Mary Olsky chat with Jim Zellmer

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Jim: [0:02] Zellmer: Well, Mary, it's 2010. Looking back to 1982 when you founded Eagle, what did you think the education landscape would look like in 2010?
Mary: [0:13] Olsky: Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't forecast ahead. I just deal with the day-to-day problems. So I wasn't even thinking about it. All I knew was that what my kids were getting, whatever we did had to be better. And we had hopes that if we could get together something that was a good program, maybe the school district would take a look and adopt it. But we realized that was very naive.
Jim: [0:49] So given your experiences from 1982 to today, what's been different about how it played out? You mentioned that you thought it would affect the public schools, so what has changed in terms of your expectations. You said the Eagle -- and what's the other schools?
Mary: [1:09] Well, I'm now on the advisory for the TAG program in district, so some of the discussions that they're having is exactly what were happening 26, 27, 28 years ago. In fact, if anything, things are worse, because of No Child Left Behind, because there aren't as many innovative programs in the district. [1:41] They are more concerned now with testing at all times. In the past, they weren't testing at all. And now, if anything, their teaching too much to the tests. I can't say it has progressed, at least in public schools, from where it was then. At least then they had some cluster programs. Hopefully, with the new superintendent, there is a new direction, but we'll see.
Jim: [2:10] So given all that, why do you think nothing has really changed, or maybe it's gotten worse?
Mary: [2:16] Well, just listening to the things being discussed, were the same things that were being discussed 26 years ago, the same problems, principals, teachers not being on board. But now there's so many more regulations and restrictions on teachers as to what they can do, because they have to meet the standards of the test. They're looking more at children who need help going forward rather than children at the upper end.
Jim: [2:51] So given that, if we have this same conversation in 2020, will it be the same, or will it be worse, or will it be better?
Mary: [2:59] I have no idea. Our board of directors would say to me, "Do you have a five-year plan, a seven-year plan?" And I never did. What I would do is to adapt to the problems or the needs of the kids and our staff. I would point out that the Russians would always have five- and seven- and ten-year plans, and we saw what happened to them. [3:34] So I'm not going to prognosticate.
Jim: [3:36] OK. So compared to 1982, there seems to be a lot more online learning opportunities for the kids. I mean, I remember, when I was a kid. I was a student n 1982. I would have to go to the library to get the books. Somebody else would check it out, and I wouldn't get it. But today there's tremendous amount of data for kids out there, the online opportunities. So how does that affect the students, the schools, the parents, the whole thing?
Mary: [4:08] Well, I think there are more opportunities than there used to be, and certainly a lot more information. Whether or not that information is correct is something else again. We should always be teaching children critical thinking skills and to separate the wheat from the chaff. [4:27] Even for some of our kids, we would go through geometry and independent learning with some of the second year algebra. And some of them went even as far as pre-calc. They would have to take an online learning course.

[4:46] The only problem I see with online learning is, it's not the best. You really want a classroom situation where you can discuss it more and interact with the kids, and that's why you have the school for, so that they could be with each other.

[5:04] I guess more and more things are being done so that they can interact, with Skype and things like that. And that is the greatest detriment to online learning is that you don't get the personal interaction, because when you get these kids together and they feed off each other, there's an excitement which you don't get when you're just doing it alone.

