One Stone: A Conversation with One Stone Leadership
Q&A 05 October 2017
By Teresa Poppen and Ashlee Greenwood and Neva Geisler and Chad Carlson
I believe kids have a marginalized voice in many aspects of society, and I wanted them to have a seat at the table in building their community.
Community Engagement Director
Q: How did you come to lead transformational work at One Stone?
Teresa: I spent 25 years in High Tech Marketing. I have no prior knowledge of the education space nor do I have any expertise in education. At one point, my husband and I started One Stone as a community based non-profit. It originated as a way to work with students to make them better leaders, so they can make the world a better place. This is still our mission today.
After starting as a non-profit, we realized a lot of the skills the students were developing and the transformations that were happening were resulting in the creation of young leaders. We knew we were great at delivering Power Skills—or 21st Century Skills—so building the knowledge component of high school on top of that just made sense.
We performed a lot of research on what could work within the student-driven culture that was present at One Stone. The five elements of Education Reimagined are exactly what we came up with to build this school, which is now just one of the programs we offer.
In addition to the high school, we offer Project Good—our service arm. We offer Two Birds, which is a student-led ad agency that is its own LLC. We have Solution Lab, where students can incubate their business ideas and launch them as young entrepreneurs. I came at all of this from a background that has nothing to do with education, but I think we have had a lot of success building from the ground up with students at the helm.
Helping students go out into the world, do good, and see the transformative impact it has on them and the people they served—to change their perception of service forever—is super gratifying for me.
Chief of Staff
Neva: I’m a fifth-generation Idahoan and I grew up in Boise. I have 20 years of experience working in the non-profit space, including some work at the higher education level. But, I also have no experience working in education. I came at all of this with a passion for community building and community development. I believe kids have a marginalized voice in many aspects of society, and I wanted them to have a seat at the table in building their community. Otherwise, I feel like we are ignoring and failing to harness this creativity and power that should be a part of the conversation.
Chad: I’ve been in education for 20 years, primarily with high school and middle school students in independent schools. But, I also have some experience working at the higher education level. About two years ago, just before joining One Stone, I started getting really frustrated with education and how it was working. I had great relationships with students and great experiences in the classroom, but outside of that, I could see kids getting more and more frustrated and feeling more and more pressure. They lacked agency. All of the schools I worked for claimed to focus on student-centered learning but not necessarily student-driven learning.
Learning about One Stone, it seemed like a great opportunity to reimagine education. To reimagine both how I and the students see education, so it becomes recognized as a viable vehicle for growth, rather than something they just had to do. That was my push into One Stone.
Ashlee: I also don’t have an education background. I have a degree in Business Management and Marketing. I never saw my path leading me to working with students. I started working with One Stone as the first official hire and immediately bought into the idea of student-driven learning and empowering students to follow their passions.
The reason I do this is the satisfaction I find in seeing students go through the discovery process of finding what they’re interested in tackling. Helping students go out into the world, do good, and see the transformative impact it has on them and the people they served—to change their perception of service forever—is super gratifying for me.
Q: What is One Stone’s hiring philosophy?
Teresa: It’s our collective mission to find staff who believe in students’ power and ability to create big change. As Neva expressed, we believe students are an under-heard voice, and we are all here to help them raise their voices.
We have a rigorous hiring practice that starts with the question, “Do you fit our culture?” If you don’t, the skills don’t matter. Student-driven doesn’t mean we listen to students and then do whatever it was we already planned on doing. Everyone in our building has equal voice. Not only do we want everyone to have equal voice, but we want everyone to feel comfortable and safe to use that voice and weigh in on anything.
Those initial students were creating for the students who would be coming in after them, even though they weren’t going to experience what they were creating. They were doing it for the benefit of others.
Executive Director, Co-Founder
It’s hard to find adults who can relate to kids as coach-to-student, as opposed to teacher-to-student. We don’t have teachers here. We’re all coaches—we are side-by-side with students, rather than in front of them.
When we’re looking for people, a number of us—including students—will interview them to evaluate fit-to-culture. We do everything leading with empathy. Are these potential hires empathetic—able to put themselves in the shoes of others?
Once we find people who are a fit-to-culture, we begin evaluating the skills they bring. It’s interesting, and I don’t know how it’s developed this way, but we have collected a staff who have a broad variety of skills, interests, and talents. We call it our mosaic of talent. People have brought in so many different pieces. Everyone’s encouraged to develop and share that.
