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An Interview with Rich Sidwell – On Olney’s Next Steps, and His Own
What happened at the summit?
A lot of ideas came to the fore. Not surprisingly, no quick magic solutions emerged.
So we haven’t chosen one of the 70 proposals yet?
[Rich smiles.] No. In all likelihood, what will emerge will be a combination, a mix of one or more elements that were proposed. It will have to be a response to the times – something that works with the times and works with the mission of the school.
The board and administration are not focusing on pursuing that search actively. But we are eager for that energy to keep moving however it can, and to be continually in touch with it so that whatever does emerge is well coordinated and planned, and is a compatible adjunct to the school program.
Understanding how natural processes work, there could be a rest and reflection and review period that makes it appear as though nothing is happening, when in fact, it is preparation for the next step. I think that’s what is happening.
A question a lot of people have been asking is, “Where does an income-producing entity fit in the overall scheme?” We’ve realized it can’t fit in the middle of a school. We can’t have our students and staff doing two full-time jobs. One of the distinctive outcomes of the summit is this decision to make sure the income-producing enterprise and the school are, at this point, separate.
Could you say more about how a for-profit venture would relate to the school?
We would create a for-profit entity with its own charter and mission. In that mission would be, “We’re here to do good while producing income for an institution we care about deeply.” The mission of the enterprise would be to produce profit that would be in support of the school, as opposed to supporting investors or workers. The mission would be: (1) Do good; (2) Earn or create a surplus that would be transferred to the institution and become something the institution could depend on.
Part of what caught folks’ imagination about the summit was the dual focus on economic and environmental sustainability. We are focusing on the relationship between the planet and economic viability for the human race. They are totally connected with each other. Any economies not based on an understanding of the environment will be short-lived.
In our rural location, we are as much in the mainstream as anyone else. In fact, we have advantages. Land, food, farming are becoming more and more desirable components of any educational program. Olney is ahead of the curve; and we have the ability to stay ahead of the curve. We have a farm that’s been well cared for, for generations. We have land that is healthy and alive. We have soil that is well cared for. We have a natural habitat that we are already well connected to.
Could you say more about the focus on STEEEM?
One board member pronounces it “steam” rather than “STEM,” as the acronym is usually written. The acronym “STEM” typically stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We are saying “E cubed” instead. STEEEM rather than STEM. Energy, economy, and environment: these are the program strengths we’re building upon.
Three themes that came out of the threshing sessions were sustainable agriculture, continuing education, and Olney as a global community. Would you speak to these three?
What the board did at its January retreat – and I agree – was to say, in effect, “The international theme is us. We’re global.” The summit reinforced the need for our academic program and our overall program to better serve the needs of all students who come to Olney.
The buzzword I heard from the board retreat was “vertical integration.”
Vertical integration will mean being less focused on age and class level and more focused on individual growth within the overall 9th-through-12th-grade program. It’s a way of talking about differentiated instruction – that is, meeting individual students’ needs. Our approach is, and will be, to meet those needs within a living community. We’re thinking about how to incorporate vertical integration into our curriculum. Ultimately, it could transform how we educate students.
What about the two other themes – sustainable agriculture and continuing education?
Farm and food is pretty clear, I think. It’s us. It’s our opportunity. It’s an extremely important need that’s going to become even more important in the world. Continuing education is a principle. It’s the concept of lifelong learning that everyone preaches. We posed the question: “Is there a way for us to serve more broadly than the 9th-12th-grade group?” I didn’t get the sense we had time, place, or energy to launch a large additional program. Rather, we’re open to considering ways to support continuing education around us – including postgraduate opportunities for our own students. The summit reinforces our urge that our students catch, and continue, the love of learning that is evident here.
What about the timing of your retirement as head of school?
The discernment process that led me to the decision was post-summit and very much connected to the summit. I found myself thinking this was an ideal time for new leadership to step in. The summit has opened a new chapter in Olney’s history. We’ve reached a point where we’re looking forward enthusiastically and excitedly with a number of plans, a number of opportunities, a heightened sense of mission and purpose. With all that, it’s a good time to bring in new energy.
Part of my reflection and discernment process was, “Don’t leave too early but don’t leave too late. Don’t hang on too long.” I’ve been pleased that a lot of people have responded to news of my departure by saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” That means I haven’t left it too late!
Would you comment on the movement of the Spirit in your own life, and in Olney’s life?
I’m aware that things happen in wondrous ways. Anyone who assumes they are the managers of their lives – or if they are the head of a school, that they manage institutional life solely and personally through skill, intellect, and energy – are operating under a false notion. I don’t understand, and we don’t as an institution understand, all the things coming together to inform, instruct, and influence our days and our months and our years. I think the Quaker process which I’ve grown up in, and the Quaker process that founded the school, was one of open questions, open searching, openness to messages that inform our decision-making. They come in countless, countless, countless ways. They often come in ways we aren’t looking toward, or from directions we aren’t thinking they will come from. My life choices have been made more by being responsive to and being open to those messages than they have been by a logical, rational adding up of the pros and cons and coming to a decision based solely on a rational approach. The school is a living organism, and it moves and evolves as one.
And the summit?
We are a few months past, and we’re moving constructively from it. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard that which you expected to hear, stay tuned. Because we don’t know all that is coming out of it either. We’re telling you what we do know.