Jim: [5:30] So do the availability of those kind of classes offer more kinds of opportunities to the public and private schools? Let's say they're either cash-restrained or ideologically-restrained, or what have you, to give kids more academic options, is that the only way out or what's your sense of this online world?
Mary: [5:48] Well I think it's certainly a good thing. Especially for communities where there aren't a lot of resources out in the rural areas and what have you. But my only concern about it is that you don't have the type of interaction you would like to see. And of course, if you're doing science, you really need a lab, but for other things you can probably use it.
Jim: [6:20] So how about the cooperation with other organizations? You sort of alluded to that, and hoped that maybe the founding and the growth of Eagle would maybe affect or maybe merge or have some effect on the public schools. Do you see opportunities for those kind of options growing or declining or they just aren't there, what are you seeing? I'm thinking about WCATY.
Mary: [6:45] Oh, we did a lot with WCATY. A lot of our kids went to WCATY. With public schools, we were always open, but there's a restraint in that you are going to have to follow their rules. And I was never one for following a lot of rules, so you give up a certain autonomy. [7:09] People have asked us if you want to be a chartered school. At first we thought we wouldn't mind being a part of the public system, but there is just too much bureaucracy involved, and many rules that don't seem to make sense. We have had mainly Edgewood students who come through for student teaching or to observe. And that's fine and we do with the University of Wisconsin.

[7:40] But I think the really close relationship with the public schools unless we were given autonomy, I don't see happening.

Jim: [7:48] So thinking back over 28 years, how does the student population change in that time in terms of their incoming abilities ,academic expectations, their performance, or has it not? And also the parents.
Mary: [8:04] Well, I would say the student background has changed. We're getting children coming in later on. In the last few years, their math ability is very bad. Their math preparation is really bad. It used to be that they get concepts or they weren't taught concepts, they were taught computations. Now, they don't seem to have either. [8:28] And we in fact, just before I left, we had to put some children back in. Which we never had to do before. So, I don't know exactly what the public system is using. I think it's Discovery Math or things like that.
Jim: [8:47] It's those kinds of things.
Mary: [8:48] Yeah, it doesn't give them enough background. They asked them to do too much with too little information.
Jim: [9:01] How about the parents? Have you seen changes in the parents and their support role in the kids and their interactions with the school on the last 28 years? What different and new about that?
Mary: [9:12] Well, of course, when we first started, we were just -- I don't know if you call it experimental, but we certainly didn't have that reputation at that point. So the parents we got were desperate. Now we have a good reputation. It's much more accepted to go to the school. I can't say that they have changed that much. [9:41] We don't normally get parents who say, "My child is a genius." They say, "My child seems to need more and I'm not sure how to do it." And that's typical for the parents that we get.
Jim: [9:58] How about teachers? There was an interview I put on the school blog last week with Debra Gist, who's the superintendent of schools in Rhode Island. A former teacher who said that the ed school now gets the bottom third of the students in general in terms of academic performance. What do you see in terms of teacher (quality)?
Mary: [10:20] Well, we always hire differently. We like to see not just an education background. Our preferred was, especially for the upper level in the middle school, that the person have maybe a BA in history and then I may ask for some teaching and with experience. [10:42] When we started, there was nothing in terms of teaching languages in the elementary school. So we were more likely to find people who had some education background but also who are fluent in the language. Now, that we find it more same thing with computers. There was not anything like that so we had sort of nontraditional teachers. But our main thing was that they knew their subject and they could teach.
Jim: [11:13] So, content knowledge?
Mary: [11:14] Yeah. Well, and the ability to teach.
Jim: [11:17] Right, right. OK. So what about school leadership, both of the principal and in your case, the board level? What different about 1992 versus 2010 in terms of what good principal or good leadership needs today versus that? Or is there any difference?
Mary: [11:38] I had trouble with the term "school leadership." It sounds sort of, I don't know, business-like. I still refer to the library rather the LMC.
Jim: [11:50] That's fine.
Mary: [11:53] I think in public schools, it certainly is far more difficult. You've got a lot more to contend with in terms of discipline, in terms of drugs coming in, elementary school or middle school level. In our situation, I was treasurer of the board and Betty was president. So we had no problems with the school leadership because we were it. [12:21] And I think that bigger the school's are, it's harder. Not only do you have more problems but you can't interact with the parents and the students as well. And I think that's the key. I know over East High, Milt Pike, who had been the principal there, was well-loved by everybody because he was there and he was active and the kids could relate to him. He was big and so nobody gave him a lot of trouble. [laughs]

[12:50] But I do think it's very difficult now and the public school you've got so many -- if you don't do this and you don't do that, whatever you do it's not going to be right. And actually that's somewhat true in the private schools too. I mean, you have to take stand and be firm. And say, "Yes, we would like to accommodate your child but if it's to the detriment of the rest of the class we are not going to do it." And you get static from both staff and parent, but you have to do what you feel is right.

