Olaf Jorgenson has been the Head of School at Almaden Country Day School (ACDS) for the last 9 years. ACDS is a small, private school that offers preschool through middle school programs for about 350 students in San Jose, California. Before his role at ACDS, Jorgenson has also served as a teacher, coach, board member, and administrator in schools in places around the world, such as Germany, the Marshall Islands, Honduras, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington state, and Arizona. As a former Klingenstein Fellow at the Teachers College at Columbia University, Jorgenson also currently serves as a Board Member on the Klingenstein Advisory Council alongside eleven other educational leaders who oversee the Center’s programs.
As an alumnus of ACDS who spent my childhood growing up in the ACDS community, this was a really exciting interview for me to do. I think the school’s core philosophy is a critically important voice in the ever-changing educational landscape in the Bay Area.
What initially drew you to pursue work in education? Did you always know that you wanted to do work at the administrative level, or did something inspire that along the way?
I was inspired by a high school teacher who taught me to “ask questions and question answers.” Interestingly, he lobbied hard to keep me from becoming a teacher, based on his own difficult experiences trying to be a pioneer and trailblazer in the heavily bureaucratic public school where he worked. I was on my way to become a public school superintendent, until the federal education law No Child Left Behind in 2001 changed my professional path. I absolutely refused to let policymakers and politicians who knew nothing about children or teaching, dictate what I would do for my students (I was at the time the curriculum director in a 75,000-student public school system in Arizona). So I left public education for my first headship, at Hawaii Prep on the Big Island. As a private school head, I am free to make 100% of the decisions about teaching and learning that I believe will be good for children; my accountability, if I choose wrong, is that parents will leave the school and go somewhere else. But at least I don’t have politicians and others telling me what and how ACDS teachers have to teach!
To your other question though, I had zero interest in administration, until (a) I realized that I wanted to make a bigger difference than I could in the classroom, and (b) I discovered that it would be hard to have a family on a teacher’s income.
One of my motivations to lead a private school is that unlike public school administrators, independent school leaders are still able to teach a class, which I do every other year — though I will say that I’m often unable to properly plan, given the demands on my time. In any case, to this day I identify as a teacher and not as an administrator, in part because I still get to teach a class every other year. Ultimately, much of my time is spent teaching adults! — working with parents who are confused about the social world of children, and working with teachers who need help to become more effective in the classroom. Whenever I fill out a form that asks me my profession, without hesitation or thinking, I always write “teacher.”
Given your experiences working in multiple different roles within schools—as a teacher, Head of School, and board member—are there any critical lessons you have learned as a teacher or a board member that you may have never realized in your position as a Head of School, and vice versa?
My trustee and head roles are very similar, i.e. on the boards I serve, my role is to present the school leader’s (and sometimes the teacher’s) perspective. But definitely, as a teacher you learn how difficult teaching is, the time and the pressures and the challenges from students and parents (and sometimes peers and administrators). Heads who have not served as teachers tend not to empathize much with teachers, and often are less credible with their faculties. (This is another reason why I still teach a class every other year.) My experience as a teacher is what led me to view the main job of a school leader as supporting the teachers (rather than being “the boss”), and my motto ever since I read a terrible book with this great title has been: “Feed the teachers, or they eat the children.”
As a head, one has to have a broader view that a teacher simply cannot have, because as head I am responsible for everything that happens at a school: issues like liability, purchasing, enrollment, fundraising, boardsmanship, human resources, budgeting, marketing, facility maintenance, capital improvements, banking/investments/finance, demographics – on top of curriculum and instruction. Teachers don’t know anything about any of this, but it’s all essential in running a school, and all part of my job in supporting them.
I know what it takes to be a great teacher. My teachers have no idea what I do during the day.
Today for example, on top of carpool duty, I went to six meetings, talked a parent into keeping her child at our school, disposed of about 50 stinky old rubber door mats and installed 50 more (very heavy, I was soaked in sweat afterward), covered a sick teacher’s lunch duty, started work on an employee dispute, chose a marketing scheme for a new program, made airline reservations for a workshop in November, wrote a bunch of thank-you notes, calmed down an upset trustee, and am about to create an analysis of six consultants who’ve applied to help with our upcoming capital campaign. I’ll get home about 6:30, have dinner, and get to work until about 10 or 10:30. That’s a pretty typical day, and I work every weekend too. But I’d never have known that’s what a head’s life is like when I was a teacher.
How have your experiences teaching and leading in schools around the world–Berlin, the Marshall Islands, Honduras, etc.–informed the work you do now? Did those experiences teach you any things that you might have missed, had you never stepped out of the US context?
Definitely. Chiefly, I learned that across continents and cultures, children around the world are remarkably similar, and respond favorably to teachers who care about them as individuals, appreciate their differences, use humor and make learning enjoyable — in short, make sure they are known, challenged, stimulated, and cared for. Kids are kids, all around the world. I also learned that America’s approach to teaching and learning is by no means the most effective, and gained respect for the ways in which culture shapes a society’s attitude toward and expectations for schools and teachers, and thereby developed cultural competence that has allowed me to more effectively navigate cultural difference/conflict — from African-American and Mexican gang members in my school in AZ, to the hate speech directed against Muslim children that schools across the U.S. witnessed right after the election of Donald Trump.
I cannot imagine learning this without having lived and taught abroad. Plus, it was a blast! 🙂
How would you describe the educational philosophy of Almaden Country Day School? What do you see as the importance of maintaining that particular learning environment in our world today?
