate a lot of social complexity. Those are 21st century survival skills that will last them a lifetime. The friendships my kids have made at BVP are really a joy to see. The opportunity to know my kids’ friends’ families is an equal gift.

Technology in a global world. Technology is hard to implement in schools. Most schools do it poorly. I’m personally a born skeptic when it comes to the promise of technology to improve public education. Lately, however, I’ve seen some schools around the nation doing it really, really well. And I’m excited about BVP’s plans to use technology and online course content to differentiate classroom instruction and personalize my children’s learning experience. The opportunities in this area—as the very idea of the “classroom” is being redefined by our globally interconnected world—are profound.  It’s another area where I think they can be the best.

An entrepreneurial culture. There’s something to be said for not having the perfect system, the perfect team, the perfect building from day one. Not that I don’t want those things for BVP (I do, really!), but it’s a counterintuitive truth that a little struggle is a good thing: having to navigate, improvise, persevere, makes us smarter and gives us the gift of grit. In baseball, a lot of kids can hit a fastball. Its speed and course are predictable. But only players who can hit a curveball thrive in the big leagues. Hitting curveballs is about analyzing the situation, making small but important adjustments, self-awareness and, most importantly, a willingness to hone your skills over a long period of time. At BVP our kids are getting a crash course on how to hit curveballs. I believe it will serve them well when, as adults, they start seeing them at real speed, in real life.

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