Finally, the prospective applicants speak with our board and interview to determine the same elements of fit-to-culture, skills, and the individual’s multi-faceted nature.
Ashlee: The board plays an important part in being less emotionally attached to the process and person. We become so attached to these prospects. They can approach the conversation from an objective place, since it’s a first impression for them.
Neva: I think we’ve been able to attract outstanding talent in part because adults can show up to work as our authentic selves. Students talk about how it’s safe for them to be themselves, and as adults, we strive to model that behavior. I think people are dying for that in the professional world.
Teresa: To reflect on another question that comes to mind, I want to reiterate the level to which students are engaged here. Coming up with what this school was going to look like was driven by the students. That’s the level of involvement they have in everything we do. Those initial students were creating for the students who would be coming in after them, even though they weren’t going to experience what they were creating. They were doing it for the benefit of others.
Q: Given the important role learners play in all the work at One Stone, could you speak to their specific role in the hiring process and how much guidance they receive to perform that role well?
Teresa: Our students are very empowered and protective of the culture they’ve developed here. I think they’re surprisingly mature and have a lot of ownership in the process of talking to adults who come in. We don’t have to do much coaching on that. It’s an organic thing where students understand what they’re looking for in people who interact with them on a daily basis. What we find is they eventually no longer view us as adults. We become another person in the building. And, that’s what we want to happen—we want our hierarchical status as adults to disappear.
Chad: The way they approach adults who are already here is very natural, so it’s no different with new adults coming in. It’s also not a formal sit-down interview. It’s a discussion. And, sometimes the interview gets reversed where the adult begins asking the students questions and learning about their work at One Stone. The students learn whether or not they can relate with the person they’re speaking with and if the candidate has expressed genuine interest in them.
Q: With One Stone’s initial identity as a community service non-profit, it seems natural that the high school would continue to build on this open-walled approach. How are these community connections formed?
Chad: As far as community partnerships, it really comes down to identifying the students’ interests and passions and matching those up to organizations in the community. Last winter, we had 36 students looking for internships and job-shadowing opportunities for the summer, and we took five months matching them up with relevant organizations in the community.
We also have something called the Transformation Popper, or TPOP for short, where students start by identifying their interests and passions if pressure, money, and grades didn’t matter. If they could simply “do,” what would they do? We ask them to come up with 51 ideas, so they can get outside of what is obvious and break into what they really love to do. Then, we attempt to identify what they can get involved in or the experiences that would put those interests and passions into play, so they can discover what really drives that interest.
We have a student who’s really interested in joining the Air Force. And, I believe that indicates a broader interest in being a part of community, having a focus, and being a leader. With that, we’re trying to identify other careers that incorporate those interests, so he isn’t focused on only one path. We challenged him to explore Outdoor Leadership and work in the medical field, as well as to experience things like the Civil Air Patrol. Giving students experiences based on their passions and interests helps us identify potential partnerships out in the community.
The professors I work with at Boise State are very interested and want to get involved. They know this is where the future of education is headed.
Humanities Academic Coach, School Director
Teresa: Chad mentioned the number 51. We developed a One Stone concept called “51 it.” When you’re coming up with ideas, generally, your first 50 ideas are things everyone would come up with, and it’s not until you get to 51 that the innovative ideas start. Of course, it’s not the number of ideas that is important, it’s getting past the ideas everyone has already come up with and moving toward the crazy and uncomfortable.
The TPOP program helps students build a funnel for their passions and interests that allows them to, over time, say it is something they actually want to pursue or something that no longer holds their interest. Our goal, after three years of this, is for something to pop out at the bottom of the funnel that shows them a curation of their focused interests and lets them identify their passions in life. We know this is a powerful addition to their toolbox for life.
Neva: In another way, sometimes students know what they want, but they’re unfamiliar with the community. We can then help them identify a partner. If the partner is new to One Stone, we set up time to share more about what we do. Sometimes, the involvement of an adult is really helpful in getting a foot in the door.
We work with many people and organizations. And, given this work has been going on since 2008, we have a strong track record of success. If a partner has never worked with us before, our reputation, more often than not, allows a partnership to form quickly.
Chad: We have people who just walk in off the street and want to learn about the school. For example, the professors I work with at Boise State are very interested and want to get involved. They know this is where the future of education is headed.
