Hampstead Hill Academy – Interview with Principal Hornbeck

Recently we visited with Principal Matthew Hornbeck at Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore, one of our long-term partners in the city. Their students have done everything from our one-day Insight programs to the Police Youth Challenge, and even our week-long wilderness expeditions. In fact, Principal Hornbeck is a multiple time alumnus of Outward Bound, so having the chance to talk with him about how our character education programs integrate into the HHA school culture was a lot of fun.

Hampstead Hill Academy is unique to the list of schools we serve in that they have a robust range of internal character, leadership, and service focused initiatives. On the surface, it might appear that their school has all the tools they need to develop their students, but as Hornbeck sees it, Outward Bound plays an integral role in making all the parts come together.

We’re honored to work with such a forward-thinking Principal, and the dedicated staff at Hampstead Hill as they remain committed to their mission:

Hampstead Hill seeks to be a safe, nurturing, diverse, family-friendly neighborhood school with rigorous, effective academic programs and exciting, engaging, extracurricular activities. We believe all parents want the same thing for their children: more and better opportunities for college and career. We believe in the importance of the arts, and we want our students to be great communicators, listeners, and writers. Our students will be forward thinkers, persistent, responsible, caring, dependable and healthy members of the greater community.


Watch / read below for the video and Q&A with Principal Matthew Hornbeck and our Marketing Director, Ben Worden.


Worden: What I think is unique to what you guys do is you have all these incentive programs and other initiatives that are built around some of the same outcomes that we are trying to develop in youth; character, leadership, service, and you’re doing that across a variety of things with restorative circles, the leaders go places, the builders club. So tell me about that.

Hornbeck: So our leaders go places program has five core promises that the kids try to live by. To contribute to the common good, to conduct myself with honor and integrity, to produce quality work to make no excuses and to persevere. All of this is sort of a recipe for success whether you’re a principal, a marketing director, a kid or anybody. Those promises would be applicable to Outward Bound experiences as well as conduct as a student in school. I think that a lot of our core values are expressed in those five promises and you can see it in Outward Bound, our work with other partners like North Bay, you can see it in our work with Planned Parenthood, you can see it in our work with the Autobahn Society of Maryland. Having experiences, connecting with the world around you and the people around you to build a community is really the key ingredient to creating a school that people want to visit. I mean I practically skip to school every day and even after fourteen years, I just love it. I have what you call flow when you wake up and you’re like "whoa what happened to the day" after work and just an outstanding blend, it’s the best blend of policy and direct service that you could possibly imagine.  I’m able to take what the curriculum people and the school district and best practices say you should do and then figure out how to actually do it. And we’ve got a staff of one-hundred people a staff of extraordinarily smart people who work with eight hundred kids every day and I can geek out on it a little bit but it’s thrilling to be able to have an impact on people’s lives. You know we have a mission and a vision, the sense of joy that is part of the mission statements of lots of schools would be hard to define because everybody kind of knows joy when they see it, but it's hard to artificially manufacture it and still stay focused on the core mission, reading, writing, and math; making sure kids are getting into great high schools. Also, that they can synthesize information and present things, the executive function skills that are needed for life.

The work with Outward Bound, the work with Restorative Practices, the trips we take with Leaders Go Places, all of those things begin to pile up in a good way and really build what you can define as character friendship or community. When those things are happening and kids are having those experiences it makes it much easier to get to the teaching and learning. Dozens of after school clubs like Lego Robotics and Chess; lots of drama & theater, orchestra, and band with ninety kids.

I think that lots of the arts and lots of outdoor experiences feed the soul and so those are the things that we remember, we remember the people and we remember the experiences that we have, while you still need to make sure hitting benchmarks for information that you need to move on in math. For example, if you want to take calculus senior year in high school you have to back-map that and take Algebra 1 in eighth grade. There is a defined amount of stuff you have to know to get to there and you can look at that in any content area and go all the way down to Pre-K or Pre-school. I do think it’s very important though that you have what some people would view as extracurricular, but we view as core-work.

Lots of kids have a very provincial experience in their lives, I mean there are kids here around this school who’s entire childhoods would be spent in the sixteen blocks surrounding the school and so it's great for them to see a much broader world out there. I didn’t get to see a college like Bodine College till I went to college…

So you’re saying there is a noticeable value to students having experiences that happen outside of the school? Like giving them something they can bring back and improve their learning experience here?

Yeah, the Superintendent in Baltimore City, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises talks about the “whole child” and we have been working on that for many years here so that we're not just focused on feeding, caring for, keeping safe or just teaching kids how to read/write. There are the experiences that make them good people and well-rounded people, people who appreciate the outdoors, and people who understand how we're all connected. We have  an incredibly diverse school so we’re about 40% Latin, 40% White, 20% African American and we have about a 70% free & reduced lunch eligibility rate

The Outward-Bound work is so wonderful because it pushes students outside of their comfort zone and really tests some of the patterns and routines that they’ve established in terms of the building back up of confidence and, I’m sure you’ll do interviews with your leaders, but they all have expressed a variation of that and there is sort of a breaking down and building up happening in terms  of extreme or moderate. Not everybody is pulling their hair out and crying through the course but there is always some cycle there.

One thing we talk about a lot, and it relates to a lot of things you’re talking about, is failure. I'm wondering your take on how you or the school approaches failure, facilitating failure and how you talk about that with the kids?

