CESA Schools as Innovation Incubators

The teacher shortage was on my mind more than normal coming out of the COVID pandemic. Front and center with the Vail Christian High School strategic plan were the words ‘Product Superiority’ with Goal #1 reading ‘Recruit, Retain, and Grow Top Faculty,’ and it was the right time to double down on our efforts to ‘retain and grow.’

As I thought about our strategic plan, our place in history, and the arc of my career, I found myself thinking even more about our veteran faculty. What do they need to remain in the profession? What unique professional development opportunities would help them grow? And maybe more importantly, is there a way to measure the correlation between their professional development and student achievement? I wanted to leverage what I had learned in my career and the great work happening in our peer schools, so we got to work.

Faculty Innovation Grants

As a young high school principal, our school had a faculty ‘mini-grant’ program which often simply meant underwriting summer travel for teachers. It was a great opportunity for teachers, but I wanted to have a more robust grant program that could possibly even measure impact on teacher retention and student achievement. I wanted to see a program that engaged faculty to continue to grow, to pursue their passions, and multiply their gifts across our community.

I first turned to top-tier universities to learn about their faculty innovation grants. With that research in hand, I then turned to top-tier K-12 private schools to learn about their programs. And so I reached out to the CESA Member of Council network. After all, a core part of CESA’s mission is ‘collaboration with like-minded schools’ and professional development is a major part of CESA Standard 4: Academic and Programmatic Distinction. So why reinvent the wheel when the wheel likely already existed with peer schools? I sent a note out to the CESA heads listserv, and the next day Dean Nicholas, Head of School at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (CHCA), emailed me. He had a well-established faculty innovation grant program and provided me with all of their resources. Leveraging the examples from CHCA and a few universities, we customized a Vail Christian High School (VCHS) Faculty Innovation Grant program to match our unique culture and context.

In seeking donor funding, we explained our ‘why’ this way.

The Faculty Innovation Grant program will impact two groups. First, Vail Christian High School students will experience richer and stronger academic preparation increasing their academic achievement in high school, at the college level, and beyond. Second, especially for our experienced faculty, the grants will not only address a deep desire they have for continual learning and growth but also assist our school in retaining our most talented faculty. Experienced faculty need a special type of professional development like this to increase their motivation and desire to remain in the teaching profession.

With our faculty, the VCHS Faculty Innovation Grant program was rolled out with this overview, selection criteria, and grant examples.

Overview: We seek to promote the most distinguished ideas for teaching and learning and showcase that excellence in a way that benefits the entire school community. The VCHS faculty and students are the school's most important assets. To ensure we provide our students with the very best Christian education possible, we must regularly invest in our faculty. This will provide our faculty with the resources to pursue highly customized, professional research and development growth opportunities that will enable them to innovate their instructional practices and curriculum with the goal to improve student achievement.

Selection Criteria: Faculty Innovation Grant applications should be highly creative and original, and innovate the teaching and student learning experience. Faculty successfully completing their grant work will address at least two of the following:

  1. Expertise: Improve your knowledge and skills in your particular subject matter
  2. Engagement: Better engage students in your classroom, including those from different backgrounds and ability levels
  3. Innovation: Demonstrate innovation in teaching, particularly in ways that provide your students with knowledge and skills that directly enhance their career paths
  4. Faith Integration: Deepen the integration of Christian faith with your teaching and in what students learn
  5. Sustainability: Create sustainable and replicable solutions for your students, other faculty, and other schools so that they may benefit from your grant over many years

Grant Examples:

  • New type of applied learning experience outside the classroom
  • New use of technology to enhance student learning, including experimental or unusual instructional equipment
  • New program to increase student engagement
  • New initiative to enhance the level of faculty-student collaboration on research
  • New online or blended learning course
  • Student and faculty visits to field sites, industrial facilities, and cultural centers
  • Design new courses or substantially redesign existing courses (content of and/or instructional approaches)

If Dean Nicholas and his team read the above descriptions and think it sounds familiar, it’s because it is. And it’s a complement to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy that a school in Colorado is leveraging their work to influence even more faculty (and students). That’s the beauty of the CESA network – ‘collaboration with like-minded schools’ who more likely than not do not compete in the same geographic marketplace.

