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Hillbrook School Looks Back to Leap Forward

by on August 9, 2017

How do we reimagine the independent school business model? The critical importance of this question for independent schools drew us into the MISBO + IDEO Project. What feels like an increasingly untenable dependence upon skyrocketing tuition, expanding tuition assistance budgets, and philanthropy leaves us anxious about the long-term viability of the independent school business model, and we were eager to join a cohort who was willing to look this challenge in the eye and imagine alternative solutions. As a school that has utilized design thinking consistently for the past six to seven years to implement all types of changes, from reimagined learning spaces to a leading-edge resident teacher program, we were thrilled that we would have an opportunity to turn our attention to this important challenge.

To be completely candid, as we finished the project in May, I was disappointed by the progress we had made. There was little evidence that a new business model was emerging. And yet, as I reflect back a few months later on the process and on the work we did as a school, I am reminded that resolving big questions – in this case, perhaps the big question for the long-term survival of independent schools – happens through fits and starts and small-scale experimentation that yields unexpected results. No, we did not create a new business model, but we did explore some possibilities and push our thinking in ways that leave us as a school – and I hope an industry – better prepared to pivot and shift in the years ahead.

Our experiment connected to the school’s strategic initiative to reimagine the student experience. We are deeply committed to creating real-world, project-based learning experiences for students that reach beyond our campus and challenge our students to make a difference in the world. We are looking to build upon our longstanding and successful service learning program by finding ways to more fully integrate these experiences into the day-to-day learning for all children. As a school nestled on a 14 acre campus in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, however, getting our students into the community is not easy. One solution? A satellite campus space located in downtown San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley. And yet, living in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, we are not in a position to simply purchase a second campus. So we looked around and found an innovative alternative – utilizing space at a WeWork location, a global company that provides access to shared workspaces. The cost is relatively low, the terms extremely flexible (month-to-month rentals), and it had the added bonus of connecting us with what WeWork terms a “global network of creators.”

The timing of the MISBO + IDEO Project was fortuitous, as we had just secured a space at WeWork San Jose and we were looking for a way to jumpstart the project. So we decided to create an experiment that involved getting students into the space and seeing what happened. We took five middle school students to WeWork on a Friday, set up snacks at the tables in the public gathering space, and invited entrepreneurs to sit with them and tell their stories. The results were beyond what we had expected.

One moment in particular captured the excitement and possibility of this experience. At that moment, one pair of students and Director of Teaching & Learning Ilsa Dohmen were talking to Robert, an entrepreneur who was showing them a new intubator he had designed and the pitch deck he was developing to help tell the story. Another student was talking to Phil, a serial entrepreneur who was sharing advice about how he hires, noting that experience in the arts is as important as experience in math and science for a successful innovator. As he put it, “technical skills are good, but creativity is essential.” Another pair of students was talking with the founding Director of our Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, imagining the possibilities for this space for future student groups. And, finally, I was talking with Evan, the Community Manager for WeWork San Jose. A graduate of a local independent school, Evan had eagerly supported the concept of having students at WeWork and had worked with our Director of Technology Bill Selak to coordinate the visit. At that moment, she was talking about the multiple connections she has in downtown San Jose, with everyone from the mayor to leaders of local non-profits and businesses, and how she was eager to help Hillbrook connect with them.

So what did we learn? We learned:

  • Entrepreneurs were willing to share their stories with our students, and our students were able to connect with and clearly communicate with adults.
  • Small groups of students in an urban environment works really well. One student commented, “This is the best field trip ever!”
  • Entrepreneurs tell a compelling story about the skills students need for success in life, a story that reaffirms the importance of the type of education we are offering to students.
  • The WeWork team is an invaluable resource for us as we look to develop partnerships with Silicon Valley companies, non-profits, and leaders.
  • We are part of the “global network of creators” WeWork supports. They value our engagement, as much as we value the opportunity to be part of their community.

We left inspired and excited about what we had done, and, yet, as I noted earlier, we realized that we had played to our strengths – developing engaging learning experiences for students – without really making obvious progress vis a vis our ultimate goal of creating new business models. And yet, the seeds of possibility are there. We are already asking how we can build upon this experience to expand the type of programming we offer and to explore partnerships which before now had seemed challenging if not impossible. And perhaps most importantly, we proved that we can build a satellite campus in an urban space at a minimal cost. In the months ahead, we will continue to do small experiments at WeWork and, in the process, we hope to continue to push our thinking and discover things we had not known before.

Mark Silver, Head of School
Hillbrook School


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