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20 Signs of Progress at Singapore American School

By Tom Vander Ark — November 07, 2018 9 min read
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Successful by traditional measures, the board of the Singapore American School asked Superintendent Chip Kimball, to help make the school as good at life prep as it was at college prep. That launched an extraordinary six-year journey fired by more than 100 school visits and intense staff study.

Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Sparrow was Kimball’s partner on the journey. She has deep roots in the community, did her student teaching at SAS and has led the academic program for a decade.

On a recent visit to the 4,000 student school, we saw 20 signs of progress in talent development, care and guidance, and high impact teaching.

Talent Development

1. Clear institutional commitments. Clear goals translate into role clarity. Positional expectations have been updated several times. They inform hiring, development and appraisal.

“We pay attention to talent and teacher and mid-level leadership,” said Kimball. “People often go to the technical aspects of the work but attitude is just as important--the willingness to speak truth, take feedback, and learn from failure.”

“You can’t innovate in a culture of fear,” added Kimball.

2. Professional learning communities. For the last eight years, PLCs have been central to professional learning and improved practice at SAS. They’ve been supported by strengths-based training and facilitated leadership.

3. School visits. Over 100 faculty members visited over 100 schools on six continents. They took lessons back to SAS and discussed them in PLCs.

4. Teacher leadership. About 160 of the 400 faculty have leadership roles. “If PLC is the fulcrum for classroom change than leadership was the fulcrum for school change,” said Kimball.

5. Onsite doctoral program. In partnership with University of Southern California, 16 SAS faculty recently graduated with a doctorate in education. They received a scholarship for committing to a 3 years postdoc.

Care and Guidance

6. Elementary Social Emotional Learning. SAS adopted a responsive classroom model to promote social and emotional learning. “Every adult has been trained on how to talk to children,” explained Sparrow. “We stress being safe, responsible, and kind.”

“SEL is part of a culture of excellence, possibilities, extraordinary care.” Added Kimball. “And in our school visits, we found few schools that are exceptional at all three.”

7. Response To Intervention. RTI is used in K-12. “We’re getting better at answering PLC question 3 (what if students struggle) and question 4 (what if students already know),” said Kimball. “You can’t have effective RIT without a PLC,” added Kimball.

8. Pastoral care. To improve both functions, SAS separated college counseling and pastoral care. “College applications are becoming more challenging,” said Kimball, “and we didn’t want to impact the college admission process.”

A new student life center (below) has improved social and emotional support and learning.

9. Advisory. A high school advisory period was added and the middle school home-base structure was updated. An advisor works with 8-12 learners with a focus on relationships and pastoral care.

“Every good school we visited had a high functioning advisory system,” said Kimball.

10. Mentoring. With more project-based learning at SAS, Kimball said the focus has shifted from the quality of the final product to the process of learning. That often includes seeking and accessing the help of mentors and serving as a peer mentor--skills that will serve them well in college and beyond. Mentoring is particularly important on the SAS campus where a quarter of the student body turns over annually.

In the upper division, self-directed Catalyst projects are a cultural, instructional and course-specific student0directed self-study project. For these projects, students are expected to secure and utilize a mentor in a relevant field.

High Impact Instructional Strategies

11. Reggio. Two years ago, the early learning program and space received a Reggio-inspired transformation and it has proven successful and popular. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is an approach to teaching, learning and advocacy for children.

With Quest, a project-based upper division microschool (see #17), it was a precursor of the change process modeling collaboration, cultural competence and creativity.

12. Language immersion. A primary Chinese language immersion program (below) has been successful and popular and is being extended one grade at a time.

13. Middle-grade projects. Twice a year for six weeks, middle school students have time each day to pursue a passion project during an expanded homeroom period. Teachers received training that included completing their own project. Parents receive frequent communication about the academic intent of the program.

14. Inquiry-based learning. Students are encouraged to pursue inquiry-based learning across the curriculum with a cycle of question, investigate, create, and reflect. Initially, the process begins with teacher-driven prompts (like readers and writers workshop), then moves to a shared inquiry, and finally personalized inquiry (with individual pacing and product with some teacher support).

15. Maker libraries. The middle school library features a well-stocked makerspace with tools old and new (check out this video). The high school library is a favorite (air conditioned) hang out space (below) as well as a project lab and makerspace.

