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The Q&A: Ted Graf

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Ted Graf, the head of school at Headwaters School in Austin.

Ted Graf is the head of school at Headwaters School.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Ted Graf is the head of school at Headwaters School. Formerly known as Khabele School, Headwaters is an independent school with three Austin locations that serves kids from 18 months to grade 12. In late August, Headwaters announced that it is rebranding and changing the focus of its approach with a name change. Graf joined Headwaters School in July 2015.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Can you briefly explain the history of the school and how it got to where it is today?

Ted Graf: The Khabele School was founded in 2001 and Primavera Montessori was founded in 2002. Both schools were founded in response to the attacks on 9/11 after parts of the community came together.

However, the founders at each campus founded the schools independently. In 2011, the schools found each other and merged since they had a lot of cultural pieces, namely an emphasis on strong school culture, student voice and peace education, in common. The merge resulted in what we have now, which is a three-campus school serving 538 students ages two to 18.

The merger has resulted in a stronger, deeper program for kids and a linkage from the youngest learners all the way up to middle and high school students. In many ways, while the merger happened in the span of time from the 2011-2012 school year, it was never really completed. Through strategic planning and a search for a head, we found that in this moment we could complete the merger and fully unite the three campuses.

Trib+Edu: Why did the name change come about and what motivated the decision to do it?

Graf: The name change has been in process since the merger in 2011. Primavera Montessori and Khabele came together, but at that point they didn’t come together in such a way that a completely new entity was formed. We’re a young nonprofit institution, and we have gone through phases of evolution and change.

After five years and a number of steps, we now find ourselves in a place with me as the new head trying to hold all three campuses, trying to understand what’s great about the program on all three campuses and then planning with the community to really capture what we think is the essence of the school.

Trib+Edu: Why was Headwaters chosen as the new name for the school?

Graf: What we started with before we decided names was our foundational language. Typically, that would be expressed in a mission or a vision; however, for us that’s expressed in a purpose, a promise and our set of principles.

Since last January, we’ve been talking about what holds the school together and its essence. As a new head of school with fresh eyes, I observed what was happening on all three campuses. I visited every teacher’s classroom at least once during the year and I was keenly aware of what was happening in those classrooms.

One of the things that really stood out to me is that this school is really gifted at working with students and supporting students as they form their identities. There’s something special about the way teachers interact with kids, follow the leads of kids and pay attention to help kids blossom and become their true selves.

What we were trying to capture in the name was that really special core of the school. We felt like Headwaters, metaphorically, was this notion that educational journeys of the self begin at this primal spot, and we felt like Headwaters and all the imagery and language that comes with it really expresses what we’re trying to do as a school. That is, to take each kid, accept them fully for who they are and help them live into that and become even more truly themselves.

Trib+Edu: How will this new chapter for the school impact both students and faculty?

Graf: Faculty are as excited and rooted in this new foundational language as anyone I’ve ever seen. Our principles are organic and are true to what the school has represented in its 15 years of life, particularly this notion I mentioned about identity formation.

We guide our students to live authentically, think expansively and create bravely. Our teachers don’t want to tell students what to think or how to think, they want to guide them in discovering what matters to them. The faculty is aligned in a way that makes me very proud and really excited about this next chapter in the school year.

Some of the students are really excited and over the moon, but some of the students are skeptical. They have questions about why the change and why now, and we’re trying to engage them and be honest with them about how we came about to this moment. We honor and respect student voice in all kinds of different ways on all three campuses.

Trib+Edu: Can you briefly explain your background and philosophy on education?

Graf: I began teaching at Chinquapin School outside of Houston where I taught English for three years. After that, I moved to the Northeast to do work at a nonprofit and went to graduate school at Brown University. I was a full-time teacher for a long time and I was also a poet, but eventually I migrated toward leadership positions in schools.

I had a curricular role at one point, I was director of studies, I became what’s called an upper school head in private schools, the head of a small school in Vermont and then a larger high school in Chicago.

Then I went out into the marketplace and found this fascinating place that was then called Khabele. I didn’t imagine moving back to Texas, but I came down and was pretty enchanted by the place, the culture and the commitment the faculty has to the kids. Things ended up working out for me and my family, and we haven’t looked back.

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