Almaden Country Day School is a lot of things to a lot of its constituents, but essentially the school’s philosophy comes down to balance. I wrote this recently for our website:
Is your family a good fit for Almaden Country Day School? Well, if you believe that childhood is to be cherished, not accelerated; if you want your children to be as interested in problems as they are in solutions; if you seek a close-knit community that celebrates character, creativity, ingenuity, play and determination as much as achievement; and if you want to foster in your children a love of learning as well as potent academic skills – then yes, you could be an ACDS family.
I think that life in metropolitan and suburban America today is a pressure cooker – the dizzying pace of change, the impact of on-demand technologies, the relentless call for outcomes (especially in Silicon Valley), and the unfettered access to information all serve to rush children through their formative years and shove the joy and meaning out of childhood. It’s not a journey anymore, it’s a cage fight. (Put another way, childhood is no longer “a series of revealed secrets,” as Neil Postman put it.) So ACDS offers balance. A high-opportunity, low-stress environment for learning. The conviction that childhood shouldn’t have to end in 3rd grade. And the firm belief that joy and “rigor” can coexist in school! It comes down to balance.
With the growing involvement with technology in education, particularly in the Silicon Valley, San Jose has become a sort of hub of education innovation. As the Head of School for a school situated at the crux of many of these changes, how would you characterize the educational landscape of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley today?
When I travel around the country for conferences, and say I’m from a school in Silicon Valley, people definitely get quiet and want to know what I think about X or Y issue.
In particular, I see a distinction here with regard to tech integration, or the extent to which technology is a tool that’s part of the daily fabric of teaching and learning, rather than some kind of add-on (like a computer lab or a portable laptop cart) that’s much more common outside of this region. Parents here simply take for granted that the teachers and children are using technology, and that the technology is a tool to extend learning rather than an end in itself.
I’d also suggest that the Bay Area is among the regions with the longest history and perhaps a leadership role in cultural competence and teaching about issues like social justice, equity literacy, and diversity.
What are the most important changes (positive or negative) you see being brought by the rise of Educational Technology (EdTech) at the school-level?
With proper training, EdTech enables teachers to extend their lessons almost endlessly, using technology’s resources and connectivity to provide examples, illustrations, encounters, resources, research, and opportunities to learn that are impossible without it.
The key, however, is the training, and of course the cost.
In my opinion, companies like Apple do not sufficiently discount their products to schools; this profit on the backs of nonprofit organizations is shameful and reprehensible to me. But schools in competitive markets like ACDS, private and public alike, are stuck in this EdTech arms race – if we don’t provide the technology to the students, we’ll be at a disadvantage with our competitor schools that do. So this part is maddening. I think tech costs can now occupy as much as 5% of our $7M operating budget in any given year.
I do celebrate the rise of the Google Chromebook, however, as a substantially cheaper and quite robust alternative to Macbooks. We are piloting Chromebooks this year.
What are the challenges, if any, to maintaining the ACDS model amidst this rapidly evolving landscape?
That’s a great question. Because our model is so counterintuitive today in Silicon Valley– that children can enjoy school and childhood, laugh and have fun while learning, do a little less homework and feel less stress, and still excel in high school and college – we’ve had to hire a professional marketing firm to help us with our marketing.
There are a lot of these for-profit, high-pressure, test- and outcomes-focused schools opening up like Challenger, Stratford, and Champion, along with the nonprofit Harker, and demand is high for them.
Meanwhile, ACDS enrollment is decreasing. The same is true for many other progressive schools like ours. And we have a plan to address the enrollment, so we’ll be fine, but it’s going to be a challenge. Increasingly, parents are focused on things like college admissions for their kindergartener, rather than helping her love learning and grow confidence. These parents won’t see the real outcomes of their approach until their children require antidepressants and therapy once they get into their highly-selective universities.
But I digress. For sure, it’s going to be tough for the ACDSs and Mulberrys and St Andrews Episcopal Schools to build the case for the value they add; but at ACDS anyway, we have a plan, and we won’t stop until we prevail.
Which voices do you think are missing from the mainstream narratives of American education today, and how might we better integrate them education policymaking?
One pivotal voice heard and revered by school leaders but largely silenced in the mainstream media and in the world of educational policymaking/politics is Arizona State University professor emeritus and former Stanford, Columbia, and UMass professor and dean Dr. David Berliner.
His book, “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools,” is a little dated now but still a must-read. Berliner shows that the “evidence” used in the 1980s-2000s by education pundits, politicians, and critics of public schools to justify their decline is overwhelmingly false, taken out of context, incomplete, or otherwise misinterpreted or misrepresented. He provides “the rest of the story,” and demonstrates that in fact, quite to the contrary of the anti-school hype and popular opinion, America’s schools are doing better than ever with an increasingly challenging student population.
Berliner also championed the argument – supported by extensive research – that rather than experimenting with reading programs and No Child Left Untested and alternative school year lengths and charter schools, none of which has been shown in any country to be successful, school reform in America rests heavily on the need to address poverty.
With more than 10 million American children living in poverty, Berliner argues, true “student achievement” is impossible until society collectively embraces the need to provide basic resources to our most vulnerable members, these children. Until they can feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods, fill their bellies with food on a regular basis, enjoy basic medical care and hygiene, and believe that they have a future, these 10 million children cannot prioritize taking tests and doing homework and graduating from high school and going to college.