Standards of the Heart and Mind: Creating the Good High School

Talking to school people all over the country is a sweet and thrilling aspect of my work as Horace’s editor. I ask Coalition educators what inspired them to structure their schools differently, and quite frequently, Souhegan High School comes up. “We got the idea to design our schedule from what they’re doing at Souhegan. Have you been there? You should go check it out.”

How did Souhegan High School, opened in 1992 in suburban Amherst, New Hampshire, become a nationally known example of personalized learning, democratic governance and rigorous standards for all? In Standards of Mind and Heart, Peggy Silva, charter teacher, and Bob Mackin, Souhegan’s founding principal, tell the story of Souhegan’s beginnings, history and current milieu.

Through the school’s twelve-year creation process, community members met, gathering political will, assessing their beliefs, hopes, dreams and fears for Souhegan and planning its future. Led by Superintendent Richard Lalley, “a man of quiet fortitude and stoic vision,” an image of a personalized, democratic school materialized. Along with describing Lally’s essential role, Silva and Mackin capture the character and dynamics of the two towns that feed students into the school, reinforcing the book’s aim to tell Souhegan’s particular, idiosyncratic story rather than make generic recommendations.

Mackin joined the effort a year before the school opened, and his recollections capture the ways in which good principals infuse a thousand decisions with commitment to their schools’ goals and beliefs. The details are riveting, with descriptions of what Mackin was thinking as he reviewed resumes, recruited candidates and chose the group that would execute Souhegan’s vision and mission. The story of the charter faculty’s work in the year before the first student walked into the school is particularly engaging, portraying the intertwined excitement and difficulties of starting a school: setting community expectations, building credibility, earning trust, easing students into a new environment and educating them about different expectations.

Of course, Souhegan did more than plan. It opened its doors to five hundred students (and now educates a thousand) and launched full force into its mission, watching its long-laid plans bloom. Silva and Mackin describe the structures that together make Souhegan able to attain its expectations for individual and collective achievement, detailing the student-majority Community Council governing body, advisories, team teaching and heterogeneous grouping. They devote a chapter, “Beyond Seat Time,” to exhibitions and senior projects, conveying vividly how students, parents and staff are think and feel as they work on exhibitions and how those exhibitions demonstrate student growth. This chapter makes particularly good use of students’ voices; throughout the book, Silva and Mackin know intimately whom to ask for more insight and they do so often, including long narratives from Souhegan teachers, parents, and students and Amherst community members. Standards of Mind and Heart also addresses troubling challenges and shortcomings, discussing how increased student population seems to be preventing teachers from spending enough time on senior project work with students. Reflecting on this example, Silva and Mackin challenge the school community to adhere to its mission. “If the Senior Project is critical, if it is a culmination of a process that results in a Souhegan diploma, then we need to honor the time required to do the work.”

Silva and Mackin discuss how Souhegan built and maintains a strong professional culture using critical friends groups, shared planning time, partnerships with networks like CES and shared rituals and ceremonies. Standards of Mind and Heart concludes with the story of leadership transition to current principal Ted Hall, and thoughts on the constancy of change. Ten years ago, Souhegan embarked on the open road, its future ahead uncompromised. It now has the benefits and regrets of time, inevitable challenges–particularly student population growth–and no desire to be complacent.

At the very end, Silva and Mackin list “The Lessons of Souhegan High School,” which I’ve pinned to the wall over my desk as a concise, insightful, powerful reminder of how schools successfully keep their standards high, their teachers invigorated and their focus on student learning and growth. Teaching us what it takes to create and sustain a truly student-centered, rigorous school, Standards of Mind and Heart provides inspiration to communities committed to starting new schools or reshaping current ones.

reviewed by Jill Davidson