Over the last two rounds, VCHS Faculty Innovation Grants have supported the following:

  • Art of Business: A Communication Design Agency (new course)
  • Learning Differences and Neurodiversity
  • Filmmaking Learning Center
  • Greenhouse – Community Health/Food Sustainability
  • Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics
  • Narrative Focused Trauma Care
  • Restorative Practices for Educators
  • Experience Salamanca
  • Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement

With these grants up and running, the VCHS Faculty Innovation Grants kickstarted another aspect of tapping the CESA Member of Council innovation reservoir. With the greenhouse, I encouraged Sarah Hochtl (VCHS Science) to include in the grant a site visit to a CESA school that might already have a model program in place. With her grant request, she not only submitted a budget to fund the costs for teachers to travel but also included costs for students to travel – in fact, four of her students.

School Visits

For me, the lightbulb went off. Yes, students should be part of the design process when our school is in innovation mode! Sarah Hochtl researched a few CESA schools with greenhouses and food sustainability initiatives and let me know that a site visit to Faith Lutheran in Las Vegas would be an ideal match. I called Steve Buuck, Head of School at Faith Lutheran, and he graciously invited our large team to spend a few days on his campus.

During the visit, the team attended a Botany class, spent hours in the greenhouse learning about the different hydroponic systems used to grow food, toured the campus, and learned about student STEM research projects. Sarah shared, “I can’t wait to implement some of what we learned.” And she did implement, and her students did too. Within months, a new greenhouse was built on our campus along with all of the accompanying environmental initiatives, all with a little Faith Lutheran DNA sprinkled in. 

Building upon the visit to Faith Lutheran, I offered a challenge for all VCHS faculty – scour the websites of CESA Member of Council schools; find something that a school is doing that you really like and think would innovate your work and bolster student achievement; and let’s work together to see if we can make a school visit with some of your students happen.

Ashley Nock (VCHS Theology) was first to take me up on that offer. She was thinking deeply about how to reshape her Senior Theology course to make it a memorable and impactful capstone experience. She scanned all of the CESA Member of Council school websites and was deeply impressed with The First Academy’s (Orlando) senior thesis signature program.

Last spring, she travelled with three juniors to The First Academy (Orlando) and were warmly welcomed by Head of School Steve Whitaker. The team was able to observe senior thesis presentations – an opportunity for students to study an area of interest and to defend their faith from an academic perspective. This school year, the senior thesis is a core part of the VCHS senior theology experience, thanks to The First Academy’s brainchild.

This month, applications for a third round of VCHS Faculty Innovation Grants will be submitted. And whether through the grant program or regular professional development funding, I continue to encourage our faculty to visit CESA schools, and to do it with a group of their students. This program has been transformative for our school community, and we are starting to see signs that the impact is growing beyond our campus through the Vail Valley and beyond.  As I think about my role at VCHS, I want to let the reins loose and let my fast horses really run.  This grant program has shown me how transformational this kind of leadership can be.

CESA school leaders have rich professional development experiences at the annual Symposium and other CESA events. At VCHS, we are extending that rich CESA network to our faculty and students, and we love the impact we see.



soSince 2016, Steve has served as Head of School at Vail Christian High School (CO). For over 30 years, he has held leadership, teaching and coaching positions at Westminster Schools of Augusta (GA), Haven of Peace Academy (Tanzania), Minnehaha Academy (MN), Regis Jesuit High School (CO), and Denver Academy (CO). He has been involved with the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability since its founding in 2010, was a Charter School member, and served on its Executive Board for 6 years.


Share this post:

Comments on "CESA Schools as Innovation Incubators"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment