SEEQS: A Conversation with Buffy Cushman-Patz

Q&A   05 April 2018
By Buffy Cushman-Patz, SEEQS


We need to build mechanisms that allow us to better share our work with each other and not feel competitive about who is doing things “better” for their kids.

Buffy Cushman-Patz
School Leader

Q: What path led you to starting your own learning environment, SEEQS?

A: I began my career as a geologist, but it was my experience as a teacher that made me feel limited about what I was able to do in my classroom. I was teaching chemistry, physics, and algebra, and I felt the real connections with kids happened around the things that are outside of a pure disciplinary content area—connections happen around what make us human, not the content we digest.

I was frustrated by what I was limited to doing and not doing in the classroom. And, it wasn’t a problem with the particular school I was in; it was a problem with the concept of school and how we practice it. I decided to see if I could make a difference at a different level of education. I came to Washington, DC for a year as an Einstein Fellow to get an idea of what was happening in education policy. I learned pretty quickly that isn’t where real change happens. Real change happens at the school level. However, the Einstein Fellowship exposed me to a lot of best practices and really great teachers, which built my confidence and validated my beliefs in how kids learn best.

From that experience, I decided I wanted to design a school. I joined a school leadership program that helped me hone my ideas about what a great school looks like, including best practices and the latest research. While I was in the program, I pulled together a board and individuals who were willing to go in on this new school project with me. That’s when the original charter group application came together.

Q: What would you like to see at the policy level that would better enable programs like SEEQS to become more common and spreadable?

A: In Hawai’i, at our state level, charter schools are the environments where innovation can most freely take place. Innovation can happen in any school, but in Hawai’i, charters provide the opportunity for the whole school to be based on an innovative idea rather than an idea only being implemented at the classroom level by a single educator.

To better support this effort, Hawai’i’s charter schools need to better serve as the research and development arm of public schools. We need to build mechanisms that allow us to better share our work with each other and not feel competitive about who is doing things “better” for their kids. At SEEQS, we have a small school that can change direction on a dime, whereas a major public district doesn’t have that flexibility. We can be the ones to figure out what works and what doesn’t and communicate that out.



All of the testing and accountability stuff makes you focus on not letting your kids fail, rather than letting them accelerate, innovate, and succeed.

Buffy Cushman-Patz
School Leader

Right now, the way we share is by inviting others to view our program. We currently give between three to five tours per week. Person-to-person—that’s how learning works. We’re okay with doing it this way, but it’s a lot of work and slow moving. However, it’s the work we want to do. We want this learning available to all kids, not just the 180 we currently serve.

When it comes to helping folks actually implement a new model of learning down the road, it’s pretty difficult to provide that assistance. That’s why we put so much information on our website. We’re always happy to share our work, but our time is always the most limited resource. It’s also important to note, we use our website internally as a reminder about the work we do and how each element of our work is moving us in the right direction. We use it as our check and balance. Once you find yourself among the trees, you can lose sight of the forest. What’s on our website is our forest—we have to make sure we remember what our forest is.

In terms of federal policy, the biggest thing they could do is stop making rules about what we need to do in our schools. It’s about less policy, not more. All of the testing and accountability stuff makes you focus on not letting your kids fail, rather than letting them accelerate, innovate, and succeed.

One of the challenges as a teacher is that you can get so focused on the kids who aren’t succeeding that you can forget to pay attention to the “good” kids that also deserve attention. Since they’re doing “fine,” you don’t have to give them attention. That can happen at a school level when you have a federal policy that says just make sure your kids don’t fall below “this.” This happens rather than creating opportunities to enable and support the innovative work that goes above and beyond the low expectation.


We say that school is needed for kids to be prepared for life, so why not get them prepared in school itself and not have them figure it out once school is over. I wanted to drive from the thing that we really care about.

Buffy Cushman-Patz
School Leader

For those of us who were successful in school growing up, whatever we found in the way of innovation, we either had the motivation to seek it out ourselves or our parents helped us along the way. The challenge in equaling the playing field for all kids in public schools is providing each child access to those opportunities within the learning environment itself. That means not spending so much time worrying about test scores. When it comes to assessing learning, it’s important to remember that just because something is hard to measure doesn’t mean it’s not worth measuring. That’s one of the biggest challenges we need to overcome.

Q: SEEQS has their tours led by learners. What gives learners the confidence and ability to lead these tours?

A: As soon as we started getting kids to give these tours, we discovered how charming they were, and more importantly, how powerful it is to hear it from their point of view. We’ve had a couple of years to build this part of our program. The learners volunteer to participate and fill out a short application answering why they want to be a school ambassador. They must get permission from their teachers since they will be pulled out of class quite frequently for 30-60 minutes at a time.

We do training for them so they know the content every tour should cover; we provide them with some prompts to get them started. But, what gives them the confidence is simple—they’re living it. It’s like someone asking questions about your family. You can answer those questions really easily because you know your family. It’s not hard for them. It’s fun.

Of course, the more you talk about something, the more fluent you become in what you’re talking about. I sit in on the full tour about a third of the time and will pop my head in periodically during others, so the kids can hear how I speak about the program and use similar language moving forward. If they say something that might come out a little convoluted, I’ll summarize it if I see the adults aren’t quite processing what’s being said, and I’ll hear the kids use that language during their next tour. It’s a learning process for the students, and we all become better stewards of what we’re doing. Our eighth-grade ambassadors could run the school at this point.

Q: What’s one of your favorite learner stories since SEEQS opened?

A: There are two particular eighth-graders, since they first came here as sixth-graders, who have continuously used their Essential Questions on Sustainability (EQS) time to explore how plastics affect the environment. In particular, they’ve taken an interest in plastic straws. They were shown a video one time where they saw a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose, and it was really powerful for them. Since then, they have been on a mission to help reduce the use of plastic straws in restaurants.

Last year, these students went to a local California Pizza Kitchen and pitched a well-thought-out, well-documented presentation to the restaurant’s manager about how they could reduce their use of straws by simply asking customers if they wanted a straw with their drink, instead of automatically providing one. The manager agreed and changed the restaurant’s practice.

This same group of students has gone to the state capital to give testimony on issues of sustainability. One of our students, Lucy, has gone half a dozen times in the last three years. She’s an experienced advocate for issues about banning plastics and styrofoam. These issues come up in our legislature year after year because we live on an island and people genuinely care. When you see the trash that gets washed up on our shores every day, you can’t ignore it.

Q: Given that SEEQS has a focus on sustainability, do you see any commonalities in the type of families that are attracted to your model?

A: Less than you would think. Maybe 25% of our families are drawn to our school because of the sustainability focus. There are so many things that people look for when searching for the right school for their child. Sometimes they are attracted to SEEQS because of its small size; others are most attracted to the project-based learning; some like the location; and some are just looking for something different. There are many different reasons.

I would say the most involved parents are in it for the sustainability side of things, and the new parents who come for that reason are surprised there aren’t more parents as interested in that aspect. What’s important to us is that the students are getting that exposure and not in a brainwashing way.

We don’t go around telling every kid they must recycle, recycle, recycle—do this, don’t do this. We’re not about teaching specific environmental practices. We’re about digging deeply into these issues.

We say that school is needed for kids to be prepared for life, so why not get them prepared in school itself and not have them figure it out once school is over. I wanted to drive from the thing that we really care about.

My school leadership program was in Boston and I specifically remember my mentor principal asking, “Why sustainability? Nobody is going to be into that.” I told him “Yes, in Hawai’i they will be,” and they totally are. I’ve lived in this community for 20 years. We have to care about things like sea-level rise. It’s not hypothetical. It’s happening. We have plastic debris on all of our beaches. You can see the environmental impact every day here, and it’s a little overwhelming. I knew our community would buy-in to thinking about these issues.

Q: What is SEEQS in hot pursuit of to expand their work?

A: High school. We were chartered to be a 6-12 charter. Seeing Lucy (for example) finish eighth grade as a strong, powerful advocate—as someone who knows who she is and someone who loves to learn—I would love to be able to foster that for four more years. When I look at Emma Gonzalez and others from the March For Our Lives movement, I see my kids in those kids. I see how they could be strong advocates for their environment and for their learning in years to come if they got to stick with us for four more years. That’s what we’re in hot pursuit of.

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