16. Catalyst Project. Every student is required to conduct a self-directed project of at least a semester in length during their junior or senior year with. They secure and work with a mentor in a relevant field and combine school and work-based learning aiming for specific goals and developing in key outcome areas (character, collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, and cultural competence, as well as self-awareness and application).

17. Quest. A project-based microschool (below) is open to juniors and seniors. Units of study focus on interdisciplinary collaborative ventures and often connect students with industries in areas including engineering, information technology, and marketing.

18. Advanced courses. SAS offers more than 40 advanced courses including Advanced Placement (AP) and internally developed Advanced Topic (AT) courses. The AT courses, developed by SAS faculty in conjunction with college faculty, are more in-depth than the AP courses they replace (AT Computational Physics v. AP physics) or fill gaps in the AP offerings (AT Kinesiology).

In a decision that some parents considered controversial, SAS capped the number of AP courses a student could take a seven. This was done to promote deeper learning and discourage the AP obsession that wasn’t improving college entrance options.

The decision to augment AP with AT courses was taken after speaking with dozens of admissions officers at leading universities. “Admissions officers told us our kids were capable but not interesting,” said Kimball. The AT courses promote critical outcomes and make SAS students more distinctive. Many of the AT courses offer college credit from leading universities.

19. Competency. With a grant from a parent, SAS hired three curriculum specialists to work with elementary, middle, and high school teams to develop a competency-based curriculum. A well-developed competency framework has been drafted and will be introduced next year. Standards-based grading is already in place K-8.

20. Model Classrooms. In preparation for rebuilding and remodeling the entire SAS campus, model classroom pods called Pathfinder Spaces were developed to illustrate the future learning environment and to investigate specific options regarding groupings, dividing walls, furniture, lighting and air conditioning systems.

“These flexible learning spaces are different than the open concept of the 1970s,” said Kimball. “The goals, strategies, practices, equipment, and materials are different--teachers are actualizing the four questions of PLC in real time,” added Kimball.

The progress the SAS team has made over the last six years is remarkable. Add SAS to your list of schools worth visiting.

Key Takeaways

[:15] About today’s episode with Tom, Chip Kimball, and Jennifer Sparrow.
[1:10] Tom welcomes Chip and Jennifer to the podcast.
[1:21] Tom’s and Chip’s background together, and why Chip decided to join SAS in 2012.
[2:50] Chip’s progress in shaping SAS’s education and facility.
[5:26] Jennifer’s background as an international educator, and what originally drew her to SAS.
[8:12] Tom highlights some of the remarkable progress at Singapore American School since he last visited (two years ago), such as the talent
agenda.
[11:18] Jennifer’s and Chip’s thoughts on fostering talent and the importance of their institutional commitments.
[14:18] About SAS’s professional learning communities (PLCs).
[15:20] Jennifer discusses how the school continues to support, encourage, and monitor their PLC practices.
[17:05] Chip describes some of the investments that they’ve made to strengthen their PLC practices.
[20:44] Tom highlights another sign of remarkable progress at Singapore American School: care and guidance (such as adding more social-emotional programming). Jennifer and Chip speak about their work toward this and the progress they’ve made.
[22:53] Two more signs of progress at Singapore American School: better response to intervention and PLC (What if kids don’t get it? How do we intervene? And if they do get it, how do we accelerate their learning?)
[26:11] Why Chip decided to break the roles of college counseling and pastoral care into two separate areas.
[30:27] Jennifer and Chip discuss the next steps to the work that starts with responsive classrooms: advisory.
[32:29] A focal point of SAS: mentoring (both for students and from students).
[34:24] Jennifer and Chip talk high impact instructional strategies at SAS.
[37:40] What is “try time” for students in middle school?
[43:23] About SAS’s three tiers of inquiry-based learning.
[45:33] About SAS’s personalized inquiry catalyst graduation requirement.
[47:45] One of SAS’s most ambitious changes: becoming a leading AP factory and then scaling that back by strategically replacing AP courses with more advanced topic courses created by teachers and college faculty.
[52:10] Another academic area SAS is making huge progress in--competency-based learning.
[56:03] About SAS’s new learning spaces on campus.
[1:02:57] Tom congratulates Chip and Jennifer on the progress they’ve made at SAS.

Mentioned in This Episode

Singapore American School Episode 162: “Personalize Learning and Build Agency by Using the 4 PLC Questions” Why Flexible Learning Environments Creating The Future of Learning: Singapore American School


The photos above were taken by Tom Vander Ark. Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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