Teresa: We also have companies that will come to us and our students with a problem. Our students set up design thinking workshops to help those companies solve the problem. We do a lot of that. We’ve been doing design thinking since the beginning of One Stone—it just didn’t have a name. As we converged with the work happening at Stanford, we noticed that was exactly what we were doing. We’ve done a lot of work with the Stanford d.school and other high schools pursuing similar work.
Q: From all your years with One Stone, what is your favorite learner story?
Neva: When the school first opened, we had talked about being a radically different school with no textbooks, no grades, and no classes. And, when we first opened, we also had no building. We were really fortunate to be hosted by the community for the first couple of months.
Five of those weeks were spent at the College of Innovation and Design at Boise State University. We had one student, Jared, who was singularly interested in music at the time. He spent most of the day walking around playing air guitar, wearing sunglasses (indoors), and wearing his Metallica shirt. He was totally pushing my buttons. Here we were trying to develop this relationship with the college, and I was getting really frustrated with this kid, who I didn’t think was putting his best foot forward.
When we moved into our space, the facility wasn’t entirely finished. We have a really rich maker-space that we call The Foundry, but when we moved in, none of the machines were put together. One of our coaches asked the kids to help and teach each other how to use the equipment. During this phase, Jared discovered coding.
In just one year, he went from a student who would have probably fallen through the cracks at the large high school he would have attended to someone who is engaged and using real-world application in his work.
Community Engagement Director
I have never seen someone fall in love with coding the way that Jared did. I’ve come to learn that coding and music have a lot of overlap. And, it felt as though once he fell in love with coding, he kind of took his sunglasses off and said, “What else is out there that I could learn?” He just caught fire. He was hungry to learn everything. He went from this student who was playing air guitar—totally disengaged—to this learner wanting to dive into the academics and understand how One Stone operated at a bigger level.
He wanted to learn how to write a grant and understand how we were funded. He developed a proposal for One Stone to buy some guitars, so kids who didn’t own them could learn how to play. He was already teaching classes before that point. Then, he developed a proposal to have a student-led and directed recording studio. We had a room that was previously a music room, but he convinced us to transform it into Ripple Studios (for all your sound recording needs).
Over time, he asked how he could become a member of the board, and this summer, he was elected to be a board member. In just one year, he went from a student who would have probably fallen through the cracks at the large high school he would have attended to someone who is engaged and using real-world application in his work.
Chad: I have many stories, but one of them is about my daughter. She’s in her second year at One Stone. Before coming, she was muddling through school, and while still successful, she wasn’t happy. Her experience at One Stone has transformed her outlook on education and what she is capable of. She has found control and direction in her life. She’s found reason in what she’s doing.
My wife and I have seen a huge change in her disposition—how she is at home and how she relates to her sisters. She’ll be at home on Sundays, excited to go back to school on Monday. In late August, she’ll talk about how she can’t wait for school to start. She loves to be here; she loves learning; she loves the relationships she has with her coaches. It’s been really cool.
Her sisters see it, too. They give her a hard time about how much time she spends here. Now my other daughter is starting to get involved and my eight-year-old is like, “Oh great, another one is going.”
Another quick story: Last year, one student got involved in a couple of different independent learning projects we were doing. And, his big ah-ha moment was: “I never saw myself as a creative person, and now I see that in myself.” There is this change in outlook of who they are and what they can do. To me, that’s been so profound. That’s the key to agency, when they see themselves as drivers of their vehicle and can discover skills they never knew they had because they weren’t previously allowed to express them, articulate them, or build on them in a standardized experience.
Ashlee: Working on admissions with these kids, I see them come in uncertain about what this new thing is and why they want to be here. And, two years later, we joke around about how it’s not the same 30 kids we interviewed. It’s crazy to see their shift in mindset when they are provided with opportunities they never knew existed before.
Q: What does One Stone hope to accomplish in the next five years?
Teresa: We focus on knowledge, creativity, skills, and mindsets in order to deliver to students the whole toolkit they need to take out and use for life. It isn’t about a bunch of facts and figures stuffed in their heads. We realize, and I have seen it in our research, that the changes in the way the world works are going to require students to have a lot more skills. We didn’t need these skills as much in the past, but we need them now. That’s what we hope to accomplish in the future.
The next time you talk to us, we won’t look the same. We are constantly iterating our work based on the needs of our students and the needs of the world. We see ourselves “forging an army of good for good.” Our “small” vision is to change the world. That’s what we’re here to do.
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