Event Debrief: NPEA Conference 2015

It's often sunny in Philadelphia.

It’s often sunny in Philadelphia.

I had a spectacular time at the National Partnership for Educational Access conference in Philadelphia. Although it was pricey (over $500 for non-members for a two-day conference!), it was one of the most high-value conferences I’ve ever attended. Here are some highlights.

  • If you want to make it cheaper, try throwing in less food. This was by far the most well fed I’ve ever been at a conference. There were full breakfasts both days (including hot eggs, bacon, sausage, pastries, and all the cereal and granola and yogurt you could eat), full plated lunches during the keynotes served by a legion of waiters, a giant snack buffet between sessions with build-your-own trail mix and all the coffee and soda you could drink, plus an evening reception with one free drink ticket per person and a raft of passed hors d’oeuvres and other snacks. While the plentiful food definitely kept people on-site at the conference instead of seeking their meals elsewhere, this seemed like a really easy way to scale back the cost of the conference. It felt downright lavish to have all that stuff, and I think a similar level of comfort and hospitality could have come at a cheaper, simpler cost.
  • Learn this today, use it tomorrow. This was maybe the most practical conference I’ve ever been to. I love attending conferences to get inspired, which is what the keynotes are for. The sessions at NPEA were all about the most practical, day-to-day work of running an organization that connects kids to educational opportunities. It was all about the details, from strategic questions (“What strategies should you use to reach out to college students who’ve graduated from your program?”) to practical considerations (“When you’re checking in with a student after they’ve done something wrong, what do you say?”) to big-picture considerations (“How do we make Latina girls feel like they belong in an independent school?”). A lot of conferences I’ve attended — actually, all of them, come to think of it — focus a lot on asking questions and taking stock of the state of affairs in whatever domain is at stake for that particular group. NPEA was all about solutions you can take home and use in your program tomorrow. That really appealed to me. Even though those sessions may not have set out to be explicitly inspiring, I felt inspired and encouraged that I was armed with practical, actionable information to help kids succeed.
  • I saw two spectacular speakers who I could listen to for another ten hours. I watched/participated in an excellent workshop by Alison Park of Blink Consulting and Nonoko Sato of SMART, and it was maybe the best conference session I’ve ever been to. In general, I hate audience participation and any activity that involves “turn to your neighbor and share.” I’ve come to listen; don’t make me talk to people. This workshop was different though: it was a thoughtful, funny, provocative look at diversity and how we perceive, honor, and interact with difference in our schools and in our selves. It was just spectacular and I only wish I’d taken better notes. If you have a chance to see either of these presenters in person, run, don’t walk. They’re dynamic presenters and their message is critically important to the work we do in schools.
  • I love ASAP. I had the pleasure of attending the conference with my colleagues from the Athletic Scholars Advancement Program at Mission High School. Their three core staff members all attended and sat in on as many conferences as humanly possible over the course of the two days. Liz, Amanda, and Simone do wonderful work with the students of ASAP, and it was humbling and inspiring to know that the good work people shared at this conference can inspire and spur on further great things at ASAP. Most tangibly, ASAP won a scholarship for a student to attend a great summer program at Johns Hopkins this summer! But on a broader scale, it was exciting to see all of these organizations and to see that none of them are quite like this remarkably warm, welcoming, and innovative program from San Francisco. I’m prouder than ever to volunteer with this great organization and its amazing students.
  • One set of ears, many ways to listen. I told the ASAP folks that I felt I was listening with many perspectives. I was there most immediately as a representative of an independent school, but I was also listening as a volunteer (with ASAP), as a public media creator (for WQED), and as an edtech enthusiast (for Graphite). The independent school piece was closest to my heart, though, since I attended the conference thinking of “access” not only for students who are at-risk for social or economic reasons but also for kids for whom disability status makes access an issue. Some of the issues these nonprofits face with their students can map well to the feelings we see in kids with learning differences in college-prep schools, especially feelings of being exceptional (not in a good way) and isolated. With a learning difference, a child’s difference isn’t visible, but it still can have a huge impact on their social and emotional life at school. I liked listening with that in mind, and it really challenged me to consider how a person in my position can help lead the a program to build kids’ self advocacy skills and to shape an inclusive school culture that embraces and celebrates students’ differences.
  • Independent schools are doing it right. NYU Professor Joshua Aronson gave a keynote that knocked my socks off, and one point he cited impressed me. He said that the schools that do best — meaning their students test well, whatever that means — aren’t those that focus on compliance or discipline or conformity. Instead, the schools that do best are those that focus on honoring and cultivating the individual. Jesuit schools, he said, where the focus is on developing the whole person and honoring the individual’s personal growth. I’d argue that, had they been studied, schools in the Network of Sacred Heart Schools and a certain independent Episcopalian school in southwest Houston would have borne out the same result. The characteristics he ticked off about the characteristics of a nurturing school environment sounded a lot like the charism of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the traditions of St. Thomas Episcopal School. It made me prouder than ever to have worked in those two wonderful communities.
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