Jim: [13:26] So, how should school governance, school leadership, however you want to refer to it, how should they communicate with parents these days and how often? Is it just the website, newsletters, hard copies, emails or blogs? What frequency...
Mary: [13:39] Well, I'm old- fashioned. I like newsletters, but they do get lost. So I think you need to do it twice, which is what we do. We send at home with the kids and also on website in the Internet. And I think this should be at least weekly, which is what we decide in the very beginning, Because you need to keep that communication open. [14:02] We have a requirement that the parents put in certain amount of volunteer time. Not only does it help the school, but the kids see that you value it.
Jim: [14:13] Right, you're invested.
Mary: [14:14] You're invested, you value and you also see what is going on in the school. So when you hear rumors, you know that they're not true or you feel comfortable in coming and asking. Because more often or not, whatever the parking lot rumor is not correct.
Jim: [14:33] Say, let's start Eagle today. Say Madison needs another high school or another private school, or whatever. How would it be different and would you do it?
Mary: [14:46] I'm too old.
Jim: [14:48] I know. But let's say we've got young kids.
Mary: [14:49] OK. How would you I do it?
Jim: [14:50] Yeah, how would you do it?
Mary: [14:52] Well, in the past, first of all, you had a lot of schools that were closing. So there was room. We started out on Regent Street. That was a closed school. It was managed by a separate company. We were able to rent space. Actually, we were originally talking about renting space at Midvale School, because they had a lot of extra classrooms. [15:21] And the principal was very open to it. But she was then informed that doing so would be an insult to their teachers, which we didn't understand at all. So we rented space. We started with 12 students. Eight teachers, part-time, paid $5 an hour.

[15:42] At that time there was no definition of a school in the state. A working definition was six people, six kids. Wisconsin's pretty loose. I'm not sure what it requires legally now, but it's a pretty loose community. They're very positive about home schooling and about starting private schools.

[16:03] We started with $2,000. I think you'd need a lot more now. We got our materials, our furniture and things from the UW surplus. And we started. It is hard. You have to make it through the first five years. If you can make that, then you're doing OK.

[16:31] We had to sort of juggle things to get our first building. Fortunately, one of our parents was a developer and he showed us how to do this little magic trick, and somehow you had money. And then, if you continue, to give a good education.

[16:54] I handled the money, so I was very careful with money. We were never in debt. We paid that first $2,000 off the first year. Of course, that meant that Betty and I didn't work for anything. And we paid tuition for our kids. But it still got going.

Jim: [17:15] That's how startups are. [laughs] So how did you end up here in Fitchburg?
Mary: [17:21] We were on what is now Aftershool Inc.'s building. We really couldn't expand in that spot. There was a lot of traffic there too, which concerned us. We didn't have a good playground. We had quite a few people on the waiting list and we couldn't grow where we were. [17:49] Betty went looking for property. She tended to do these things and then I had to figure out how to pay for it. That particularly piece of property in Fitchburg was originally offered to the school district for what is now Wright Middle School.
Jim: [18:06] Exactly.
Mary: [18:07] They didn't want it.
Jim: [18:08] Madison Middle School 2000.
Mary: [18:10] Right. They did not want it. It's a beautiful piece of land. And we said "OK." We were able to sell our building to Afterschool, which helped us then pay for the rest of it. And, again, it's sort of a shell game.: But we've paid off about three fourths of the mortgage.
Jim: [18:32] Wow. Great.
Mary: [18:34] That's always been my thing, is get that mortgage paid off.
Jim: [18:36] That's right. It gives you flexibility.
Mary: [18:38] Yes. It does.
Jim: [18:41] Let's talk about parents briefly.
Mary: [18:43] OK.
Jim: [18:44] What should they know?
Mary: [18:45] About what?
Jim: [18:47] They're having kids. What should they know about their kids' education? You're a parent?
Mary: [18:54] Yes.
Jim: [18:55] You've created a school and run a school. What should they know? What should they know about where there kids go to school, what they're learning?
Mary: [19:02] Yes. They certainly should take a look at the textbooks. They should meet the teachers if at all possible. Certainly when they're younger, they should help out in the classroom because then you really get to know what's going on. They should know the people that are in charge of the school. [19:28] And they should know what their options are. It's not always one spot. What may be a good school for one child may not necessarily be a good school for another. If it's too big, they might need a smaller school. If it's too small, they might need a larger school.

[19:42] It'll vary with the kids' ages too. When kids get to middle school, they don't want to see their parents in the classroom. But parents can still help out in the library, or something else, so that they get a feel for the school. I think that's the most important thing is to really be involved in the education.

Jim: [20:03] OK. You seem to be talking about a small percentage of parents, from my experience, that do that.
Mary: [20:09] That could be. Which is unfortunate.
Jim: [20:11] It's unfortunate, yes.
Mary: [20:13] Because those are the parents who will be in the know and get the best for their child. They'll know which teacher to ask for, et cetera.
Jim: [20:22] So then what about kids? What should kids learn today? How has that changed at Eagle from 1982 to 2000, or has it? Is it still the core subjects? Or is language immersion more important now? What should kids learn?
Mary: [20:39] Well, we always taught languages from kindergarten. They have a choice of French or Spanish. Languages are extremely important. And hopefully our kids, if they're at all good language learners, come out pretty proficient and go into third or fourth year of that language in high school. [21:01] What we always taught is critical thinking skills. Because it doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing, you need to be able to analyze and to think logically and critically. They claim you can teach creativity. You can encourage creativity: these are your parameters, this is the knowledge you should have, now create something. Give them that flexibility. That really helps all kinds of learners.

[21:32] I don't think there's enough done in terms of hands-on learning in a lot of schools and kids tune out. They have to really be engaged.

[21:44] The other thing they really need to be taught- what they call meta-cognition. They need to know how they learn: if they're an auditory learner, if they're a visual learner, or if they're a kinetic learner. They need to figure out what is the best way for them to learn and then adapt whatever is going on to that learning style.

[22:10] So, critical thinking, they know their own learning style, and then do it. And then they need to learn how to be respectful advocates for themselves to work within whatever system there is: to acknowledge the system, to respect it, and then to use it.

[22:26] We once had student come back for an alumni panel who was a senior, I think, at Memorial. He said he could get anything he wanted to, and of course he wanted to at Memorial. First they would tell him no, and then he'd show them how to do it. He went to Harvard, was part of some large student protest about I forget what, and is now in law school.

[22:50] But being a self-advocate in a respectful way is probably one of the best things they can learn.

Jim: [23:00] Yeah, I completely agree. How about college? Is it essential today? Is undergrad a stepping stone? So, you see all these kids, and you mentioned you see them go on and go to college and do other things. What should they do in college? What should they take?
Mary: [23:23] Well, it's going to vary from kid to kid. I have always been an advocate of the basic liberal arts curriculum in terms of teaching critical thinking, and you can adapt from there. Others, if they always want to be an architect - we've had those. That's what they're going to do. [23:46] Some are good in a lot of things, which is really a problem for bright kids. They are good in so many things and all those teachers want them in their field. I would recommend that they not limit themselves right away, that they take a wide range of courses and then from there choose what field they want to go into. I know many people would say "pick the best professors, pick the really good teachers," because you're going to learn the most.

[24:14] It's especially true, I think, for kids who have to have a personal touch. Not all kids do, but some do, and they will not perform without that. And if they pick a bad professor, they're in deep trouble. Because it doesn't matter how bright they are, they'll tune out. I guess that's all. And look around. Don't limit yourself.

Jim: [24:35] So, you are advocating generalism, a generalist approach with undergrad, a liberal arts generalist approach?
Mary: [24:40] Well, that's my thing.
Jim: [24:42] In general, yeah.
Mary: [24:43] It's not going to be true for some kids, because if they know where they want to go and that's their field, that's probably what they're going to do. For those who aren't sure, I'd say take a variety and go from there.
Jim: [24:59] OK. After all that, should we have K-12? Should it be K-8, K-10? You mentioned a student who didn't fit in to the traditional assembly-line high school model, or a quasi-assembly-line model, going off to a hybrid high school/college environment. [25:21] A friend of mine gives me old textbooks and quizzes from a hundred years ago. They show us what 13- and 14-year-olds were doing then, the ones that were in good schools.

[25:31] Is the K-12 model an anachronism? Do we need to rethink that and give kids different opportunities? What's your sense of that?

Mary: [25:41] Well, I think whatever the model is, it's got to be flexible to meet the needs of the kids. Some kids, they may intellectually be able to go to college, but emotionally, socially, they're not there. So if you can, through virtual learning or whatever, give them the academics they need but still give them the chance to grow up before throwing them in a college setting. [26:09] There are some specific schools for early entrance. I think it's Bard College at Slippery Rock. I believe the University of Chicago used to let the kids in early. It's going to vary with the child. But I think if your model is flexible and you're open to suggestions, that's the best. I don't think anything is written in stone.

[26:40] At this point, everything is set up for K-12. Generally speaking, it's served most people well. I wouldn't change it, but I would make it more flexible.

Jim: [26:53] Finally, what should the public schools be doing? You mentioned your early vision of Eagle being folded in or some relationships with the public schools. Today, certainly at a national level, there's a lot of rhetoric about charters and other models, [27:11] And yet as you pointed out, when you actually look at that in some detail, there are a lot of rules, models and things that come along with that and maybe it is not such a hot deal. So what should the public schools - what should we do as a society?
Mary: [27:27] Well, flexibility. And higher expectations of kids. I've been doing some tutoring in the after-school center and some other things. And not even at middle school level, they're not expecting to give kids any homework ,which I find appalling. [27:52] Yes, they are involved with each other and all this, but at thirteen, their mind is really good. And I think a lot more can be expected of kids. And I don't care where they're from or what their background is. If their background is such that they need more then they should be getting more, and they should be doing more at home.

[28:19] The inflexibility of many schools is unfortunate. I think they need to do cluster grouping. I think they need to be flexible in term of, OK, here's a group that's... Do a lot of more pre-testings to see what kids know and then teach to what's not known and give those kids who already got it something else in a cluster.

[28:48] And keep reforming those groups, because a lot of bright kids may miss things. They tune out because they're bored, or they've jumped in their knowledge but they've missed a little something along the way.

[29:02] So I thing pre-screening before you teach a unit, flexibility of grouping. There are a lot of things that can be done that don't require any money, but just attitude.

Jim: [29:13] Sure, exactly. It's leadership. So is it possible within public schools? Given your experiences, can these things occur? Or is it simply finding the right teacher who is willing to buck the system or the right principal? And then it happens. That insider knowledge, let's say.
Mary: [29:30] Oh, they can occur. They occur in many school systems. They occur in parts of Madison. But there is unfortunately a mentality where people who have tried to buck the system happen to be beaten down and so they then naysay anyone else doing it. [29:53] And it's true. You do that for a while and you get to be a naysayer. "Oh, we tried that before and it never worked." And I found near the end of my career I did a little of that myself. That doesn't mean it can't work with someone else.
Jim: [30:10] Right, right. Thank you, Mary.
Mary: [30:12] OK.

Transcription by CastingWords