So, with the 8th Grade closing, I read a couple of quotes and one of them is from Michael Jordan. I don’t know if I have it handy, it’s a great quote that talks about how he’s been given the opportunity to shoot the winning shot 29 times in his career and missed; it talks about how often he’s failed and here is someone who’s the greatest athlete many people think ever lived talking all about his failures. There is also an apparently ancient saying that says ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight’. I think that failure is a part of life and you can certainly learn from it and adjust. It’s that reflection and adjustment that is, whether you’re a teacher, a principal, or a student, or a mom, or a dad. It’s that ability to reflect and adjust based on success or failure…

One other thing I say is that neither success nor failure is ever final and that being a good student, or parent, or family member is something that you have to work at. It’s a variation on that notion that there is magic and beauty in the journey and that you’re not ever truly there. I think that failure is important, I mean there is a more concrete failure like ‘these kids failing this class, have we done everything we can to support the kid, and are the adults in his life, at home and school, going to let him fail. Usually, if the kid is failing it has more to do with adult decisions at home and school along with relationships at school and home, more so, than it has to do with the kid not being able to learn the content. So, that’s an important piece of our work here is to make sure that students are learning and that they’re not doing work just to do work to get a grade, but that the work means something. So we have a lot of conversations here about what homework means, how long homework should take and why it’s important that we are transparent.

I don’t like surprises, for kids, parents, or staff. Anybody who, I’m sure in any workplace, you don’t want them to come in and say “hey your boss is leaving in two days” or “hey there will be no pay raise this coming year”, “that thing we said we were going to do, we're not going to do it”. You want to stay ahead of the calendar along with the planning of the policy enough so that you are working from a relative position of consensus and that you are respecting all staff members and all students in a school the way that you would want to be treated.

We don’t want failure to be a surprise, most often, a test or a quiz, or the way Outward Bound Programs are structured, there is a reward. It’s not set up to fail kids. It should be set up to say “okay we’re going to learn this stuff, now we’re going to take a quiz and show everything we’ve learned” and everybody got a ninety or above, awesome. We are going to do the prep we need from parent information sessions to packing, planning and prep meetings with teachers…

I appreciate Outward bound because it really makes an effort at education, the people are outstanding. Everyone I’ve interacted with has such a smart, mission driven, focused, altruistic perspective on the work that we think is a budgetary bargain for the small amount per pupil that we contribute, which only offsets the much much larger investment that Outward Bound and its partners makes in our school and kids. The package of experiences that the kids have has been universally beneficial, really memorable, and changes lives for the better. And I think I see that both in my own experiences and through the eyes of the kids who have participated in Outward Bound over the years from Hampstead Hill. When we have alumni events, they come back and they fill out surveys on how things are going in High School, you can see, in a sense, a closeness in a community that Outward Bound is a key piece of. After you’ve been together through something like an Outward Bound trip, I think that you can’t help but be connected. Outward Bound also has a great benefit that you also see in theater productions where you might think that this kid who is a wallflower in class is just a huge wonderful beautiful surprise because they’re there, in the lead role of the play and you'll never know, whether it's in a play or on an Outward Bound trip, who is going to break out of the image or stereotype that they have in a class. You get to see people in different ways that are unique effectively flipping the script a little bit and I think flipping the script on middle-schoolers is a good thing. It helps them with positive communication. I work with Planned Parenthood and other partners including restorative practices who really help with kids in trying to figure out what it means to be a good friend, what it means to be a good communicator, or what it means to be an ally. We have an open doors club one of the few middle schools that have an LGBTQ club for kids. Tolerance, trust, respect and love, all those things are a part of what is so great about the work. Once you get the adults on the same page then it sort of builds on itself, it takes a little bit of time and some investment, you can’t do it in six months or one year. But it’s thrilling work.

And by adults you mean your educators because obviously, you understand it and it seems like the whole school culture understand it but do these educators come to the table with the sort of sense that this is the kind of work you do here or do people kind of grow into that?

So there are a couple of ways we do it. We onboard people here, there is a distributed leadership model so there are team leaders that work with teams and teachers so you have eight team leaders for the different grades, the resource teachers, and the East Hall teachers. It’s not just the Principal telling people what to do the team leader model can help teams talk about what makes sense. There is a lot of modeling, we do circles in faculty meetings, there are lots of circles in the school. We do training in restorative practices for all new staff. We have training sessions at the beginning of the year related to what would non-examples of office referrals be or how do you communicate with the parents.

That’s probably a big one right?

Those are both really good examples of how you can connect with people. And then when something goes wrong I’m not playing “gotcha” well sit with the parent or staff member and talk it out, apologize if we need to. The ripple effect of all those conversations in training is that there is a culture of trust, respect, and communication. So you definitely have to work at it, it’s great if there is consistency at the principalship level, that’s a challenge in a lot of schools where there is a lot of turnover. But it’s been the best job I’ll ever have.

Some of your educators get to go out on course with our instructors, like Allegra. What're your thoughts on the interactions there?

The biggest surprise for me was that when we got involved with Outward Bound I actually had staff members who were willing to give up a week of their lives to go hangout with middle-schoolers on the Appalachian Trail or paddling in a canoe for a week. Because teaching is hard, there’s nothing harder. I mean some people who don’t know what teaching is will say that the three best things about teaching are June, July, and August and that couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of the planning and work that’s needed on a daily basis. When you see great teaching, it looks easy but its just extraordinary and a couple of our terrific teachers Allegra Thomas, Matt Cobb, Melissa Reorda, Megan Ballard and a few other people have routinely stepped up to take kids on these trips. Of course, Outward Bound will, if you’re a small school or a school that doesn’t have teachers that don't want to go out on course, provide staff that can work it out so kids can still participate. But having your teacher go on the trip and having the teacher in the grade above you go or someone who’s in a grade that is one grade below or one grade above you is just a terrific experience and we have decided to start and try to have these trips take place in the fall and we chose seventh grade year so that the rest of that seventh grade year, and for eighth grade, we would be the beneficiaries of the experience and the relationships that were built; because when you do it in the spring of eighth grade then all you have to say at the end is, "have a good high school career" doing it strategically like that made a lot more sense to us…